Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970) is perhaps the most innovative electric guitarist of all time, combining blues, hard rock, modern jazz, and soul into his own unmistakable sound.
In the few years between his emergence as a solo artist and his death from a barbiturate overdose at the height of his fame, Jimi Hendrix wrought a slew of radical changes on pop music. Arguably the most innovative electric guitarist of all time, he combined the raw passion of the blues, the sonic aggression of hard rock, the aural adventure of psychedelia and modern jazz, and the symphonic lyricism of progressive soul, melding these disparate inclinations into a style that, even when heard in fragments, remains unmistakably his own.
Had his instrumental prowess been his only contribution, Hendrix would remain a towering figure in modern music. But he was also a supremely gifted songwriter, as the myriad cover versions of his songs by such diverse artists as Eric Clapton, the Pretenders, Frank Zappa, Rickie Lee Jones, Living Colour, The Cure, jazz composer Gil Evans, and many others attest. When funk pioneer George Clinton was asked by a Rolling Stone interviewer how Hendrix had influenced Clinton's band Funkadelic, he responded, "He was it. He took noise to church."
At the time of his death, Hendrix was working desperately on an ambitious project that seemed designed to bridge a dazzling array of musical territories. Though he never completed that record, he did lay the groundwork for a range of bold stylistic hybrids, and he continues to influence those who hear his work. "Hendrix left an indelible, fiercely individual mark on popular music," wrote David Fricke in Rolling Stone, "accelerating rock's already dynamic rate of change in the late 1960s with his revolutionary synthesis of guitar violence, improvisational nerve, spacey melodic reveries and a confessional intensity born of the blues." Indeed, as one of the late musician's friends told the authors of the biography Electric Gypsy, Hendrix revealed, "I sacrifice part of my soul every time I play."
Raised by His Father
The man who would achieve fame as Jimi Hendrix was born Johnny Allen Hendrix in Seattle, Washington, in 1942. His father, Al—a gifted jazz dancer who worked at a number of jobs including landscape gardening—bore much of the responsibility of raising the boy and his brother, Leon, as did their grandmother and various family friends. This was due to the unreliability of Al's wife, Lucille, who drank excessively and would disappear for extended periods. Al Hendrix won custody of his sons and exercised as much discipline as he could, but the boys—young Johnny especially—worshipped their absentee mother; numerous biographers have hypothesized that in later years the guitarist looked to her as his muse. Al later changed his older son's name to James Marshall Hendrix.
Jimmy Hendrix wanted a guitar early on; before acquiring his first real instrument, he plucked a number of surrogates, including a broom and a one-stringed ukelele. Al at last procured a guitar for him, and the precocious 12-year-old restrung it upside down—as a left-hander, he was forced to turn the instrument in the opposite direction from how it is usually played, which left the low strings on the bottom unless he rearranged them—proceeding to teach himself blues songs from records by greats like B. B. King and Muddy Waters. The guitar rarely left his side and even lay beside him as he slept. By his mid-teens, Hendrix was playing blues and R&B with his band the Rocking Kings. He played behind his back, between his legs, and over his head—as had many blues guitarists before him. Thus he endeared himself to audiences, if not to all musicians.
It was therefore a shock to his father and friends when Hendrix joined the armed forces at age 17 and left his guitar behind. He volunteered for the 101st Airborne Division as a paratrooper and was soon jumping out of airplanes (he would later use his instrument to evoke the otherworldly sounds and sensations of freefall). Eventually he sent for his guitar and became the object of much derision and abuse from his peers, who considered Hendrix's extravagant devotion to the instrument freakish.
Performed on the "Chitlin Circuit"
An exception was a young private named Billy Cox. Himself an aspiring bassist with a taste for jazz as well as R&B, Cox overheard guitar music coming from inside a club on the camp that sounded, as he told Electric Gypsy authors Harry Shapiro and Caesar Glebbeek, "somewhere between [German classical composer Ludwig von] Beethoven and [blues icon] John Lee Hooker." He immediately suggested that he and Hendrix form a band; soon their quintet was entertaining troops all over the region. Eventually, though, Hendrix tired of army discipline and managed—with the help of a well-timed and over dramatized injury—to obtain a discharge. Cox got out two months later.
After a few unproductive months, the two musicians headed for Nashville, Tennessee, which was just gaining a national reputation for its recording scene. Their new band, the King Kasuals—a revamped version of their service combo—landed a regular gig at the El Morocco club. Hendrix rapidly established himself as one of the hottest guitarists in town. At the time, however, he had no confidence in his singing and was content to back R&B artists, among them Curtis Mayfield, whose soulful guitar playing combined rhythm and lead and strongly influenced Hendrix's later balladry.
Over the next few years, Hendrix logged time in several R&B road shows—on what came to be known, somewhat disparagingly, as the "Chitlin Circuit"—though he didn't last long with any one act; his wild hair and compelling stage presence often stole the thunder from bandleaders who expected their musicians to play their assigned parts and stay in the background. From the seminal rocker Little Richard, Hendrix lifted much of what would become his signature look as an artist. Richard admired the guitarist's playing but viewed his taste for the limelight as a threat. The Isley Brothers gave Hendrix a bit more freedom; he was allowed to stretch out onstage and contributed a fiery solo to their 1964 single "Testify." The Isley Brothers hit showcases the passion and budding virtuosity that would soon make Hendrix a sensation.
Hendrix then played with saxophonist King Curtis and later with friend Curtis Knight (cowriting and recording some sides with the latter that would be exploited after he achieved fame). In 1965 he signed—for a one-dollar advance—a record contract with Knight's manager and PPX Productions head Ed Chalpin, the first of many costly and ill-advised legal entanglements that characterized Hendrix's career. It was around this time that he formed his own group, Jimmy James & the Blue Flames (which included a future member of the psychedelic rock group Spirit), moved to New York, and played endless low-paying gigs at the Cafe Wha? in Greenwich Village. His increasingly daring guitar work would make itself known, however.
Gave "Experience" New Meaning
Linda Keith, then girlfriend of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, was sufficiently impressed by Hendrix to recommend him to Chas Chandler, bassist for British rock sensations the Animals and an aspiring manager. Chandler was stunned by Hendrix and urged him to come to London. The road-weary Hendrix was justifiably skeptical, but Chandler turned out to be the real thing. Soon the guitarist was en route to the United Kingdom.
Chandler suggested changing the spelling of Hendrix's first name to Jimi, though the oft-cited assertion that he made this suggestion on the flight to London may be untrue. In any event, they touched down in September of 1966 and immediately put a band together with two British musicians, guitarist Noel Redding—who came to Chandler's office hoping to audition for the Animals but would, instead, be handed a bass for the first time—and jazz-influenced drummer John "Mitch" Mitchell, who won a coin toss to beat out his only competitor.
Mitchell's exuberant, round-the-kit playing combined the frenetic psychedelic blues attack of his most famous British peers with a post-bop virtuosity that recalled Elvin Jones, one-time skinsman for visionary jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. Many critics would later suggest that the Hendrix-Mitchell chemistry paralleled that between the two jazz players. Thus was born the Jimi Hendrix Experience. "Together, they complemented the rhythmic idiosyncrasies of Hendrix's songs and playing style with their own turbulent blend of hardy soul dynamics and breathtaking acid-jazz breakaways," wrote Rolling Stone's Fricke. "The sound was fluid enough for open-ended jamming yet free of excess instrumental baggage, tight and heavy in the hard-rock clutches."
Meanwhile, Hendrix had found his voice not only as a songwriter but as a singer. Both his vocalizing and lyrics were profoundly influenced by folk-rock trailblazer Bob Dylan, whose unpretty plainsong voice and personal, surrealistic writing inspired Hendrix to cover his work—witness the rocking hit version of "All Along the Watchtower"— and to emulate it.
The Experience coalesced in a whirlwind couple of weeks, playing its debut gig in Paris opening for French pop star Johnny Hallyday at the Paris Olympia. Having signed with Track Records, they commenced recording their debut album the following month and by December had released their first single, a cover version of the folk-rock standard "Hey Joe." Hendrix's relaxed take on this often frantically rendered song added menace to the violent imagery of the lyrics and lent the title character's flight from justice considerable heft with concise, emotional bursts of lead guitar.
"Hey Joe" became a hit, and Hendrix proceeded to terrify London's biggest rock stars with his electrifying stage show. "It's the most psychedelic experience I ever had, going to see Hendrix play," guitarist Pete Townshend of The Who told Charles Shaar Murray, author of Crosstown Traffic. "When he started to play, something changed: colours changed, everything changed." Townshend—who claims never to have been a heavy user of psychedelic substances—recalled "flames and water dripping out of the ends of his hands." Eric Clapton, guitar "God" of rock until Hendrix's arrival, invited the young American onstage to play with his group Cream; soon "God" slunk offstage and was found in his dressing room with his head in his hands. Cream later wrote their psychedelic riff-rock smash "Sunshine of Your Love" in tribute to the American firebrand; he eventually adopted it into his live set without knowing he'd inspired it.
Unlike Townshend, Hendrix had a special fondness for hallucinogens like LSD and was also an enthusiastic marijuana smoker. In addition, scores of women flocked to him, and his "Wild Man of Borneo" reputation made him seem—to those who didn't know him—like some kind of omnivorous Yank tornado. Yet he is almost universally remembered as a shy, diffident person, occasionally explosive but largely gentle and naive; he was in no way prepared for the stormy sea of fame or the cynical manipulations of the music business. As Shapiro and Glebbeek pointed out in Electric Gypsy, he was dashed between the extremes of sporadic hero worship and institutional racism. "Feted as the greatest rock guitarist in the world, acclaimed as a Dionysian superstud and refused service at the tattiest redneck lunch counters—Jimi Hendrix was treated as superhuman and subhuman, but rarely just human," the authors attest. Even so, he seemed to care little about issues of color and was especially frustrated by the suggestion that he played "white music" or "black music."
Stirred Up a "Purple Haze"
The Experience's debut album, Are You Experienced?—released in the United States on the Reprise label—was a watershed in popular music, only kept from the top chart position by one of the few albums that arguably exceeds it in importance: the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Hendrix produced a psychedelic rock anthem in the disoriented "Purple Haze," elegiac soul with the ballad "The Wind Cries Mary," R&B brimstone with "Fire," and proto-jazz rock with "Third Stone from the Sun." The U.K. version of the record included the signature Hendrix blues "Red House," released the following year in the United States on a singles collection. Are You Experienced? was an epochal debut, full of innovative studio effects and Hendrix's advanced use of feedback and tremolo. Then, in 1967, the band took the landmark Monterey Pop Festival by storm; Hendrix's ceremonial burning of his guitar—a highly theatrical routine that he somehow invested with the solemnity of a ritual sacrifice—left audiences stunned and appropriately worshipful.
Hendrix returned to the United States a hero. Crowds swarmed to watch this "wild man" play with his teeth, play behind his head, make relatively explicit love to—and, with any luck, torch—his Fender Stratocaster, and otherwise update the blues showman tradition with revolutionary fervor. What sometimes got lost in this impressive performance, to Hendrix's eternal dismay, was the music.
In the meantime, Chas Chandler made the best of the Experience's disastrous, abortive tour with wholesome TV popsters the Monkees by starting a rumor that the ultraconservative Daughters of the American Revolution had forced out the group. When Hendrix wasn't playing concerts or engaging in marathon studio sessions, he could invariably be found jamming at local clubs with anyone and everyone.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience's follow-up album, Axis: Bold as Love, demonstrated Hendrix's balladry and general songcraft to even greater effect, particularly on "Little Wing," which has been covered numerous times. Yet Hendrix was deeply dissatisfied by the way his albums had been cut and mixed and by a number of other factors. The trio format limited him—Redding played the bass parts Hendrix wrote but added little spice to the band dynamic—and he quickly tired of the theatrics audiences had come to expect. When he neglected to play the flashy guitar hero, crowds often grew restless, filling him with frustration and even contempt.
Hendrix longed to expand his musical range and to this end began work on the one album over which he exercised complete control, the sprawling double-length Electric Ladyland. Featuring a vast crew of guest players, the epic blues "Voodoo Child," and the plaintive mini-symphony "Burning of the Midnight Lamp"—as well as the hit single "Crosstown Traffic"—it was the most far-reaching achievement of his brief recording career. "You don't care what people say so much," he told Down Beat, "you just go on and do what you want to do." Increasingly, this would not be as easy as Hendrix made it sound.
It was at this point that the unscrupulous Ed Chalpin sued Hendrix's management over his 1966 contract with the guitarist, disrupting his affairs for several years. Meanwhile, the enormous recording costs Hendrix had amassed making Electric Ladyland induced Chandler and comanager Mike Jeffreys to build a custom studio—Electric Ladyland Studios—that would be rented out when the guitarist wasn't using it. But this, too, cost a fortune, necessitating endless touring that resulted in extreme road fatigue. The Experience broke up, and Hendrix began working with bassist Cox again, also recruiting drummer Buddy Miles for a soul-rock trio he called Band of Gypsys.
Revamped the National Anthem
In 1969 Hendrix appeared at the famed Woodstock festival in New York state, where his performance of the "Star-Spangled Banner"—complete with apocalyptic guitar noise—captured the anguish of the Vietnam War era and became a legend and a vital component of every time-capsule summary of the period. As Living Colour guitarist and Black Rock Coalition founder Vernon Reid told Cross-town Traffic author Murray, "At that moment, he became one of the greats, like Coltrane or [bop saxophone luminary Charlie] Parker or [woodwind innovator Eric] Dolphy. He plugged into something deep, something beyond good or bad playing. It was just 'there it is."'
Various interested parties hoped to team Hendrix with trumpeter-bandleader-composer Miles Davis, one of the preeminent creative forces in post-bop jazz; though this never materialized, Hendrix did play with a number of musicians in Davis's circle and showed a marked interest in elements of what would come to be called "fusion," an amalgam of jazz and rock. He also declared, in a late interview quoted by Murray, that he wanted a "big band" and expressed the desire for "other musicians to play my stuff," saying, "I want to be a good writer."
The Band of Gypsys recorded a live album and, of legal necessity, handed it over to Chalpin; it is the only document of their short-lived band dynamic, one that tantalizingly demonstrates how a different rhythm section affected Hendrix's guitar work. Cox and Miles—who, as black sidemen, symbolized to Hendrix's more literal-minded political advisors a welcome concession to the black militancy of the day—did something Redding and Mitchell hadn't: they grooved. Much of the funk-rock and funk-metal that followed owes a huge debt to this corner of Hendrix's creativity. The scorching "Machine Gun" has been hailed by critics as a masterpiece.
But the trio was short-lived; soon Miles was out, Mitchell returned, and Hendrix recorded a number of tracks for what was to be perhaps the fullest realization of the sound he heard in his head: another double album, this one titled First Rays of the New Rising Sun. All available evidence suggests it would have melded soul, jazz, psychedelia, hard rock, and a few styles as yet unimagined. Tragically, after a slew of dispirited performances and perpetual self-medication, Jimi Hendrix died of a sleeping-pill overdose on September 18, 1970, before he could complete the ambitious work. He was buried in Seattle.
The Hendrix estate was mired in litigation for many years; Al Hendrix at last found an aggressive lawyer and in 1994—after a protracted struggle—looked to regain control of much of his son's music. In the years after the guitarist's death, hundreds of "new Hendrix albums" appeared, featuring everything from studio outtakes to pre-Experience club performances to rambling interviews. Consumers have gotten the shortest end of the stick, with a sizeable group of what rock industry consensus regards as the ultimate bottom-feeders profiting from these paltry and often grotesquely misrepresented scraps. Such exploitation, however, has scarcely tarnished Jimi Hendrix's shining legacy.
Bits and pieces of what would have been First Rays appeared on three of many posthumous releases—The Cry of Love, the soundtrack to the meandering hippie film Rainbow Bridge, and 1995's Voodoo Soup, of which Vibe's Joseph V. Tirella commented, "The title is silly but apt, since this album is a delicious soup of sorts, a bouillabaisse of musical flavors." Of all his posthumous recordings, Voodoo Soup garnered the best general reviews. Entertainment Weekly queried, "Another Hendrix hodgepodge? Yes … The catch is that this one … is as fluid and cohesive as a preconceived record, without a bad song in the bunch."
In less than four years, Hendrix had established himself as one of the most important figures in pop music history. His influence extends to virtually every corner of contemporary music, from funk to heavy metal to fusion to the "harmolodic" school of New York free jazz to alternative rock. Well into the 1990s, Hendrix's presence on the rock scene practically makes a myth of his physical absence: MCA Records released remastered versions of his classic albums on CD as well as a compilation of his blues pieces and his complete Woodstock set.
In 1992 Hendrix was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The following year he received the Grammy Awards Lifetime Achievement Award. And notable rock, rap, and blues artists contributed cover versions of his songs to the high-profile 1993 tribute album Stone Free. That same year Hendrix archivist Bill Nitopi published Cherokee Mist: The Lost Writings, an ensemble of various forms of personal memorabilia including Hendrix's unpublished writings such as letters to family and friends, "never-before-seen" photographs, and notes on unrecorded music. The book title was meant to pay homage to Hendrix's Native American heritage.
Hendrix mania even extended into mid-1990s cyber culture when the Jimi Hendrix Foundation created an Internet web site (http://www.wavenet.com/~jhendrix) for aficionados. Named after the classic Hendrix tune "Room Full of Mirrors," the web site was characterized in Newsweek as "part shrine, part fanzine … [with] high-culture and low-culture perspectives on Hendrix." Considering the amount of unreleased Hendrix music—of varied quality and in the hands of those with varied integrity—he will likely remain as prolific posthumously as any new artist. Meanwhile, his groundbreaking, heartfelt body of work will certainly continue to inspire musicians and listeners with every new rising sun.
Further Reading on Jimi Hendrix
Murray, Charles Shaar, Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix and the Rock 'N' Roll Revolution, St. Martin's, 1989.
Rees, Dafydd, and Luke Crampton, Rock Movers & Shakers, Billboard, 1991.
Shapiro, Harry, and Caesar Glebbeek, Jimi Hendrix: Electric Gypsy, St. Martin's, 1991.
Billboard, December 14, 1968, p. 10; September 26, 1970, p. 3.
Down Beat, February 1994, pp. 38-39.
Entertainment Weekly, April 21, 1995, p. 54.
Jet, January 31, 1994, p. 61.
Musician, February 1993, p. 44.
Newsweek, January 16, 1995, p. 64; August 7, 1995, p. 10.
Q, July 1994, pp. 46-49.
Rolling Stone, September 20, 1990, pp. 75-78; February 6, 1992, pp. 40-48, 94.
Vibe, May 1994; August 1995.