May 26 2021
By Rob Collins.
As the Vietnam War was raging and the nation’s campuses were exploding in protest, Jimi Hendrix exposed ears to his staggering musical synthesis inside an athletic gym in the heart of America.
While many Hendrix aficionados consider the “Machine Gun” performance on the Band Of Gypsys album to be best known, Jimi’s live version in Oklahoma just days after the Kent State University killings is absolutely essential. And it was documented on a Sony monophonic reel-to-reel recording, which has made the rounds in collectors’ circles worldwide and through the Jimi Hendrix YouTube Channel.
The two Oklahoma concerts performed on May 8, 1970, were held in the most unsuspecting of places — the University of Oklahoma in Norman — inside the Field House across the street from Owen Field, the gridiron home of the Oklahoma Sooners. During the appearance, Hendrix dedicated a transfixing version of “Machine Gun” to the Kent State victims. An audience recording by Oklahoman Lee Agnew documented the introduction prior to the song.
“While we’re going on, just be in our own little world,” Hendrix said. “Forget about yesterday or tomorrow. But then again, we must get rid of all the hogwash, all the waste and all the bullshit. Like, for instance, this song dedicated to the, uh — one of them scenes — and also dedicated to the soldiers fighting in Chicago… Berkeley… Kent State… Oklahoma.”
A year before the Norman show, bassist Noel Redding left The Jimi Hendrix Experience to focus on his solo vehicle, Fat Mattress. Meanwhile, the Band of Gypsys — Jimi with bassist Billy Cox and drummer Buddy Miles — formed during the fall of 1969. A poor performance by the Band of Gypsys at Madison Square Garden on January 28, 1970, led to the firing of Miles and dismantling of the group.
Next, Hendrix teamed with Cox — an old Army buddy who served with Jimi as a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Division at Ft. Campbell, Ky. — and reunited with Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell. The new line-up began a U.S. tour on April 25, 1970, in front of 18,000 fans at The Forum in Los Angeles. This same trio visited Norman the following month.
“Billy has a more solid style, which suits me,” Hendrix said at the time. “I’m not saying that anyone is better than the other — just that today I want a more solid style.”
“THIS WASN’T SUPPOSED TO HAPPEN IN NORMAN”
Thirty years ago, Norman was an innocent, isolated town of 52,117 located south of Oklahoma City. Although it was a year late, the isolated OU campus swallowed a heavy dose of the 1960s condensed into a single week and at the close of that week — in all his glory — was Jimi Hendrix.
“We were mesmerized by the whole scene,” said Ed Fontaine, who snuck inside the Field House at age 14 to see the first show. “This wasn’t supposed to happen in Norman. Here was this wild, crazy black guy coming to Norman.
“People thought Chuck Berry was outrageous with his little escapades. It was nothing. People thought Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones were bad boys. Nonsense. Hendrix was pure energy, and it just poured out of him. He was like a wildflower just exploding.”
Before Jimi arrived, a series of events ignited tension on the OU campus.
First, the Nixon administration signaled a wide-ranging offensive against areas in Cambodia on Saturday, May 2, 1970. Then four young people were killed two days later when Ohio National Guardsmen fired upon students while breaking up a rally at Kent State in Ohio.
These events reverberated in Norman, where OU experienced the most significant protesting in campus history. The protest resulted in the use of approximately 40 state troopers, at least 20 OU police officers and other law enforcement from Norman and Cleveland County, according to The Norman Transcript newspaper.
Tension mounted shortly after lunch on Tuesday, May 5, 1970, when a flag — reportedly representing the Viet Cong — was erected in the Oklahoma Memorial Union lobby a few days before the Norman Hendrix concerts.
At 3:30 p.m., a crowd gathered next to the ROTC Armory, which was the site of a scheduled Navy Reserve Officer’s Training Corps drill. An estimated 600 protesting students congregated, shouting curse words and milling through the Navy ROTC units. Next, the protesters turned their attention to the Army ROTC, running through their formation lines at the old OU golf course, which had been designated for drill practice. Four OU police officers quickly surrounded a 23-year-old Norman resident, Keith Baird Green, who was carrying a Viet Cong flag, and informed the individual that he was violating a 1919 state law that prohibited “displaying a red flag or emblem of disloyalty,” according to The Transcript.
Students began pushing and shoving as police attempted to escort Green. Police drew riot sticks, drove their way through the crowd and sat Green inside an OU police car. Students surrounded the vehicle with some sitting on the hood and others blocking the car in the street.
Mike Thompson, an attendee of both Hendrix shows, can remember rocking a police car during the melee. “The campus was galvanized,” said Thompson, who was 19 years old in 1970. “Then, my God, here’s Jimi Hendrix coming to town. Holy smoke! All of this timing and energy kind of came together at one time.”
In crowd-control formation, OU police officers and Oklahoma Highway Patrol troopers confronted the students, according to The Transcript. Wearing face shields and helmets, the officers gained a path to the patrol car, and Green was transferred from the vehicle to an OHP paddy wagon. Officers used riot sticks to prod and shove the sitting students away from the vehicle as they moved through the crowd. Students were picked up and pitched away.
“Emotions were running very high to say the least,” said Terry “Buffalo” Ware, then age 20, who attended Jimi’s second Norman show. “The first thing I saw was a student being struck by someone from (OU police) with a night stick. From there, it just escalated into a frenzy of shouting, running and people being clubbed and arrested.”
Oklahoma Gov. Dewey Bartlett condemned the disturbance and said he planned to retain the alert status of the National Guard. At one point, OU’s Student Association President Bill Moffitt told a campus gathering that it was their responsibility not to turn OU into a blood bath.
“The National Guard hasn’t sealed off Norman,” Moffitt said at the time, “but that doesn’t mean they won’t… We don’t want any dead students.”
On the morning of Wednesday, May 6, 1970 — more than 2,500 persons gathered on OU’s North Oval as administrators, faculty and students sounded off. Later that day, around 75 students protested by moving into a deserted purchasing office in Evans Hall — OU’s administration building — and remained until nearly 5 p.m. The day before Jimi’s Norman appearance, the Rev. Billy Graham described America’s crisis as “the most critical period since the Civil War.”
On the day of the Hendrix concert, an estimated 300 students threw up picket lines around all buildings on OU’s South Oval. Near the Field House, students were picketing around OU’s Armory. Hot coffee was provided to students compliments of Col. Leroy Land, professor of military science.
‘”I’m not against these students,” Land said at the time. “We just don’t believe the same things.”
By the time Hendrix stepped on Sooner soil, the tension had subsided.
“It was kind of like the punctuation mark to the week — the perfect ending,” Ware said.
WAITING IN THE WINGS
Hendrix performed his first set at 7 p.m. Friday, May 8, 1970, before an estimated audience of 3,500. The stage was situated on the north end of the Field House. Tickets were $3 for OU students and $4.50 for non-students. Scalped tickets cost as much as $6.
Thompson, who had witnessed the student protests, was hell-bent on getting a good seat for show. As he waited in front of the building, he remembers that the line was “incredible” by the time the doors opened. He was forced inside by the surge behind him.
“I remember looking into the Field House, and it was empty,” Thompson said. “And I looked to see where Jimi’s mic stand would be, and I just went there and parked it.”
Meanwhile, 15-year-old Joe Montgomery was waiting in the wings to help load equipment backstage.
“Acts at that time didn’t have big trucks and roadies,” Montgomery said. “I helped unload three Marshall double stacks. The road manager said that Jimi used one and left the other two on standby in case of breakdown. Besides, three looked cool.”
Rick Vittenson, a freelancer for the publication Crawdaddy!, landed a backstage interview with Hendrix. in Oklahoma. In April 1969, Vittenson had driven to Dallas to see Hendrix. The two meetings were sharply contrasted. “We went to his hotel and tried to find him,” Vittenson said of the Dallas trip. “He wasn’t in the room where we were told he’d be, but we knocked on a few doors and finally found him. I remember him opening the door with a broad smile, saying, ‘Come in, come in.’
“For the next hour or so, he talked with him while he ate Kentucky Fried Chicken, drank Heineken beer, watched Roller Derby on TV and played us a tape of him playing Cream’s ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’ on a portable stereo Sony tape recorder. He was gracious, childlike, friendly and open. He talked about his insecurity as a child over classmates making fun of his big feet and was concerned that his audience was mostly white, and that his music wasn’t reaching a black audience.”
When it was time to go to the Texas auditorium, Hendrix made it possible for Vittenson to go backstage with his friends.
“I clearly remember his playful mood, giving us a wink when he was putting on his ‘big bad guitar-god’ pose, letting us know that it was all in fun,” Vittenson said. “That was truly one of the most memorable days of my life.” Vittenson said that Hendrix in 1970 “was nothing like the man we had met a year earlier” in Dallas.
“I do remember the light in the room was very subdued — not at all bright,” said Vittenson, who was 20 at the time of the Norman show. “Jimi was there and we talked, but our conversation was very short and rambling. I remember no details. He just seemed very ‘down,’ and I knew that there was no article to be written.
“The show was not memorable, either. He was a brilliant guitarist as always, but it somehow didn’t connect with me. It was the fourth time I’d seen him live. It remains one of the few concerts I saw in the ’60s/early 70s — and I saw hundreds of shows during that time — that simply doesn’t stand out in my mind… and since this all took place during what’s commonly known as the ‘drug era,’ I think it’s important to point out that I was not ‘under the influence’ of anything. It was all very unmemorable, perhaps one of the most disappointing concerts I attended during that era.”
Before the set, Thompson said that Hendrix walked over and pointed toward a black band on his left arm that displayed the letter “K”. “(Jimi) dedicated the show to the victims at Kent State,” Thompson said. “Then I understood exactly what was going on.”
Although the first show apparently wasn’t recorded, all eyewitnesses claim the set was extremely loud. So were Jimi’s clothes: His headband was a red and white polka dot necktie. He wore a sheer black shirt with flowing sleeves, a multi-colored vest and red pants.
“I thought, “God almighty!'” said Larry Locklear, a high school senior at the time. “It was like something from another world.”
Fontaine, who snuck inside the building through the north-side door, recalls the pungent aroma of marijuana permeating throughout the building. Looking up toward the ceiling, Fontaine recalls rattling glass panes shivering to the foreign noise.
Marcia Chibitty’s seat was near the top of the Field House. She thought the music was changing her heartbeat to thump in time with the band’s rhythm. “I could physically feel it beating on my chest,” Chibitty said. “It was great.”
THE REEL DEAL
Hendrix fans are fortunate that Lee Agnew had an impulse. Agnew, a 20-year-old Oklahoma State University student, decided on a whim to bring his parents’ reel tape recorder to Jimi’s second Norman set. An estimated 5,500 attended the final show.
“I really didn’t know what I was doing,” said Agnew, who hitched a ride from Stillwater, Okla., and arrived to a crowd of fans gathered outside the OU Field House. “I wasn’t sure how it would turn out. I wrapped it up in a blanket, but nobody hassled me or anything about bringing it in. I brought it in, and then spread the blanket out on the floor.”
As the doors were opened for the second set, Montgomery was in front of the Field House chatting with friends. The Texas band Bloodrock, known for the hit “D.O.A.,” was the opening act.
“The rush of bodies was so overpowering that it swept me off my feet and literally carried me — feet off the ground — into the Field House,” Montgomery said. “The second show was much better than the first, as Jimi didn’t seem as wasted as during the first show.”
Agnew, who was lifting a small hand-held mic above the Norman crowd, didn’t realize he was documenting history. The speed on his reel-to-reel recording fluctuated near the end of the show as his batteries weakened.
“I even had that little switch that you turned off and on at the mic, and I used that like a doofus not knowing that it would still keep the battery draining,” Agnew said.
“We got as close as we could. I’m sure that some of the parts where everybody was standing up and cheering, I stood up. I knew enough to hold the mic over everyone’s heads.”
During the second set, Hendrix experienced some technical difficulties on the opener, “Fire.” Drummer Mitchell improvised with a rare solo as Jimi fixed his strings, according to concert attendee Randy Blanton.
“At one point, the guitar is so loud that the volume just drops off on the tape,” Agnew said. “It must have overpowered the little Sony mic I was using. The unit that I was using was stolen out of my apartment about 20 years ago.”
Ware, another witness of the student protests that rocked Norman just days before the concert, said Jimi’s second set was great.
“I’d heard that sometimes he could be not on top of his game, but he was that night,” Ware said. “He played a lot of his hits, but I also remember that he played quite a bit of blues, and there was a lot of jamming. The atmosphere was electric that night, and there was a general all-around good feeling. It was a very cool vibe, as they say.”
While Jimi’s searing rendition of “Star Spangled Banner” is the defining moment of Woodstock, Thompson said the Norman version of the national anthem was one of the most powerful moments he has ever experienced. Before the song, Jimi said, “Let’s play America just the way it really is today.”
“Within the stream of improvisation, you could hear gunshots from the guitar,” Thompson said. “You could hear screams. What he was doing was reenacting on his guitar what had happened at Kent State. It was chilling.”
Agnew wanted to be sure to record “Star Spangled Banner,” “Purple Haze” and the show closer, “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” which is incomplete on the tape. Although the hour-plus audience recording is not the quality of an official, commercially released live Hendrix album, it serves as a fascinating historical document. And it has an interesting history all on its own.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Live In Oklahoma (Second Show) May 8, 1970
Listen to Lee Agnew’s original concert recording of The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s May 8, 1970 concert at the University of Oklahoma. This 76-minute performance features classics such as “Fire,” “Spanish Castle Magic,” “Red House,” new compositions such as “Lover Man” and “Message To Love” plus a heart-stopping rendition of “Machine Gun” among several other songs.
Please note that this is not a professionally recorded concert and the sound quality is sub-par. Although rough sounding, it has been provided for your enjoyment and to help present further context into Jimi Hendrix’s incredible performance legacy.
In the mid-1970s, the tape began circulating when Agnew traded a copy with a North Carolina recording bootlegger. Agnew said he subsequently saw the concert recording on a few tape lists rated as “poor quality.” Lee also made a copy for friend and Hendrix fan Dave Byers, who read in an Internet discussion group that there were two different Norman recordings. In 1996, Byers had located three more copies of the OU Field House show as he attempted to track down the second-source recording.
“All three sounded worse than the cassette I got from Lee,” Byers said. “All three also shared the same tape-speed variations that my original cassette had. I began to think there was only one source tape for the show. At the end of 1996, Byers asked Agnew the obvious: Where did Lee get his recording?
“I was floored when (Agnew) said that he had recorded the show,” Byers said. Next, Byers hired a Norman studio to transfer the original reel-to-reel recording — borrowed from Agnew — onto compact disc and digital audiotape. Then, Byers sent the remastered copies to his Hendrix-collecting friends. As the improved version circulated worldwide, the recording made waves. Byers said that earlier copies had left out an incomplete “Foxey Lady” track.
“These were people who over the years had sought out the best quality recordings they could find,” Byers said. “They were amazed with the increased quality in the digital recording.
“The new copy was cleaner and clearer with minimal tape hiss and distortion. And — just as important to collectors — it was the whole tape.”
“For a while, some people thought that there had been two tapers at the Norman show, since Dave’s tape sounded so much better,” Agnew said. “Sorry folks, it was me both times.”
Rob Collins is Editor for The Norman Transcript.