“Knowledge speaks, but Wisdom listens.”
People love to argue over “the best” or “the greatest” or “the most famous” or any other “best” of something. In music it’s often “the greatest” at a particular instrument. Each genre of music has its own lists of “greats” in various categories. But, there is always a problem when it comes to comparing musicians from different eras. Each generation builds on top of what came before them. You need to do something different to compare favorably with legendary musicians of the past. Many people make an error in this area and proclaim the newest “hot shot” to be the “greatest ever.”
If someone wants to understand the impact Jimi Hendrix had on rock music, all that’s needed is to spend a few days listening to popular music from the 1950s and the first half of the 1960s. Then, listen to Jimi Hendrix.
End of that discussion. 😆
Jimi Hendrix is one of the most influential musicians in popular music today, forty seven years after his tragic passing. And this is someone whose music career lasted a mere four years.
His unique talent for playing brutally intense rock licks, sweetly beautiful melodies, gut-wrenching “down home” blues and psychedelic trips of infinite imagination blew the minds of people at a time when music was in a period of obedient blandness and lackluster performance, for the most part. He created sounds no one imagined could come from a mere guitar and mesmerized millions in live performances around the world. Added to the genius of his musical talent are lyrics that express a powerful love of peace and a desire for compassion and understanding of all people.
To go to the beginning…
Johnny Hendrix was born on November 27,1942 in Seattle, Washington, of mostly African descent with a trace of Cherokee. His father was in the U.S. Army, stationed in Alabama at the time of his birth. Al Hendrix was cruelly denied the standard military furlough given to (apparently, only white) servicemen for childbirth and spent two months locked up in an Army stockade without a trial to prevent him from going AWOL. He was notified of the birth of his first child via telegram while behind bars.
During Al’s three years away from his family, young Johnny Hendrix was taken care of by various family members and friends due to his mother Lucille’s serious struggles with finances and alcohol. Al received an honorable discharge from the Army in 1945 and saw his three year old son for the first time at a friend’s home in Berkeley, Cal.
In 1946, his parents changed Johnny’s name to James Marshall Hendrix, in honor of his father, James Allen Ross Hendrix, and his late uncle, Leon Marshall.
Jimi had four younger siblings, all of whom were given up to foster care and/or adoption due to the aforementioned poverty conditions. The family frequently moved, staying in cheap hotels and apartments around the Seattle area. Occasionally, family members would take Jimi to Vancouver to stay at his grandmother’s house. He only spent time with one sibling, his brother Leon, and though they were close for a while, the relationship was fraught with the constant threat of separation.
Jimi was known as shy and sensitive growing up, extremely introverted, and at the age of nine, his parents divorced. The court granted custody of Jimi and Leon to their father.
Jimi joined the Army in 1961 and was trained as a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne. Stationed at Fort Campbell in Kentucky he thought the military far too abusive and was not well thought of in terms of his potential as a soldier. Emotionally abused by many of his fellow serviceman for attachment to his guitar, he completed his training and was awarded an early honorable discharge due to an ankle injury he sustained on a jump.
But before that, in November 1961, fellow serviceman Billy Cox walked past an army club and heard Hendrix playing guitar. Intrigued by the uncommonly skillful playing, which he described as a combination of “John Lee Hooker and Beethoven”, Cox borrowed a bass and jammed with Jimi. This would prove to be a fortuitous event in both their lives. Within a few weeks, they began performing at clubs on the base during weekends with other musicians in a band called The Casuals.
Influenced by blues guitarists, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf, Jimi wound up playing the “Chitlin’ Circuit” – clubs around the eastern U.S. that allowed African-American musicians, comedians and other entertainers to perform during the racial segregation that plagued the entertainment industry in the U.S. during the mid-twentieth century. He toured with famous bands such as The Isley Brothers, Little Richard and Curtis Knight and the Squires and developed a reputation as both a virtuoso guitarist and an electrifying performer.
He moved to Greenwich Village in the mid-1960s due to its dynamic and diverse music scene. He figured continuing to work as a sideman for R&B groups would never allow him to do the things in music he wanted to do. He relished the idea of creating sonic landscapes that would fire the imaginations of his audiences. The Blues, though important to him, was too limiting.
He did some studio work and started his own band at this time, Jimmy James and The Blue Flames. This allowed him to shape the sound and style that would become his trademark. He played clubs throughout the city, including popular clubs, Cafe au Go Go and the Cheetah Club and landed a residency at the famous Cafe Wha? on MacDougal St. in The Village.
In late 1966, he met Linda Keith in a Greenwich Village club and she was so blown away by his style she introduced him to Chas Chandler, bassist for the popular rock group The Animals. Chandler became his manager, brought Jimi to England and a legend was born.
Chandler introduced Jimi to Eric Clapton, already a music legend on both sides of the Atlantic. Jimi asked him if he could sit in with Clapton’s band, Cream, for a song or two. This is how Clapton remembered the show years later:
“He played just about every style you could think of, and not in a flashy way. I mean he did a few of his tricks, like playing with his teeth and behind his back, but it wasn’t in an upstaging sense at all, and that was it … He walked off, and my life was never the same again.”
A month later, a show in a London club called Bag O’ Nails had an audience that could only be described as a dream come true for a musician still establishing a reputation. And what a reputation Hendrix would build. Besides Eric Clapton there were John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Jeff Beck, Pete Townsend of The Who, Mick Jagger and Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones and singer-songwriter, Kevin Ayers. Ayers recalled the reaction of the star-studded audience as “stunned disbelief” and had this to say:
“All the stars were there, and I heard serious comments, you know ‘shit’, ‘Jesus’, ‘damn’ and other words worse than that.”
A British weekly music newspaper, Record Mirror, ran the headline “Mr. Phenomenon” when they interviewed him after the show. Jimi, from the interview:
“We don’t want to be classed in any category … If it must have a tag, I’d like it to be called, ‘Free Feeling’. It’s a mixture of rock, freak-out, rave and blues.”
Within months of arriving in the the country, Jimi had earned three UK top ten hits with a band put together with two English musicians, Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell. With help from two British television shows, Ready Steady Go and Top of the Pops, The Jimi Hendrix Experience hit the charts with “Hey Joe”, “Purple Haze” and “The Wind Cried Mary.”
Huge success continued upon Jimi’s return to the U.S. in 1967. He headlined the Monterrey Pop Festival, a three day concert in Monterey, California, the musical highlight of the Summer of Love.
The band’s three studio albums, Are You Experienced?, Axis: Bold As Love and Electric Ladyland all charted high with Electric Ladyland hitting number one in 1968.
He also headlined the Isle of Wight Festival in England in 1970 with a different band: Mitch Mitchell from “The Experience” on drums and Jimi’s old Army buddy, Billy Cox, on bass. But his status as a legend in music was cemented in the iconic music festival of the era, Woodstock, in upstate New York in August 1969. Hendrix closed the show due to being the biggest music star of the time, but many people had already left and many others were passed out in the mud. His vicious sonic assault on the Star Spangled Banner was blasted by mainstream media as vile and unpatriotic, but for years the genius of his unique rendition had guitarists experimenting with their guitar gear struggling to duplicate it.
In his four years in the music industry, Jimi Hendrix left an impression that still shines with a light that may never dim. He received accolades from around the world while alive and his fame continues after his death. Awards of every type imaginable came his way during his career and throughout the years after his death, but the respect that means the most comes from bands and performers in every style of music you can think of who have recorded, and continue to play, versions of his songs or who have sampled his music.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992 (and his band, Band of Gypsys should have been). And they were inducted into the UK Hall of Fame in 2005.
A photo I took of a mural on the side of a building in San Francisco which Jimi Hendrix live in for a short period.
On September 18, 1970 Jimi Hendrix passed at the age of 27.
“When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.”