Aug 25 2023

Interview by John McDermott.

ROOM FULL OF MIRRORS – Unraveling the Mystery with Al Marks

FROM THE VAULT. This classic interview with musician-turned-industry executive Al Marks, was conducted in 2000 following the release of The Jimi Hendrix Experience box set.  It was first published in the Winter 2000 edition of Experience Hendrix Magazine.

The process of uncovering leads which shine new light on Jimi’s recorded legacy is often a fascinating exercise. New information often arises from the wildest of circumstances. Such an occasion happened recently, as the release of the recent box set The Jimi Hendrix Experience resulted in a meeting with Al Marks, who has come forward to provide compelling detail about the April 21, 1969 recording of “Room Full Of Mirrors”.

On the box set credits, Jimi and Billy Cox are cited as having been joined by an unknown drummer and two percussionists. In detailing the events leading up to and throughout that memorable evening, Marks drew upon indelible memories forged more than thirty years ago. With convincing precision, Marks outlines what actually took place during that memorable April 1969 session.

Apart from his participation in the recording of “Room Full Of Mirrors”, at the time Marks was a regional sales executive for MCA Records. The irony of this situation is that Marks was a key player in the MCA launch of the new box set in September 2000. A longtime industry veteran, Marks has enjoyed many highlights in his career. During his tenure with A&M Records as Executive Director of Artist Development; where he was best known for having discovered guitarist Jonny Lang.

Thirty years after his sessions with Jimi Hendrix, Marks is thrilled to have the opportunity to detail both the “Room Full Of Mirrors” session as well as his participation in the April 24, 1969 recording of “Crash Landing”. He remains a passionate Hendrix fan who looks upon his encounters with fondness and considerable pride.

Experience Hendrix: How did you first meet Jimi?

Al Marks: I met Jimi at the Monterey Pop Festival. I was in a band in New York called the Down Five. My guitar player was a total Rolling Stones freak.

ROOM FULL OF MIRRORS – Unraveling the Mystery with Al Marks
Jimi Hendrix performing at the Monterey International Pop Festival, June 18, 1967
Photo: Chuck Boyd / © Authentic Hendrix, LLC

He wanted to go to Monterey. I said, ‘For what? I don’t want to go to Mexico.’ He said, ‘No, Monterey, California for the Pop Festival’. I agreed so we got into a VW bus and drove across the country.

He knew someone who was working at the festival and we got a crew pass. We spent a lot of time wandering around the backstage and all of the artists back there were really cool. You could walk up to people like Brian Jones, Mickey Dolenz, and Mama Cass and just talk to them.

“We watched Jimi’s performance and were just blown away. I didn’t even want to pick up my guitar again after watching him play. He blew me away.”

We watched Jimi’s performance and were just blown away. I didn’t even want to pick up my guitar again after watching him play. He blew me away.

Sometime after his set, we went backstage and saw Jimi having a conversation with Mitch Mitchell. When he finished, I walked over and said, ‘I also play guitar, but as of today I am putting it down.’ He laughed in that cool way he had and said, ‘Don’t put it down. Just practice.’ We spoke for about fifteen minutes, talking about guitars and amplifiers. I asked him about Stratocasters and why he played them upside down. He showed me his hands and they were twice my size. I told him that I played Gibson’s and he wanted to know which models I liked. I preferred the 335 which he had never played. He spoke of a Gibson Firebird which I had never heard of. He mentioned that one of the Kinks also played that guitar. He was very friendly and easy to talk with. He was just really cool.

EH: How did you get involved with the Cherry People?

AM: I moved from New York down to Washington in January 1969. I hooked up with this band known as the Cherry People. I was living in the basement of the guitar player’s house. Chris Grimes and I were good friends, and I was working as their manager. Punky Meadows, later of Angel, was the lead guitarist. Rocky Isaac was their drummer and Jan Zechowski, later of the Nighthawks played bass. Doug Grimes was the lead singer. The band told me that everybody would be going up to New York in April. They were going to try and get out of their record deal with Heritage Records to whom they had signed in 1968. The group had a hit with the song “And Suddenly”, but they were not a bubble gum band and that’s what the album was. Jerry Ross owned Heritage Records and when they recorded the Cherry People album, they had used a lot of session players.

The band didn’t have a lot of input into how it was made. The guys really resented that.

We had a meeting scheduled with Jerry Ross, but he didn’t show. We left a note with his secretary asking to be released from the label. She laughed at us, but agreed to give it to Jerry. After that, we went out for pizza and heard that there was going to be a jam for guitar players at Steve Paul’s Scene Club that night.

We didn’t have a hotel because we had originally thought we were just going to turn around and drive back home after the meeting with Jerry Ross. We decided instead to go check what was happening there. We got there at 9:00 and there were all kinds of people around like Edgar Winter and Rick Derringer. All of a sudden Jimi Hendrix walked in with two people. He sat down in the corner and no one was bothering him. Everybody at my table was going, ‘Wow! That’s Jimi Hendrix!’ I was excited. I told the guys that I had met Jimi at Monterey Pop and wanted to see if he had remembered our conversation backstage.

The guys didn’t believe me and I sat there for a few minutes trying to get up the nerve to go talk to him. I got up the courage and introduced myself. I didn’t want to bother him, but I asked if he remembered meeting at Monterey. He did not, but told me it was cool to sit and talk with him. He asked what I was doing in New York and I told him that our band was trying to get out of its contract with the record company. He laughed and said, ‘Yeah, record companies…’

Then he said, ‘So you got a band here? Do you have a drummer?’ I said ‘Yes. He is sitting right over there.’ He then asked if we were doing anything at 3 or 4 o’clock that morning. I said no and asked him why. He was going to cut some things in the studio and wondered whether our drummer would like to sit in. I immediately said he would. Jimi then said, ‘Well, you didn’t ask him.’ I didn’t have to ask him. He’s gonna do it. He wanted to know if the guy was any good and I told him that Rocky was a great drummer. We’ll do it I told him. He introduced me to Billy Cox who was sitting with him. Billy mentioned that he was a bass player. I asked about Noel Redding, but Jimi told me that Noel would not be sitting in. He described Billy as his buddy and said that the session would be with him. We agreed to meet later at the Record Plant.

“You are not going to believe this but Jimi Hendrix just asked Rocky to sit in.”

I walked to my table and told the band, ‘You are not going to believe this but Jimi Hendrix just asked Rocky to sit in’. Everybody at the table told me I was full of shit. I asked the guys to trust me and waved over to Jimi’s table. Jimi waved back and gave us the peace sign. Chris, Rocky, and I made plans to go while the other guys went back to this hostel we were staying at.

At the Record Plant we told the receptionist that we were here to do a session with Jimi Hendrix. He asked who we were and I told him the Cherry People. We were not listed on the sheet. I told him about meeting Jimi at the Scene Club and he said, ‘Oh, you are the guys he called over about’.

We were alone in the studio for about forty-five minutes before Gary Kellgren showed up with an assistant engineer and a tall, beautiful black woman [Devon Wilson] whom we were told was Jimi’s girlfriend. Gary reassured us that while Jimi was always late, he had phoned about the session and was on his way over.

Twenty minutes later, Jimi and Billy Cox walked in with a friend who was a photographer [Willis Hogans Jr.]. Jimi was really cool and wanted to know if we were OK. Rocky saw him and said, ‘You’re Jimi Hendrix’. Jimi laughed and said ‘Man, I know who I am. Don’t you think I know who I am?’ We all just about fell on the floor laughing.

Rocky admitted to him that he was really nervous. Jimi laughed and said, ‘Just relax. It will all be cool.’

ROOM FULL OF MIRRORS – Unraveling the Mystery with Al Marks
Jimi Hendrix and Billy Cox at the Record Plant studios in New York, April 21, 1969.
Photo: Willis Hogan Jr. / MoPOP / Authentic Hendrix, LLC

Jimi was playing through an old Acoustic amplifier and not a Marshall. One big cabinet with a small head. Billy was playing through an Ampeg rig and a set of drums had been set up for Rocky. Jimi then started to move his amp and I told that I would do that for him.

He said that if I really wanted to move something for him, his car was out front and if he didn’t move it across the street it was going to be towed. I asked for the keys and told him I would do it.

He owned a silver Corvette and by the time I was outside I thought, ‘Shit, I don’t know how to drive a stick shift. I am going to ruin Jimi’s Corvette’. I opened the door and it was automatic. I thought, my God everything is working for me tonight! I got in the car and there were all of these tapes on the passenger seat. His car had a cassette player built-in to the dashboard and I had never seen anything like that before. Sitting on the seat were these tapes which were marked, ‘Me, Steve Winwood’ and ‘Me, Buddy Miles’. I parked the car, came back in and he told me that he wanted a percussion section. Jimi asked me to play maracas—which I had never played before in my life—and Chris Grimes to play tambourine.

We recorded “Room Full Of Mirrors” and it took forever because Rocky couldn’t keep the beat on drums. Midway through the session, Jimi turned to him and said something to the effect of, ‘Man, do you know how to play drums? What’s going on?’ I had been banging one of the maracas against my leg for three and a half hours and my leg was black and blue. I told Rocky quietly that he better get things right because I couldn’t walk! I had a knot on my leg that seemed four inches big. I was afraid that we were going to screw up the chance of a lifetime.

ROOM FULL OF MIRRORS – Unraveling the Mystery with Al Marks
Double Exposure: Jimi Hendrix at the Record Plant studio in New York, April 21, 1969.
Photo: Willis Hogan Jr. / © Authentic Hendrix, LLC

At one point in the session, the photographer got underfoot of Jimi. He had been laying on the ground taking pictures of Jimi and he got in the way. Jimi kicked the camera out of his hands, saying to get out of the way [Ed. These may be the few color shots Hogan took of Jimi from that angle]. We thought he was joking at first but he was actually really pissed. His kick broke the camera and the photographer started crying. Jimi gave him money to get it fixed but that was the end of photos that night.

By eight that morning, Jimi said that we were going to give it one last try and if we didn’t get it we would have to come back the next morning. Jimi then just started wailing on the guitar and singing live on top of it.

Rocky finally delivered what he believed was a good take and Gary Kellgren yelled ‘Yeah’ over the talkback microphone when we had finished. Jimi let us know that we were done for the night. Before we left, he told us that he had a couple more tracks that he wanted to cut on Thursday at the same time. We thought he meant after midnight Wednesday evening.

As he was walking out, he gave each of us $100.00 cash and said to Rocky, ‘Man, I would practice a bit if I was you.’ Billy laughed and shook his head and they walked out together.

“We were strutting. Jimi Hendrix had paid us $100.00 to play with him.”

Gary Kellgren then came over and asked us our names and if we were in the Musicians Union. We were, but Gary told us not to declare the work because Jimi had paid us more than union scale for the session. Union scale at that time for a session was $35.00. We were strutting. Jimi Hendrix had paid us $100.00 to play with him.

We told the guys back at the hostel about the session and they didn’t believe us until we showed them the $100.00 bill Jimi had given each of us.

We then drove back to Washington and made a plan to bring Mike Burke and Richard Harrington, a critic for the Washington Post who also wrote for a paper called the Unicorn Times to prove that we actually were going to record again with Jimi Hendrix.

EH: What happened at the April 24, 1969 session?

AM: We drove back Wednesday and went to the Record Plant. We spoke to the receptionist and told him we were here to record with Jimi. He remembered us from the other night but informed us Jimi had not booked a session for that night.

All of a sudden our jaws dropped. Mike Burke and Richard Harrington looked at us and were complaining that we had driven all this way for nothing. Mike Burke agreed to stay, but Harrington left to take a train back to D.C. We had no place to stay so we asked if we could hang out at the studio. They let us in and we crashed on the floor of the studio.

In the morning, we were awoken by Vinnie Bell and Tony Mottola from The Tonight Show Band.  Vinnie was the guy who invented the electric sitar. [Ed. Marks may have also solved another puzzling Hendrix historical question. On April 6, 1969 Jimi was recorded playing a Coral electric sitar at the Record Plant. It now seems apparent that he was given the instrument by Vinnie Bell].

ROOM FULL OF MIRRORS – Unraveling the Mystery with Al Marks
Jimi Hendrix at the Record Plant studios in New York, April 21, 1969.
Photo: Willis Hogan Jr. / MoPOP / Authentic Hendrix, LLC

They were arriving to do session work for a movie soundtrack. These guys were in suits and we were a bunch of scraggly hippies in buckskin jackets.

Before we left that morning, Jimi called the studio to set up the session for that night. The studio told him we were there and he asked us to return that night at 9.

Somehow we then lost Rocky. We couldn’t locate him, so we ended up spending the day walking around the city. He showed up back at the studio around 7 p.m. looking refreshed. He asked us where we had been because Jimi had reserved a hotel room for us. We were stunned. Rocky had left a note for us but the guy at the Record Plant had forgotten to tell us. We all ran over to the hotel room Jimi had reserved for us and took quick showers. When we returned to the studio, Jimi and Rocky were going over the new songs he wanted to play.

The first number we did was “Bleeding Heart”. We did about fifteen or sixteen takes and it seemed to work out fairly well. It was the same line-up as the previous session. [Ed. “Bleeding Heart” has since been released on Valleys Of Neptune in 2010 and also as a Single].

ROOM FULL OF MIRRORS – Unraveling the Mystery with Al Marks
Album covers for Valleys Of Neptune and “Bleeding Heart” Single (2010)
Album Covers; © Experience Hendrix, L.L.C.

Jimi then wanted to try another song; so Chris and I took the opportunity to switch instruments. My leg was so damn sore that I couldn’t keep doing it anymore so I took over tambourine and Chris picked up the maracas. [Ed. Jimi made several attempts at “Hey Gypsy Boy”, an uptempo new original song whose lyrics bore close similarity to what would later develop as “Hey Baby (New Rising Sun)”].

Jimi then started to play “Crash Landing”. There were no vocals at first. [Ed. “Crash Landing” has since been released on People Hell And Angels in 2013].

He was focusing on the track itself. This went really well and after ten or fifteen takes he asked everybody to leave the studio. I asked him if we were being thrown out and he explained that he would not allow anybody to be in the studio while he recorded vocals on a track.

“Jimi had a sheet with lyrics and he stood behind there and sang beautifully.”

In the control room, Gary Kellgren told us that it was just an idiosyncrasy that Jimi had. Gary went out and constructed a booth around him. Jimi had a sheet with lyrics and he stood behind there and sang beautifully. We were bug eyed in the control room. Then, all of sudden, Punky Meadows, who had been sleeping in the back of the studio, woke up and started walking across the room. Jimi saw him and literally flipped out. He threw down the papers in his hand and yelled, ‘What the fuck are you doing in the studio when I am doing vocals?’

In the control room, Gary Kellgren put his hands to his head. Apparently, that was the worst thing anyone could do on a Hendrix session. He yelled to us, ‘Get him out of there!’ We hustled Punky out to the bathroom and Jimi regained his composure and started doing vocals again. When he finished, he walked in to the control room and said, ‘Man, no one walks through that studio when I am doing vocals. Didn’t Gary tell you that?’ We explained that Punky had been asleep and we didn’t know where he was. Jimi laughed.

‘Punky? What kind of name is Punky?’ Punky came out from hiding and they met. All Jimi kept asking him was what kind of name was Punky? It was funny.

At the end of the session, he thanked us and hoped that we would run into each other. We drove back to D.C. after that.

[Ed. Also recorded during the April 25, 1969 session was “Drone Blues” (since released on the Dagger Records release Hear My Music) plus “Night Messenger” and “Ships Passing In The Night” both of which remain unreleased].

EH: Did you ever meet Jimi again?

AM: Chris and I went to Woodstock that summer. We got there three days early and joined the crew building the stage. We saw him backstage and introduced ourselves. We reminded him that we had done these two sessions with him in New York, but he admitted that he didn’t remember us. He told us that he had done a lot of sessions in New York with different people since then. He was very nice to us though and our feelings weren’t hurt at all.

We stayed to watch him perform. It wasn’t the love fest that people go on about by the time Jimi got onstage. People were miserable. They were tired, wet, and muddy. It wasn’t a ghost town, but the majority of the crowd had gone home.

As Jimi started to play, people were waking up and walking down from the hill so they could hear him play. It was almost ethereal. It was as if God was onstage and the mountain was coming to Mohammed. A sea of people came down to see him.

“It was one of the most amazing sets I have ever seen. The intensity level was something I know I will never see again.”

Backstage it was the same thing. All of the jaded stagehands and crew people ran up to the side of the stage to watch him play. He was wailing! It was one of the most amazing sets I have ever seen. The intensity level was something I know I will never see again. To see the way he moved that crowd is something that will never happen again in my lifetime.

EH: Did you ever imagine that any of the music to which you contributed would be released?

AM: Years later I bought the Crash Landing album thinking it was us on the track but they had erased everything. I have been looking for some validation of this session for thirty years.

Every time I would see “Room Full Of Mirrors” on a Jimi Hendrix album I would look to see if my name was on it. Then this year I got an advance of the new box set. I heard “Room Full Of Mirrors” and lo and behold it was it us. This is the song I played on! When I saw the credits, I was disappointed that no one seemed to know who the hell I was!

It was great to talk to you about it. I am so grateful to know that this track is on the box set. I love Jimi and its an honor to be a part of something like this. I’ve been on a high since!

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