He's been called a genius, a poet, temperamental, unpredictable and controversial. He was all these things and more... Jimi, the Electric Gypsy, took the guitar to places it had never been before and rock and roll would never be the same again.
On the 27th November 1942 in Seattle, Washington Al Hendrix and Lucille Jeter had a son, Johnny Allen Hendrix. His father subsequently changed his son's name to James Marshall Hendrix on 11th September 1946. He was one-sixteenth Cherokee Indian from his mother's side. Unquestionably one of music's most influential figures, he brought an unparalleled vision to the art of playing electric guitar. Self-taught (and with the burden of being left-handed with a right-handed guitar) he spent hours absorbing the recorded legacy of southern-blues practitioners, from Robert Johnson to B.B. King. The aspiring musician joined several local R&B bands while still at school, before enlisting as a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Division. It was during this period that Hendrix met Billy Cox, a bass player upon whom he would call at several stages in his career. Together they formed the King Kasuals, an in-service attraction later resurrected when both men returned to civilian life. Hendrix was discharged in July 1962 after breaking his right ankle on his 26th parachute jump.
He began working with various touring revues backing, among others, the Impressions, Sam Cooke and the Valentinos. He enjoyed lengthier spells with the Isley Brothers, Little Richard and King Curtis, recording with each of these acts. The experience and stagecraft gained during this formative period proved essential to the artist's subsequent development. By 1965 Hendrix was living in New York. In October he joined struggling soul singer Curtis Knight, signing a punitive contract with the latter's manager, Ed Chaplin. This ill-advised decision would return to haunt the guitarist. In June the following year Hendrix, now calling himself Jimmy James, formed a group initially dubbed the Rainflowers, then Jimmy James And The Blue Flames. The quartet, which also featured future Spirit member Randy California, was appearing at the Cafe Wha? in Greenwich Village when Chas Chandler was advised to see them. The Animals' bassist immediately recognised the guitarist's extraordinary talent and persuaded him to come to London in search of a more receptive audience. Hendrix arrived in England in September 1966. Chandler became his co-manager, in partnership with Mike Jeffery, and immediately began auditions for a suitable backing group.
Noel Redding (born 25th December 1945, Folkestone, Kent, England) was selected on bass, having recently failed to join the New Animals, while John 'Mitch' Mitchell (born 9th July 1947, Ealing, Middlesex, England), a veteran of the Riot Squad and Georgie Fame's Blue Flames, became the trio's drummer. The new group, dubbed the Jimi Hendrix Experience, made its debut the following month at Evereux in France. On returning to England they began a string of club engagements which attracted pop's aristocracy, including Pete Townshend and Eric Clapton. In December the trio released their first single, "Hey Joe". "Hey Joe" was first recorded by an LA band called The Leaves in 1965. They re-recorded it in 1966 and took it to #31 in the US charts during June that year. The song was credited to one Chester A. Powers (who was really Dino Valenti, later of Quicksilver Messenger Service), but the real composer was an obscure West Coast folk-singer by the name of Billy Roberts. The Leaves version was a fast-paced folk-rock song, but Tim "Morning Dew" Rose recorded a slowed-down version in 1966. The Jimi Hendrix Experience took Rose's arrangement, added Jimi's classic guitar-style and made it their own. It charted at number 6 in the UK in December of 1966. Its UK Top 10 placing encouraged a truly dynamic follow-up in 'Purple Haze". The latter was memorable for Hendrix's guitar pyrotechnics and a lyric that incorporated the artist's classic line: 'Scuse me while I kiss the sky'.
On tour his trademark Fender Stratocaster and Marshall Amplifier were punished night after night, as the group enhanced its reputation with exceptional live appearances. Here Hendrix drew on black culture and his own heritage to produce a startling visual and aural bombardment. Framed by a halo of long, wiry hair, his slight figure was clad in a bright, psychedelic costume. Although never a demonstrative vocalist, his delivery was curiously effective. Hendrix's playing technique, meanwhile, though still drawing its roots from the blues, encompassed an emotional range far greater than any contemporary guitarist. Rapier-like runs vied with measured solos, matching energy with ingenuity, while a plethora of technical possibilities - distortion, feedback and even sheer volume brought texture to his overall approach. This assault was enhanced by a flamboyant stage persona in which Hendrix used the guitar as a physical appendage. Redding's clean, uncluttered bass lines provided the backbone to Hendrix's improvisations, while Mitchell's drumming, as instinctive as his leader's guitar work, was a perfect foil.
Their concessions to the pop world now receding, the Experience completed an astonishing debut album, ARE YOU EXPERIENCED, which ranged from the apocalyptic vision of "I Don't Live Today" to the blues of "Red House" and the funk of "Fire" and "Foxy Lady." Hendrix returned to America in June 1967 to appear, sensationally, at the Monterey Pop Festival. During a rendition of Bob Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone" he paused to inform the crowd that he was retuning his guitar, later in the same song admitting he had forgotten the words. Such unparalleled confidence only endeared him to the crowd. His performance was a musical and visual feast, topped off by a sequence which saw him playing the guitar with his teeth, and then burning the instrument with lighter fuel during "Wild Thing". Following an ill-advised tour supporting the Monkees (yes, really), the Experience enjoyed reverential audiences on the country's concert circuit. AXIS: BOLD AS LOVE revealed a new lyrical capability, notably in the title track and the jazz-influenced "Up From The Skies." "Little Wing," a delicate love song bathed in unhurried guitar splashes, offered a gentle perspective, closer to that of the artist's shy, offstage demeanour. Released in December 1967, the collection completed a triumphant year, artistically and commercially, but within months the fragile peace began to collapse. In January 1968 the Experience embarked on a gruelling American tour encompassing 54 concerts in 47 days. Hendrix was now tiring of the wild man image which had brought initial attention, but he was perceived as diffident by spectators anticipating gimmickry. An impulsive artist, he was unable to disguise below-par performances, while his relationship with Redding grew increasingly fraught as the bassist rebelled against the set patterns he was expected to play.
ELECTRIC LADYLAND, the last official Experience album, was released in October. This extravagant double set was initially deemed 'self-indulgent', but is now recognised as a major work. It revealed the guitarist's desire to expand the increasingly limiting trio format, and contributions from members of Traffic (Chris Wood and Steve Winwood) and Jefferson Airplane (Jack Casady) embellished several selections. The collection featured a succession of virtuoso performances - "Gypsy Eyes," "Crosstown Traffic" - while the astonishing "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)," a posthumous number 1 single, showed how Hendrix had brought rhythm, purpose and mastery to the recently invented wah-wah pedal. ELECTRIC LADYLAND included two UK hits, "The Burning Of The Midnight Lamp" and "All Along The Watchtower." The latter, an urgent restatement of the Bob Dylan song, was particularly impressive, and received the ultimate accolade when the composer adopted Hendrix's interpretation when performing it live on his 1974 tour. Despite such creativity, the guitarist's private and professional life was becoming problematic. He was arrested in Toronto for possessing heroin, but although the charges were later dismissed, the proceedings clouded much of 1969. Chas Chandler had meanwhile withdrawn from the managerial partnership and although Redding sought solace with a concurrent group, Fat Mattress, his differences with Hendrix were now irreconcilable.
The Experience played its final concert on June 29, 1969; Jimi subsequently formed Gypsies Sons And Rainbows with Mitchell, Billy Cox (bass), Larry Lee (rhythm guitar), Juma Sultan and Jerry Velez (both percussion). This short-lived unit closed the Woodstock Festival, during which Hendrix performed his famed rendition of the "Star Spangled Banner." Perceived by some critics as a political statement, it came as the guitarist was being increasingly subjected to pressures from different causes. In October he formed an all-black group, Band Of Gypsys, with Cox and drummer Buddy Miles, intending to accentuate the African-American dimension in his music. The trio made its debut on 31 December 1969, but its potential was marred by Miles' comparatively flat, pedestrian drumming and unimaginative compositions. Part of the set was issued as BAND OF GYPSYS, but despite the inclusion of the exceptional "Machine Gun," this inconsistent album was only released to appease former manager Chaplin, who acquired the rights in part-settlement of a miserly early contract. The Band Of Gypsys broke up after a mere three concerts and initially Hendrix confined his efforts to completing his Electric Ladyland recording studio. He then started work on another double set, the unreleased FIRST RAYS OF THE NEW RISING SUN, and later resumed performing with Cox and Mitchell. His final concerts were largely frustrating, as the aims of the artist and the expectations of his audience grew increasingly separate. His final UK appearance, at the Isle Of Wight festival, encapsulated this dilemma, yet still drew an enthralling performance.
The guitarist returned to London following a short European tour. On 18th September 1970, his girlfriend, Monika Danneman, became alarmed when she was unable to rouse him from sleep. An ambulance was called, but Hendrix was pronounced dead on arrival at a nearby hospital. The inquest recorded an open verdict, with death caused by suffocation due to inhalation of vomit. Two posthumous releases, CRY OF LOVE and RAINBOW BRIDGE, mixed portions of the artist's final recordings with masters from earlier sources. These were fitting tributes, but many others were tawdry cash-ins, recorded in dubious circumstances, mispackaged, and mistitled. "Plethora" is an inadequate term to describe the many exploitative albums released with such imaginative titles as GOLDEN BEST, MASTERPIECES, PSYCHEDELIC VOODOO CHILE and 16 GREATEST CLASSICS and sometimes even including fake performances. Everyone, except the most serious collector, is advised to avoid these albums at all cost.
The 90s saw the release of more fitting archive recordings thanks to the
Experience Hendrix Trust, but the Hendrix legacy also rests in his
prevailing influence on fellow musicians. Many guitarists have imitated his
technique; few have mastered it, while none at all have matched him as an
inspirational player. In November 1993 a tribute album, STONE FREE: TRIBUTE
TO JIMI HENDRIX was released, containing a formidable list of performers
including the Pretenders, Eric Clapton, Cure, Jeff Beck, Pat Metheny and
Nigel Kennedy - small testament to the huge influence Hendrix has wielded
and will continue to wield as rock's most inventive guitarist.
Albums highlighted are recommended listening and are reasonably available on CD (unless otherwise indicated).
Jimi Hendrix: Vocals, Guitars
These CDs are part of my series of imaginary compilations, where official CDs are non-existent or inadequate in my opinion.