Jul 20 2021
By John McDermott.
The Dick Cavett Show represented Jimi Hendrix’s US network television debut and Jimi’s insightful interviews with Cavett touched upon multiple personal and professional topics and ultimately helped reveal the man behind such rock classics as Are You Experienced and Electric Ladyland.
Excerpts from Jimi’s two celebrated Cavett appearances have been part of nearly every important Hendrix documentary ranging from the 1973 theatrical effort A Film About Jimi Hendrix [Warner Films] to Hendrix: Band Of Gypsys [Experience Hendrix] television and home video program.
In 2003, Experience Hendrix, together with Cavett’s own Daphne Productions, has created the definitive collection of Jimi’s two Cavett appearances. Helmed by two-time Grammy award winning [The Beatles Anthology, Hendrix: Band Of Gypsys] director Bob Smeaton, Experience Hendrix brought together Dick Cavett, Mitch Mitchell, Billy Cox, Juma Sultan, and others to tell the story of the program’s special significance.
JIMI HENDRIX: THE DICK CAVETT SHOW
The Dick Cavett Show represented Jimi’s US network television debut and this special collection features complete live performances of “Izabella,” “Machine Gun,” and “Hear My Train A Comin’.” Jimi’s insightful interviews with Cavett touched upon a variety of personal and professional issues ranging from his stint as a US Army paratrooper to this celebrated rendition of “Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock. This special film presentation is available on DVD and now streaming via The Coda Collection.
During filming for the documentary special, we spoke to Dick Cavett about his career and memories of Jimi Hendrix.
EXPERIENCE HENDRIX: When you were growing up, did you always want to be a writer or move into the area of entertainment?
DICK CAVETT: I wanted to be an Indian and when it was explained to me that that wasn’t going to be an option, I wanted to be a fireman, which only had a certain amount of glamour back then. And then I didn’t know. I couldn’t imagine being anything except that I started to do magic as a kid and loved getting a reaction. I loved being in a play and all I knew when I got to college was that I wanted to be in something having to do with show business.
EH: Did you think that you focus on comedy?
DC: I never thought of it as that, really. I did comedy in my junior high magic act, and then when the phenomenon of stand-up clubs seemed to be taking hold in New York, I did that, and I thought, “It’ll kill ’em.” People around me, including my future manager and my alleged friends who were already in comedy were there, and I thought, “I’ll knock ’em out. I used to as a magician.” Nothing happened except sweat started coming down the forehead and damming up over the eyebrows as people and patrons in a club called, ironically, the Bitter End witnessed my comedy act. My manager, who was rather a genius at that sort of thing, said, “Well, that’s one. You know, the next one will be better.”
EH: Did you have any friends at the time that would try to boost your confidence?
DC: The valuable input that I got was on writing, in case this is found, you know, 2,000 years from now, was from Woody Allen, the famous comic and film director. Woody was a writer who was making a painful adjustment to performing, and it was always, always easier for me than it was for him, so much so that I thought if I were a good friend to him I would probably suggest he not do it if it bothered him so. He’d hate showing up at the club every night and hated people leaving saying, “That guitar player was fabulous, but Jesus, that comedian.” Somehow, he went from that to where he is now, which wasn’t easy for him.
But in fact, I did go back on stage. I got back in the saddle.
EH: How did you become involved in television? Was it as a writer, initially, or as a comedian?
DC: The quickest way of explaining how I got involved in television is I took a monologue to the great Jack Paar, the star of The Tonight Show in those days, and he liked it and hired me, and everything followed from that.
Now, I can break that down into 32 separate episodes for you, but that really was it. It was a bizarre impulse and a phenomenal coincidence, the coincidence being that I happened to come to the desk of the copy department of Time magazine, where I was working for $60 a week and it happened that a page of The Herald Tribune was open. It happened to be open to Marie Torre’s column, and her column that day – a thing I really seldom ever read – contained the name Jack Paar in bold type, and I stopped to pause to read the item, and it said “He worries more about his monologue than anything else.” I went home and got out my old college typewriter. I typed one up that I thought sounded like Paar and went to the building that The Tonight Show came from.
What I took by the way, was in amount, three times more than you’d ever be expected to write in one day for someone like Parr. I then put it in a Time magazine envelope, thinking that might give me an edge, and it did, because he hated Time, so he noticed it immediately, and I said, “Oh, I’m not – I don’t agree with everything they write.” But it got his attention. That turned out to be a good move.
He came out that night on the show and took some paper out of his pocket, and they were something other than mine. I was sitting in the audience, and I started to sneak downwards in my chair. Then he started to ad lib things that I had written throughout the show, and it was [gestures expressively with his hands] – but I didn’t think of it then, as my heart was broken, because I hadn’t placed in the monologue. I realized that’s a very valuable thing for a performer, to have somebody who can write like Parr would ad lib, and I think that’s what did it.
I managed to get in the elevator with him going down, and he recognized me, and said, “Hey, kid, you want to write, don’t you?” And I said, “Jesus, do I want to write? Yes.” And he said, “Come back in a week. Bring some more stuff.” So I did, and then I got – that’s how I went from $60 a week to well over $90 a week. I wasn’t hired as a writer, by the way. I like blurting this out now, because the statute of limitations is probably gone. They kept me as a booker, booking talent, writing on the side. So they got two jobs out of me for the price of almost none.
But then, when Jack made me a writer, I was at the staggering amount of $360 a week. I couldn’t believe it. “You mean, they’re going to give me $360 this week, and then next week, too? And then after that?” I couldn’t see any farther than that into the golden future.
EH: How did you begin the transition from a writer behind the scenes to appearing onstage as a comedian?
DC: I don’t recall ever feeling the jealousy you’re supposed to when a comic you’re writing for gets laughs with your material. But maybe I did eventually, because then there was a period in which people did say, “Why don’t you do some of it yourself?” When I was writing for Johnny Carson, I was also moonlighting in the Village, and was frequently glad I had the Carson job the next morning to go back to. He would ask me how it went, and he’d give me advice, too. That was helpful and Johnny said he didn’t envy me. But I envied him.
The first thing, really, was guest appearances. I would appear on talk shows as a guest, with Johnny, Merv Griffin, and so on. That I noticed got you known fairly quickly, just from how often I’d be recognized on the street. The first show itself was the  Dick Cavett show. There were no bits of shows that I did before that.
EH: Was the 1968 daytime program in which you debuted as a host a template for what you wanted to do the following year, or was it just valuable experience to be able to host a program on television?
DC: Good experience. I expected it to last about eight days, in my usual pessimism, and I just thought, “Well, at least I will have survived doing this.” It’s like being caught in waves in the ocean knocking you down and letting you up and start over with another one, right after that last one. No, I had no vision and no foresight, no.
EH: How did The Dick Cavett Show come about the following year? Was it a desire by you to create something new?
DC: I think that came about simply because I had started to appear on talk shows as a guest and that led somebody to believe that if they were in the mood for doing a talk show, I’d be the person to do it.
It’s a fallacy, in a way, because there’s nothing remotely like hosting a show and guesting on a show. They’re totally different worlds, and you can be good at one and not the other, and they call on different muscles, and you don’t have that feeling with the one that you do with the other, that “I don’t care if the show goes in the toilet. It’s not my show.”
EH: The Dick Cavett Show actually started as a summer replacement series for ABC. Did you feel that you had the full backing of the network behind you?
DC: It was somebody’s very strange idea to put the show on three nights for a week for an hour in prime time. This, I guess, kept them from making the commitment to five nights a week, which would be a more manly decision, I would have thought, but yeah. It was a show that was on – I think it was on something like – to this day, I’m not sure. Monday, Thursday and Friday, or something that doesn’t come readily to the tongue. Monday, Tuesday and Friday. Groucho Marx said, “You have to have a secretary to know when the show was on,” and he was right.
EH: Did you have a firm idea as to the creative direction for the show?
DC: I’m not sure there was ever even a decision. It just seemed like The Tonight Show that had been invented at NBC was how you did a Tonight type show. I’m not sure Merv Griffin didn’t innovate once and try putting the desk on the other side or something, but it seemed uncomfortable and awkward at times. I later got a kind of sit-around setting that seemed to be good, except the desk is a good prop for doing things with and banging on and so forth.
Booking a show can be a problem and I was really not aware of a lot of that, other than the constant urge inarticulately from network to be commercial, to get people that people have heard of. Most of the people that the audience had heard of I was glad to have on, but there were also others that they were not happy that I had on who were fabulous guests.
EH: Were you aware that The Dick Cavett Show itself earned a reputation for giving network exposure to music artists such as Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix? Was that a conscious decision to try and attract that audience?
DC: It may have been on somebody’s part other than my own. My producer might have thought of that. I remember being aware of a kind of lack of knowledge of the musical field at that time. To give you a startling example, which will stand for many, a friend of mine took me to the Fillmore East one night. I said, “Who was the girl singer, again, with the green pants, the tight, satin pants,” and he said, “Her name is” – he was executive editor of Time magazine – “Her name is Janis Joplin.” I said, “Like the town in Missouri?” I thought, “What did I say that for? Nobody’s ever going to hear her again.”
The truth is, though, I realized as the days went by, I had been really taken with her and her performing, and she was, in fact, Janis Joplin. Her being on the show seemed to not only be fun for her, but she came back time after time, and people would say, “You’ll never get her out. She’s too shy or she’s too stoned or she’ll be too something or other.” Well, she was adorable, and she was just great. And then I – my not knowing music, not being hip, became almost a subject matter for humor, and even as she criticized my shoes for being square, I knew that she really liked me. I hope.
As we sit here now, I don’t remember who the floodgate opener was. I’m sure Jimi Hendrix was on before Janis ever was. I hope I’m right about that. Otherwise, can we mail the viewers a correction? I think Janis certainly spread the word to other people, because I kept hearing back from guests who were not necessarily musicians about what a good time she had had. And that really sort of opened the whole thing up. Then it became kind of the show to do, ironically, considering how much I knew about music to begin with, for people like that, and I never knew. Did Hendrix – was he the type who wouldn’t call home and gushingly say, “Yeah, I was on The Dick Cavett Show!” and then see me coming and then have to go back to talking the way he normally talked, or what? I didn’t know what they made of me, but it was kind of flattering. It certainly was reflected in the people who would yell at you on the street and across the street and in the alley and wherever you found yourself in those days.
EH: Do you think that by having these types of artists on gave you an edge over similar fare such as The Tonight Show?
DC: I’m not sure. I don’t know how eager they were to have those people on. I think at the time, it’s strange to say, it would have seemed kind of a betrayal to go on – Dick Cavett was supposedly the show watched on campus, for funny or for serious, and sometimes it was on campus, and – I don’t know what – I wish I knew what started it all. I suppose it’s conceivable I could have gone through all those years without any rock music on. And then, strange to say, I got to like the music. I actually played people’s records over and over.
EH: What was your knowledge of Jimi Hendrix at the time of his first appearance on your show?
DC: I’d been briefed and I’d read about him and picked up a Rolling Stone. I suppose I was most intrigued by the fact that he was a paratrooper and had been in the 101st Airborne, because the hippie-hating people watching – I remember, as I sat there with him, thinking, “They’re looking at this now, and the rednecks in the gas station in Tuscaloosa are ready to get this guy, I’m sure.” I thought it would be nice to let them know that he was a paratrooper. I don’t know why I figured it would change their big, dumb, beer-guts, white-trash mentality. Is that too negative?
When you say, did I know about him, not a lot, but enough – as much as you could cram in quickly, because I didn’t want to look like a dope that really doesn’t know any of this stuff. I can remember [Cavett bandleader] Bobby Rosengarten telling me that I was going to hear some real difficult stuff done on the guitar, and I remember thinking, “How hard can that thing be to play? It seems like there are four or five strings, and you go like that with your hands,” and I was much abused for this attitude.
I remember wishing that I knew more about his contribution. What was rock about, or why was he considered so great? I wanted to know, am I hearing things that I wouldn’t hear from anybody else? I never did find out exactly, but I do remember coming down to watch him rehearse, and two members of the great Rosengarten band were watching, and their jaws were open, their mouths were open. They were just standing there. “You can’t do that. You can’t do that,” was what one guy was saying. His technique was so virtuoso that one guy said, “You know, he plays better with his teeth than most guys play with their hands.” I hope I told him, but I probably didn’t, that all these stunning studio jazz musician types who were in the band were digging him so. Maybe he knew.
But it was nice to know that he was such a great artist and seriously considered so by those in the know. It was great to have him on.
EH: When you actually met Jimi, was he more quiet and shy than you expected?
DC: Seeing that [Monterey Pop] clip of a man – it looked like a scene from a wild film of a madman lighting a guitar and smashing it to pieces and was … out of some sort of medieval painting or something of madness. And then the nice man walks on and is pretty much the same person. I remember looking down at people [in the studio audience] and they’re watching what he’s doing, even as people in the clip were, watching what he’s doing, and women were frightened. I remember some little thrill seemed to run through a group of folks as this monster stepped on. He didn’t look monstrous at that point at all.
He was very sweet. It’s a terrible word to use about a man, but there was something sweet about him. He didn’t seem totally eager to talk, but if it was an effort, he certainly made it nicely, and he talked about a couple of his ideas and things that made me really like him.
Thanks to stuff that’s being shown today, every so often a kid of a certain age will say to me, “What was it like sitting next to Jimi Hendrix?” I don’t know what they mean, really. They don’t really want you to compare it with something else comparable, because if it’s like that, it’s not unique, is it? But I don’t often say that. I just tell them that he was personable and easy to talk to and a good guy.
But there’s a resurgence of interest in him that is – well, maybe it never went away, but I’m certainly aware of it now.
EH: These days, programs such as David Letterman and The Tonight Show are all essentially scripted or rehearsed before hand. Was that the case with The Dick Cavett Show at that time?
DC: No, I don’t remember ever doing anything again in thousands of shows. And in the case of the musicians, like the jazz people I would have on and the rock people and so on, they would just take a chance on what they were going to get. We didn’t work anything out. Oh, you might get a thing in your notes occasionally saying, “Mention his father. He has a funny story about him,” or that kind of thing. But nothing else was prepared.
EH: Among Jimi’s personal effects were actually handwritten notes outlining the topics and questions that were to have been discussed on the first show.
EH: Because this was to be his US network television debut, was there any type of pre-interview, or discussion about what might he might expect to be asked?
DC: There would have been. There would have been somebody, often called the talent coordinator, or now segment booker or chief, who would say, “Here’s the stuff we can talk about. You were in the Army. You did this and that, and then your car was stolen. Do you want to tell that? Is that a funny story?” And make some notes, and then the deal was that I would either use them or not use them. So he might well have spoken with – he would probably have talked to someone like Tom O’Malley on my staff, who was a great maker of notes for guests from the Jack Paar days, and he would have had some – it’s fascinating to me that he had that – labeled sort of topics that might come up.
EH: After the first appearance in July, Jimi was slated to headline your Woodstock program. What happened?
DC: Originally, he was supposed to come on a show that I did right after Woodstock. Everybody but Hendrix made it, and I’d heard that he was just – you couldn’t get him out of a hotel room, or – and if it’s true – we talked on the show about how he doesn’t get any sleep – he probably wasn’t able to get out.
I remember suspecting that they were telling me he just might make it, and I remember being told, “Okay, it’s official now. He’s not coming.” On the Woodstock show, we had a variety of acts, and I remember hearing Hendrix might not make it, but it was still apparently possible that he would. We usually taped the show at 5:30, and went straight through as a 90-minute show. And on this one, I think they really were waiting with hope that Hendrix might appear, and they were probably getting reports from people saying, “He just hasn’t opened his motel room door for anybody.” I didn’t really want to tease the studio or viewing audience, certainly. And in fact, I probably did. Joni Mitchell was there, and I thought, “Well, somebody came.” But I was wondering if anybody else would appear.
But I always like to think that he made it up to me by coming on twice. I really do think that he liked being on, and I remember noticing that when something he said got a laugh, that he really liked that.
I don’t know if he’d ever been in a similar setting before, but I was so glad to see him come back the second time, because I thought maybe he had just hated it. Nobody on his staff would dare suggest that he come on again, and there he was, in that – in that shirt that – what, should I say it? Do they ever put too much starch in the collar on those shirts?
EH: Jimi’s response to your question about his rendition at Woodstock of the “Star Spangled Banner” stands as perhaps the most memorable moment of Jimi’s two appearances on the show.
DC: Yes. I thought he summed it up best when he just said, “I thought it was beautiful.” That’s really all that needs to be said about it. It would secretly please me if he annoyed those who would tend to be annoyed at that sort of thing, because they annoy me, too.
EH: When Jimi came back in September 1969, did you get the sense that there was a great deal of pressure on him at that point in his life?
DC: He did seem that way, didn’t he? And I guess I – watching it now, it seems like I sort of chickened out and backed off when he said he’d had three nervous breakdowns, because I couldn’t decide at the moment whether to laugh or ask a question about them. I didn’t know which way – whether he was kidding or serious or what. I remember worrying about him a bit – not much, though; I wish I could claim I could be really sensitive to these things – but thinking, “This guy is in a very tough thing, and he’s a young guy. He may be in trouble.” But then that passed. I’d love to have seen Hendrix in concert, and I never really thought of him as doomed the way that you could clearly see that some other people were, and the facts bore you out in the next few years. But he did seem more concerned, more strained, more – I don’t know what it – life was tougher for him the second time, somehow.
EH: The July appearance represented Jimi’s US network television debut. It was essentially your debut as a late-night network host. Do you look back with fondness that you were associated with such a great time in music history?
DC: Oh, yeah. I enjoy very much – well, the form it takes is people come up and say, “You know, you met so many interesting people, but especially” – and they’ll mention the rock stars, you know, the dazzling musicians that they – and I don’t know. I wish I knew. I just, I know that Hendrix’s appearance on those shows gave a lot of people something to think about, because he wasn’t a beast when he sat down. He wasn’t a beast nor a freak nor anything schizoid, and I think it almost made some people – that sort of appearance, and those particularly would make people have to think, who were prejudiced against, that there might be something to this, if Cavett likes it.
I just thought, here’s somebody who’s apparently a rare booking that nobody expects to have on, and I’m not sure exactly why, and it would be fun to see what he does and if he shocks people, it’s okay, too. I had forgotten that there was a general sense of “Hendrix, ooooh,” by people who clearly didn’t know him at all, that I was in for some sort of real dangerous experiment, and possibility having to call off the cameras and call in the police, something like that.
It was a lucky thing that happened. It was nice for me and it was nice for the musicians. I always liked to have people on who were not welcome elsewhere for some reason–some of them who had lifestyles that were very much disapproved of by their grandparents who happened to watch my show, along with their parents. There they were on it. Sort of that sense of – Somebody said, “If you’re not careful, you’re going to bridge the generation gap.”
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