Hendrix and Havens to Van, playing with greats

Eric Oxendine back in 1971, sporting the facial hair coveted by Jimi Hendrix.

BY GABE HERMAN | Eric Oxendine, a Village resident since the early 1960s, fondly recalls those different times decades ago when Downtown was full of music and poetry, and the hippies were taking over from the Beatniks. He especially remembers all the interesting people he befriended and worked with back then. In his case, the people he remembers have names like Jimi Hendrix, Van Morrison and Richie Havens, to name just a few.

Oxendine, now 74, grew up in North Carolina and was a 19-year-old guitarist and bass player when he moved to New York City in 1963. He immediately came to the Village and immersed himself in the music scene. That, of course, included jamming in Washington Square Park, which was full of all kinds of guitar and banjo players.

“I played there all the time,” Oxendine recalled of the park. “You had to play there, it was a rite of passage. That’s where you met everybody. People need a place to crash, or meet a musician, or whatever it was — you connected at Washington Square Park.”

Oxendine met Richie Havens in ’63 when they were working the same club. Oxendine was a solo guitar act playing many styles, including classical and country/Western, and Havens was part of a trio. Afterward, Havens and his group approached Oxendine.

“He said, ‘Wow, I love the way you play guitar,’” Oxendine recalled. “I said, ‘I love the way you guys sing.’ We became friends and formed a group in ’66.”

Oxendine played bass in Havens’s group and traveled all over, including Europe and South America. Several of the group’s BBC performances are on YouTube.

It was at a 1966 gig with Havens at the Cheetah nightclub in Midtown where Oxendine first saw and met a pre-fame Jimi Hendrix, who went by Jimmy James at the time. Oxendine remembers Hendrix having a haircut “like Prince Valiant” and playing with plenty of swagger.

“I saw this guy playing behind his back, under his legs. I said, ‘Wow what is going on?’ ” he recalled. “Being from the South, that’s kind of a Southern thing. He played on the Chitlin’ Circuit and I knew a lot of people that did that. He picked up all the tricks and was very astute.”

Eric Oxendine playing in the Jefferson Market Garden in 2005. For 11 years, he played in the Village garden every Wednesday and Saturday — and any nice day that he felt like it — during the summer. Villager file photo by Robert Stolarik

Oxendine knew he was seeing something special. He talked with Hendrix afterward and suggested he come down to Greenwich Village from Harlem, where Hendrix was living.

“And he came down to the Village, and after that it was kind of history,” said Oxendine, who didn’t see Hendrix much when he came down and played at spots like Café Au Go Go. He would hook up with Hendrix later on, after the “Purple Haze” guitarist had shot to stardom, and had multiple opportunities to play with him.

There was a memorable jam at a hot Midtown club called The Scene, frequented by stars like Jayne Mansfield and Sammy Davis Jr. Oxendine jammed there one night with Havens and others, including guitarist Rick Derringer of the McCoys; Hendrix was in the audience and they asked him to join in. Hendrix started playing, but he broke three of his guitar strings and asked Oxendine if he could play his bass.

“Now I don’t let my bass go for anybody,” Oxendine said, adding it was in the middle of a great jam, so he was reluctant to give up his instrument. But after some pause, he agreed.

Oxendine didn’t want to get off the stage, however, and immediately recalled his first guitar as a child, which had just one string that he would use to pick out melodies.

“So I grabbed his guitar and kept playing,” he recalled. While the three strings may have seemed like a half-empty cup to Hendrix, “it was half-full to me,” he said. “I was not going to give up the jam and give up that energy.”

Oxendine jammed with the guitar great another time Downtown when Hendrix called him up on stage and they played “Like a Rolling Stone” with B.B. King, Mitch Mitchell on drums and Paul Butterfield on harmonica.

“I was really thrilled,” Oxendine said. “We played all night.”

“Jimi was one of the nicest people,” he said, “a very giving person, very open. But he was also very protective. He was very shy.”

Eric Oxendine, right, playing in Midtown during the Earth Day Concert in 1990.

Late one night at a place called Nobody’s on Bleecker St., Oxendine saw Hendrix sitting by himself.

“People were afraid to approach him, so I go over and say hello,” Oxendine remembered. “I told him, ‘It sounds corny, but I wish I could play like you.’ He said, ‘Wow, I wish I had sideburns like you.’ And we laughed. I said, ‘Everybody wants what someone else has.’ ”

Oxendine saw Hendrix again at the Isle of Wight Festival in August 1970, which would be a legendary performance just a month before the guitarist’s death. Hendrix looked gaunt, Oxendine recalled, but seemed happy to be out for the first time following a drug bust in Canada that had restricted his travel.

Oxendine was looking for a record deal. He played original music for Hendrix, and it went over well. They planned to collaborate, he said.

“I knew he played the blues. You know you can’t outplay Jimi, so I wanted to play something he couldn’t play,” Oxendine recalled. “He was impressed. He said, ‘Oh I want to do a record with you.’” Unfortunately, Hendrix died at just age 27 before that could happen.

Oxendine said he had one final encounter with Hendrix — after he died. It was when he was recording with Havens in Electric Lady Studios on W. Eighth St.

“I’m playing piano, and all of a sudden this ball of white light goes whoosh behind my back,” remembered Oxendine, who felt that it was Hendrix’s presence in his old studio. “I’m like, wow. And I go, ‘How you doing, Jimi?’”

Touring with Van Morrison was another highlight from that great musical era for Oxendine. He was there during the making of “Brown Eyed Girl” and played bass on some of the recording sessions. He recalled Van Morrison originally calling it “Brown Skinned Girl,” but producer/songwriter Bert Berns insisted it be changed to “Brown Eyed Girl” to make it more universal.

“One word can change everything,” Oxendine noted.

Oxendine said that during a jam session at Van Morrison’s place at Eighth and MacDougal Sts., he played the bass line for what would eventually be part of “Moondance.” But Oxendine wasn’t given credit or acknowledgement of any kind, which he said was common in the industry and happened to him other times. He was upset about it for a long time.

“But now I’m over it,” he said.

Eric Oxendine, left, with Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan at the National Museum of the American Indian at the Customs House in Lower Manhattan in 1994.

After the 1960s and ’70s, Oxendine shifted his musical focus toward becoming what he calls an “eco-musician.” He played for environmental causes, such as the 1990 Earth Day concert in Midtown Manhattan in front of 10,000 people, and at a World Peace Day concert.

“I could’ve been rich if I did the other thing,” he said of commercial music, but he felt drawn to promoting the environment. This included playing a weekly concert at Jefferson Market Garden for 11 years, starting in 2003. The Villager covered one of his performances there in 2005.

That article inspired Oxendine to write an autobiography, the 2016 book “Jammin’ With Jimi.” Oxendine said the book’s title was also inspired by the article’s headline, “Jammed with Jimi, he now plays at Jefferson Market.”

“I had a great 11 years there,” he said of the garden. “All the neighbors and community would come. I met so many people.”

He loved how close those gigs were to Electric Lady Studios, the recording studio Hendrix created, and would often think of the ’60s guitar great. People would ask him what Hendrix might be doing now if he were alive now, and Oxendine would say, “He’d probably want to come and jam over here.”

Eric Oxendine hanging in the Village with a pal.

From 1992 to ’94, Oxendine, who is a Native American of the Lumbee tribe, worked as a cultural interpreter at the National Museum of the American Indian in Lower Manhattan.

“I loved it,” he said. “It was a fulfillment of my being Native that I couldn’t have gotten anywhere else.”

Oxendine is a card-carrying member of the Lumbee tribe, which is 90 percent of the population in the town of Pembroke, North Carolina, where he was born. He brought his grandchildren there four years ago to get their own official tribe membership cards.

Oxendine still lives in Greenwich Village on W. 12th St. with his wife, Josephine, in the same rent-stabilized apartment they moved into in 1974 with their then-2-year-old son two years after they married.

Eric Oxendine in his Greenwich Village apartment today. Photo by Gabe Herman

After writing a book and teaching about his Native culture, Oxendine is now working on an album of popular songs to be released next year. He is also looking to teach again, this time about his music and history and to offer life lessons.

He said he would like to do seminars for children interested in music, and tell them, “You have to love what you do and pursue your dream. You have to be prepared.”

He noted that punctuality is also a key to success, no matter what field you’re in.

“The main thing,” he said, “is to love your music.”

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