Jimi Hendrix: The Legendary Guitar God

Jimi Hendrix Biography
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Jimi Hendrix. Image by Vicki Hamilton from Pixabay

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Jimi Hendrix was an American musician, singer, songwriter, and guitarist, who is widely regarded as one of the most influential guitarists of all time.

He is one of the most celebrated musicians of the 20th century and is often described as the greatest instrumentalist in rock history.

Early Life

Jimi Hendrix was born on 27th November 1942 in Seattle, Washington, to Al Hendrix and Lucille Jeter.

Hendrix was the first of five children and was initially named Johnny Allen Hendrix. But in 1946, his parents changed his name to James Marshall Hendrix, in honor of Al and his late brother Leon Marshall.

At the time of Hendrix’s birth, Al had been drafted by the US Army to serve in World War II and was stationed in Alabama. He was denied the standard military furlough afforded to servicemen for childbirth. His commanding officer had even placed him in the stockade to prevent him from going AWOL.

During the three years that Al was away, Hendrix was mostly cared for by family members and friends, while Lucille struggled to raise him.

After being discharged from the US Army on 1st September 1945, Al reunited with Lucille. He found it difficult to find steady work and the family lived in poverty, constantly moving about and staying in cheap apartments and hotels in and around Seattle.

Al and Lucille often fought and argued under the influence of alcohol. Their arguments scared the young Hendrix, causing him to withdraw and hide in a closet on many occasions.

Hendrix had four younger siblings, Leon, Joseph, Kathy, and Pamela, all of whom were given up to foster care and adoption.

Hendrix was a shy, introverted, and sensitive child, who was deeply affected by these childhood experiences.

In December 1951, Al and Lucille divorced. The court granted custody of a 9-year-old Hendrix and a 3-year-old Leon to Al.

Early Education

During the mid-1950s, Jimi Hendrix attended the Horace Mann Elementary School in Seattle.

At school, he acquired a habit of carrying a broom at all times to emulate a guitar. This habit of his attracted the attention of the school’s social worker, who wrote a letter to Al stating that leaving Hendrix without a guitar could result in psychological damage.

But Al refused to buy the young Hendrix a guitar.

In 1957, Hendrix, aged 14, found a ukulele amongst the garbage he and Al were removing from an older woman’s house. The woman told him that he could keep the instrument. Hendrix gladly did so, even though the instrument had only one string.

Hendrix began learning the instrument by ear, playing single notes along with Elvis Presley songs, particularly Hound Dog.

In 1958, Hendrix, aged 15, completed his studies at Washington Junior High School and began attending Garfield High School, from which he never graduated.

Death of Hendrix’s Mother

In the late 1950s, Hendrix’s mother developed cirrhosis of the liver.

And on 2nd February 1958, she died when her spleen ruptured.

Al refused to take Hendrix and Leon to attend their mother’s funeral. Instead, he gave them shots of whiskey and told them that this was how men deal with loss.

Hendrix’s First Guitar

In 1958, Jimi Hendrix, aged 15, acquired his first acoustic guitar for $5.

Soon the young Hendrix became obsessed with the instrument. He played it for hours every day while listening to blues musicians such as Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and Robert Johnson.

Hendrix also constantly watched and learned from other guitarists.

The first tune he learned to play was the television theme Peter Gunn, composed by Henry Mancini.

During this period, Hendrix also began jamming with his boyhood friend, Sammy Drain, who was a well-known guitarist in Seattle.

In 1959, Hendrix attended a concert by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters in Seattle, where he met the group’s guitarist Billy Davis. Davis showed him a few guitar licks and even got him a short gig with the band.

The two of them would remain friends until Hendrix’s death.

First Band

Soon after he had learned to play the acoustic guitar, Jimi Hendrix formed his first band, The Velvetones.

After a few months of playing with the band, Hendrix realized that he needed an electric guitar as the acoustic guitar could barely be heard over the sound of the group.

Initial Gigs

In mid-1959, Hendrix’s father reluctantly agreed to buy him his first electric guitar, a white Supro Ozark. Jimi Hendrix had finally got what he had wanted for so long.

Hendrix played his first proper gig with an unnamed band in the Jaffe Room of Seattle’s Temple De Hirsch. But unfortunately, the band fired him between sets for showing off too much.

Hendrix then joined the Rocking Kings and played with them at various venues.

Military Service

By the time Jimi Hendrix had turned 19, he had been caught twice riding in stolen cars. The law authorities gave him a choice between joining the army and going to prison. He chose the army.

On 31st May 1961, Hendrix enlisted in the US Army. He underwent eight weeks of basic training at Fort Ord, California, after which he was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division and stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

He arrived there on 8th November 1961. Barely two weeks into his service, Hendrix wrote a letter to his father complaining about the arduous conditions at the station.

In his next letter to his father, he requested his father to send his guitar to him as soon as possible, saying that he really needed it. His father obliged and sent his guitar to Fort Campbell.

Hendrix found solace in playing his guitar. His obsession with it led him to ignore his military duties, which resulted in him being physically abused and taunted by his peers and superiors.

During this period, Hendrix met fellow serviceman and bassist Billy Cox at Fort Campbell.

Cox had heard Hendrix playing his guitar and was impressed. He introduced himself to Hendrix, saying that he played bass guitar.

Cox borrowed a bass guitar and soon the two of them were jamming together. They also began performing at base clubs on the weekends with other musicians.

Discharge From Military Service

Jimi Hendrix was able to complete his paratrooper training in just over eight months and was awarded the prestigious Screaming Eagles patch.

But Hendrix soon lost all interest in the Army. By February of 1962, his conduct had begun to draw criticism from his superiors.

Hendrix neglected his official duties more often now. On many occasions, he was found napping while on duty and failed to report for bed checks. He was also regarded as an unqualified marksman.

In a report filed by Hendrix’s platoon sergeant, Hendrix was described as having no interest whatsoever in the Army. The sergeant remarked that Hendrix would never come up to the standards required of a soldier and that it would probably benefit the military service if Hendrix was discharged as soon as possible.

On 29th June 1962, Hendrix was granted a general discharge under honorable conditions.

Life After Military Service

After Billy Cox was discharged from the Army in September 1963, he and Jimi Hendrix moved to Clarksville, Tennessee, and formed a band called the King Kasuals.

They played in clubs around Clarksville for a while, eventually moving to Nashville, where they performed in clubs such as Club del Morocco. They also performed gigs in the southeast, sometimes as far north as Indianapolis, where they played the Chitlin’ Circuit.

Around this time, Hendrix and Cox also played in Marion James’ backing band.

Apart from performing with his own band, Hendrix also performed as a backing musician for various blues, soul, and R&B musicians such as Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, Ike & Tina Turner, Slim Harpo, and Wilson Pickett.

New Opportunities

By early 1964, Jimi Hendrix was frustrated by playing in the circuit. He was tired of following the rules of bandleaders and decided to break away and venture out on his own.

Hendrix moved to Harlem and took up accommodation at the Hotel Theresa. There he became friends with Lithofayne Pridgon, known as Faye, who later became his girlfriend.

Faye supported and encouraged Hendrix, and she introduced him to the area’s music scene.

In February 1964, Hendrix took part and won the first prize in an amateur contest held at the Apollo Theater. He continued to play the Harlem club circuit, performing with several bands.

During this period, a friend of Hendrix’s, Joe Tex, recommended him to Ronnie Isley, the lead singer and founding member of The Isley Brothers.

Ronnie granted Hendrix an audition that led to an offer to become the guitarist with The Isley Brothers’ backing band. Hendrix gladly accepted the offer.

Early Recordings

In March 1964, Jimi Hendrix recorded the two-part single Testify with The Isley Brothers. The single was released in June and was not a success.

In May, Hendrix played guitar on Don Covay’s song, Mercy Mercy, which reached No. 35 on the Billboard Chart.

For much of 1964, Hendrix toured across America with The Isley Brothers, playing the same set every night. By late 1964, he was fed up and tired of the routine. He decided to quit the band.

Shortly thereafter, Hendrix joined Little Richard’s touring band, The Upsetters.

In February 1965, he recorded a single with Richard called I Don’t Know What You Got (But It’s Got Me), which was written by Don Covay.

Hendrix was also invited by singer Rosa Lee Brooks to record for her single, which included My Diary on the A-side and Utee on the B-side. Hendrix played guitar on both tracks. This collaboration began a friendship between Hendrix and Rosa that would last for many years.

First Television Appearance

In July 1965, Jimi Hendrix made his first television appearance on Nashville’s Channel 5 Night Train.

He performed with Little Richard’s ensemble band and backed up vocalists Stacy and Buddy on the song Shotgun.

The performance was recorded. The video recording is the earliest known footage of Hendrix performing.

While touring and performing with Little Richard, Hendrix and Richard often came into conflict over Hendrix’s stage antics, tardiness, and wardrobe.

In late July of 1965, Richard’s brother Robert fired Hendrix from the band.

First Recording Contracts

On 27th July 1965, Jimi Hendrix signed his first recording contract with Juggy Murray of Sue Records and Copa Management, for two years.

During this period, he also joined a New York-based R&B band called Curtis Knight and the Squires.

Hendrix performed with the band for eight months and even recorded a single with the songs How Would You Feel and Welcome Home.

In October of 1965, Hendrix signed a three-year recording contract with producer Ed Chaplin, in spite of having a contract with Sue Records.

His bonding and friendship with Chaplin were short-lived and ended sourly. However, Hendrix’s contract remained in force, which caused many legal problems for him throughout his career.

In 1966, Hendrix earned his first composer credits for two instrumentals, Hornet’s Nest and Knock Yourself Out, which were released as a Curtis Knight and the Squires single.

Moving to New York

Once again, Jimi Hendrix became frustrated with the direction in which his career was heading. He felt restricted and curtailed by working as an R&B sideman in various bands.

Hendrix wished to branch out and explore himself musically.

And so, in 1966, Hendrix moved to Greenwich Village in New York City, to be a part of its diverse and vibrant music scene.

Upon arriving in Greenwich Village, Hendrix was given a residency at the Cafe Wha?

In June of that year, Hendrix formed his own band, Jimmy James and the Blue Flames, as Hendrix was then going by the name Jimmy James. The band also included future Spirit guitarist Randy California.

The band played frequently at several clubs in and around New York. This was when Hendrix began developing his guitar technique, performance style, and material for which he would become famous with his next band.

In September of that year, the band played their last few shows as the backing group for singer John Hammond, at the Cafe Au Go Go, a Greenwich Village nightclub located in Manhattan.

Getting Discovered

Even though Jimi Hendrix and his band were regularly performing in the club circuit in New York, he was still struggling to earn a living wage.

In order to earn some extra money, he rejoined his former band Curtis Knight and the Squires for a few performances at the Cheetah Club, which was one of New York City’s most popular nightspots.

During one of the performances, Keith Richards’ then-girlfriend, Linda Keith, saw Hendrix perform and was impressed and mesmerized by his playing. She invited him to join her for a drink and the two became friends.

Linda recommended Hendrix to producer Seymour Stein and Andrew Oldham, the manager of The Rolling Stones. But neither of them was impressed by him and rejected him.

Linda then introduced Hendrix to Chas Chandler, who was leaving The Animals to manage and produce artists.

Chandler watched Hendrix perform a version of Billy Robert’s song Hey Joe, and was impressed.

On 24th September 1966, Hendrix arrived in London at Chandler’s invitation. He signed a management and production contract with Chandler and Michael Jeffery, the former manager of The Animals.

Early Performances in London

Upon his arrival in London, Jimi Hendrix began giving impromptu performances in the London club circuit.

He first gave an impromptu solo performance at The Scotch of St. James nightclub.

On 1st October 1966, Chandler brought Hendrix to the London Polytechnic, where the band Cream was scheduled to perform.

During a break in Cream’s set, Hendrix met Eric Clapton for the first time. He asked Clapton if he could play a couple of numbers and Clapton agreed. Hendrix then took to the stage and performed his version of Howlin’ Wolf’s song Killing Floor.

Hendrix played with his customary flair and usual tricks, playing behind his back and with his teeth.

The performance was so great that Clapton claimed that it changed his life. Hendrix immediately became the most talked-about guitarist in London, rivaling the stature of Clapton himself.

Hendrix’s early circuit performances were attended by many famous British musicians of the time such as members of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, and others.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience

Once Jimi Hendrix had arrived in London, Chas Chandler immediately began recruiting members for a band designed to highlight Hendrix’s talents and skills.

Chandler asked Noel Redding if he wanted to play bass guitar in the new band. Redding agreed.

Redding and Hendrix had previously met once, where Hendrix was impressed by Redding’s knowledge of blues progressions and his hairstyle.

Then Chandler began looking for a drummer. He contacted Mitch Mitchell to take part in a rehearsal with Redding and Hendrix.

The trio immediately hit it off with their shared love for rhythm and blues. Mitchell was offered the position and he readily accepted the offer.

The band was officially formed and named The Jimi Hendrix Experience.

Chandler had convinced Hendrix to change the spelling of his name from Jimmy to Jimi, which seemed more exotic.

Early Performances and Recordings of the Band

The Jimi Hendrix Experience performed their first show on 13th October 1966, at the Novelty in Evreux, France.

Five days later, they performed at the Olympia Theater in Paris, where they received a great response. The performance was the earliest known recording of the band.

In late October, they were signed by Chris Stamp and Kit Lambert, managers of The Who, to their newly-formed label, Track Records.

The band recorded their first song, Hey Joe, on 23rd October. They also recorded the song Stone Free, which was Hendrix’s first songwriting effort since his arrival in London.

In mid-November, they performed at the Bag O’ Nails nightclub in London. Top British musicians such as Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Brian Jones, Pete Townsend, and Jeff Beck attended the show.

The crowd was left absolutely stunned by the performance.

Success in the UK

The band’s first single, Hey Joe, backed by Stone Free, was released on 16th December 1966.

On 29th December, Hey Joe reached No. 6 on the UK charts.

In March of the following year, the band released their second single, Purple Haze, written by Jimi Hendrix, which went to No. 3 on the charts. And in May, they released the rock ballad, The Wind Cries Mary, also written by Hendrix, which went to No. 6 on the charts and remained there for 11 weeks.

On 31st March 1967, the band performed at the London Astoria. Toward the end of their performance, Hendrix poured some lighter fluid over his guitar and set fire to it. He pulled this stunt in order to gain some media exposure for the band.

After the performance, members of the London press labeled him the Wildman of Borneo and Black Elvis.

Debut Studio Album – Are You Experienced

On 12th May 1967, The Jimi Hendrix Experience released their first studio album titled Are you Experienced.

The album was an immediate commercial and critical success. It was recorded in the prestigious Olympic Studios and features a diversity of musical styles.

The album is an early example of Hendrix’s innovative approach to guitar playing and songwriting. It includes blues tracks such as Highway Chile and Red House, the experimental science-fiction song Third Stone from the Sun, and the R&B song Remember.

The album spent 33 weeks on the UK Charts, peaking at No. 2. The only reason it did not go to No. 1 was because of the Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

The album was released in the US on 23rd August 1967 and went to No. 5 on the Billboard 200.

Are You Experienced is widely regarded as one of the greatest debut albums in the history of rock music.

Monterey Pop Festival

On 18th June 1967, The Jimi Hendrix Experience performed at the Monterey Pop Festival, a three-day concert festival held in Monterey, California.

The band opened up with a fast version of Howlin’ Wolf’s Killing Floor and then went on to perform renditions of B.B. King’s Rock Me Baby, Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone, Chip Taylor’s Wild Thing, and Hey Joe. They also performed four original songs, The Wind Cries Mary, Can You See Me, Purple Haze, and Foxy Lady.

At the end of the set, Hendrix set his guitar on fire and pretended to summon up the flames higher with his fingers. The image of Hendrix doing this stunt became one of the most iconic images in rock and roll history.

Axis: Bold as Love

On 1st December 1967, The Jimi Hendrix Experience released their second studio album titled Axis: Bold as Love.

The following month, the album was released in the US.

In both countries, it entered the top 10 in the album charts. In the UK it reached No. 5 and spent 16 weeks on the charts. And in the US it reached No. 3.

Once again, several diverse musical styles were incorporated into the album. Songs such as Spanish Castle Magic and Little Wing, highlight Hendrix’s growth as a songwriter.

The album was immediately critically and commercially successful, and it was certified platinum in the US and silver in the UK.

The Final Album of the Band

On 16th October 1968, The Jimi Hendrix Experience released their third and final studio album titled Electric Ladyland, produced by Hendrix himself.

The album would also be Hendrix’s last studio album released in his lifetime.

It reached No. 1 in the US, where it remained for 2 weeks. And it reached No. 6 in the UK, where it remained for 12 weeks. on the chart.

The album is a great mixture of Hendrix’s wide range of musical talent and styles, including songs such as Voodoo Chile, Crosstown Traffic, Burning of the Midnight Lamp, and Voodoo Child (Slight Return). It also included a cover of Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower, which became the band’s best-selling single.

The album contains Hendrix’s most prominent use of the Wah-Wah pedal.

Even though the album confused and confounded the critics at the time, it became the band’s most commercially successful and only No. 1 album.

Since its release, it has been widely regarded as Hendrix’s best work and one of the greatest rock records of all time.

The End of the Experience

By February 1969, Noel Redding had grown tired of Hendrix’s unpredictable work schedule and his absolute creative control over the band’s music.

During the band’s European tour in January 1969, the relationship between the three members had drastically deteriorated, particularly between Hendrix and Redding.

The two began to clash during recording sessions due to Hendrix’s habit of arriving late or not arriving at all. These sessions were usually unproductive.

The last performance of the band was on 29th June 1969 at Barry Fey’s Denver Pop Festival. The next day, Redding quit the band when he was informed by a reporter that Hendrix had announced Billy Cox as Redding’s replacement.

Redding later said that he had left the band in order to pursue a solo career. He also blamed his departure on Hendrix’s plans to extend the group without taking his input.

With Redding’s departure, The Jimi Hendrix Experience came to an end.

US Television Appearances

After Noel Redding’s departure, the band’s manager, Michael Jeffrey, arranged accommodation for Jimi Hendrix at the eight-bedroom Ashokan House near Woodstock, in upstate New York. Jeffrey hoped that this change in the scene would inspire Hendrix to write some material for a new album.

During this time, Hendrix made his first appearances on US Television, appearing on The Dick Cavett Show and The Tonight Show, where he appeared with Billy Cox.

Woodstock

On 18th August 1969, Jimi Hendrix headlined the Woodstock music festival which included many of the most popular bands and musicians of the time.

For the performance, Hendrix assembled a band that included a rhythm guitarist, Larry Lee, and two conga players Jerry Velez and Juma Sultan.

Hendrix took to the stage at around 8 am, by which time he had been awake for more than three days. There were around 30,000 to 40,000 people in the audience by then, many of whom had only waited to catch a glimpse of Hendrix.

Hendrix performed his own rendition of the US national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner, which is regarded as one of the most iconic performances of the 60s. Hendrix used distortion, feedback, and sustain to imitate the sounds of bombs and rockets.

Many critics and admirers believed it to be a political statement against the Vietnam War.

Hendrix’s performance at Woodstock is often regarded as the greatest rock performance of all time.

Band of Gypsys

On 25th March 1970, Jimi Hendrix released his first live album and his first album without Redding and Mitchell, titled Band of Gypsys. It included Billy Cox on bass and Buddy Miles on drums.

Even though they did not have an official band name, the trio was often referred to as the Band of Gypsys.

The album included elements of rhythm and blues, hard rock, funk, and jamming. These elements would later become the basis of funk-rock.

It was the last full-length Hendrix album released before his death. It reached the top 10 in the UK and US charts as well as in many other countries.

The highlight of the album was the anti-war/anti-riot song, Machine Gun, considered one of Hendrix’s greatest songwriting achievements.

Final Days

By mid-1970, Jimi Hendrix had grown fed up with the extensive touring.

In September of that year, while on the Cry of Love Tour in Europe, Hendrix abandoned a performance in Aarhus, Denmark, after only three songs.

Four days later, he gave his final performance at the Isle of Fehmarn Festival in Germany and then left for England.

On 16th September, Hendrix performed in public for the last time during an informal jamming session at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in Soho, along with Eric Burdon and his band.

Death

On the evening of 17th September, Jimi Hendrix took at least one amphetamine pill at a party. Later, at his then-girlfriend Monika Dannemann’s flat, he took nine Vesparax sleeping tablets, 18 times the recommended dosage.

The next morning, Monika woke up and found Hendrix breathing but unconscious and unresponsive. Paramedics took Hendrix to St. Mary Abbot’s Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 12:45 pm.

The cause of his death was asphyxiation through aspiration of vomit due to a barbiturate overdose.

Hendrix’s body was embalmed and flown to Seattle on 29th September. On 1st October, his family and friends held a service at Dunlap Baptist Church.

Hendrix was interred at Greenwood Cemetery in Renton, where his mother’s grave was located.

More than 200 people attended his funeral.

Legacy

Jimi Hendrix is one of the most influential and important musicians of all time. He was the quintessential Rockstar.

He is widely regarded as the greatest instrumentalist in rock history, who expanded the range and vocabulary of the electric guitar in a way such as no musician has ever done before or since.

Hendrix’s playing style, lyrics, use of distortion, and wah-wah effects, completely transformed the sound of rock and roll forever.

He also opened doors for many young black musicians who came after him, by making a name for himself in a field mostly populated by white musicians.

Hendrix’s work, performance style, and guitar playing skill and technique influenced countless other musicians such as Prince, John Frusciante, Miles Davis, George Clinton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Kirk Hammett, Uli Jon Roth, Yngwie Malmsteen, and many more.

Bands such as Pearl Jam and Black Sabbath were also influenced by Hendrix’s music.

Jimi Hendrix’s music continues to live on, staying as relevant and popular as ever. Generations to come shall remember the legend that was Jimi Hendrix.