10 Things You Never Knew About Jimi Hendrix, The Guitar Genius Who Died At 27
Left-handed guitar prodigy Jimi Hendrix changed rock 'n roll, coaxing never-before-heard sounds from his instrument in a career that came to a sudden end with his death in 1970. There are thousands of good guitar players, and plenty of great guitarists, but there's only one Hendrix, whose five-year career left us mind-blowing classics like "Purple Haze," "Voodoo Child," and "Crosstown Traffic." In that short period of time he played with legendary backing players The Experience (Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell), and later with Band of Gypsys, and he did it all at a breakneck pace. The word "icon" doesn't do Jimi Hendrix justice. His final years were spent creating an aural experience for anyone who could open their mind just enough to let him in.
Jimi Hendrix Didn't Touch A Guitar Until He Was 15 Years Old
While his life came to an all too early end in London, Jimi Hendrix was born in Seattle, Washington, on November 27, 1942. Originally named Johnny Allen Hendrix, his parents changed his name to James Marshall Hendrix four years later. His parents were broke and he moved around Seattle quite a bit as a young man. At the time the young Hendrix was fond of carrying around a broom that he pretended was a guitar; his family just thought he was being weird, but social workers were certain that he held onto it like a safety blanket. Even so, his father refused to buy a guitar for the boy.
It wasn't until Hendrix was 15 that he actually got his hands on a real deal acoustic guitar. Before that it was a ukulele with one string, and before that it was the broom. The guitar may have been second hand but it provided entree to a different world for the young man. He played it constantly until he realized that he needed an electric guitar to play in a band.
He Realized His Calling While In The Military
Hendrix kicked around Seattle playing in bands like the Rocking Kings for a few years before he was busted for riding around in stolen cars when he was 19 years old. Given the choice of prison or joining the military, the teenage guitarist chose to enlist in the Army on May 31, 1961. After completing basic in Fort Ord, California, he was sent to Fort Campbell, Kentucky to receive paratrooper training as a part of the 101st Airborne Division.
Military training didn't agree with Hendrix. He just wanted to play guitar and hang out, not spend all day being worked like a dog while jumping out of planes. At the time 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."
With his red Silvertone Danelectro at his side, Hendrix continued to play in every free moment at Fort Campbell, even when his bunk mates were hiding the guitar and making him beg to have it returned. By 1962, two years earlier than scheduled, Hendrix was discharged from the military for extreme lack of interest, and he moved to Tennessee to start his career as a guitar player.
In Another Life Hendrix Would Have Been A Killer Side Man
Between 1962 and 1965 Hendrix honed his chops and built up a reputation as one of the most blistering side men in R&B. He briefly played with the Isley Brothers in 1964 before joining up with Little Richard's touring band. His only recorded output with Richard is the single "I Don't Know What You Got (But It's Got Me)." Around the same time he recorded with Rosa Lee Brooks on a track written by Arthur Lee of the band Love.
After bouncing around the R&B scene for a few years he moved to Greenwich Village in 1966 and began a residency at Cafe Wha? with his band Jimmy James and the Blue Flames. People started to take notice, but it was one of Keith Richards' girlfriends who provided a huge break for the guitarist.
Goodbye Jimmy James, Hello Jimi Hendrix
Linda Keith was a fashion model who was known for her work with Vogue during the 1960s, and people knew she was Keith Richard's girlfriend. When she saw Hendrix playing at the Cheetah Club in New York City the two formed a quick friendship and she used her sway with Richards to get Hendrix a meeting with Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham and Seymour Stein, the producer who went on to create Sire records. They didn't get it, but Chas Chandler from The Animals did and he brought the guitarist to England.
Jimmy James and the Blue Flames were out the window, and Chas Chandler was instrumental in making sure Hendrix was front and center in the Jimi Hendrix Experience. In quick succession Hendrix was introduced Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell, and in October 1966 the trio played their first shows during a short tour of France opening for Johnny Hallyday, but it was their performance at the Bag O' Nails nightclub in London on November 25, where the world finally keyed into what Hendrix was doing.
A who's who of the English music world was in attendance: Eric Clapton, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Jeff Beck, Pete Townshend, Brian Jones, Mick Jagger, and Kevin Ayers were all at the show and they were stunned at the raucous power of The Experience. On month later, the band released "Hey Joe" as their first single and they were off to the races.
Released on May 12, 1967, in the UK, debut album Are You Experienced? was a revelation. It heralded a confluence of blues, rock, and freeform jazz all under the auspices of a power trio. It was exactly what young music fans were looking for. Peaking at number 2, the album spent 33 weeks on the British charts, but that success had yet to translate back to the states. At the time, "Hey Joe" was floundering as a single in the U.S. but that all changed following Hendrix's performance at the Monterey Pop Festival.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience was added to the lineup as a favor to Paul McCartney, and the performance on June 18, 1967, proved to be one of the most iconic moments in rock n roll history. After a blistering set that featured soon to be classics like "The Wind Cries Mary," "Foxy Lady," and "Purple Haze," as well as covers of Bob Dylan and B.B. King, Hendrix set his guitar on fire, broke it into pieces and threw it into the audience. It was there perfect moment for 1967, and it turned American audiences into fans of The Jimi Hendrix Experience. After the festival, Hendrix scored opening gigs for Big Brother and the Holding Company, and was booked for a full tour with The Monkees, who were seriously big fans, but Hendrix only played six dates on the tour because the Experience's performances confounded the Monkees' young audience.
'Axis: Bold As Love' Almost Didn't Happen
Usually, an artist waits until their third or fourth album to enter their divisive experimental stage, but Hendrix was such a confident songwriter and performer that he essentially left behind the power trio work of Are You Experienced? and started experimenting with effects and stereo phasing while in the studio to record Axis: Bold As Love.
The album has a more free flowing, jazz influenced feel but Hendrix still maintains his heavy edge. The center piece of the album, "If Was 6 Was 9," takes everything that Hendrix was experimenting with at the time and shoves it into one three and a half minute song. The brilliance of the album was almost lost when Hendrix left the master tapes for side one of the album in a London taxi. All of the songs on these tapes had to be re-recorded, mixed down, and edited in a single night - none of that is fun, but Hendrix was so into playing around with the sounds of the studio at this point that he had to recreate all of his effects. This proved to be a nightmare on "If 6 Was 9," a track that features Hendrix playing the flute of all things.
Bassist Noel Redding happened to have a copy of "If 6 was 9" on tape, but it had to be flattened with an iron thanks to a wrinkle. The band worked off that tape, and without having any extra time in the studio they made the best out of a bad situation. The lost tapes, and Hendrix's growing influence in the studio, grated on Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell, but the largest divide at this point was between Hendrix and his manager Chas Chandler. The two men were at odds over Hendrix's experimental new direction and the ongoing party in the studio. Somehow, the album was finished without everyone killing one another and it was released in December, 1967. It went to number 5 in the UK and number 3 in the US. The band was unstoppable.
With Electric Ladyland Hendrix Became An Ace Producer
Before going into the studio to record Electric Ladyland Hendrix told Rolling Stone:
We’ve been doing new tracks that are really fantastic and we’ve just been getting into them. You have these songs in your mind. You want to hurry up and get back to the things you were doing in the studio, because that’s the way you gear your mind….We wanted to play [the Fillmore], quite naturally, but you’re thinking about all these tracks, which is completely different from what you’re doing now.
What turned out to be the final studio album by Hendrix, and a legitimate masterpiece, was fraught with tension, in-fighting, and perfectionism on a megalomaniacal scale. Hendrix could hear music in his head, but getting it onto tape was a whole other issue. In between live commitments the band decamped to Olympic Studios in London and the Record Plant in New York where the guitarist experimented with reverse cymbals, distorted vocals, and lengthy blues jams recorded in front of his hangers-on in the studio. Hendrix did whatever he had to do to get the sounds out of his head, even if it meant improvising instruments. Years later, guitarist Velvert Turner explained how Hendrix got the kazoo sound on "Crosstown Traffic" with a comb and some cellophane:
He was doing ‘Crosstown Traffic,’ and couldn’t seem to get the sound that he was trying to express across. Jimi said, ‘Do you have a comb on you, man? Give me a comb. Somebody get me some cellophane.’ If you take a comb and put cellophane across it and blow through it, it gives a kazoo sound. So the guitar solo on ‘Crosstown Traffic,’ the guitar is laced by the sound of a kazoo, and that’s Jimi with this particular comb. Which I just thought was amazingly brave for someone to do. Jimi would reach out and grab anything he possibly could get his hands on if he thought it could produce the desired sound for him.
The Studio Atmosphere On 'Electric Ladyland' Ended Hendrix's Relationship With Chas Chandler
The recording of Electric Ladyland dragged on and on, not just because of touring commitments or Hendrix's perfectionism in finding the sounds he wanted, but there was a non-stop party in the studio. Whenever Hendrix showed up he was late and he often had a group of people with him. His inability to work without an entourage got on his manager's nerves so much that he just quit. Chandler later told Jimi Hendrix biographer John McDermott:
I would go in there [to the Record Plant] and wait for Jimi and he would show up with eight or nine hangers-on. When he finally did begin recording, Jimi would be playing for the benefit of his guests, not the machines….We’d be going over a number again and again and I would say over the talkback, ‘That was it. We got it.’ He would say, ‘No, no, no,’ and would record another and another and another. Finally I just threw my hands up and left.
At the same time, bassist Noel Redding was left twiddling his thumbs because Hendrix was playing all of the guitar and all of the bass on his songs to get exactly what he wanted. Redding took off for a while after going off on Hendrix, but he eventually returned to finish the album and record one of his own tunes, "Little Miss Strange."
When the album was released in October, 1968, the reviews were mostly positive but music writers were confounded by the dense layers on the album, and the disjointed feel between tracks. Today it's considered to be the closest thing to what was going on in Hendrix's head that could ever be recorded.
The Band Of Gypsys Gave A Brief Look Into Hendrix's Future
Following the release of "Electric Ladyland" things fell apart with the Experience. Hendrix replaced Noel Redding with bassist Billy Cox, something that Redding didn't know until a journalist asked him about it at the Denver Pop Festival. Redding later said that he was upset about the way things ended, in 1969 he told Rolling Stone:
I went up to Jimi that night, said goodbye, and caught the next plane back to London. I don’t think Jimi believed I’d do it. Later on, he phoned and asked me to come back, but I said stuff it... I don’t want you to think there’s anything nasty between Jimi and I. We’re still good friends. It’s just that we can’t work together anymore.
Hendrix rolled along without missing a beat and traveled to the Woodstock Festival where he performed with a makeshift band that featured Mitch Mitchell on drums, Billy Cox on bass, as well as Larry Lee on rhythm guitar and two percussionists. After an electrifying performance at Woodstock featuring his version of the "The Star Spangled Banner," he swapped band members again to create Band of Gypsys with Billy Cox, and Buddy Miles, but this was hardly a return to the power trio of The Experience. Band of Gypsys is a much more jazzy, progressive group that still hits hard. Their only recording, a live performance at the Fillmore East recorded on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day of '69 and '70, is stellar, but it's far too short and it only gives a preview of what could have been.
Voodoo Child, Never To Return
At the same time that Hendrix was shedding The Experience he was setting up his own studio in New York's Greenwich Village. Dubbed Electric Lady Studios, architecture and construction of the building cost one million dollars, and featured almost no right angles in order to fuel Hendrix's creativity. The recording of the last two Experience albums took too long and they cost too much money, by opening his own studio it was believed that Hendrix could not only spend as long as he wanted on an album, but that he could make money while doing it.
On June 15, 1970, he entered the studio for the first time to jam. He only spent 10 weeks at the studio that was created specifically for him, and the day after its opening party he flew out to England to play the Isle of Wight festival and never returned. After headlining the festival Band of Gypsys things came to an end after bassist Billy Cox had a full-on LSD-induced freakout, and quit the tour to return to his parents' home in Pennsylvania.
Tired and stressed, Hendrix returned to London, where he stayed with Monika Dannemann in her apartment at the Samarkand Hotel. According to Dannemann, she and Hendrix went to a party where Hendrix took amphetamines before returning home with her around three in the morning. Around 11 a.m. on September 18, 1970, Dannemann found Hendrix unresponsive in bed. He was pronounced dead at 12:45 p.m., although doctors on hand when Hendrix was admitted state he was DOA and that resuscitation attempts were merely a formality.
More than a guitarist, Jimi Hendrix was an artist. He used music as his canvas but regardless of what he chose to do he was able to make people feel the sounds he heard in his head.