Many musicians put out great music throughout their careers. Some even gain a legendary status. But a chosen few, the true musical gods, change the landscape of music forever with their breakthrough innovations and musical gifts. Jimi Hendrix was one of these individuals. The mark that he made during his all too brief career still holds resonance in rock-n-roll and popular music today! In fact, Hendrix is widely considered one of the most influential electric guitarists in the history of popular music, and one of the most important musicians of the 20th century.
James “Jimi” Marshall Hendrix was born Johnny Allen Hendrix on November 27, 1942 in Seattle, Washington. Hendrix has a deep a storied genealogical background; containing African American, Irish and Cherokee ancestors, even possessing an illegitimate son of a black slave woman.
As a young child, Hendrix would carry a broom to school with him, emulating a guitar. When a school social worker noticed that this was a security blanket for the young boy for more than a year, she attempted to acquire school funding for underprivileged children insisting that leaving him without a guitar might lead to psychological damage. Her efforts were in vain and Hendrix’s father refused to purchase his son the instrument. In 1957, while helping his dad with a side-job doing cleaning, Hendrix stumbled upon an old ukulele amongst garbage they were removing from a wealthy woman’s home. She told the young Hendrix that he could keep the ukulele, containing only one string. He used the one stringed instrument to self teach himself how to play Elvis’ cover of Leiber and Stoller’s “Hound Dog”, among other Presley songs.
At age 15, Hendrix aquired his forst acoustic guitar for $5. He soon after formed his first band, the Velvetones. His acoustic guitar was drowned out by the volume of the rest of the band, and he realized that he needed to get an electric guitar in order to be heard in the mix. In mid-1959, his father bought him a white Supro Ozark, his first electric guitar. After joining and being fired from a band due to his wild playing and showing off (fired in between sets, no less!) Hendrix joined the Rocking Kings, playing professionally at venues such as the Birdland Club. When someone stole his guitar after he left it backstage overnight, his father bought him a red Silvertone Danelectro.
Being caught twice riding in stolen vehicles; Hendrix was given the choice of prison time or enlisting in the Army. He chose the latter, enlisting on May 31, 1961. After completing his basic training at Fort Ord, California, the Army assigned him to the 101st Airborne Division and stationed him in Fort Campbell, Kentucky. In November 1962, fellow servicemen Billy Cox walked past the service club and heard Hendrix playing guitar inside. Cox, intrigued by the proficient playing immediately checked-out a bass guitar and the two began to jam. Soon after, Cox and Hendrix began performing at the base clubs on the weekends with other musicians in a loosely organized band called the Casuals. On June 29, 1962, Captain Gilbert Batchman granted Hendrix an honorable discharge on the basis of unsuitability.
After years of working in a number of bands and as a session guitarist, notably for the Isley Brothers’ two part single, Testify. In early 1966, at the Cheetah Club on Broadway at 53rd Street, Linda Keith, the girlfriend of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, befriended Hendrix and recommended him to the Stones’ manager Andrew Loog Oldham and later, producer Seymour Stein. Neither man appreciated Hendrix’s music, and they both passed. She did not give up her belief in Hendrix, and continued to refer Hendrix, eventually referring him to Chas Chandler, who was in the process of ending his stint as bassist for the Animals and looking for talent to manage and produce. Impressed with Hendrix’s version, Chandler brought him to London in September 1966 and signed him to a management and production contract with himself and ex-Animals manager Michael Jeffery. Chandler then helped Hendrix form a new band, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, with guitarist-turned-bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell, both English musicians. Chandler also convinced Hendrix to change the spelling of his first name from “Jimmy” to the more exotic “Jimi”.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience went on to have a highly successful recording and touring career, starting with success in the United Kingdom. The UK became fans of Hendrix after an on-stage jam with Eric Clapton and Cream at France’s number 1 venue, The Olympia Theatre in Paris. After gaining a strong following in Europe, the Experience began to garner fan’s attention in the United States as well. Their chance came when Paul McCartney recommended the group to the organizers of the Monterey International Pop Festival. This proved to be a great opportunity for Hendrix, not only because of the large audience present at the event, but also because of the many journalists covering the event who wrote about him. The performances were filmed by D. A. Pennebaker and later shown in some movie theaters around the country in early 1969 as the concert documentary Monterey Pop, which immortalized Hendrix’s iconic burning and smashing of his guitar at the finale of his performance.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience recorded three full length albums: Are You Experienced (1967), Axis: Bold as Love (1967) and Electric Ladyland (1968). Some of their most notable hits include: “Purple Haze”, “Red House”, “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” and “All Along the Watchtower”. The Experience would soon disband. The last Experience concert 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 Denver police using tear gas to control the audience as the band played “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)”. They narrowly escaped from the venue in the back of a rental truck which was partly crushed by fans trying to escape the tear gas. The next day, Redding quit the Experience, returning to London. He blamed Hendrix’s plans to expand the group without allowing for his input as a primary reason for leaving.
During his legendary Woodstock Festival performance, Hendrix had nervous about the massive size of the crowd, as he disliked performing in front of large crowds. He requested to change his slot to the closing headliner and did not go on stage until 8:30 Monday morning. The size of the crowd reduced from over 400,000 to around 30-40,000, many sticking around just to catch a glimpse of Hendrix before leaving the venue. Hendrix and his band were introduced by the festival MC, Chip Monck, as “the Jimi Hendrix Experience”, but once on stage Hendrix clarified, saying, “We decided to change the whole thing around and call it Gypsy Sun and Rainbows. For short, it’s nothin’ but a ‘Band of Gypsys'”. He then launched into a two-hour set, the longest of his career. Hendrix started off with a new song, “Message to Love”, his Woodstock set consisting of new material alongside his well-known hits.
The rest of Hendrix’s career was somewhat of a mess, including recordings with Band of Gypsys and a failed reunion of the Experience. He went on tour with a different line-up of the experience, including Billy Cox, though fans refer to this line-up as the “Cry of Love” band after the Cry of Love Tour.
Though the details of his last day and death are unclear and widely disputed, Hendrix spent much of September 17 in London with Monika Dannemann, the only eyewitness to his final hours. Dannemann claimed to have prepared a meal for them at her apartment in the Samarkand Hotel, 22 Lansdowne Crescent, Notting Hill, sometime around 11 p.m., when they shared a bottle of wine. She drove Hendrix to the residence of an acquaintance at approximately 1:45 a.m., where he remained for about an hour before she picked him up and drove them back to her flat. According to Dannemann, around 4 a.m., Hendrix, struggling with insomnia after having consumed amphetamines earlier that evening, asked her for sleeping pills. She claimed she refused his request hoping he would fall asleep naturally. Dannemann said she surreptitiously took a sleeping pill sometime around 6 a.m., with Hendrix still awake, and awoke around 10 a.m. According to Dannemann, at this time, Hendrix appeared to be sleeping normally. She claimed to have then left to purchase cigarettes, and when she returned around 11 a.m., found Hendrix breathing, though unconscious and unresponsive. She called for an ambulance at 11:18 a.m.; they arrived on the scene at 11:27 a.m. Paramedics then transported Hendrix to St. Mary Abbot’s Hospital where Dr. John Bannister pronounced him dead at 12:45 p.m., on September 18, 1970.
Jimi Hendrix’s mark on the world of rock-n-roll is everlasting. His unique sound changed the way in which guitarists viewed their instruments and rigs; including the use of guitar amp feedback, overdriven amps with high volume and gain, popularizing the use of wah-wah pedal in mainstream rock and pioneering experimentation with stereophonic phasing effects in rock records. Without Hendrix, rock acts may not have developed the honored tradition of turning it up to eleven. For these reasons, and may others, Jimi Hendrix’s career was far too short, and he will always be greatly missed!