James Marshall Hendrix was an American musician, songwriter and virtuoso guitarist, widely regarded as the best electric guitarist in the history of popular music.
Mostly self-taught on the instrument, the left-handed Hendrix used a right-handed guitar that was restrung and played right side up. As a guitarist, he built upon the innovations of blues stylists such as B. B. King, Albert King, Buddy Guy, T-Bone Walker, and Muddy Waters, as well as those of rhythm and blues and soul music guitarists like Curtis Mayfield. Hendrix’s music was also influenced by jazz; he often cited Rahsaan Roland Kirk as his favorite musician. In addition, Hendrix extended the tradition of rock guitar: although previous guitarists, such as The Kinks’ Dave Davies, and The Who’s Pete Townshend, had employed techniques such as feedback, distortion and other effects as sonic tools, Hendrix was able to exploit them to a previously undreamed-of extent, and to incorporate them as an integral part of his compositions.
Hendrix so desired a guitar by the time he was in grade school that he had fits of depression when his father, who viewed the instrument as frivolous and jazz/rock as sinful, refused to get him one. His school counsellor told his father to get him a guitar, and his father gave him a one-stringed toy guitar. Jimi played it so much that his father finally relented and bought his son a real guitar.
As a record producer, Hendrix was an innovator in using the recording studio as an extension of his musical ideas. Hendrix was notably one of the first to experiment with stereo effects during the recording process. Hendrix was also an accomplished songwriter whose compositions have been performed by countless artists. Finally, his image and influence as a rock star place him in the company of Little Richard, Chuck Berry, the Beatles, and Hendrix’s first idol Elvis Presley.
The controversial nature of Hendrix’s style is epitomized in
Youth and pre-professional career.
Hendrix was born Johnny Allen Hendricks in Seattle, Washington, the son of Al Hendricks and Lucille Jeter. His mother was an alcoholic and died young, when Jimi was aged 15, of cirrhosis. His father, after returning from World War II, renamed him James Marshall Hendrix. He grew up shy and sensitive. Like his contemporaries John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Hendrix was deeply affected by family events – his parents’ divorce in 1951, listening to Elvis Presley, whom he loved, and the death of his mother, a year later. He was close to his paternal grandmother Nora Rose Moore. Nora, the daughter of an Irish Cherokee father and a mulatto mother, instilled in him a strong sense of pride about his Native American ancestry. Both of Jimi’s paternal grandparents were vaudeville performers who settled in Vancouver, Canada, where his father, Al Hendrix, was born. Al relocated to Seattle, where he met and married Lucille Jeter. After Lucille’s death, Al gave Jimi a ukulele, and later bought him a US$5 acoustic guitar, setting him on the path to his future vocation.
After playing with several local Seattle bands and getting into trouble with the law via a stolen car, Hendrix enlisted in the Army, joining the 101st Airborne Division as a trainee paratrooper. Hendrix was a poor soldier who was repeatedly caught sleeping while on duty and missing at midnight bed-check. Superiors noted that he needed constant supervision even for basic tasks, and lacked motivation. He was described by one supervisor as having “no known good characteristics”, and by another that “his mind apparently cannot function while performing duties and thinking about his guitar”. After less than a year he received a medical discharge after breaking his ankle on his 26th parachute jump. Hendrix was discharged from the US Army three years before the Vietnam War saw large numbers of US soldiers arrive. But his recordings would become favorites of soldiers fighting there. .
After leaving Ft. Campbell, Hendrix and his friend and bandmate Billy Cox moved to nearby Nashville. There they played, and sometimes lived, in the clubs along Jefferson Street, the traditional heart of Nashville’s black community, and home to a lively rhythm and blues scene.
During the early 1960s, Hendrix made a precarious living performing in backing bands for touring soul and blues musicians, including Curtis Knight, B. B. King, and Little Richard. His first notice came from appearances with The Isley Brothers, notably on the two-parter Testify in 1964.
On 15 October 1965, Hendrix signed a 3-year recording contract with entrepreneur Ed Chalpin, receiving $1 and 1% royalty on records with Curtis Knight. The contract later caused litigation with Hendrix and other record labels.
By 1966 he had his own band, Jimmy James and the Blue Flames, and a residency at the Cafe Wha? in New York City. During this period Hendrix met and worked with singer-guitarist Ellen McIlwaine and guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter. Hendrix also became close friends with a young guitarist named Randy California, who would later co-found the band Spirit. Hendrix also met iconoclast Frank Zappa during this time. Zappa introduced Hendrix to the newly-invented wah-wah pedal, a tool which Hendrix soon mastered and made an integral part of his sound.
While performing with The Blue Flames at the Cafe Wha?, Linda Keith, then-girlfriend of The Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, saw Hendrix, and couldn’t believe he hadn’t been “discovered”. Knowing Chas Chandler was leaving The Animals, and looking for someone to manage, she introduced him to Hendrix. Chandler took Hendrix to England, signed him to a management and production contract as his record producer, and helped him form a new band, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, with bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell.
With his first few show-stopping London club appearances, word of the new star spread through the British music industry. His showmanship and dazzling virtuosity made instant fans of reigning guitar heroes Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, as well as members of The Beatles and The Who, whose managers signed Hendrix to The Who’s record label, Track Records. Jimi’s first single was a cover of “Hey Joe”, a stylised blues song written by Billy Roberts that was virtually a standard for rock bands at the time. Hendrix and Chandler had seen folk-singer Tim Rose performing his slow arrangement of Hey Joe at the Cafe Wha?, and adapted it to Hendrix’ emerging psychedelic style.
Further Hendrix success came with the incendiary and original “Purple Haze”, with a heavily distorted guitar sound which still influences people now; the soulful ballad “The Wind Cries Mary”, and “Hey Joe”. The three songs were Top 10 hits.
Established as a star in the U. K., Hendrix and his girlfriend Kathy Etchingham moved into a flat at 23 Brook Street in central London. The nearby 25 Brook street was once the home of baroque composer George Frideric Handel. Hendrix, aware of this musical coincidence, bought Handel recordings including the Messiah and the Water Music. The two houses currently comprise the Handel House Museum, where both musicians are celebrated.
The 1967 release of the group’s first album, Are You Experienced, is a mix of melodic ballads “The Wind Cries Mary”, pop-rock “Fire”, psychedelia “Third Stone from the Sun”, and blues “Red House”, and is a template for much of their later work.
Hendrix went to a hospital with burns to his hands after setting his guitar on fire for the first time at the Astoria theatre in London on March 31, 1967. Later, after causing damage to amplifiers and other stage equipment at his shows, Rank Theatre management warned him to “tone down” his stage act.
The Monterey Pop Festival booked The Jimi Hendrix Experience at the urging of festival board member Paul McCartney. At the concert, filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker immortalized Hendrix’s iconic burning and smashing of his guitar in the film Monterey Pop.
A short gig, opening for the pop group The Monkees on their first American tour, followed the festival. The Monkees asked for Hendrix because they were fans, but their mostly teenage audience did not warm to his outlandish stage act and he abruptly quit the tour after a few dates, just as “Purple Haze” gained popularity in America. Chas Chandler later admitted that being “thrown off” The Monkees tour was engineered to gain maximum media impact and outrage for Hendrix. At the time a story circulated claiming that Hendrix was removed from the tour because of complaints made by the Daughters of the American Revolution that his stage conduct was “lewd and indecent”. Australian journalist Lillian Roxon, accompanying the tour with singer Lynne Randell, concocted the story. The claim was repeated in Roxon’s 1969 Rock Encyclopedia but she later admitted it was fabricated.
Meanwhile in England, Hendrix’s wild-man image and musical gimmickry continued to bring publicity, but Hendrix was already advancing musically and becoming frustrated by media and audience concentration on his stage act and his hit singles.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s second 1967 album, Axis: Bold as Love continued the style established by Are You Experienced with tracks such as “Little Wing” and “If 6 Was 9”, showing his continuing mastery of the electric guitar. A mishap almost prevented the album’s release; Hendrix lost the master tape of side 1 of the LP after he left it in a taxi. With the release deadline looming, Hendrix, Chandler and engineer Eddie Kramer in an all-night session made a remix from the multitracks. Kramer and Hendrix later said that they were never entirely happy with the results.
Increasing personality differences with Noel Redding, combined with the influence of drugs, alcohol and fatigue, led to a trouble-plagued tour of Scandinavia. On 4 January 1968, Hendrix was jailed by Stockholm police, after trashing a hotel room in a drunken rage.
The band’s third recording, a double album, Electric Ladyland, is more eclectic and experimental than previous recordings. It features a lengthy blues jam, the jazz-inflected “Rainy Day, Dream Away/Still Raining, Still Dreaming”, and what is probably the definitive version of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”. .
Hendrix decided to return to the US, and frustrated by the limitations of commercial recording he decided to establish his own state-of-the-art multitrack studio in New York, to which he could have unlimited access to realise his expanding musical visions. Construction of the studio, called Electric Lady, was not completed until mid-1970.
Hendrix’s formerly disciplined work habits became erratic, and the combination of interminable sessions and studios filled with hangers-on finally led Chas Chandler to quit on May 1968. Chandler later complained that Hendrix’s insistence on doing multiple takes on every song, combined with what he saw as incoherence caused by drugs, led to him to sell his share of the management company to his partner Mike Jeffrey.
Hendrix’s studio perfectionism is legendary – he reportedly made accomplished Traffic guitarist Dave Mason do more than twenty takes of the acoustic guitar backing on “All Along The Watchtower”. Deeply insecure about his voice, Hendrix often recorded his vocals behind studio screens.
Many critics now believe that the ascendancy of Mike Jeffrey was a negative influence on Hendrix’s life and career. Jeffrey allegedly embezzled much of the money Hendrix earned during his lifetime and secreted it in offshore bank accounts. Jeffrey allegedly had links to both the MI5 and CIA intelligence organisations and to the Mafia. He also regularly carried a hand gun, and could speak Russian.
Despite the difficulties of recording Electric Ladyland, many of the tracks show Hendrix’s vision expanding far beyond the scope of the original trio, and saw him collaborating with a range of musicians including Dave Mason, Chris Wood and Steve Winwood from Traffic, drummer Buddy Miles and the former Dylan organist Al Kooper.
His expanding musical horizons were accompanied by a deterioration in his relationship with bandmates, and the Experience broke up in 1969.
On 4 January 1969 he was accused by television producers of arrogance after playing an impromptu version of “Sunshine of Your Love” past his allotted time slot on the BBC1 show Happening for Lulu, apparently as a tribute to Cream after learning the band broke-up.
On 3 May he was arrested at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport after heroin was found in his luggage. He was later bailed on a $10,000 surety. Hendrix was acquitted after asserting that the drugs were slipped into his bag by a fan without his knowledge.
On 29 June, Noel Redding announced that he had quit the Experience, although he had effectively ceased working with Hendrix during most of the recording of Electric Ladyland.
By August of 1969, Hendrix formed a new band called Gypsy Sun and Rainbows to play the Woodstock festival. The group featured Hendrix on guitar, Billy Cox on bass, Mitch Mitchell on drums, Larry Lee on rhythm guitar and Jerry Velez and Juma Sultan on drums and percussion. The set, while notably under-rehearsed and ragged in performance was played to a slowly emptying field of revelers. The immortal concluding quarter hour of this performance began with the extraordinary instrumental version of “The Star-Spangled Banner”, segueing into a version of “Purple Haze” that concludes with a solo cadenza the equal of those of Mozart and Beethoven, followed by a fantasia that both recaps his prior work and prefigures the new musical directions Hendrix was to explore in the last year of his life, followed by an elegaic blues march, a fitting coda to the 1960s. Needless to say, Hendrix’s performance at Woodstock has become a timeless classic event, and a true milestone in the history of music.
The Gypsy Sun and Rainbows band was short-lived, and Hendrix formed a new trio, the Band of Gypsys, comprising Billy Cox, an old army buddy, on bass and Buddy Miles on drums, for four memorable concerts on New Year’s Eve 1969-70. The recorded concerts captured several outstanding pieces, including what some feel is one of Hendrix’s greatest live performances, an explosive 12-minute rendition of his anti-war epic “Machine Gun”.
His association with Miles ended abruptly during a concert at Madison Square Garden on 28 January 1970, when Hendrix walked out after playing just three songs, telling the audience: “I’m sorry we just can’t get it together”. Miles later said in a television interview that Hendrix felt he was losing the spotlight to other musicians. In a Guitar World article, engineer Eddie Kramer claimed that Hendrix was very displeased with Miles’ practice of scat singing through the bands performances.
The rest of 1970 was spent mainly recording during the week, and playing live on the weekends. The “Cry of Love” tour, begun in April, was structured with this pattern in mind. Performances on this tour were uneven in quality; many are available as bootleg recordings. A show in May in Norman, Oklahoma was dedicated to the students killed in the Kent State shootings.
With the opening of Electric Lady studios, Hendrix spent more time in the studio and started laying down several new tracks. At a June concert, Hendrix announced that his next LP would come out in “July or August, in either one or two parts”. However, recording sessions for the album, tentatively titled “The First Rays Of The New Rising Sun” continued until he was scheduled to depart for his upcoming European tour. An opening party for Electric Lady was held on 26 August, and following this, Hendrix boarded a plane for England.
On 30 August, he gave his last performance in the United Kingdom, at the Isle of Wight Festival with Mitchell and Cox. Hendrix expressed disappointment on-stage at his fans’ clamour to hear his old hits rather than his new ideas. However, his two hour set proved to be a strong one, and a filmed record of his set entitled “Wild Blue Angel” was eventually released.
On 6 September 1970, his final stage performance, Hendrix was greeted by booing and jeering by fans at the Isle of Fehmarn Festival in Germany in a riot-like atmosphere; shortly after he left the stage, it went up in flames during the first stage appearance of Ton Steine Scherben. Bassist Billy Cox quit the tour and headed back to the United States after reportedly being dosed with PCP.
Hendrix remained in England, and on the morning of 18 September 1970, was found dead in the basement apartment of the Samarkand Hotel, 22 Lansdowne Crescent, London. He had spent the night with a German girlfriend, Monika Dannemann, and died in bed after taking a reported nine Vesperax sleeping pills and choking on his own vomit.