Looking back at the life and career of the legendary Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix died on this day in 1970

Looking back at the life and career of the legendary Jimi Hendrix

Today marks the 48th anniversary of the loss of one of rock music’s great icons and legendary guitarist Jimi Hendrix, who died on September 18, 1970, London, he was only 27 years old.   James Marshall Hendrix was born Johnny Allen Hendrix on November 27th, 1942 in Seattle, WA. His parents changed his middle name to Marshall in honor of his father Al and his late brother Leon Marshall. A shy and sensitive boy, he was deeply affected by his life experiences, by being raised inside a dysfunctional troubled family. Hendrix’s habit of carrying a broom with him to emulate a guitar gained the attention of the school’s social worker. After more than a year of his clinging to a broom like a security blanket, she wrote a letter requesting school funding intended for underprivileged children, insisting that leaving him without a guitar might result in psychological damage.In mid-1958, at age 15, Hendrix acquired his first acoustic guitar, for $5, he earnestly applied himself, playing the instrument for several hours daily, watching others and getting tips from more experienced guitarists, and listening to blues artists such as Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, and Robert Johnson.The first tune Hendrix learned how to play was “Peter Gunn”, the theme from the television series of the same name.Soon after he acquired the acoustic guitar, Hendrix formed his first band, the Velvetones, but without an electric guitar, he could barely be heard over the sound of the group. After about three months, he realized that he needed an electric guitar in order to continue.

Private Hendrix

Before Hendrix was 19 years old, law enforcement authorities had twice caught him riding in stolen cars. When given a choice between spending time in prison or joining the Army, he chose the latter and enlisted in 1961. Soon afterward he wrote to his father: “There’s nothing but physical training and harassment here for two weeks, then when you go to jump school … you get hell. They work you to death, fussing and fighting.”His apparent obsession with the guitar contributed to his neglect of his duties, which led to verbal taunting and physical abuse from his peers, who at least once hid the guitar from him until he had begged for its return. In November 1961, fellow serviceman Billy Cox walked past an army club and heard Hendrix playing guitar.Intrigued by the proficient playing, which he described as a combination of “John Lee Hooker and Beethoven”, Cox borrowed a bass guitar and the two jammed. Within a few weeks, they began performing at base clubs on the weekends with other musicians in a loosely organized band called the Casuals. Hendrix completed his paratrooper training in just over eight months, and Major General C. W. G. Rich awarded him the prestigious Screaming Eagles patch on January 1962. By February, his personal conduct had begun to draw criticism from his superiors. They labeled him an unqualified marksman and often caught him napping while on duty and failing to report for bed checks. Hendrix’s platoon sergeant  filed a report in which he stated: “He has no interest whatsoever in the Army … It is my opinion that Private Hendrix will never come up to the standards required of a soldier. I feel that the military service will benefit if he is discharged as soon as possible.”

Early Career and Sideman

In September 1963, after Cox was discharged from the Army, he and Hendrix moved to Clarksville, Tennessee, and formed a band called the King Kasuals. Hendrix had watched Butch Snipes play with his teeth in Seattle and by now Alphonso ‘Baby Boo’ Young, the other guitarist in the band, was performing this guitar gimmick. Not to be upstaged, Hendrix learned to play with his teeth. Although they began playing low-paying gigs at obscure venues, the band eventually moved to Nashville’s Jefferson Street, which was the traditional heart of the city’s black community and home to a thriving rhythm and blues music scene. In March 1964, Hendrix recorded the two-part single “Testify” with the Isley Brothers. Released in June, it failed to chart. Soon afterward, Hendrix joined Little Richard’s touring band, the Upsetters. During a stop in Los Angeles in February 1965, he recorded his first and only single with Richard, “I Don’t Know What You Got (But It’s Got Me)” released by Vee-Jay Records. Richard’s popularity was waning at the time, and the single peaked at number 92, where it remained for one week before dropping off the chart.In July 1965, on Nashville’s Channel 5 Night Train, Hendrix made his first television appearance. Performing in Little Richard’s ensemble band, he backed up vocalists Buddy and Stacy on “Shotgun”. The video recording of the show marks the earliest known footage of Hendrix performing. Richard and Hendrix often clashed over tardiness, wardrobe, and Hendrix’s stage antics, and in late July, Richard’s brother Robert fired him.

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New York Period, The Jimi Hendrix Experience and European Success

Hendrix played during a short period of time in the Ike & Tina Tuner band as a guitarist and backing up other artists, but feeling restricted by his experiences as an R&B sideman, Hendrix moved in 1966 to New York City’s Greenwich Village, which had a vibrant and diverse music scene. There, he was offered a residency at the Cafe Wha? on MacDougal Street and formed his own band that June, Jimmy James and the Blue Flames, which included future Spirit guitarist Randy California.By May 1966, Hendrix was struggling to earn a living wage playing the R&B circuit, so he briefly rejoined Curtis Knight and the Squires for an engagement at one of New York City’s most popular nightspots, the Cheetah Club. During a performance, Linda Keith, the girlfriend of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, noticed Hendrix.  She invited him to join her for a drink; he accepted and the two became friends.While he was playing with Jimmy James and the Blue Flames, Keith recommended Hendrix to Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham and producer Seymour Stein. They failed to see Hendrix’s musical potential, and rejected him. She then referred him to Chas Chandler, who was leaving the Animals and interested in managing and producing artists.Chandler saw the then-unknown Jimi Hendrix play in Cafe Wha?, a Greenwich Village, New York City nightclub, he liked the Billy Roberts song “Hey Joe”, and was convinced he could create a hit single with the right artist. Impressed with Hendrix’s version of the song, he brought him to London on September 24, 1966 and signed him to a management and production contract with himself and ex-Animals manager Michael Jeffery. On September 24, Hendrix gave an impromptu solo performance at The Scotch of St James, and later that night he began a relationship with Kathy Etchingham that lasted for two and a half years.Following Hendrix’s arrival in London, Chandler began recruiting members for a band designed to highlight the guitarist’s talents, the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Hendrix met guitarist Noel Redding at an audition for the New Animals, where Redding’s knowledge of blues progressions impressed Hendrix, who stated that he also liked Redding’s hairstyle. Chandler asked Redding if he wanted to play bass guitar in Hendrix’s band; Redding agreed. Chandler then began looking for a drummer and soon after, he contacted Mitch Mitchell. Chandler also convinced Hendrix to change the spelling of his first name from Jimmy to the exotic looking Jimi.On September 30, Chandler brought Hendrix to the London Polytechnic at Regent Street, where Cream was scheduled to perform, and where Hendrix and Eric Clapton met. Clapton later commented: “He asked if he could play a couple of numbers. I said, ‘Of course’, but I had a funny feeling about him.” Halfway through Cream’s set, Hendrix took the stage and performed a frantic version of the Howlin’ Wolf song “Killing Floor”. In 1989, Clapton described the performance: “He played just about every style you could think of, and not in a flashy way. I mean he did a few of his tricks, like playing with his teeth and behind his back, but it wasn’t in an upstaging sense at all, and that was it … He walked off, and my life was never the same again”.

Are You Experienced and Monterey Pop Festival

The band released some successful singles and after  the UK chart success of their first two, “Hey Joe” and “Purple Haze”, the Experience began assembling material for a full-length LP.Released in the UK on May 12, 1967, “Are You Experienced” spent 33 weeks on the charts, peaking at No.2. It was prevented from reaching the top spot by the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. The album was released with different track list and songs in the U.S, overall it contains some of Hendrix’s best known songs such as “Foxey Lady”, “Manic Depression”, “Fire”, “Are You Experienced?”, “Red House” and on the U.S version “Purple Haze”, “The Wind Cries Mary” and “Hey Joe”. On June 4, 1967, Hendrix opened a show at the Saville Theatre in London with his rendition of The Beatles “Sgt. Pepper’s” title track, which was released just three days previous. Beatles manager Brian Epstein owned the Saville at the time, and both George Harrison and Paul McCartney attended the performance. McCartney described the moment: “The curtains flew back and he came walking forward playing ‘Sgt. Pepper’. It’s a pretty major compliment in anyone’s book. I put that down as one of the great honors of my career.”. Released in the U.S. on August 23 by Reprise Records, “Are You Experienced” reached number five on the Billboard 200
Although popular in Europe at the time, the Experience’s first U.S. single, “Hey Joe”, failed to reach the Billboard Hot 100 chart upon its release on May 1967. The group’s fortunes improved when McCartney recommended them to the organizers of the Monterey Pop Festival. He insisted that the event would be incomplete without Hendrix, whom he called “an absolute ace on the guitar”, and he agreed to join the board of organizers on the condition that the Experience perform at the festival in mid-June. Hendrix conquered the audience from the first moment he hit the stage at Monterey, and wanting his performance to be remembered, the set ended with him destroying his guitar and tossing pieces of it out to the audience.Rolling Stone’s Alex Vadukul wrote: “When Jimi Hendrix set his guitar on fire at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival he created one of rock’s most perfect moments. Standing in the front row of that concert was a 17-year-old boy named Ed Caraeff. Caraeff had never seen Hendrix before nor heard his music, but he had a camera with him and there was one shot left in his roll of film. As Hendrix lit his guitar, Caraeff took a final photo. It would become one of the most famous images in rock and roll” According to Hendrix: “I decided to destroy my guitar at the end of a song as a sacrifice. You sacrifice things you love. I love my guitar.” The performance was filmed by D. A. Pennebaker, and later included in the concert documentary Monterey Pop, which helped Hendrix gain popularity with the U.S. public and established him as one of the strongest household names in the U.S.  Immediately after the festival, the Experience were booked for a series of five concerts at Bill Graham’s Fillmore, with Big Brother and the Holding Company and Jefferson Airplane. The Experience outperformed Jefferson Airplane during the first two nights, and replaced them at the top of the bill on the fifth.

American Success and Electric Ladyland

The second Experience album, “Axis: Bold as Love”,utilized microphonic and harmonic feedback in a new, creative fashion. It also showcased an experimental stereo panning effect in which sounds emanating from Hendrix’s guitar move through the stereo image, revolving around the listener. The piece reflected his growing interest in science fiction and outer space. The scheduled release date for Axis was almost delayed when Hendrix lost the master tape of side one of the LP, leaving it in the back seat of a London taxi. Track released the album in the UK on December 1st, 1967, where it peaked at number five, spending 16 weeks on the charts. On February 1968, “Axis: Bold as Love” reached number three in the U.S. Recording for the Experience’s third and final studio album, “Electric Ladyland”, began at the newly opened Record Plant Studios, with Chandler as producer and engineers Eddie Kramer and Gary Kellgren. As the sessions progressed, Chandler became increasingly frustrated with Hendrix’s perfectionism and his demands for repeated takes.During the “Electric Ladyland” recording sessions, Hendrix began experimenting with other combinations of musicians, including Jefferson Airplane’s Jack Casady and Traffic’s Steve Winwood, who played bass and organ, respectively, on the fifteen-minute slow-blues jam, “Voodoo Chile”.The double LP was Hendrix’s most commercially successful release and his only number one album. It peaked at number six in the UK, spending 12 weeks on the chart. “Electric Ladyland” included Hendrix’s cover of Bob Dylan’s song, “All Along the Watchtower”, which became Hendrix’s highest-selling single and his only U.S. top 40 hit, peaking at number 20; the single reached No. 5  in the UK. By February 1969, The double album also features “Crosstown Traffic”, “Burning of the Midnight Lamp” and it’s often considered Hendrix’s masterpiece. Redding had grown weary of Hendrix’s unpredictable work ethic and his creative control over the Experience’s music. During the previous month’s European tour, interpersonal relations within the group had deteriorated, particularly between Hendrix and Redding. The last performance of the original Experience line-up took place on June 29, 1969, at Barry Fey’s Denver Pop Festival, a three-day event held at Denver’s Mile High Stadium that was marked by police using tear gas to control the audience

The End Of The Experience and Woodstock

By 1969, Hendrix was the world’s highest-paid rock musician and in August, he headlined the Woodstock Music and Art Fair that included many of the most popular bands of the time. For the concert, he added rhythm guitarist Larry Lee and conga players Juma Sultan and Jerry Velez. The band, named Band Of Gypsys, rehearsed for less than two weeks before the performance, and according to Mitchell, they never connected musically. Before arriving at the engagement, Hendrix heard reports that the size of the audience had grown to epic proportions, which gave him cause for concern as he did not enjoy performing for large crowds. He was an important draw for the event, and although he accepted substantially less money for the appearance than his usual fee, he was the festival’s highest-paid performer. Hendrix’s historical performance featured a rendition of the U.S. national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner”, during which he used copious amounts of amplifier feedback, distortion, and sustain to replicate the sounds made by rockets and bombs.[205] Although contemporary political pundits described his interpretation as a statement against the Vietnam War. He then formed an all-black power-trio with Cox and drummer Buddy Miles, formerly with Wilson Pickett, the Electric Flag, and the Buddy Miles Express. “The Band of Gypsys” album was the only official live Hendrix LP made commercially available during his lifetime; several tracks from the Woodstock and Monterey shows were released later that year.The album was released in April 1970 by Capitol Records; it reached the top ten in both the U.S. and the UK. On January 28, 1970, a third and final Band of Gypsys appearance took place; they performed during a music festival at Madison Square Garden benefiting the anti-Vietnam War Moratorium Committee titled the “Winter Festival for Peace”During the first half of 1970, Hendrix sporadically worked on material for what would have been his next LP. Many of the tracks were posthumously released in 1971 as “The Cry of Love”.

Death of a Legend

On September 16, Hendrix performed in public for the last time during an informal jam at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in Soho with Eric Burdon and his latest band, War.  They began by playing a few of their recent hits, and after a brief intermission Hendrix joined them during “Mother Earth” and “Tobacco Road”. His performance was uncharacteristically subdued; he quietly played backing guitar, and refrained from the histrionics that people had come to expect from him. He died less than 48 hours later. Jimi Hendrix was found dead in his London apartment by girlfriend Monika Dannemann at age 27, reportedly he made a phone call to Animal’s Eric Burdon shortly before his death, the call was picked by Burdon’s answering machine, his words were “I need help bad man”. Hendrix was declared to have died of asphyxia after choking on his own vomit while intoxicated with barbiturates. Hendrix was the third death in Rock music to occur in little over a year  and the second in a month at the age of 27. The Rolling Stones Brian Jones died on July 1969, Canned Heat Alan Wilson just two weeks before Hendrix. Two weeks after Hendrix, in October 1970, Janis Joplin would be the next, and in July 1971 Jim Morrison of The Doors.  On October 1, 1970, Hendrix was interred at Greenwood Cemetery in Renton, Washington.

Legacy

One of the most influential guitarists of all time, he was described by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as “arguably the greatest instrumentalist in the history of rock music. Whether his style is your cup of tea or not, there is no denying his innovations and prowess on the guitar. Time has done nothing to diminish his legacy. In fact, his influence has only grown over the years. All these years later and we still can’t help but feel cheated out of what could have been.  Hendrix was and has been a major force and influence in the development of Heavy Metal, Punk, Grunge, Funk, Hard Rock among many other music styles. Jimi Hendrix was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame together with The Jimi Hendrix Experience in 1992, and the UK Music Hall of Fame in 2005.

Watch The Jimi Hendrix Experience performing “Purple Haze” at the Atlanta Pop Festival in 1970

Listen to some of Jimi Hendrix’s most memorable songs compiled by Pop Expresso on Spotify

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