Hendrix band member Gerardo "Jerry" Velez on 50th anniversary of Woodstock performance that included "Star-Spangled Banner" and "Purple Haze."
SARASOTA — Every career musician has their first professional gig. For Gerardo Velez, it was his birthday weekend playing alongside Jimi Hendrix to close out Woodstock, the 1969 festival that drew hundreds of thousands of attendees and made music history.
This year marks Woodstock's 50th anniversary, a milestone many of the festival's performers and attendees are celebrating. That includes Sarasota resident Velez, a percussionist who's also a seven-time Grammy nominee for his work with jazz fusion group Spyro Gyra.
During the Aug. 15-18 weekend anniversary of Woodstock, Velez will visit North Carolina for WE 2019, a festival featuring other original Woodstock performers such as Canned Heat and Ten Years After. Then in November, he’ll headline a Woodstock-themed version of Sarasota music festival Giving Hunger the Blues with his group Hendrix by Hendrix, which also features Hendrix’s second cousin Regi Hendrix.
Sitting in his Sarasota home office below a poster of him and Hendrix flashing the peace sign from the Woodstock stage, Velez reflected on what he calls "eternal Woodstock." A half-century later, people are still chasing the high of a festival that brought half a million people together in overall harmony, despite huge unexpected crowds, schedule snafus and gushing rain and mud.
"It was just a lot of young people with a lot of energy and being willing to not sleep and put all their direction into what we were doing, and that’s how the event came off," said Velez, who turns 72 this week. "That’s the only reason it happened.”
Forming the band
Velez, then an aspiring 20-year-old musician from the Bronx, first crossed paths with Hendrix at famed Manhattan nightclub The Scene, which hosted numerous jam sessions featuring rock royalty, including one between Hendrix and The Doors frontman Jim Morrison.
One night, Velez had just finished sitting in for a few songs with Rick Derringer and Jeff Beck when he felt a tap on his shoulder. It was Hendrix, who told Velez he liked his sound and invited him back onstage to play with him. That went well too, so Hendrix asked Velez to come to a recording studio to jam some more.
“Then we go to the studio and we jammed from 4 o’clock in the morning to 3 o’clock in the afternoon," Velez said. "No one ever slept back then. We were all on stimulants and drugs; it didn’t matter, and we were young, too.”
The two continued playing together along with other performers like Electric Flag drummer Buddy Miles. Hendrix told Velez he was interested in a fuller sound than the trio of The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and bringing in musicians like Miles, Hendrix’s old military buddy Billy Cox on bass, his longtime friend Larry Lee on rhythm guitar and Velez on percussion.
Velez said he suggested the band name Gypsy Sun and Rainbows, while Hendrix preferred Band of Gypsys. They ultimately used both, with Hendrix introducing the group at Woodstock as "Gypsy Sun and Rainbows — for short, it's nothin' but a Band of Gypsys."
“That’s the kind of way we would talk," Velez said. "He had last call on everything, but you’re 20, he’s in his 20s, you’re nudging one another. You’re buddies and you think you guys are going to be buddies for the rest of your lives. I thought, anyway.”
Around that same time, the New York town of Woodstock had become a haven for rock musicians, with residents including Bob Dylan, who worked there with The Band. Velez’s sister Martha Velez, a singer who later worked with Bob Marley and appeared on Broadway in the hippie musical “Hair," also lived there.
Michael Lang, Artie Kornfeld, Joel Rosenman and John Roberts got the idea for a music festival featuring the sort of rock and folk artists who frequented the area. Then they assembled a who's who of counterculture musicians, with Hendrix serving as the headliner.
After the Experience’s original lineup played its final show on June 29, 1969, Hendrix assembled a new band for Woodstock featuring Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell, Cox and Lee, with Velez and Juma Sultan on congas. The group started rehearsing just a few weeks before the festival.
Woodstock took place about 60 miles south of its namesake on a dairy farm in Bethel, New York. The massive audience quickly became apparent, as the road into the festival turned into a standstill and hundreds of thousands of people descended on the site, forcing the festival to become free admission.
“Police couldn’t do anything and didn’t want to do anything because they didn’t want to start a riot,” Velez said. “They tried to shut it down and Michael said, ‘How are you going to shut it down? Go ahead, see what happens, it’s going to be melee.’ So they didn’t shut it down, and, of course, nothing happened.”
Hendrix spent the vast majority of the festival continuing to rehearse in a house he'd gotten in Woodstock. Meanwhile, Velez, familiar with the area because of his sister's living there and wanting to celebrate his birthday, went to survey the scene.
He headed back to New York City to attend Harlem Cultural Festival, later known as "Black Woodstock" for its lineup of performers including Sly & The Family Stone and Nina Simone. Then he raced back to Woodstock, visiting backstage and taking in the throng of attendees.
By the time of their scheduled Sunday night slot, the Hendrix band members had been awake for days, aided by amphetamines and acid, Velez said. Various delays caused their set to be pushed back another 10 hours.
“Every three hours, they’d come and they’d say, ‘Hey, you about ready to go on in 10 minutes?’ Velez said. “So we’d drop a bunch of drugs and then they’d come back, ‘Oh no, no, no, we’re not ready for you yet,’ and we’d be like floating around. Then three more hours and we’d kind of come down. That happened three times to us.”
Finally, the band took the stage on Monday morning. By this point, the weekend’s estimated crowd of 400,000 to 500,000 had shrunk to about 30,000 to 50,000 who’d stuck it out to see Hendrix.
“You could see a whole universe above them filled with sleeping bags and trash and bras and bathing suits, food strewn everywhere, prophylactics everywhere,” Velez said.
Hendrix and the group delivered a roughly two-hour performance featuring hits like “Purple Haze,” "Foxy Lady" and “Hey Joe,” the epic "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" and instrumental jams. The most enduring moment, though, would come near the end of the set when Hendrix unleashed his explosive rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” his feedback-laden guitar evoking the turbulence of the Vietnam War era.
Hendrix's groundbreaking interpretation of the national anthem became a defining moment of Woodstock and of the entire 1960s era. It was also an idea that Velez initially opposed.
“I said, ‘Jimi, we’re the counterculture, man, let’s build our own flag, let’s do our own thing,’" Velez said. "He was like, ‘Nah, I’m going to do The Star-Spangled Banner.’ Obviously, he was right and I was wrong. That’s the most iconic moment of Woodstock — everybody thinks of Hendrix and 'The Star-Spangled Banner.'”
The legacy of Hendrix’s performance was heightened by the 1970 concert film “Woodstock,” a huge box-office success that won a Best Documentary Oscar, and its soundtrack triple LP that closes with a Hendrix medley featuring "Star-Spangled Banner." Yet Hendrix would only play with the same Woodstock lineup a few more times.
Hendrix later performed with Cox and Miles as Band of Gypsys, also releasing a live album under the same name in early 1970, then as a trio with Mitchell and Cox. Any hopes of Velez and him playing together again were dashed when Hendrix died on Sept. 18, 1970, at age 27.
Looking to escape the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll lifestyle, Velez moved to Buffalo, New York, and enrolled in college. There he would meet the members of jazz fusion group Spyro Gyra.
During his time with the group, Velez earned seven Grammy nominations and appeared on the 1979 platinum record "Morning Dance." After leaving Spyro Gyra, Velez went on to work with artists like David Bowie and Chic.
Velez eventually left New York, spending seven years in Hawaii before moving to Sarasota last year. Velez had remembered playing with Spyro Gyra at Sarasota's Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, while Velez’s wife had a best friend who lived here and said how wonderful it was.
“Then when I found out how this community supports the arts, that was it,” Velez said. “That was a slam-dunk for me after that, because that’s what I’m all about. I’m all about people appreciating the art that either I’ve done or am about to do.”
Velez still pays tribute to his former bandmate Hendrix. Along with his group Hendrix by Hendrix, Velez serves as executive director of entertainment and special events for the Jimi Hendrix Foundation, which aims to provide music programs and events to youth.
Now there's the 50th anniversary of Woodstock. This anniversary feels particularly significant, Velez said, because of the parallels between 1969 and today — a bitterly divided country, and a socially conscious young generation seeking another way.
“I can’t believe it’s the 50th anniversary and all the upheaval that’s happening at the same time,” Velez said. “It really is like, OK, let’s turn back the last 50 years and go back. These are very volatile times, so spreading the words of love, to me, that’s everything.”