The Jimi Hendrix Song That Featured Aretha Franklin’s Backup Singers
After he scored a U.K. hit with his debut single “Hey Joe,” Jimi Hendrix didn’t try to repeat himself. “Purple Haze” and “The Wind Cries Mary,” the originals that were his second and third releases, gave fans a completely different look. And you could say the same about “Burning of the Midnight Lamp,” his fourth U.K. single.
Along with the harpsichord/wah-wah intro, “Burning of the Midnight Lamp” featured a soaring backing vocal sung by a female choir. Music fans might have recognized the sound as that of the Sweet Inspirations, a vocal group that worked with Aretha Franklin and other first-rate artists in the ’60s.
Jimi Hendrix had the Sweet Inspirations sing behind him on ‘Burning of the Midnight Lamp’
Besides their work with Franklin, the Sweet Inspirations backed The Drifters, Jerry Butler, and, later in the ’60s, Van Morrison on “Brown Eyed Girl.” Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick had founded the group in the early ’50s, and by the mid-’60s Cissy Houston (Whitney’s mother) and other new members had joined.
But no matter the lineup, the Sweet Inspirations always delivered behind the leaders at recording sessions. Hence their busy schedules and constant demand. When Hendrix was working on “Burning of the Midnight Lamp,” the wife of recording engineer Gary Kellgren tracked down the backing singers for a session.
The Sweet Inspirations turned up at New York’s Mayfair Studios in New York and did what they’d always done (i.e., crush their part). The session took place on July 6, 1967. On the following day, Hendrix returned to the studio for overdubs and mixing of the track.
A month later, it went out in the U.K. as the new Experience single. In Ultimate Hendrix, manager Chas Chandler explained what the group wanted on “Burning of the Midnight Lamp.” “We were still trying to make commercial singles, but we always tried to feature a shift in our sound,” Chandler said. The Sweet Inspirations helped make that happen.
‘Burning of the Midnight Lamp’ didn’t hit like Hendrix’s early singles
Though “Burning of the Midnight Lamp” came off as a sophisticated recording, U.K. listeners didn’t warm to it as they had “Hey Joe” (No. 6), “Purple Haze” (No. 3), and “The Wind Cries Mary” (No. 6). Hendrix’s fourth release peaked at a modest No. 18 in September ’67 and exited the charts after a total of nine weeks.
As far as critical reception of the song, that also dropped off compared to his earlier work. That response might explain why Hendrix didn’t release “Burning of the Midnight Lamp” as an A-side in the U.S. The first time listeners heard it, the track was the B-side of the “All Along the Watchtower” single (September ’68).
That date arrived almost a year after the release of “Burning of the Midnight Lamp” in the U.K. For those who stuck to Hendrix albums, the track closed out the second side of the first Electric Ladyland LP. It’s hard to imagine Hendrix’s third album without it.