A few weeks back, in early August, a British rock writer by the name of Johnny Black made some local inquiries regarding a crime story he was working on with roots 42 years ago this summer.
“I’m researching a feature on the kidnapping of Jimi Hendrix for Classic Rock magazine here in the UK, and I’m hoping you can perhaps give me some pointers,” read the e-mail, received on August 9. “My feature is about how Jimi was held at gunpoint in a house on Traver Hollow Road, Shokan, for a couple of days in the autumn of 1969 by gangsters seeking to take control of his career. I have spoken to several people who worked with Jimi at that time, but I also need to connect with people who lived around Shokan in 1969 and who might be able to describe the house, the area, any of the activities that went on around the house. Can you help?”
Black noted that he’d initiated local contacts in the town of Olive through a google search that yielded the entity Shokan Human Resources, an expert witness company operated by local political gadfly Mitchell Langbert, who suggested Woodstock Times. Black suggested herding together the owner of the house Hendrix rented, maybe a local police officer or delivery boy.
“Any assistance you can offer will be a great help to making this feature the definitive article on a particularly bizarre incident in the life of one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century,” Black concluded, with a link to his journalistic profile.
The story rang a very vague bell, maybe. Maybe not. Certainly, no details came to mind.
While simultaneously googling Black, and the Hendrix story he was investigating, I thumbed through my mental Rolodex trying to figure out who might have been around back in 1969. Many of the stalwarts of Olive, it turns out, moved to town in the early 1970s, or later that same decade. A second wave of now-old-timers came in the latter 1980s. More recent residents arrived post 9/11. But people know people and before long some contacts start to appear.
Online, there are entire sites given over to conspiracy theories involving Hendrix, who died asphyxiated by his own vomit in London 41 years ago this month. At the center of a lot of it is Mike Jeffery, his thuggish manager, and the manager’s tenacious work at keeping the mercurial rock star in his grips. Some research indicates British Intelligence and CIA ties to the tough Newcastle clubowner who started off “owning” The Animals, and then bankrolled musician Chas Chandler’s decision to turn session musician “Jimmy James” Hendrix into a proto-hippie phenomenon via The Jimi Hendrix Experience. There are allegations of Jeffery’s money skimming, mob tie-ins on both sides of the Atlantic, and even his direct and indirect roles in Hendrix’ death at a time when the guitarist was struggling to create a new direction for his music, and find new management better attuned to his dreams and aspirations.
A 1983 book by Jerry Hopkins, Hit & Run: The Jimi Hendrix Story, describes a scene in late October, 1969 where the pop star gets kidnapped by some lower level Mafia goons in what he describes as a Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight scenario, referencing Jimmy Breslin’s hit novel of that year. Seems the story that Jeffery and Jerry Morrison, a band manager who worked with Jimi and many jazz figures earlier, told police and anyone else who would listen involved some goodfellas who wanted to muscle in on Jeffery’s territory, and hold Hendrix in a drug-induced haze for the coming years of his career. Or at least get some good money for freeing him. In their story, the mobsters picked the guitarist up outside a nightclub he was frequenting at the time, The Salvation at 1 Sheridan Square (just around the infamous Stonewall Inn that had also been in the news that summer as the site of the nation’s first gay riots), a place he’d just been forced to play by Jeffery, with the band he’d been rehearsing upstate. Morrison told a story, for years, about sneaking through the Shokan woods to free Hendrix, and tying up a guard after getting info from him.
“I kicked the door open, rushed in with my gun, and sure enough, the guys were drinking coffee,” Morrison told Hopkins in his book. “They were both armed. We tied them up. I ran upstairs to find Jimi.” He then allegedly found him upstairs in his black-walled bedroom, seated on his bed accompanied by “an ashtray containing several marijuana roaches” and “an assortment of coke paraphernalia.”
Nothing else was ever mentioned of the event, noted the author whose other books included the lurid Jim Morrison biography, No One Gets Out Of Here Alive, adapted by Oliver Stone for his classic cult film, The Doors. Except that the owner of The Salvation, one Bobby Woods, ended up murdered, gangland style, a few months later. And Hendrix was dead within the year. And Jeffery, too, by 1973…of a mid-air airplane collision.
Someone in Olive passed on a note from Linda Gray, whose father Glen Marlatt owned the house Morrison found for Hendrix and his entourage in late spring of 1969.
“Yes, Jimi Hendrix and his entourage stayed at my father’s place on Traver Hollow Road. Some articles I have seen over the years don’t get the facts straight,” she e-mailed, while referencing both Hopkins’ book, and a photo it has of the house, as well as David Henderson’s ‘Scuse Me While I Kiss The Sky: The Life of Jimi Hendrix. “I wouldn’t allow any of the younger generation in my family read my copy because of the stuff in the book…Jimi lived a pretty sordid life as far as I am concerned. I heard he participated in orgies while living there. I do know my father rented it furnished and got paid for damages done. I remember someone drew a flying saucer coming over the mountain in a painting of the place. The place smelled, I assume of marijuana. Curtains, etc. were dyed purple, there was wax from candles lots of places.”
Separately, I head that Tim Malloy, Shandaken councilman, lived nearby that fateful summer and still has memories of the music he’d hear blasting down the valleys from the Marlatt estate.
I visited the house on a rainy afternoon and met current owners Steven Bock and Kerri Wilks, who showed off a pair of vintage photos of Hendrix on the verandah of their home 41 years and several renovations ago. In one, he plays alongside old friends Larry Lee and Billy Cox; in the other he is laughing with a cigarette in his mouth while a group of folks talk and aim BB guns in the background. They told me they’d heard tales from older neighbors around town about the sounds that would emanate from the house, and the limos and other traffic winding back and forth up Traver Hollow Road from 28A during the months Hendrix was in residence. And that they’d received a steady stream of visitors since purchasing the estate out of foreclosure back in the late 1980s.
But no one had heard anything about a kidnapping, or been approached by Johnny Black.
Michael Lang, who was busy putting together the festival that would change the region’s character, and his own career dreams, that summer, described the few visits he made up to the house while Hendrix was there.
“It was a pretty big mess,” he recalled, noting how it had seemed natural, at the time, for a rock artist of Hendrix’ stature to end up in Woodstock. But he’d never heard anything about a kidnapping.
“He was also at my home a number of times,” he added about his own house on Chestnut Hill Road at the time. “The last I saw him was the following year at Electric Lady Studios.”
Lang suggested talking to the percussionist Gerardo “Jerry” Velez, who played with Jimi that summer in Olive, and on stage with his new Gypsy Sun and Rainbows group at the Woodstock Festival Lang put together that August, which Hendrix got paid top dollar to close.
Waiting to hear back from Velez, I looked into Hendrix’ history at the time he moved up to the area, or at least some of the agreed-upon facts. It had been months since he’d recorded his last album, Electric Ladyland. He’d just come off a grueling tour with The Experience, after which the group’s break-up had been announced. Plans to open a new club were morphing into designs for a studio, down on 8th street in Greenwich Village. Jeffery had already taken a house in Woodstock, on Lower Byrdcliffe with high fences, and had put Jimi up in a garage apartment there. Word was the one-act manager, now growing his hair long and dropping LSD with increasing regularity, wanted to see if he could catch other acts among the many musicians flooding into Woodstock at the time, and pick up some of the alluring aura of Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Paul Butterfield, and The Band’s manager, Albert Grossman. Plus, Hendrix had just gotten busted for heroin up in Toronto, in May.
John Storyk, who was hired by Jeffery and Hendrix as a designer fresh out of college, and had done a single club design at that point, recalled meeting the two during the winter of 1968/1969. He described the pop star as shy, soft-spoken, and not interested in design details. “Michael Jeffery was a little rougher,” he added. “But I didn’t deal with him much. He lived around the corner from Albert.”
Storyk didn’t recall anything about a kidnapping, even though he was up in the area a lot during the summer of 1969, both for the festival and to start on another design for Grossman…what would eventually become Bearsville Studios.
“Jimi and I got together in Manhattan at Steve Paul’s in ’68,” Velez recalled, on the phone from his new home on Oahu. “We were jamming and writing and continued to do this up in Woodstock, where I’d been going since my sister Martha moved there with her husband, Keith Johnson, who was Paul Butterfield’s band leader at the time.”
Velez, a percussionist who went on to become one of the founders of the fusion group Spyro Gryra, as well as a top session musician, talked about how Hendrix didn’t have his own apartment at the time. When not touring, he lived at the Navarro Hotel on Central Park South.
“I was the first to move into the house out there near Phoenicia,” Velez added. “I think it must have been May or something like that. I took one of the two big bedrooms upstairs that shared a bathroom, making sure Jimi had the bigger one. I remember how big it seemed at the time, with two sinks back in a day when that was really rare. They had two horses on the property which I loved to ride…There were a lot of comings and goings all summer, with a lot of limo trips into town and other spots around the area wherever people were playing and there was a chance to jam.”
Velez talked about the cook at the Ashokan House, as he and others online have taken to calling the Traver Hollow home. Claire Moreice would make big batches of soup, cornbread, and chocolate chip cookies…and there were loads of drugs around. Girls, which he and Jimi would sometimes share.
Kidnapping?” he repeated my question. “I heard about it but never put any credence in it.”
Hearing Velez’ memories, I recalled other stories I’d heard over the years about those fast-paced, reckless days of the late 1960s and early 1970s when twenty-somethings seemed to rule the world, at least a according mainstream media. Stuff I’d picked up, years before, researching my book, Rock & Woodstock. Or just getting to know the characters around this town, this area.
I remembered a local writer, Michael Ephron, who used to work with me when I edited another regional newspaper. His son, Fima, lived around the area for a while and was a noted bassist. Mike, himself, regaled everyone with stories about his time with Hendrix while at a few dinner parties in my home. I decided to find him after a dozen years…and located him online on Facebook, from whence he wrote me with what seemed to be a different angle on the case.
According to Ephron, in an entry he almost immediately erased, he had been playing with Jimi that autumn, following Woodstock, as a keyboardist. His wife at the time, Bette Mitchell, was a former fiancée of the Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones, who had just died that summer. She had had a premonition about her ex’s death, and was getting a similar feeling about Hendrix. According to Ephron, she got to talking with him and some others around Woodstock that summer about kidnapping the rock star for his own good…to save his life. But nothing ever happened.
I sent the info about this new revelation to Johnny Black right away.
“This is fascinating news. I know the name of Michael Ephron as a pianist who worked with Jimi that summer, but had no idea that he might have been connected with the kidnapping,” he replied, immediately. “My story has gone to the magazine already, but tomorrow I’ll ask them if we can perhaps do a follow-up, or maybe even delay publication until I can speak to Michael Ephron. I’ll ring you shortly…”
Waiting for Black’s call, I received another…from Jimi Hendrix’s other percussionist from the Traver Hollow House that summer, Juma Sultan, who now splits time between North Carolina and Kerhonkson. He’d been talking to Black, he said, as well as Lang about that summer 42 years ago and felt I should hear his memories.
“I had been in Woodstock off and on since about ’66. I started off over at Group 212,” he started, mentioning the old avant garde artist’s colony located between Saugerties and Woodstock for a few years in the late 1960s. “I started jamming with Jimi at Mike Jeffery’s place, in the studio there above the garage. He was trying to put a new sound together…”
Sultan spoke about how Jerry Morrison was in charge of finding a rental house where some music could be made.
“He looked all over, including Johnny Winter’s place over near Rhinebeck, which was huge, a manor house,” he said. “Finally we settled on this pretty nice-sized stone house with four bedrooms, caretakers on the property, horses and cows.”
Memories flowed from the man, now watching the youngest of his 17 grandkids at home, as he recalled the various folks who’d stop by in Traver Hollow, the girls, the drugs…and the sense of menace that overtook the relaxed vibe every time Jeffery and his entourage came up for a visit.
We remark about how fast everything seemed to be moving over the three months or so everyone was in residence in Olive.
Did he recall anything regarding a kidnapping, I asked?
“We were all up at the house one day, but Jimi didn’t want to play. Larry was there, Billy (Cox). But not Mitch (Mitchell),” Sultan said. “This limousine showed up and out comes Mike Jeffery, who heads upstairs with Jimi. The chauffeur, he takes out this target and puts it on a tree and starts shooting at it with a pistol. Bam. Bam.”
Sultan paused, remembering.
“That was two weeks before we played The Salvation. Two weeks after The Salvation Jimi came back one evening talking about how he’d been kidnapped and taken away to somewhere in Brooklyn. But he was laughing about it, describing how Jeffery and Jerry Morrison, who had worked with Papa Doc down in Haiti at one point, made out like they were saving him,” Sultan continued. “Jeffery had two Mafia sorts come and offer me a contract around then…but only if I agreed NOT to play with Jimi…The scene got heavy and skeevy.”++
Next week: Johnny Black gives his hypotheses, the cook gives her version of things, the various memories of Hendrix and his Olive kidnapping start to swirl, and we dive deeper into the world of Woodstock ’69 and the nature of drug-addled histories, completing our Rashomon-like look into the way we all put our pasts together.
(Editor’s note: For Part I, click on Woodstock Times and News at ulsterpublishing.com)
Writer Johnny Black talked about the story that’s set to be published in Britain’s Classic Rock magazine later this month, all about Jimi Hendrix’s time, and supposed kidnapping, in the Town of Olive 42 years ago this month.
“What got me going was that I wrote a book about Hendrix but didn’t have the time to go into detail about this episode, and then the opportunity came up and I thought, ‘Yeah, let’s see if we can do the story justice now,’” Black said, referencing his 1999 work Eyewitness: Jimi. “The conclusion I’ve come to is that it was probably Mike Jeffery, Jimi’s manager, who did it trying to frighten his client into staying within his contractual grasp.”
Black described two key incidents. One involved gangsters coming to the rented house in Traver Hollow that Jeffery had rented for Hendrix and holding the star there, with Jeffery’s associate Jerry Morrison saving Jimi. That one, Black noted, had been mentioned by both Juma Sultan and Jerry Velez, albeit from hearsay. Then there was the one Hendrix used to tell about being held in Brooklyn and rescued by Jeffery himself, which his former manager Chas Chandler, an old partner and nemesis of Jeffery, also used to relate.
Both of these accounts shared figures from the Mafia underworld, including Salvation Club owner Bobby Woods, who was mysteriously executed in early 1970, and even Tony Sirico, who later played the character Paulie Walnuts on The Sopranos.
Black then added a third possibility. The woman hired to cook for everyone at the Traver Hollow house outside of Boiceville, Claire Moriece, had told him she always assumed Jimi was talking about a dream he’d had when describing his kidnapping. After all, she said, there were a lot of drugs around the man, and he had a habit of describing his dreams to her and anyone else who would listen.
The British journalist noted that Michael Ephron’s twist, about his girlfriend planning to kidnap Jimi as an intervention designed to keep the star alive despite psychic warnings, was a fresh angle he was planning to write a follow up story around.
Meanwhile, my own connection with Ephron started withering. The keyboardist/writer, now splitting time between London and the Phillipines, was worrying about legal ramifications, asking about statute of limitations for crimes like kidnapping. Or contemplated kidnapping.
“Bette Mitchell had a superlative plan, and a place set up and the means to keep him there,” he wrote on Facebook. “Juma remembers well the heavies at the house; who could forget them? They were minders hired by Jeffery to keep the pressure on Jimi, to make sure he did what he was told…But they had no plan to kidnap him. Why should they? He was the cash cow.”
Ephron said any further memories from him would require some financial lubrication.
A former Woodstocker who claimed to have served as Hendrix’ and Jeffery’s chauffeur, Conrad Loreto, surfaced. He now identifies himself as a wealthy acupuncturist and polo enthusiast based in Arizona, and handles all contacts through an agent with Vegas ties.
“I worked for Head Limousines and drove for Jimi. I was based in Woodstock and New York,” Loreto remembered, speaking about splitting time in ’69 between Hendrix’s Traver Hollow house, Jeffery’s Lower Byrdcliffe estate, and Jerry Morrison’s home outside of Phoenicia. “We were commissioned to drive the groups down to the stage in Bethel that summer and afterwards everyone considered us geniuses. We got offered jobs in the music industry, where I did very well.”
He said that life at Jimi’s house had a warm and friendly feel about it…big dinners around a table, music late into the evening hours. Several times he mentioned the excellence of Claire Moriece’s cooking.
“I give no credence to any kidnapping stories. I would have heard of it,” Loreto added. “I was in Jeffery’s office every day and would have known.”
So what about the scene that Juma Sultan and others had described being dark and skeevy, with thuggish mafia types around the Hendrix entourage that summer? What about all the talk about Mike Jeffery being controlling, and Jerry Morrison even worse.
Morrison, Loreto said, was the person who drew him up to the area. He described the shadowy longtime Woodstock area music industry insider as “ an older man with long hair and a beard” who had come out of the jazz scene and had great stories…including quite a few from his time working with Papa Doc Duvalier in Haiti. There was even one about Morrison having sold his soul to the devil.
“He was a piece of work,” he said. “Later, he and Tim Hardin got busted and he left the country, disappeared…I would have to agree that HE was always a little creepy.”
Jeffery, meanwhile, was simply a “great businessman” and a demonstration of “the difference between being controlling and being in control,” according to the Arizonan, who said he was saving his own theories about Jimi and Jeffery’s deaths being tied to voodoo. For his own book, currently being pitched by his agent.
Ephron and Loreto know there’s a market for Hendrix memories that’s still active to this day. Two years ago, former Hendrix roadie James ‘Tappy’ Wright included a claim that Jeffery drunkenly confessed his killing of Jimi in September 1970. He had a long season on radio and television talk shows, and a long story about his claims in Classic Rock Magazine. At the same time, the author of a successful Dracula memoir ended up in all the major film industry trades announcing a new screenplay, Slide, that was to focus on the lessons shared by a kidnapped Jimi Hendrix and two low-level Mafia goons over a span of several days. But then that all quieted.
The cook, Claire Moreice, is now living in Florida under her married name, Shaw, and rushes off an e-mail about her time in the house that summer, working for Hendrix but getting paid by Jeffery…the last time she allowed herself to be manipulated by a rock and roll manager.
“Jimi and I used to sit it the room with the fireplace attached to his bedroom — he used to try out tunes like Izabella and mostly played 12 string acoustic,” Shaw recalled. “He asked me questions about the war and my thoughts. I had never met anyone who served in the army except people my dad’s age and couldn’t imagine how Jimi had done this… We had a great rapport except when management came into the picture.”
She recounted stories about how cash-less Hendrix was at the times, and other stories she heard about Jeffery and Morrison that she wanted to check further on. “Jimi was unquestionably afraid. I recall him telling me about being kidnapped and blindfolded and threatened and the story must have been so preposterous to me that it is me who thought it must have been a dream he was telling me about,” Shaw added. “For some reason I recall a warehouse or loft in the city where this took place, not an apartment or the office on East 38th…”
Gerardo “Jerry” Velez, the 21-year old percussionist who was the first into the rented house in Traver Hollow that summer, seemed as focused on the general drug mayhem of those days as any actual or threatened criminal activity. He said that if there was anything resembling a kidnapping, it would have been tied to the bigger drug wars of the time, when there seemed to be a more direct relationship between organized crime and the music industry…or at least portions of it.
“Everyone said Michael Jeffery was tied in with British Intelligence and the mob. He was a very dark individual. When he and his crew’d walk into a room it was like the temperature would drop 20 degrees,” he said. “He’d start off with a ‘What the fuck?!’ and then start talking about money. There’d be this negative energy around, with Jimi wanting to duck out.”
“Of course, we were all barely out of our teens and they were wearing suits and stuff,” he added. “I was the first to move into the house up there and I remember Mike Jeffery coming in and asking Jimi who the hell is this kid and Jimi saying, ‘He’s with me.’”
Juma Sultan, the other percussionist on the scene who remembered some chauffeur — not necessarily Loreto — shooting bullets into a tree outside the Traver Hollow house, made special mention of Morrison and some of the Brooklynites who hung around in Olive.
“They didn’t like all the black folks Jimi had around and would rather he was still playing with two Englishmen in the Experience,” he said. “There was always a lot of that mob stuff around Woodstock and the area back then…There were a lot of drugs moving through town.”
In regards to Ephron’s story, Sultan vaguely recalled Bette Mitchell’s “dream thing” but didn’t want to back up anything the keyboardist might be saying. He mentioned how the last he heard, Mitchell was a doctor in Brooklyn. Much earlier, Ephron had taken some of his tapes recorded in Olive and pressed an album from them, mixing everyone but he and his keyboards down to accompaniment..
“There’s a whole lot of stories around that time,” Sultan concluded. “But that’s all they are, stories.”
I get to Dan Markett, whose father rented the family home to Jimi Hendrix for six months in 1969. Living and working in the Adirondacks at the time, he recalled coming down to fix a clogged-up toilet or do some other fix-it chores every once in a while.
“He seemed like an average kind of guy, a bit shy. Laughed a lot,” Markett remembered. “Jimi and his friends were rough on the place. A bedroom got painted black, some rugs had to be replaced.”
Markett noted how his father, a VP at Schrafft’s Candy & Ice Cream restaurants, had bought the place from its original builder, a New York City lawyer named Ross Lynn. His father tried his hand at starting a business but failed, and ended up taking on boarders from 1970 until his death in 1986.
“You know what I remember?” Markett said about those months, 42 years ago, when a major rock star rented his home…and just might have been kidnapped while there. “There was this one young lady I talked to, a groupie I’d guess, and she wasn’t wearing a bra…”
I’m reminded, hearing Markett’s tale, of a line from the young Orson Welles’ first film, Citizen Kane, where an old codger being interviewed about his old friend, Charles Foster Kane, remembers a red-headed girl he saw on a ferry in New York Harbor years earlier. And gets lost in that story, much to the consternation of the journalist seeking to find something that defines the man he’s on assignment to write about, and define.
Finally, I turn to videotape from the time when Hendrix was living in the area. During his early morning Woodstock Festival performance, from August 16, 1969, Hendrix looks gaunt but focused. Less than a month later, however, he appears addled and exhausted on the Dick Cavett show. Which was just around the time his kidnapping was supposed to have taken place.
“Have you ever had a nervous breakdown,” Cavett asks at one point as Jimi Hendrix seems to fold into his chair, mumbling about how tired he is.
“About three of them since I’ve been in this business,” the guitarist replies.
“I didn’t mean to pry,” Cavett replies.
“Don’t you think there’s a certain mad beauty to unorthodoxy,” the host later asks. At which point Hendrix gives a momentary growl, raising his hands ape-like at Cavett.
After which he apologetically says he may step back from music for a while. He’s tired of his past three years of constant drive and fame.
Whereupon he leaves.
“When Prince wrote ‘slave’ on his face, it brought tears to my eyes because that was Jimi,” Claire Moreice Shaw, the rock star’s comforting cook at the time of that interview, wrote in an e-mail. “Would he have been alive today if he could have done what Prince did?”++
Bobby Sharp, a native of the northern Catskills who made his mark as an artist pressing flowers in beautiful, delicately-balanced (and unbalanced) botanical works in hard plastic, is now rebuilding his reputation with a series of sculptural collage works that have gotten the attention of the James Marshall Hendrix Foundation in Seattle, Washington — Jimi’s home town, and becoming part of a collaborative project for the Woodstock Museum at Bethel Woods.
“Hendrix was the most representative individual artist alive at that moment…Hendrix improvised his art; he did not interpret it from musical scripts,” Sharp has written of his idol, who he first got to know as the soundtrack for his mother’s college bar back in the day. “Hendrix lived violence (violence of the 60’s Vietnam etc.) and died of it (he had wine in his lungs perhaps by force.)”
Sharp, dyslexic and something of a legend in the autistic world from which he rose as a gifted woodworker with an eye for original artmaking, has been adapting 36 previously unknown photographs of Jimi Hendrix by artist James Bray for the past seven years out of his studio school outside Oneonta. He is working with photos, cut stone, glass, and acrylic casting methods.
He welcomes visitors, and print sales. For further information on this truly original work of commemorative art, visit www.bsharpstudio.net. ++