Jimi Hendrix - Biography

Most sources report that as a young journeyman player, Jimi Hendrix slept with his guitar. Certainly, no performer of his era demonstrated a greater intimacy with his instrument. His virtuosic prowess cowed some of the most gifted guitarists of his era. Mike Bloomfield, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s lead player and the soloist on Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” said after witnessing one early Hendrix gig in New York, “I didn’t even want to pick up a guitar for the next year.” Eric Clapton, who let Hendrix sit in with his band Cream during its rise to fame, recalled,  “He walked off and my life was never the same again, really.” Jeff Beck, leader of his own influential group after a groundbreaking stint in the Yardbirds, remarked, “Jimi does every trick in the book and nails it all together so tight that you can’t even see the joints.”



Beyond his innovative expansion of the electric guitar’s technical and emotive possibilities, Hendrix broadened rock in its other aspects during his four brief years of stardom. He was the first African-American rock musician to truly breach the color line: While pioneers like Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Little Richard recorded for independent rhythm & blues labels and were supported by black combos, Hendrix was signed to a major American label and played with a white rhythm section. His music was marketed to white rock fans, who accepted him as one of their own. He brought rock showmanship to a new level with his crowd-pleasing concert style, honed during his years of apprenticeship on the black “chitlin circuit”; however, frustrated and imprisoned by the demands of his audience, he would uneasily edge away from his so-called “psychedelic spade” routines during the latter part of his career. Merging past, present, and future, his music seamlessly fused the earthiness of traditional blues and soul with the extravagant lyrical impressionism of Dylan, Hendrix’s career-long role model.


He was born James Marshall Hendrix on Nov. 27, 1942, in Seattle, the eldest of Al and Lucille Hendrix’s three sons. His parents split when Hendrix was six. His early school days were marked by an interest in art; in later life, he would fill notebooks with his drawings. He grew up with blues music and ballads, and sang briefly in a church choir. At the age of 15 – around the time he saw Elvis Presley perform a show at Sick’s Stadium in Seattle – he acquired his first guitar for $5. He was left-handed, but, finding southpaw guitar models unsatisfactory, he played conventional right-handed axes, strung upside-down.


As a teen, Hendrix broke in with the blues-based local bands The Velvetones and The Rocking Kings. He sat in with the Dave Lewis Combo, the keyboard-led R&B band that introduced Richard Berry’s “Louie Louie” to the repertoires of countless Pacific Northwest garage bands. He also played at the Seattle club the Spanish Castle, an incubator for garage acts like the Wailers (and the subject of Hendrix’s later song “Spanish Castle Magic”).


In October 1960, Hendrix dropped out of high school; the following summer he joined the Army’s 101st Airborne Division as a paratrooper in the “Screaming Eagles.” While training at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, he met bassist Billy Cox, who would play an long-running role in his musical career. The two musicians bonded over their shared enthusiasms – for bluesmen Jimmy Reed, Albert and B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and Elmore James. (To this list of influences Hendrix would soon add singer-guitarist Buddy Guy, whose extroverted performances would have a marked impact on his own style.) They organized a band with shifting personnel, The King Kasuals, which would perform at service clubs, in nearby towns, and sometimes in the music Mecca of Nashville, which then boasted a healthy independent R&B scene.


Hendrix chafed under Army discipline, and he used an injury sustained during a parachute training jump to get a discharge in July 1962. Soon after Cox left the service that September, The King Kasuals set up shop in Nashville. The group scuffled, but Hendrix managed to secure gigs backing such R&B showmen as Solomon Burke, Slim Harpo, and Hank Ballard. He also supported singer-guitarist Curtis Mayfield, whose gentle style would shape Hendrix’s ethereal ballad work.


In early 1964, a shady New York-based promoter told Hendrix he could supply him with work if he moved to the Big Apple. The promise of a gig proved to be illusory, but Hendrix, who already had ambitions bigger than grinding it out in Music City dives, decided to stay out east, and took up residence in the first of a succession of cheap Harlem hotels. A chance meeting in February of that year with an associate of The Isley Brothers led to a job as the R&B group’s lead guitarist. He hit the chitlin circuit of black clubs with the Isleys, and appeared on such singles as “Testify Parts I & II” and “Move Over and Let Me Dance.” In early 1965, billed as “Maurice James,” he joined Little Richard’s band, and cut the Vee-Jay single “I Don’t Know What You’ve Got But It’s Got Me” with the piano-pounding singer. However, Hendrix’s chronic tardiness – and, quite probably, his good looks and upstaging showmanship – led to a parting of the ways, and by mid-1965 the guitarist was back in New York City.


The next year would be busy, if not especially remunerative. Hendrix signed on as a house guitarist for producer Ed Chalpin (who later successfully sued the guitarist, claiming an exclusive contract). He recorded with one of Chalpin’s acts, Curtis Knight & The Squires, and played gigs with the R&B band in the Greenwich Village clubs; his awareness of Bob Dylan, who reached No. 2 on the charts in 1965 with “Like a Rolling Stone,” reached its apex amid the flourishing folk and blues scene there. He found the Harlem music scene insular and confining, and by the summer of 1966, he was playing at Village outposts like Café Wha?, fronting his own band, Jimmy James & The Blue Flames. The group’s repertoire included covers of the Troggs’ primal hit “Wild Thing” and Tim Rose’s neo-murder ballad “Hey Joe,” both of which became staples of Hendrix’s star-making early solo sets.


Hendrix’s big break finally came in July 1966. His extravagant playing attracted the interest of Linda Keith, model and girlfriend of Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones. She organized a showcase for The Blue Flames at the Café Wha? The Stones’ manager Andrew Loog Oldham expressed no interest, but Keith convinced Chas Chandler – bassist for the top English blues/R&B act The Animals – to take a look. Chandler, who was plotting his next career move, was immediately knocked out, and asked Hendrix if he could take the guitarist on as his first management client.


Events moved swiftly. That fall, following a set featuring Hendrix with bluesman John Hammond, Jr. (son of legendary producer John Hammond, discoverer of Dylan, Billie Holiday, and Count Basie) at the Café Au Go Go, Chandler and The Animals’ manager Mike Jeffery began discussions with the guitarist about a move to London. On Sept. 23, 1966, Hendrix flew out of Kennedy Airport, headed for his new home base.


Over the next few months, Hendrix dazzled London’s rock royalty with sensational impromptu appearances jamming in London’s top clubs; Clapton, Paul McCartney and Brian Jones became devoted supporters. A permanent band was founded: The well-traveled guitarist Noel Redding was hired as bassist, and Mitch Mitchell, previously with Georgie Fame’s Blue Flames, was enlisted on drums. (Attempts to secure a fourth member came to naught, and the band was formulated as a “power trio” not unlike Cream, then making a noise of its own on the English scene.) The bandleader was convinced to take on his given name, in hip misspelled form. Thus The Jimi Hendrix Experience was born.


Signed to Chris Stamp and Kit Lambert’s Track Records (home of The Who) in the U.K. and Reprise Records in the U.S., the trio quickly set about recording their debut album. Sessions progressed at London’s Olympic Studio in between gigs in Paris and London and amid a tour – the first of several early incongruous bookings – supporting The Walker Brothers, Cat Steven, and Engelbert Humperdinck.


Produced by Chas Chandler and released in May 1967, The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Are You Experienced? announced the arrival of a bold talent. “You’ll never hear surf music again,” Hendrix proclaimed on “Third Stone From the Sun,” and his guitar work – an elegant, powerful mix of high volume, feedback, studio effects, and deft tonal control – indeed represented a quantum leap beyond what had come before. The collection included such defining tracks as “Hey Joe,” “The Wind Cries Mary,” “Foxey Lady, “Fire,” and “Purple Haze,” hard-hitting and sensuous by turns. Potently sexual and headily expressive, it was a set perfectly in synch with the dawning Summer of Love. It would rise as high as No. 5 on the U.S. album chart, and would remain there for 106 weeks.


Already a name in the U.K. and Europe, Hendrix sealed his American reputation with an appearance at the Monterey International Pop Festival in California. Organized by The Mamas & The Papas’ John Phillips (who had caught Hendrix with The Blue Flames during his Village residency) and producer Lou Adler, the festival gathered together the top rock talent of the day, including such explosive performers as Janis Joplin of Big Brother & The Holding Company, Otis Redding, and The Who. It fell to Hendrix to follow the latter band’s auto-destructive set on June 18, 1967. Introduced by The Stones’ Brian Jones and garbed in colorful psychedelic finery, he pulled out all the stops, charging through a set that included his volatile originals and surging renditions of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor” and Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” Playing his guitar with his teeth, between his legs, and behind his back as he waggled his tongue at the crowd, he climaxed his appearance by incinerating his guitar after a ferocious, high-watt version of “Wild Thing.” That all-flash number became a highlight of D.A. Pennebaker’s 1968 documentary Monterey Pop, and made The Jimi Hendrix Experience the talk of the rock world.


Following a bizarrely booked and quickly terminated U.S. tour opening for The Monkees, “the Pre-Fab Four” of ‘60s TV, sessions continued at Olympic for a second Experience album. Issued in late 1967, Axis: Bold As Love was even more ardently experimental than its predecessor. Sporting lyrical and sonic elements inspired by science fiction and enhanced by the most advanced deployment of studio technology to date, the album included such signature tracks as “Little Wing,” “If 6 Was 9,” and the title song. The high-concept package burnished Hendrix’s already impressive reputation as a guitar visionary, and rose to No. 3 on the American charts.


During most of 1968, The Experience – now a premier international concert attraction -- attempted to balance a grueling tour schedule with sessions for the band’s third album. After initial studio dates in London, the group hunkered down for months in a newly established New York facility, the Record Plant, with Chandler and engineer Eddie Kramer. Hendrix’s jam-oriented approach and perfectionist attitude ultimately alienated manager-producer Chandler, and the guitarist took full producer credit on the finished release. The sessions also exacted a toll on Noel Redding: The bassist grew impatient with Hendrix’s burgeoning drug intake, legion of studio hangers-on, and unpredictable schedule, and missed several sessions. Hendrix himself (and guest Jack Cassidy of The Jefferson Airplane) supplied the bass lines on some tracks.


Despite its protracted and sometimes agonizing gestation, the two-LP set Electric Ladyland (1968) was immediately embraced as Hendrix’s masterwork; it would be his only No. 1 album in the U.S. The sprawling 16-track opus included his definitive reading of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” (a top 20 single), the storming blues jam “Voodoo Chile” (with Stevie Winwood of Traffic on keyboards and Cassidy on bass), the undersea epic “1983… (A Merman I Should Turn To Be),” and an explicitly political comment on the ’68 riots sparked by Martin Luther King’s assassination, “House Burning Down.” A pair of reverie-like tracks, “Rainy Day, Dream Away” and “Still Raining, Still Dreaming,” marked Hendrix’s first studio collaboration with drummer Buddy Miles.


Following the release of Electric Ladyland, Hendrix hit a creative impasse that would plague him until the end of his life. Though The Experience played triumphant gigs at London’s Royal Albert Hall in early 1969, Hendrix’s relationship with Redding had grown strained, and he was feeling increasingly limited by his band’s three-piece format. Sessions for a new album went nowhere. In May 1969, Hendrix was arrested and charged with drug possession in Toronto after heroin and marijuana were found in his luggage. (He would be acquitted of the charges that December.) By June, Noel Redding had left, and Hendrix’s old Army buddy Billy Cox was earmarked as his replacement.


Hendrix had a grander vision for his music, but the specifics were hazy. That summer, he convened a six-piece unit that included Cox, Mitchell, guitarist Larry Lee (an old Nashville cohort), and percussionists Jerry Velez and Juma Sultan on a farm near Woodstock, New York. This group, dubbed Gypsy Sun & Rainbows, was the last act to perform at the massive Woodstock Art & Music Fair at nearby Bethel on Aug. 18, 1969. Coming on stage after sunrise as the headliner of the delay-plagued, rain-soaked “Aquarian exposition,” the band played to just 25,000 of the estimated 400,000 revelers who had partied for three days on Max Yasgur’s muddy farmland. Hendrix’s dramatic, theatrical rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” supplied the finale for director Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 film of the event.


After some abortive studio work and a messy appearance at a Greenwich Village venue, Gypsy Sun & Rainbows disbanded, and Hendrix wearily plotted his next move. A plan to record with trumpeter Miles Davis, who had recently wrapped up work on his jazz-rock bestseller Bitches Brew, was scuttled after a financial clash. Groping for a fresh direction, Hendrix pulled together a trio with Cox and Buddy Miles for four shows on New Year’s Eve 1969 and New Year’s Day 1970 at Bill Graham’s Fillmore East in New York. A one-off live album captured at the Dec. 31 gigs, Band of Gypsys (1970), was issue by Capitol as a settlement of Ed Chalpin’s suit against Hendrix. Propelled by Miles’ fat drumming style, it shows off the funkiest aspect of Hendrix’s playing, and includes “Machine Gun,” his soulful homage to the troops embroiled in the Vietnam conflict, then raging at its height.


Some observers maintain that manager Mike Jeffery’s qualms about the future of an all-black, soulful rock band put the kibosh on Band of Gypsys, and by February 1970 Hendrix was maintaining that the original Experience lineup was re-forming, though ultimately Cox took Redding’s place in the lineup with Mitch Mitchell. That trio labored on sessions that stretched into the late summer of the year; the uneven results of those dates were released posthumously, first as The Cry of Love (1971), and more definitively as First Rays of the New Rising Sun (1997).


Looking exhausted and strung-out, Hendrix performed his last concert with Cox and Mitchell before 600,000 at the chaotic Isle of Wight Festival off the English coast on Aug. 30, 1970. On Sept. 18, he was found dead in girlfriend Monika Danneman’s room in London’s Samarkand Hotel. An inquest found he had expired from kidney failure and inhalation of vomit brought on by a mixture of barbiturates and alcohol. He was 27.


Jimi Hendrix has abided as one of rock’s most revered creative figures. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992, and received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award the same year. Software billionaire Paul Allen’s Seattle museum Experience Music was erected as virtually a Hendrix shrine. More than 30 posthumous Hendrix albums have reached the charts since his death. The careers of countless artists, including such acolytes as Prince and Living Colour’s Vernon Reid, are unthinkable without his precedent-setting presence. Pathfinder, magician, inspiration – Hendrix was all of these for generations of musicians who aspired beyond the boundaries of the norm.


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