Jimi HendrixSep 10th, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Arts & Entertainment
1942-1970 Jimi Hendrix was among the most innovative and influential musicians of the 20th century. His highly charged and intuitive guitar playing and his early death cemented his brief career into legend.
Playing by Ear
Hendrix was born on November 27, 1942, in Seattle, Washington. His father, James Allen Ross Hendrix—a landscaper by trade—had been drafted into the Army just three days after he married Hendrix’s mother, Lucille Jeter, and didn’t meet his son until 1945. As a boy, Hendrix mimicked guitar playing so furiously on an old broom that his father finally bought him a one-string ukulele. When he proved capable of playing in the style of Buddy Holly, Robert Johnson, and B.B. King with only one string, the prodigy was given a used acoustic guitar in 1958.
Unable to read or write music, Hendrix’s innate ability to mimic what he heard, and to create wholly original sounds, was good enough for his first band, The Velvetones, formed in 1958. He left after only three months, however, and it wasn’t until he acquired an electric guitar the next year that Hendrix tried his luck with another band, The Rocking Kings. With the electric instrument, he began to shy away from crisp notes and popular chords, and incorporate feedback, distortion, and amplifier fuzz into his music as a compositional tool. The left-handed Hendrix never did learn to read music, but playing by ear and using a guitar for right-handed musicians turned upside-down, he developed the first hints of a signature style that sounded like nothing that had come before him.
A career in music was sidelined when Hendrix left his senior year at Seattle’s Garfield High School and enlisted in the Army. He joined the 101st Airborne Division of paratroopers called the “Screaming Eagles.” While stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, Hendrix met bass player Billy Cox, and the two formed both a fast friendship and a band, The King Casuals. In 1962, Hendrix was injured while parachuting, and was discharged from active duty in the Army. He moved to Nashville, Tennessee, and quickly gained acclaim as an adept sideman and adaptable guitar player.
Over the next few years, Hendrix played with Steve Cropper, Ike and Tina Turner, Little Richard, Solomon Burke, and the Isley Brothers, among other notables. Continuing to develop his own style and an increasingly potent stage presence marked by an vibrant sensuality and crowd-pleasing showmanship, Hendrix formed Jimmy James and the Blue Flames in 1965. After Chas Chandler, bassist for the band The Animals, saw the Blue Flames play in Greenwich Village, he urged Hendrix to move to London and bring his unique sound to the British pop scene. In the United Kingdom, Chandler paired him with bass player Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell. After making the decision to shorten his name to “Jimi,” Hendrix, Redding, and Mitchell became the Jimi Hendrix Experience in late 1966.
“Hey Joe,” a cover version of the popular Billy Roberts song, was the new band’s first single. It hit number six on the British charts and remained in the top 10 for over two months in 1967. By the time the full first album Are You Experienced? was released the same year, the band had won over English audiences with now-classic tracks such as “Purple Haze,” “The Wind Cries Mary,” and “Foxy Lady.” Only the Beatles were more popular in Britain that year. When Hendrix returned to the United States, bringing his band to the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival, he astonished the crowd with his virtuosity and magnetic stage presence. As the band finished with a cover version of the song “Wild Thing,” he lit his guitar on fire and smashed it on the stage while huge speaker stacks relayed the sound of the destruction out over the seaside community. It was an astonishing performance and a seminal moment for Rock ’n Roll showmanship.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s performance at Monterey Pop also had been captured on film. The highlights of the festival were played in movie theaters across the nation, and Hendrix quickly became one of the most popular and exciting musical figures of the era. He used his newfound fame and the resulting income to create Electric Ladyland Studios in New York City where he could control the entire process of creating an album. A taxing touring and recording schedule over the next two years, which included the release of Axis: Bold As Love and a double album called Electric Ladyland, proved too strenuous for the group, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience disbanded in 1969.
Hendrix recruited his Army bandmate, Billy Cox, to join him and Mitchell in a new band called Gypsy Sun and the Rainbows. The group headlined the famous Woodstock Music & Art Fair in 1969, where Hendrix solidified his status as a counter culture icon with an improvised solo of “The Star Spangled Banner.” When Mitchell left the band, Hendrix and Cox took on drummer Buddy Miles and briefly performed under the moniker Band of Gypsies before wooing Mitchell back to form the new Jimi Hendrix Experience. To inaugurate the revitalized Experience, the band took on a European tour. While staying at the London home of a girlfriend, Monika Dannemann, Hendrix died on September 18, 1970, as a result of asphyxia from a high dose of barbiturates.
Dozens of books have been written in an attempt to summarize the life and impact of Jimi Hendrix. Are You Experienced? still ranks among the most notable rock albums in music history, and Hendrix has been emulated and lauded by musicians ranging from Eric Clapton and Steve Vai to George Clinton and Robin Trower. The experimental and intuitive approach that he integrated into popular music has come to characterize the energy of the 1960s and the evolution of Rock ’n Roll into a global phenomenon.