Jimi Hendrix Biography

Johnny Allen Hendrix, 27 November 1942, Seattle, Washington, USA, d. 18 September 1970, London, England. (His father subsequently changed his son’s name to James Marshall Hendrix.) More superlatives have been bestowed upon Hendrix than any other rock guitarist. Unquestionably one of music’s most influential figures, he brought an unparalleled vision to the art of playing electric guitar. Self-taught (and with the burden of being left-handed with a right-handed guitar), he spent hours absorbing the recorded legacy of southern-blues practitioners, from Robert Johnson to B.B. King. The aspiring musician joined several local R&B bands while still at school, before enlisting as a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Division. It was during this period that Hendrix met Billy Cox, a bass player with whom he collaborated at several stages during his career. Together they formed the King Kasuals, an in-service attraction later resurrected when both men returned to civilian life.

Hendrix was discharged in July 1962, later claiming he had broken his right ankle on a parachute jump. However, a 2005 biography by Charles R. Cross accessed his military medical records to reveal that Hendrix pretended to be homosexual to gain a discharge. He began working with various touring revues, backing, among others, the Impressions, Sam Cooke and the Valentinos. He enjoyed lengthier spells with the Isley Brothers, Little Richard and King Curtis, recording with each of these acts, but was unable to adapt to the discipline their performances required. The experience and stagecraft gained during this formative period proved essential to the artist’s subsequent development. By 1965 Hendrix was living in New York. In October he joined struggling soul singer Curtis Knight, signing a punitive contract with the latter’s manager, Ed Chalpin. This ill-advised decision returned to haunt the guitarist. In June the following year, Hendrix, now calling himself Jimmy James, formed a group initially dubbed the Rainflowers, then Jimmy James And The Blue Flames. The quartet, which also featured future Spirit member (Randy Wolf) Randy California, (who was alleged to have been given the name California, by Hendrix) was appearing at the Cafe Wha? in Greenwich Village when Chas Chandler was advised to see them. The Animals’ bass player immediately recognized the guitarist’s extraordinary talent and persuaded him to go to London in search of a more receptive audience.

Hendrix arrived in England in September 1966. Chandler became his co-manager in partnership with Mike Jeffries (aka Jeffreys), and immediately began auditions for a suitable backing group. Noel Redding (b. 25 December 1945, Folkestone, Kent, England, d. 11 May 2003, Clonakilty, Ireland) was selected on bass, having recently failed to join the New Animals, while John ‘Mitch’ Mitchell (b. 9 July 1947, Ealing, Middlesex, England), a veteran of the Riot Squad and Georgie Fame’s Blue Flames, became the trio’s drummer. The new unit, dubbed the Jimi Hendrix Experience, made its debut the following month at Evereux in France. On returning to England they began a string of club engagements that attracted pop’s aristocracy, including Pete Townshend and Eric Clapton. In December the trio released their first single, the understated, resonant ‘Hey Joe’. Its UK Top 10 placing encouraged a truly dynamic follow-up in ‘Purple Haze’, which climbed to number 3 in the same charts. ‘Purple Haze’ was memorable for Hendrix’s guitar pyrotechnics and a lyric that incorporated the artist’s classic line: ‘’Scuse me while I kiss the sky’.

On tour, Hendrix’s trademark Fender Stratocaster and Marshall Amplifier were punished night after night, as the trio enhanced its reputation with exceptional live appearances. Here Hendrix drew on black culture and his own heritage to produce a startling visual and aural bombardment. Framed by a halo of long, wiry hair, his slight figure was clad in a bright, rainbow-mocking costume. Although never a demonstrative vocalist, his delivery was curiously effective. Hendrix’s playing technique, meanwhile, although still drawing its roots from the blues, encompassed an emotional range far greater than any contemporary guitarist. Rapier-like runs vied with measured solos, matching energy with ingenuity, while a wealth of technical possibilities - distortion, feedback and sheer volume - brought texture to his overall approach. This assault was enhanced by a flamboyant stage persona in which Hendrix used the guitar as a physical appendage. He played his instrument behind his back, between his legs or, in simulated sexual ecstasy, on the floor. Such practices brought criticism from radical quarters, who claimed the artist had become an ‘Uncle Tom’, employing tricks to ingratiate himself with the white audience - accusations that neglected similar showmanship from generations of black performers, from Charley Patton to T-Bone Walker. Redding’s clean, uncluttered basslines provided the backbone to Hendrix’s improvisations, while Mitchell’s drumming, as instinctive as his leader’s guitar playing, was a perfect foil.

Their concessions to the pop world now receding, the Jimi Hendrix Experience completed an astonishing debut album (Are You Experienced) that ranged from the apocalyptic vision of ‘I Don’t Live Today’, to the blues of ‘Red House’ and the funk of ‘Fire’ and ‘Foxy Lady’. Hendrix returned to America in June 1967 to appear, sensationally, at the Monterey Pop Festival. His performance was a musical and visual feast, culminating in a sequence that saw him playing the guitar with his teeth, and then burning the instrument with lighter fuel. He was now fêted in his homeland, and following an ill-advised tour supporting the Monkees, the Jimi Hendrix Experience enjoyed reverential audiences on the country’s nascent concert circuit. Axis: Bold As Love revealed a new lyrical capability, notably in the title track and the jazz-influenced ‘Up From The Skies’. ‘Little Wing’, a delicate love song bathed in unhurried guitar splashes, offered a gentle perspective, closer to that of the artist’s shy, offstage demeanour. Released in December 1967, the collection completed a triumphant year, artistically and commercially, but within months the fragile peace began to collapse. In January 1968 the trio embarked on a gruelling American tour encompassing 54 concerts in 47 days. Hendrix was by this time tiring of the wild man image that had brought him initial attention, but he was perceived as diffident by spectators anticipating gimmickry. An impulsive artist, he was unable to disguise below-par performances, while his relationship with Redding grew increasingly fraught as the bass player rebelled against the set patterns he was expected to play.

The last official Jimi Hendrix Experience album, Electric Ladyland, was released in October 1968. This extravagant double set was initially deemed ‘self-indulgent’, but is now recognized as a major work. It revealed the guitarist’s desire to expand the increasingly limiting trio format, and contributions from members of Traffic (Chris Wood and Steve Winwood) and Jefferson Airplane (Jack Casady), in addition to the presence of keyboard player Al Kooper, drummer Buddy Miles (b. George Allen Miles Jnr., 5 September 1947, Omaha, Nebraska, USA, d. 26 February 2008, Austin, Texas, USA) and organist Mike Finnigan, embellished several selections. The collection featured a succession of virtuoso performances - ‘Gypsy Eyes’, ‘Crosstown Traffic’ - while the astonishing ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)’, a posthumous UK number 1 single, showed how Hendrix had brought rhythm, purpose and mastery to the recently invented wah-wah pedal. Electric Ladyland included the UK hits ‘Burning Of The Midnight Lamp’ and ‘All Along The Watchtower’ (Hendrix’s only US Top 20 hit). The latter, an urgent restatement of the cryptic Bob Dylan song, was particularly impressive, and received the ultimate accolade when the composer adopted Hendrix’s interpretation when performing it live on his 1974 tour.

Despite such creativity, the guitarist’s private and professional life was becoming problematic. He was arrested in Toronto for possessing heroin, but although the charges were later dismissed, the proceedings clouded much of 1969. Chas Chandler had, meanwhile, withdrawn from the managerial partnership and although Redding sought solace with a concurrent band, Fat Mattress, his differences with Hendrix were now irreconcilable. The Experience played its final concert on 29 June 1969; Hendrix subsequently formed Gypsies Sons And Rainbows with Mitchell, Billy Cox (bass), Larry Lee (rhythm guitar), Juma Sultan and Jerry Velez (both percussion). This short-lived unit closed the Woodstock Festival, during which Hendrix performed his famed rendition of the ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’. Perceived by some critics as a political statement, it came as the guitarist was increasingly being subjected to pressures from different causes.

In October he formed an all-black group, Band Of Gypsys, with Cox and Miles, intending to accentuate the African-American dimension in his music. The trio made its debut on 31 December 1969, but its potential was marred by Miles’ comparatively flat, pedestrian drumming and unimaginative compositions. Part of the set was issued as Band Of Gypsys, but despite the inclusion of the exceptional ‘Machine Gun’, this inconsistent album was only released to appease former manager Chalpin, who acquired the rights in part-settlement of a miserly early contract. The Band Of Gypsys broke up after a mere three concerts and initially Hendrix confined his efforts to completing the building of his Electric Ladyland recording studio. He then started work on another double set, First Rays Of The New Rising Sun (finally released in 1997), and later resumed performing with Cox and Mitchell. His final concerts were largely frustrating, as the aims of the artist and the expectations of his audience grew increasingly separate. His final UK appearance, at the Isle Of Wight festival, encapsulated this dilemma, yet still drew an enthralling performance. The guitarist returned to London following a short European tour. On 18 September 1970, his girlfriend, Monika Dannemann, became alarmed when she was unable to rouse him from sleep. An ambulance was called, but Hendrix was pronounced dead on arrival at a nearby hospital. The inquest recorded an open verdict, with death caused by suffocation owing to inhalation of vomit. Eric Burdon claimed at the time to possess a suicide note, but this has never been confirmed.

Two posthumous releases, Cry Of Love and Rainbow Bridge, mixed portions of the artist’s final recordings with masters from earlier sources. These were fitting tributes, but many others were tawdry cash-ins, recorded in dubious circumstances, mispackaged and mistitled. In November 1993 a tribute album, Stone Free, was released, containing a formidable list of performers including the Pretenders, Eric Clapton, Cure, Jeff Beck, Pat Metheny and Nigel Kennedy, a small testament to the huge influence Hendrix has wielded and will continue to wield as the most inventive rock guitarist of all time.

The litigation regarding ownership of Hendrix’s recordings that had been running for many years was resolved in January 1997, when the Hendrix family finally won back the rights from Alan Douglas. This was made possible by the financial weight of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who, in addition to helping with legal expenses, financed the creation of a Jimi Hendrix Museum in Seattle. A major reissuing programme took place in 1997, including out-takes from the recording of Electric Ladyland. The reissued catalogue on Experience/MCA Records is now the definitive and final word, redressing the imbalance created by earlier archive releases.

The Hendrix legacy also rests in his prevailing influence on fellow musicians of all ages. Countless guitarists have imitated his technique; few have mastered it, while none at all have matched him as an inspirational player. The electric guitar in the hands of Hendrix was transformed into an extension of his body and as such puts him on an unassailable pedestal as the greatest rock guitarist ever seen or heard.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.