Jimi Hendrix isn’t dead.
God just wanted guitar lessons.
On 18th Sept 1970, Jimi Hendrix was pronounced dead on arrival at St. Mary Abbot’s Hospital in London at the age of 27 after choking on his own vomit. Hendrix left the message ‘I need help bad man’, on his managers answer phone earlier that night. Rumors and conspiracy theories grew up around Hendrix’s death. Eric Burdon claimed Jimi had committed suicide, but that’s contradicted by reports that he was in a good frame of mind. In 2009, a former Animals roadie published a book claiming that Jimi’s manager had admitted to him that he arranged the murder of Hendrix, since the guitarist wanted out of his contract.
It was barely four years from coming into the spotlight at the Scotch of St James in London to his dying in a west London hotel room. But in that time Jimi Hendrix lit up music and perhaps did more than any other musician apart from The Beatles to open people’s eyes, ears and minds to what was possible. Certainly, no one did as much with a guitar, whether it was getting sounds out of it, setting it on fire or using it as a manifestation of his sexual desire.
Between September 1966 and September 1970, Jimi Hendrix played over 600 shows. That Jimi died so young is ultimately a tragedy. That he brightened up so many lives with his unforgettable performances on stage is something to be savoured.
Jimi Hendrix was born Johnny Allen Hendrix on 27 November 1942, at Seattle’s King County Hospital. Jimi took an interest in music at an early age, drawing influence from B.B. King, Buddy Holly, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Robert Johnson. He was also particularly fond of Elvis Presley. The 15-year-old went to see the King of Rock’n’Roll perform when he played a show in Jimi’s hometown of Seattle in 1957.
By the summer of 1958, his father had purchased him a five-dollar, second-hand acoustic guitar from one of his friends. Shortly thereafter, Jimi joined his first band, The Velvetones. After a three-month stint, he left to pursue his own interests. The following summer Jimi became the proud owner of his first electric guitar, a Supro Ozark 1560S, and used it when he joined The Rocking Kings.
After a run-in with the law, facing two years in jail for riding in stolen cars, he opted to enlist in the US Army in 1961 and was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. He was discharged in 1962 due to an ankle injury. But the medical discharge didn’t tell the full story. Jimi’s platoon sergeant, James C. Spears, 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.’ On 31 May 1962, Captain Gilbert Batchman signed a report which alleged, among other things, ‘Little regard for regulations, apprehended masturbating in platoon area while supposed to be on detail.’ Jimi later claimed he had received a medical discharge after breaking his ankle during his 26th parachute jump. The military’s loss was the music world’s gain.
In 1962 he was living initially in Clarksville, Tennessee before moving with ex-army buddy Billy Cox to Nashville, playing a club called the Del Morocco in a group called The Kasuals, with Cox on bass. In December, Jimi moved to Vancouver to live with his grandmother. He then returned to Nashville via Biloxi before, in 1963, being invited to New York. He spent most of 1964 playing with The Isley Brothers, but quit when the tour reached Nashville. Jimi said, ‘You get very tired playing behind other people all the time, you know. So I quit them in Nashville somewhere.’ He joined Sam Cooke’s package tour in November 1964 but, after missing the tour bus in Kansas City, made his way to Atlanta, Georgia, where he joined Little Richard’s band. Jimi’s younger brother Leon recalled to Mojo magazine how the pair had already met Little Richard in 1959: ‘His mom and sister lived in Seattle. I took a bunch of greens over to a neighbour’s house, Mrs Penniman, saw this black limo and Little Richard. I ran home to get Jimi, we rode bikes up there and sat in awe at him preaching at the Goodwill Baptist Church.’
Prior to his rise to fame, Jimi recorded 24 singles as a backing guitarist with American R&B artists, such as The Isley Brothers and Little Richard. Other studio work included that with Don Covay and The Goodtimers (1964, ‘Mercy, Mercy’), Frank Howard and The Commanders (1965, ‘I’m So Glad’), Rosa Lee Brooks (1965 ‘My Diary’), and in 1966 he appeared on singles by Curtis Knight (‘How Would You Feel’), Lonnie Youngblood (‘Go Go Shoes’), The Icemen ‘(My Girl) She’s a Fox’), and Jimmy Norman (‘You’re Only Hurting Yourself’).
Throughout the latter half of 1965, and into the first part of 1966, Jimmy played the rounds of smaller venues throughout Greenwich Village, catching up with Animals’ bassist Chas Chandler during a July performance at Cafe Wha? Chandler was impressed with Jimi’s performance and returned again in September 1966 to sign Hendrix to an agreement that would have him move to London to form a new band.
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 Noel Redding at an audition for the New Animals, where Redding’s knowledge of blues progressions impressed Hendrix, Chandler then began looking for a drummer and soon after, he contacted Mitch Mitchell through a mutual friend.
The Experience’s first single, ‘Hey Joe,’ spent ten weeks on the UK charts, peaking at No.6 in early 1967. The debut single was quickly followed by the release of a full-length album Are You Experienced, a psychedelic musical compilation featuring anthems of a generation.
Touring the UK with Pink Floyd in 1967, Jimi stole the show every night. A review in the Coventry Evening Telegraph said: “More than 3,000 youngsters attended two houses at the Coventry Theatre. He [Hendrix] can play guitar with his teeth, lying on the stage, or behind his back – and do it better than most in a more conventional position. The result was a stunning, completely individual performance, which included hits like ‘Hey Joe’, ‘The Wind Cries Mary’ and ‘Purple Haze’ and the wildest version yet of ‘Wild Thing‘.
Although popular in Europe, the Experience’s first U.S. single, ‘Hey Joe’, failed to reach the Billboard chart upon its release in 1967, the group’s fortunes improved when Paul McCartney recommended them to the organizers of the Monterey Pop Festival. 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.’
Jimi Hendrix built his own recording studio, Electric Lady Studios in New York City. The name of this project became the basis for his most demanding musical release, the 1968 double album Electric Ladyland, the Experience’s most commercially successful release and their only number one album.
By 1969, Hendrix was the world’s highest-paid rock musician. In playing the Woodstock Music & Art Fair in August 1969, Jimi joined forces with an eclectic ensemble called Gypsy Sun & Rainbows featuring Jimi Hendrix, Mitch Mitchell, Billy Cox, Juma Sultan, and Jerry Velez. Hendrix’s 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. Immortalized in the 1970 documentary film, Woodstock, his guitar-driven version would become part of the sixties Zeitgeist.
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. When the European leg of the Cry of Love tour began, Hendrix was longing for his new studio and creative outlet, and was not eager to fulfill the commitment. On September 2, 1970, he abandoned a performance in Aarhus after three songs, stating: “I’ve been dead a long time”. Four days later, he gave his final concert appearance, at the Isle of Fehmarn Festival in Germany.