Born: Johnny Allen Hendrix on November 27, 1942, in Seattle, WA, USA
Died: September 18, 1970 in London, England
Years Performed: 1963 – 1970
If there ever was a shooting star, it was Jimi Hendrix. In the four short years that he was a superstar, he did more with the electric guitar than any other guitarist before or after him ever would. He could get feedback to come out of his Fender Strat in ways nobody else could, and there truly hasn’t been a greater creative player as he built his solos around chord progressions, either. In showmanship he would play behind his back and with his teeth, and even set his guitar on fire as he made love to the instrument. But as some of his closest friends have noted, as great and as wild as he played live in front of thousands, his playing offstage to friends was decidely more awesome.
Jimi learned to play guitar at the age of 12, while growing up in Seattle, Washington, drawing influence from blues legends like B.B. King and Robert Johnson. At first he would play in local bands for Cokes and burgers. In 1959, at 17, he enlisted in the Air Force, where he served as a parachute jumper until an injury led to his discharge. By 1963 he was playing as a backup guitarist for the likes of Little Richard, the Isley Brothers, Wilson Pickett, Jackie Wilson and others. Though left handed, he used right handed model guitars and played them upside down.
He didn’t go it alone till 1965, after hearing Bob Dylan sing. He had held himself back up till that point, as he didn’t care for his own singing, but figured if Dylan could make it with his weird sounding voice, so could he. He first went by the name Jimmy James, his band was called the Blue Flames, and he first started playing the Blues in Greenwich Village, New York clubs. Word started to spread fast in town about this new guitarist, who could get sounds out of his Fender Stratocaster that no one had ever heard before. Rival guitar virtuoso Les Paul saw him playing a dump in New Jersey in 1965. Musicians from all over the City would stop in to see him play, and one of them, in town for a visit, was British bassist Chas Chandler of the Animals. Blown away like everybody else by what he heard, Chandler talked Hendrix into moving to England, where Chandler promised to make him a star.
In England, Chandler became Hendrix’s manager, had him go back to using his real name (which had been changed from Johnny Allen Hendrix, to James Marshall Hendrix by his father, when he was a boy). He also hooked him up with bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell, forming the Jimi Hendrix Experience. With both original material from Hendrix, and covers, they quickly became a hit in the UK, and were about to conquer the rest of the world, including America.
Jimi’s debut album with the Experience, titled Are You Experienced?, was released first only in England, in early 1967. This album showed that Hendrix was not only a great guitarist, but also a first-rate songwriter, and songs like “Purple Haze,” and “The Wind Cries Mary”, “Stone Free” etc. would all become top ten hits there. Later in June of ’67 he returned to America and played at the Monterey Pop Festival, (recommended by Paul McCarthey) where he had to follow the Who’s great performance. He watch Peter Townsend smash his guitar on stage, so to go one up on him, Hendrix closed out his set by burning his guitar. But it was his great mind blowing performance that day, that really was what would be remembered from that show, and in turn help make him a superstar. He first toured the US as a second-billed act to of all bands, the Monkees, but soon would tour on his own as an opener. Are You Experienced? was released in the US with some different cuts than what was found on the UK release, but still, it was a huge hit.
Hendrix would only record three fully conceived studio albums in his short lifetime, the other two being Axis: Bold as Love – his second album, released in 1968, and the double-LP Electric Ladyland, also recorded in ’68.
In early 1969 Jimi disbanded the Jimi Hendrix Experience. That May he was busted in Toronto, Canada, for heroin, but was later found innocent of the charges. In August of ’69 he closed out the Woodstock Festival with a temporary band he put together for the show, called the Electric Sky Church. There, his version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” would blew everybody away, the song had never been played in that style, nor would it ever again. After Woodstock, Hendrix formed a new band, The Band of Gypsies, with an old friend from the Air Force, Billy Cox, who played bass, and Buddy Miles on drums. The band’s New Year’s Eve concert at the Fillmore East in New York City provided them with material for their live album, Band of Gypsys. But this new lineup didn’t last long. In early 1970, the Experience re-formed again – only to disbanded once more a short time later. During this time Jimi was recording a lot of new material, but still no new studio album was planned, as he could not find the right group of musicians that he wanted to play and tour with. But by mid ‘ 70 Hendrix brought back Mitchell and Cox to back him on tour and to begin work on a new double album that Jimi had tentatively titled First Rays of the New Rising Sun. Several tracks were recorded for the new album, but sadly, the album was left unfinished when Hendrix died on September 18, 1970. The cause of death, noted on the coroner’s report was: “inhalation of vomit after barbiturate intoxication”.
Hendrix recorded a massive amount of unreleased studio material during his lifetime. Much of this (as well as entire live concerts) was issued posthumously. There were many claims placed on his estate, including one by his later to be legally recognized young son. After a lengthy legal dispute, the rights to Hendrix’s estate, including all of his recordings, was turned over to Al Hendrix, the guitarist’s father, in July of 1995. It was after this that many of the better posthumous albums were released, minus the 1970s overdubs use on some earlier releases. Hendrix’s family would also launched Dagger Records, an authorized bootleg label to supply hardcore fans with material that would be of limited commercial appeal, including several live concerts and a collection of studio jams and demos called Morning Symphony Ideas.
Even to this day, Jimi Hendrix is still rightfully known as the greatest player to ever lay his hands on a guitar, and I don’t think that will ever change.