Forty-six years ago this week, Johnny Allen Hendrix died in a London hospital.
OK, Johnny Allen had been his birth name, and was soon changed to James Marshall. But the man better known as Jimi went through much bigger changes in his short span of 27 years on this planet, and he put The Music through more than a few changes, too.
Hendrix was born Nov. 27, 1942, in Seattle, Wash., the son of a World War II U.S. Army draftee who was so eager to go home and see his newborn son that he was locked up in the base stockade. That son ended up with his own Army connection, the man known for his signature Afro hair and outlandish wardrobe serving for a time in one of the USA’s elite military units, the 101st Airborne Division, the Screaming Eagles.
Unsurprisingly, Hendrix did not fit in well with the military life, repeatedly getting in trouble with his superiors; his eventual honorable discharge was based on unsuitability as a soldier. One of his problems with military discipline was his obsession with the guitar, an obsession that began in elementary school, when he habitually carried a broom like it was a guitar.
That behavior was obsessive enough that a school social worker warned that the child might suffer psychologically if he didn’t get an actual guitar. (Hendrix was already suffering from a dysfunctional family situation; both his parents were alcoholics — his mother died from cirrhosis of the liver — and he and his siblings spent a lot of time in foster care.)
Hendrix’s first stringed instrument was a ukulele he found in the garbage while helping his father on one of his part-time jobs. The future rock guitar virtuoso began by picking out Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” and other popular songs on the instrument’s single surviving string.
Hendrix soon got a real guitar, a $5 acoustic, and learned to play it by listening to blues guitarists like B.B. King, and watching other pickers and asking them for tips. He began playing with a variety of local bands, graduating to an electric guitar; not surprisingly, he was dumped from one of his early gigs because of his stage antics.
His musical development continued in the Army, where he met Billy Cox, who years later would be the bassist in Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys and later incarnations of his band. The two jammed together and performed with other musicians at base clubs.
After his discharge, he and Cox moved to Tennessee and formed a band, but soon Hendrix was playing as a session musician, backing artists like Wilson Pickett and Sam Cooke. He relocated to New York, and after playing on the Harlem club circuit, landed a gig as guitarist with the Isley Brothers. He also backed soul and R&B artists like Don Covay, and also toured for a time with Little Richard Penniman’s band.
The Little Richard gig ended when Hendrix was again fired because of his showing up the other performers on stage. He went on to play for Curtis Knight and the Squires, Joey Dee and the Starliters (“The Peppermint Twist”!) and (again) the Isley Brothers, before deciding he’d had enough of taking orders from bandleaders.
Hendrix then formed his own ensemble, Jimmy James and the Blue Flames; one of the band members was future Spirit guitarist Randy California. The Flames flamed out, and Hendrix returned to Knight and the Squires; during a May 1966 performance at New York’s Cheetah Club, he was heard by Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richard’s girlfriend. (Just missed that show — I was at the Cheetah 10 months later, in late March 1967.)
Linda Keith introduced the guitarist to Chas Chandler, a member of the Animals who was leaving that British Invasion band to go into music management and production. Chandler brought Hendrix to London, and began putting together a band. One of the musicians brought on board was guitarist Noel Redding, who had auditioned for the New Animals; the other was drummer Mitch Mitchell, who had been axed by the other Blue Flames, the band headed by Georgie Fame.
They became the Jimi Hendrix Experience — it was Chandler’s idea to change the spelling of his new star’s first name — and debuted in France in October 1966, releasing their first single that month. The group’s first U.K. performance was at a London nightclub, the Bag O’ Nails, frequented by rock musicians; the audience that night included Beatles John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton of Cream and the Who’s Pete Townshend.
(It might also have included an acquaintance of mine, the late Ken McColm. “Moosh” was the saxophonist for a ska band called the Amboy Dukes — definitely not to be confused with Ted Nugent’s band — that performed regularly at the Bag. He later moved to Australia, where he became involved in the Scottish clan that I belong to, which is how we met.)
The Experience had some chart success with its first two singles, and its first album, “Are You Experienced,” made it to No. 2 in the U.K — denied the top spot by a minor classic, the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” The band’s first U.S. single failed to chart, but the Experience caught fire — literally, in the case of Hendrix’s guitar — at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967.
Concerts at San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium followed that breakthrough, the Experience knocking the Jefferson Airplane out of top billing after opening for them and Big Brother and the Holding Co. The band’s growing popularity landed them a gig opening for the Monkees, the TV-show creation that had just learned to play competently enough as an ensemble to go on tour.
The Experience cut two albums over the following two years, “Axis: Bold As Love” and “Electric Ladyland,” that broke new ground musically and technologically and had considerable commercial success. Hendrix was the highest-paid performer in rock by 1969, when he cut the organizers of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair a deal. He was the headliner, but didn’t take the stage until after that cultural milestone was supposed to have ended; that extra-inning effort, though, produced his iconic performance of “The Star Spangled Banner.”
By that time, the Experience had broken up, Redding in particular growing tired of Hendrix’s erratic behavior and unpredictable work ethic. Hendrix himself felt he had moved on past that phase, and formed the Band of Gypsys with Cox and drummer Buddy Miles in late 1969. (The band that played at Woodstock was billed as Gypsy Sun and Rainbows, but Hendrix also referred to it as the Band of Gypsys.)
The Band of Gypsys didn’t last long, and Chandler’s attempt to reform the original Experience in early 1970 failed, Redding again being dumped, in favor of Cox. The lineup of Cox, Hendrix and Mitchell became known as the Cry of Love, which was also the name of the tour than that began that spring, and of the album which the group began working on but never finished.
It was during that tour that I saw Hendrix perform live, on May 2, 1970, at the Dane County Colosseum in Madison, Wis. It was hard to get to the Great Dane — Madison was under virtual lockdown by law enforcement and the National Guard, because of antiwar protests — and it wasn’t easy for me to get in when we got there. My significant other and I went there on press passes from the underground newspaper Kaleidoscope, where we “worked” at the time.
The event staff were unimpressed, and stuck us in obstructed-view seating, but we could see and hear enough to enjoy an amazing performance. Ronnie and I and the thousands of other people in attendance didn’t know what awaited a few months in the future, though, and couldn’t really appreciate the significance of what we were watching.
The thing I remember most about the concert was one long-hair in front standing up during a break and asking Hendrix, “Man, what can we give you?” When the guitarist replied “A joint,” dozens of marijuana cigarets flew onto the stage; Hendrix lit one up, imbibed, stuck it in the tuning pegs and resumed playing.
Five and a half months later, Hendrix’s substance abuse problems — he particularly had trouble with alcohol, but his use of LSD and other chemicals affected his work habits, musical relationships and personal life, too — culminated with his death. He combined alcohol and barbiturates, and died from asphyxia, essentially drowning in his own vomit.
The Cry of Love project did eventually result in an album, and several other posthumous LPs were created using unreleased material. Particularly in more recent years, the body of Hendrix’s work has been picked over to produce albums of outtakes and alternate versions.
But it is interesting to Muse on what Hendrix — who had already revolutionized guitar technique (playing a right-handed six-string upside down, no less!) and recording technology — might have accomplished had he not died at age 27. So, on Sept. 18, I will listen to the albums I have — the first four — and ponder what might have been.