30 years on, I can still remember the first time I saw Jimi Hendrix. I can pinpoint the date reds because it was a clip on Good Morning Britain in which the presenters were talking about the 20th anniversary of his death, so I was 11. I’d never seen anything like this otherworldly flamboyant peacock, tearing away at his guitar with supernatural abandon, on stage in darkness. It was mesmerising, exciting, and even scary.
Jimi Hendrix was the greatest guitarist of his generation, perhaps ever, but he never had a number 1 in his lifetime. Voodoo Chile, from the final album by The Jimi Hendrix Experience Electric Ladyland in 1968, was released posthumously. Not a pop single, but what a riproaring way to call time on Hendrix and the 60s.
He may have seemed like he’d arrived on Earth from outer space, but Johnny Allen Hendrix was born 27 November 1942 in Seattle, Washington, the eldest of five children. Four years later his parents changed his name to James Marshall Hendrix in honour of his father Al and his late brother Leon Marshall. Al was in the army, and absent for much of his eldest’s childhood. His mither Lucille struggled and James would often be sent to female family members and friends of Lucille.
When Al returned from service, he and Lucille would argue violently, and the shy James would hide in a closet. Many years later, he revealed to a girlfriend that he was once abused by a man in uniform. At the age of nine, his parents divorced and Al was granted custody.
In 1957, father and son were clearing an old woman’s home when the young Hendrix found a ukelele with one string left, which she said he could keep. He learnt to play by ear, and would particularly enjoy doing so to Elvis Presley’s Hound Dog.
By mid-1958, a few months after his mother’s early death, he bought his first acoustic guitar. He would play for hours, learning the blues licks of Robert Johnson, BB King and Muddy Waters, but the first tune he learned to play in full was the theme to Peter Gunn.
Soon after his purchase he formed his first group, called The Velvetones. but struggled to be heard above the din, and in 1959, Al bought him one. Hendrix joined The Rocking Kings, and began playing professionally.
Aged 18, Hendrix was caught riding in stolen cars more than once, and police offered him a choice between prison or the army, and he chose the latter and enlisted in 1961. Hendrix struggled and missed his beloved guitar, but when Al sent him it his peers would tease him and hide it from him. Fellow serviceman Billy Cox was impressed with his playing though and they soon joined other servicemen in a band called The Casuals.
After they had both been discharged in 1963 the duo formed new band The King Kasuals. Their second guitarist Alphonso ‘Baby Boo’ Young could play with his teeth, and before long Hendrix could too. As well as The King Kasuals, Hendrix began performing as a backing musician for soul stars including Sam Cooke, Ike & Tina Turner and Jackie Wilson.
In 1964 Hendrix joined The Isley Brothers’ backing band The IB Specials and made his first recording on their two part single Testify. But he got bored of being restricted to the same set every night and left in October to join Little Richard’s touring group The Upsetters. He would make his TV debut appearing alongside the rock’n’roll legend in 1965
There would be further performances with artists including saxophonist King Curtis, but Hendrix couldn’t stand the restrictions of not getting the spotlight to himself, so in 1966 he moved to New York’s happening Greenwich Village and would begin a residency fronting his new band Jimmy James and the Blue Flames, and it is here that he really developed his incredible style.
That May, while performing with Curtis Knight and the Squires he found an important fan in Linda Keith, the girlfriend of Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones. Their producer Andrew Loog Oldham was somehow blind to the potential of this virtuoso axeman, so Keith told Chas Chandler about him. Chandler was about to leave The Animals and was looking to move into managing and producing talent. He saw Hendrix performing Hey Joe in Greenwich Village, and was blown away. Hendrix signed with him and moved to London in September.
Hendrix and Chandler were on the lookout for members of a new band to showcase the former’s talent. They asked guitarist Noel Redding to play bass for him after seeing him at an audition for The New Animals, and drummer Mitch Mitchell had recently been fired from Georgie Fame and The Blue Flames. Chandler suggested Jimmy change the spelling of his name, and The Jimi Hendrix Experience had arrived.
The trio performed for the first time in France, supporting Johnny Holliday, that October. A month later they signed to Track Records, a new label set up by Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, managers of The Who. A performance at the ultra-hip Bag O’Nails in front of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Brian Jones and Pete Townshend set tongues wagging. Debut single Hey Joe shot to number six in December.
If ever there was a case of right time, right place, it was The Jimi Hendrix Experience, in Swinging London, in 1966 and 67. And 1967 was truly their year. Purple Haze and The Wind Cries Mary were top 10 hits in March and May respectively. These first three singles displayed the versatility of these firebrands. They could do soulful covers, write their own psychedelic rock and tender ballads. Debut album Are You Experienced, also released in May, went even further, with the blues of Red House and experimental rock like the title track. It’s rightly considered one of the greatest debut albums of all time, and climbed the charts in the Summer of Love alongside landmark LPs by The Beatles and Pink Floyd.
That summer saw Hendrix blow McCartney’s mind with a live performance of the title track to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and one of the most memorable rock performances of all time at the Monterey Pop Festival. As if Hendrix’s guitar-playing wasn’t impressive enough, he ended their show by setting his instrument on fire. After Monterey they briefly toured as support for The Monkees, quitting after a fortnight due to the audience’s general bafflement.
The trio ended an incredible year with the release of second album Axis: Bold as Love. While the least impressive of their three LPs, it was still sterling work. On 20 December they set to work on the opus that would be the group’s swansong – the double album Electric Ladyland.
Tensions rose during recording, with Hendrix taking more of an interest in the production, which annoyed Chandler, as did his increasing perfectionism. Not only that, the sessions were getting more and more chaotic thanks to fellow musicians dropping by, and also Redding was busy with his new group Fat Mattress, so Hendrix would record his own bass parts. Nonetheless, Electric Ladyland was a masterpiece thanks to songs like Crosstown Traffic and the definitive Bob Dylan cover, All Along the Watchtower. And then there was the album closer.
Voodoo Chile (Slight Return) was a rocked-up, alternative to Voodoo Chile, a 14-minute-plus blues jam featuring Steve Winwood, among others, earlier on the album. The day after that version had been recorded, The Jimi Hendrix Experience returned to the studio to film a documentary, and a session of jamming resulted in Hendrix’s sole number 1 single.
What a track, what a way to pay tribute to one of the greatest musicians ever, and what a full stop on the 60s. Voodoo Chile, as it became confusingly titled upon its posthumous single release (the Slight Return being dropped by Track Records) is no pop single. It’s The Jimi Hendrix Experience at full throttle and saying goodbye. Opening with one of the greatest guitar riffs of all time, the track then explodes.
Hendrix pays tribute to the masters of blues from his youth with some lyrical imagery portraying Hendrix as some kind of superhuman, able to chop down mountains with the edge of his hand. Not that far removed from songs like Bo Diddley’s I’m a Man.
The music is in another dimension to such material, though, a heavy psychedelic onslaught of guitar noodling that, thanks in part to the stereo panning, swirls around your head and never gets boring, unlike perhaps some of Hendrix’s later work. The lyrics don’t last long, but may well be the reason this was picked as a tribute to Hendrix. The second and last verse ends with the guitarist apologising for taking up all the listener’s sweet time (like he has anything to apologise for) and then a promise:
‘If I don’t meet you no more in this world
I’ll meet you in the next one
And don’t be late
Don’t be late!’
Voodoo Chile has probably always been my favourite song by The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and I love the fact that for one week, this was number 1. Storming, magnificent and unforgettable.
Electric Ladyland was released in October 1968. 1969 began with the trio caused controversy with their appearance on the BBC’s Happening for Lulu when they abruptly stopped performing Hey Joe to perform Sunshine of Your Love by way of tribute to the recently disbanded Cream. They prevented Lulu performing her closing number, and Hendrix was told they would never work for the BBC again. Around this time, Chandler quit.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s two February gigs at the Royal Albert Hall were their final UK shows, and in June after a performance at the Denver Pop Festival, matters between Hendrix and Redding came to a head, and Redding left.
Hendrix expanded the line-up, adding his old friend Cox on bass, and they headlined the Woodstock Festival as Gypsy Sun and Rainbows, famously blowing the minds of the remaining hippies on the Monday morning with an incendiary version of The Star-Spangled Banner.
To put an end to several years of legal disputes, Hendrix recorded a live album, Band of Gypsys, with Cox and new drummer Buddy Miles. The Band of Gypsys were not to last long as an entity though, and Hendrix’s manager Michael Jeffrey announced in February 1970 that The Jimi Hendrix Experience were to return in their original line-up. This was news to the frontman though, who was reluctant for Redding to return, so he began touring with Mitchell and Cox instead on The Cry of Love Tour.
On 31 August 1970 Hendrix headlined the Isle of Wight Festival, but was beset with technical problems. On 2 September he angered fans in Denmark after three songs announcing ‘I’ve been dead a long time’. After a badly-received set in Germany, Cox was suffering from severe paranoia after a bad LSD trip, and he returned to the US.
Hendrix and Mitchell returned to the UK, and the former spoke to Chandler about being unhappy with Jeffrey’s management. He did an impromptu performance on 16 September with War at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, which was uncharacteristically low-key.
Two days later, his girlfriend Monika Dannemann found him unconscious in bed, and he was pronounced dead soon after. Hendrix had choked on his own vomit on a cocktail of barbiturates and sleeping tablets. He was only 27.
Perhaps Jimi Hendrix was never meant to live a long life. His flame only burned for a few years, but it burned brighter and more colourfully than most can only dream about. Following Redding’s departure, Hendrix had struggled to live up to those first three albums, which suggests The Jimi Hendrix Experience had a very special alchemy. Mitchell was a fantastic drummer in particular, and if Hendrix hadn’t been in the spotlight so much, he may have been better remembered. Redding, sardonic and grounded, was perhaps good at stopping Hendrix from getting too carried away in the studio.
Redding was found dead at home in Ireland on 11 March 2003 after a shock haemorrhage, aged 57, and Mitchell died five years later on 12 November in a hotel in Portland, Oregon of natural causes, aged 62.
Written by: Jimi Hendrix
Producer: Chas Chandler
Weeks at number 1: 1 (21-27 November)
Novelist Stel Pavlou – 22 November
TV presenter Zoe Ball – 23 November
27 November: The Gay Liberation Front organised its first march in London.