There had been none like him, and there will be none to come. Jimi Hendrix revolutionized the way guitar and music in general is played. It is rare to hear a modern guitarist play and not sense Hendrix’s influence. Jimi Hendrix was a mirror of his era in that he epitomized the “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” life style of the late 60s. Hendrix is still immensely popular today because of his unprecedented guitar style coupled with an outrageous lifestyle and stage show.
The legend was born on November 27, 1942 in Seattle to James Allen and Lucille Hendrix. His given name was Johnny Allen Hendrix (White 254). His mother was a Cherokee Indian who had tuberculosis, but despite that she was wild and loved to party (White 254). Leon was Jimi’s little brother who was six years his junior (White 254). When Jimi was four, his father took him away from Lucille to make a fresh start. This is when his father renamed him James Marshall Hendrix (Richmond 482). According to Cherokee legend, if a child is named twice it will split his eternal spirit into
two different parts- half will go to heaven and half will go to hell (White 255). This may have been the underlying cause of Jimi’s turbulent youth.
James Hendrix traded in his own saxophone to buy Jimi a guitar (White 255). The prodigy could not read music and so taught himself to play by ear. The guitar his father had bought for him was a right-handed guitar, but Jimi was left-handed, so he adapted by simply turning the instrument upside down and proceeded to play (Richmond 482). At twelve Jimi began to play in local bands for a fee of free burgers and soda pop (Richmond 482). Jimi’s early influences were such blues greats as Muddy Waters, BB King, Chuck Berry, and Eddie Cochran (Richmond 482).
Jimi Hendrix dropped out of high school at age 17 and joined the army in 1959 (Vickers). The reason he did this is often debated, as are many facts about his life. Some say it was because he got in trouble with the law. Others say it was because he knew he would be drafted eventually. Whatever the reason, Jimi became a member of the elite Screaming Eagles paratrooper division (Richmond 482). In the service, Jimi became genuinely serious about playing guitar. He was shunned by most of the men in his division after rumors circulated that he slept with and talked to his Stratocaster, which had “Betty Jean” painted on the side in
memory of an old love (White 255). He played in military clubs on base where he met and befriended bassist Billy Cox, who would become an invaluable ally at the apex of his career (Richmond 482). After breaking his ankle on his 26th parachute jump, Hendrix was honorably discharged in 1961 (Vickers).
After his military stint, Hendrix began to play under the name Jimmy James (Vickers). He toured the South’s “Chitlin’ Circuit” (Richmond 482) and backed such rock superstars as BB King and Sam Cooke. Jimi got weary of backing other people and formed a short-lived band of his own- “Jimi James and the Blue Flames” (Vickers). After the demise of the Flames, Jimi stayed in the South a little longer working with Little Richard and Ike and Tina Turner before moving to New York City (Vickers).
It was in the Big Apple where Jimi truly began to blossom. Experimentation began in Greenwich Village with his trademark feedback and distortion Fuzzbox sounds (Richmond 483). Astonishingly, Jimi could produce the effect of two guitarists playing at one time (Richmond 483). Hendrix was jamming in the Village underground Cafe Wha? when The Animals’ bassist Chas Chandler, who loved him and promised to make him a star (Vickers), heard him. Jimi’s father recalled a phone conversation with his son soon after
Chandler took him to London. “It’s me Dad. I’m in England.
I’ve met some people and they’re going to make me a big star. We changed my name to J-I-M-I (McDermott 36).” Chas Chandler introduced Hendrix to bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell. The trio quickly formed The Jimi Hendrix Experience (Vickers). The music world would never be the same.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience played soul tunes, contemporary songs, covers and original songs (McDermott 44). The Experience combined “the verve of rock and the nerve of jazz (Marsh 169)” in a pleasing combination. everything seemed well, but Hendrix was not pleased at all with the quality of his voice. A close friend played Bob Dylan for him constantly, pointing out that it was not the sound quality that mattered, only the sentiment and emotion the singer intoned (McDermott 65). Finally, Jimi consented to sing.
The band’s first record release was Are You Experienced? in 1967 (Marsh 169). Although it was a great success, the record never reached number one on the charts- it was held off by the Beatle’s Yellow Submarine (Richmond 483). By the summer of 1967, the Experience had completed a European tour of Britain, Germany, and Scandinavia. The continent was amazed by Jimi’s innovative songs, in
particular “Hey Joe” and “Purple Haze” (Richmond 483). Paul
McCartney heard the Experience in London in 1967, and insisted that they play at the Monterey International Pop Festival (Richmond 484). By that time, rumors of the guitarist had spread to America, and the stage was set (Richmond 484).
The Who preceded Hendrix in the concert’s lineup. Their show was mind-blowing, culminated by a destructive rendition of the classic “My Generation” (Richmond 484). Jimi was nervous before the Who’s set. “Monterey was great”, he said, “I was scared to go up there and play in front of all those people outside. It was like Wow! What am I going to do?’ (McDermott 92).” His attitude transformed after watching the Who play. He knew he had to go out and win the audience, so he did. The Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones introduced the Experience, which really caught the audience’s attention (White 256). Hendrix pulled out all the stops at Monterey. Sporting a pink feather boa, he put on quite a show. Jimi played the guitar one handed, behind his head, with his elbow, and with his teeth. The finale of the Experience’s show was the sacrifice of Jimi’s Stratocaster to fire (Richmond 484). All of this was particularly shocking to the Monterey crowd, which was comprised of California’s flower children, long-haired and sleepy-eyed. Most performers at
Monterey were not true entertainers like Jimi, who appealed to all the senses. The man’s music affected not only the
ears, but sight and the touch-they could almost feel him play. The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s performance at Monterey established them as one of the most vivacious rock icons of all time (McDermott 112).
The Experience’s first American tour was planned for the summer and fall 1967 with the Monkees (Richmond 484). The Experience only made it to four venues- Jacksonville, Florida, Miami, Charlotte and Greensboro, North Carolina (Land). The Monkee’s preteen fans hated Jimi. The teeny-boppers cried “We want the Monkees!” during The Experience’s first song (McDermott 124). For the Experience, the tour was pure embarrassment. Chas Chandler had to create a series of lies to perpetuate through the media. The story went that the Daughters of the American Revolution had thought Jimi was too violent and vulgar for the Monkee’s young audience (McDermott 125). What was really just a lie to save face turned into a huge media deal overnight. The ordeal became an icon for American youth, “us” against “them”(McDermott 125).
In January of 1968, the Experience released Axis: Bold as Love (Marsh 169). It was the pinnacle of Jimi Hendrix’s success. There was nowhere to go but down. Redding and
Mitchell were tiring of Jimi’s growing ego. He also had a bad habit of just picking up and leaving the stage if the
audience’s adoration wasn’t sufficient enough to please him (White 256). Jimi even spent a night in jail after a physical dispute with Redding (Richmond 485). The band members’ relationships were dissolving fast. Despite these conflicts, Electric Ladyland, the Experience’s third album, was released in October of 1968 (Marsh 169). Of course, with the Experience’s Midas touch, it was a hit. The Experience played a show at the Newport Pop Festival in 1969, and then a show in Denver a week later. It was there that the shocking news was revealed- the show would be the finale for the Jimi Hendrix Experience (White 257). Fans wondered what would come next. So did Jimi.
Woodstock and the Summer of Love found Jimi on an ever-quickening downhill journey. Financial troubles were building everyday, but Jimi’s managers hoped that Woodstock would bring monetary gain (Richmond 485). Jimi was the star of the show- the highest paid entertainer, the last act (McDermott 169). August 17, 1969 found 300,000 people crammed onto a dairy farm in upstate New York for a weekend of sex, drugs, and good music. There was mayhem right before Jimi and the loose aggregation of musicians who backed him went on. The stage had broken, it was pouring rain, and
someone had laced a water source backstage with hallucinogens (McDermott 172). Jimi was dosed. The managers of Woodstock decided to push the show’s closing act back to Monday morning (McDermott 172). So Jimi and his Electric Sky Church went on refreshed and relatively sober; they played a mediocre show (McDermott 173). Jimi continually apologized to the audience since the band only knew a few tunes and they didn’t play his old classics (McDermott 173). The few highlights of Jimi’s Woodstock show were his rendition of the Star Spangled Banner and the venerable Purple Haze. The National Anthem, played to symbolize the burning of a flag, was infused with emotion. Although the performance was far from one of his best, Jimi’s performance at Woodstock will always be sacred in fans’ minds, simply because it was “the” Woodstock that legends were made of.
Regarding politics, Jimi certainly wanted no part in it all. He was a black man playing to an audience of barefoot white children, and it was not easy on him. The star was under a great deal of pressure to cater to African-American audiences, but they just were not interested (White 258). Black Power leaders finally convinced him to form an all-black band, which he named Band of Gypsies (White 258). With Billy Cox on base and drummer Buddy Miles, Band of Gypsies was a disappointment (Richmond 485). Jimi’s final concert
was in the summer of 1970, at the Isle of Wight Festival. He gave a lukewarm performance, and the audience was not satisfied (Land). Also in 1970, work was completed on Jimi’s pet project, a recording studio in New York City called Electric Ladyland (Richmond). With the Band of Gypsies, Hendrix released his last authorized album called The Cry of Love in 1971 (Marsh 170).
In 1968 Jimi Hendrix said “It’s funny the way most people love the dead…Once you are dead you are made for life. You have to die before they think you are worth anything (White 255).” Apparently his words are true, since he is an idol to this day. In many ways Jimi was prophetic. Curtis Knight wrote “The Ballad of Jimi” after Hendrix told him the exact date that he planned on dying (White 258). Mystery and confusion surround the death of the superstar. What is known for a fact is that Jimi Hendrix was pronounced dead on September 18, 1970 in London, England (Land). The cause was stated as suffocation on his own vomit following barbiturate intoxication (Land). Suicide was not ruled out, but the evidence was insufficient. The night before his death, Jimi had taken only nine of the barbiturates Vesperax out of 45 in the pack (Harrison). This evidence points away from suicide, since surely he would have taken more if he wanted to die. Since Jimi was an introverted man who did not
confide in too many people (Richmond 486), the public may never know just whether his death was an accident or a carefully planned escape from his stressful existence. The night of his death, Hendrix was working on a new song. It’s closing lyrics were The story of life is quicker than the wink of an eye/ The story of love is hello and goodbye/ Until we meet again (Vickers). Jimi’s body was taken home to the States and buried in Greenwood cemetery at the Dunlap Baptist Church in Seattle (Rees 238). The legend had gone before his time, and people everywhere mourned.
Jimi Hendrix was a very frustrated man, and suicide seemed apt. He was very frazzled about his image. Hendrix began his career as a fantastically flamboyant character. He wore ostentatious clothes and did bizarre things onstage. Hendrix began to get aggravated as his fans became more interested in his stage show than in his music (Land). In early 1968 he dropped the extravagance to focus on his music, and audiences did not appreciate it; in fact, they occasionally became hostile (McDermott 276). Hendrix did not feel there was any way he could win. He knew in his heart he was a deeply moving and incredibly spiritual person (Marsh 169) and he tried to convey that to his audience. Hendrix “personified tension between a musician’s facultative roles-intuition, intellect, and technique- and his public image”
Jimi’s possible suicide may have also been caused by
his drug habits. There is much controversy surrounding this topic- was Jimi an out-and-out drug addict, or did he simply dabble? There is more evidence towards the first. Jimi once said “Drugs are, in general, a very hip and mysterious experience…The soul must rule, not drugs. You should rule yourself and give God a chance (Etchingham).” Jimi’s drug use began in the Seattle ghetto where he got high on codeine, cough syrup, and Benzedrine (White 255). In 1970, at the peak of his drug abuse, Jimi began to tell friends straight faced that he was from “an asteroid belt off the coast of Mars” (White 258). The course of his career was inversely related to the frequency of his drug use. In the early days, band members said that he would take only a few acid trips a week, smoke a lot of weed, and drink beer or whiskey (White 258). Then, as his career began its downward spiral, it became a free-for-all, experimentation withanything and everything (White 258). During the turbulent breakup of the Experience, Jimi wrecked two rented Stingrays on two successive nights (White 258). Whether or not drugs were the final demise of the man, they certainly played a large part in his existence. Jimi had a very high-risk lifestyle. He was an overtly sexual person. Onstage,
his tongue wagging and constant grinding and thrusting would make some meeker audience members blush. Offstage, groupies surrounded him continuously. The groupie underground pronounced Jimi “Best Score” because he never denied any of them (White 258). They say little boys are made of snakes, snails and puppy dog tails, but not Jimi. All that Jimi was made of was sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
Jimi’s legacy is long lasting and far-reaching. Jimi evolved electric guitar past a simple instrument. Posters of him are plastered on the walls of college dorms throughout the world, and new compilations of his music still hit the store shelves. In the 20 years since his death, over 300 titles have emerged; not including bootlegs (Rees 238). For Jimi and his followers, the guitar is a way of life, a religion, a cult. No one will ever be able to affect rock music the way the legend did.
Etchingham, Kathy. “On Jimi and Drugs.”[Online] Available http://members.tripod.com/Wallyrus/NotJustBeautiful.html, January 20, 2001.
Harrison, Michelle. “Castles Made of Sand.” [Online] Available http://geocities.com/Hollywood/Det/3686/jimi.html, February 18, 2001.
Land, Joh. “We’ll Always Remember Jimi Hendrix.” [Online] Available http://www.hotshotdigital.com/WellAlwaysRemember/JimiHendrixBio.html January 20, 2001.
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McDermott, John. Hendrix: Setting the Record Straight. New York: Warner Books, 1992.
Rees, Dafydd and Luke Crampton, Rock Movers and Shakers. Bath: Bath Press, 1991.
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