Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



 (b 27 November 1942, Seattle WA; d 18 September 1970, London) Guitarist, singer; without doubt the most prodigiously original, inventive and influential guitarist of the rock era. Left-handed, he played a right-handed instrument upside down rather than a left-handed one. One story had him born Johnny Allen Hendrix, his name changed by his father to James Marshall Hendrix. He was self-taught on guitar as a schoolboy, influenced by Robert Johnson and B.B. King. He enlisted in the US Army paratroopers '61, invalided out late '62; with army friend bassist Billy Cox he moved to Nashville, formed a trio called the Casuals, played in numerous bands including Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers (who later had three Hot 100 hits '68, with lead guitarist Tommy Chong, later famous as half of comedy duo Cheech and Chong). Hendrix left to play lead guitar in Little Richard's road band '63-5, learning from one of the great rock'n'roll showmen; also played on stage with the Isley Brothers, Solomon Burke, Wilson Pickett, Joey Dee and the Starlighters and a singing emcee called Gorgeous George Odell. Records made in this era are not of much interest (although later scraped up and reissued) except an obscure single with L.A.-based singer/guitarist Arthur Lee (later leader of Love), who used Hendrix on 'My Diary' c'63-4, credited to singer Rosa Lee Brooks, the first record known to feature Hendrix's guitar; and 'I Don't Know What You've Got (But It's Got Me)', a Don Covay song recorded by Little Richard with Hendrix, is described by Peter Guralnick as 'the Mount Rushmore of Soul'. He left Richard after a dispute over wages, he said (it was also said he'd missed the bus once too often); somewhere along the way he had also worked for Ike Turner, another showman who didn't know what to make of Hendrix, who was marching to a beat that would take him far beyond the chitlin circuit. He went to New York '65, worked for singer Curtis Knight in his band called the Squires, and signed a usurious three-year record contract with Ed Chalpin which would haunt him for the rest of his life: few records were made, but they were endlessly recycled later in more than a dozen albums, mostly duplicating one another. He also recorded with saxist Lennie Youngblood (including a Hendrix song, 'Red House'); new friends/influences included Bob Dylan and John Hammond.

He began to use drugs, first trying LSD; he led a band called Jimmy James and the Blue Flames (after the legendary Junior Parker group, and including Randy Craig Wolfe, who later became Randy California of Spirit). Bryan 'Chas' Chandler, bassist with the Animals, went to hear Hendrix at Cafe Wha in Greenwich Village; he wanted to move into the business side of pop in partnership with Mike Jeffery (who had managed the Animals) and convinced Hendrix to come to the UK, where Chandler would manage him and find a record deal. Hendrix arrived with his favourite jazz record in his suitcase (a Roland Kirk album): the 'Swinging London' phenomenon was then at its height, pop's royalty overwhelmingly English after the complete success of the British Invasion; Hendrix's technical skill was now completely developed and allowed him to become a dazzling showman: he played the guitar behind his head and with his teeth, stroked the neck along a microphone stand, used feedback and dynamics to new effect, sometimes squirting lighter fuel on his guitar and setting it alight, setting London on its ear.

He changed his name from Jimmy to Jimi; the Jimi Hendrix Experience was formed, with David 'Noel' Redding on bass (b 25 December 1945; d 11 May 2003: he had contacted Chandler because he heard the Animals needed a guitarist) and John 'Mitch' Mitchell on drums (b 9 July 1947; d 12 November 2008, on tour in Portland OR: he had been a child actor, then worked with Georgie Fame and his Blue Flames, a coincidental similarity with Hendrix's NYC group). The trio's debut single was 'Hey Joe', a mysterious song written (or copyrighted) by folkie Billy Roberts, who subsequently disappeared, possibly to Mexico; it was a USA top 40 hit '66 by the Leaves, an L.A. garage quintet whose lead singer John Beck had heard David Crosby sing it at a Byrds gig. Several record companies turned down Hendrix's version; on Polydor it reached the UK top ten within days early '67. 'Purple Haze' reached top three (first Hendrix chart entry in the USA, on Reprise); 'The Wind Cries Mary' was top ten, 'Burning Of The Midnight Lamp' top 20; first LP Are You Experienced? was no. 3 LP UK, no. 5 USA (along with hastily a scraped-up Curtis Knight album, Get That Feeling on Capitol, no. 75 USA). The trio appeared at the Monterey Pop Festival and in the film (live LP released '70 had one side by the Experience, the other by Otis Redding, equally revelatory to white audiences). The Experience toured the USA supporting the Monkees: no one admits to having put together that unlikely package. All this was in 1967; Axis: Bold As Love '68 was a no. 3 LP USA, 5 UK; the two-disc Electric Ladyland (with a sensational gatefold sleeve photo of Hendrix and large group of naked ladies) was no. 1 LP USA, top ten UK (where it competed with a Smash Hits LP, also top ten both UK and USA). In late '68 his legendary cover of Dylan's 'All Along The Watchtower' was top five UK; his biggest USA single, it reached top 20 (his greatness coincided with the switch to emphasis on albums instead of singles in US charts). But his success began to crumble at its peak.

Hendrix grew tired of being a trained monkey, playing the same greatest hits over and over; he would have been developing still further musically, but was fuddled by self-indulgence in drugs and groupies, quarrelled with Redding and Mitchell, and believed that his management wasn't doing its job properly. Chandler remained Hendrix's champion long after he died, but he'd quit as Hendrix became harder to get along with, selling out to Mike Jeffery, who was happy just to take the money from Hendrix's career (the full truth of Jeffery's machinations will never be known; he was killed in an aviation accident in the 1970s). In 1969 the Experience broke up; Redding departed to front such bands as Fat Mattress '69-70, later a Noel Redding Band mid-'70s; Mitch stayed with Hendrix, Billy Cox rejoining his old friend on bass. This lineup played the Woodstock Festival '69, with its legendary version of 'The Star-Spangled Banner': Hendrix imitates the 'rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air' on his guitar, landing back on the melody in exactly the right place, like the most agile of jazzmen. In retrospect the Experience had been the most successful Hendrix experience, but both Mitchell and Redding were bamboozled out of their share of the original trio. 

Just before Woodstock, Hendrix had been dabbling in experimental music, using drummer Randy Kaye (d 16 August 2008 aged 61), but a manager (probably Jeffery) put an end to that. Kaye had played since he was a kid with first-class jazzmen; from 1970 he spent many years working with Jimmy Giuffre as well as teaching, and ended his career playing free jazz in small clubs in Massachusetts. 'It's not a jam session. It's not about how good anyone is. It's about playing from your heart. It's a bridge between the intellect and the emotions...Sometimes people say, ‘I like it but I don't understand it.' That really makes no sense to me. What's there to understand?...They just have to like it or not.' (Quotes from an interview with Seth Rogovoy.)

For the album Band Of Gypsies '70 Hendrix formed a trio with Cox and his friend Buddy Miles on drums, but the new trio didn't last. He tried to create his dream studio in NYC; the Electric Lady continued to function after he died, but building it was a nightmare, mainly because his contract problems multiplied almost daily, with record royalties being frozen while lawyers made money. Mitchell came back; with Cox the trio made a film in Hawaii called Rainbow Bridge and appeared at the massive Isle of Wight festival in '70: it was the last time a UK audience saw either Hendrix or Jim Morrison of the Doors alive. After a short continental tour he resumed clubbing in London with his girlfriend Monika Danneman; he died in her flat choking on his own vomit in his sleep (a common accident, from mixing drink and drugs).

He was mourned by Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, English friends and guitarists who knew he was the master of them all. The Cry Of Love '71 was the last LP Hendrix himself approved; there was a documentary film Jimi Hendrix (two-disc soundtrack with interviews charted '73 in USA), and a flood of compilations and outright trash: as well as pre-fame barrel-scrapings, engineer Alan Douglas grafted backings on to incomplete Hendrix tracks from the Electric Lady, in some cases using musicians who never met Hendrix: Midnight Lightning, Crash Landing, Nine To The Universe etc all appeared on Polydor, to whom all of Hendrix's best work had reverted, and who compiled a complete 13-disc Tenth Anniversary Box '80. Somehow it has all ended up on MCA in the USA, which compiled e.g. Blues '94 (barrel-scrapings including eight new tracks, the album widely panned) and First Rays Of The New Rising Sun '97 (combining The Cry Of Love with some tracks from the conjectural Rainbow Bridge '71 and more scrapings from War Heroes '72). Members of the family finally regained control of the estate in the 31st century.

Hendrix's technique and his reinjection of the values of black music into rock'n'roll was an achievement analogous to that of Charlie Parker in jazz, not least in that many of his imitators and acolytes were less talented; in Hendrix's case his power trio format led to the excesses of heavy metal and loudness for its own sake. Live At Winterland, now on Rykodisc in the USA (in one edition with a bonus CD), was made in San Francisco '68, including exciting live versions of 'Manic Depression' and 'Spanish Castle Magic', as well as some tedium. Rock ultimately could not have contained his penchant for free jamming; if he had lived and overcome his problem with chemicals he might have widened his musical base and become influential in a more useful way.


In the mid-1980s Ethne Clarke was working on her first book, English Country Gardens.
      'So there I was in an English country garden in deepest rural Surrey, south of London — pure Gertrude Jekyll territory — talking to an archetypal English granny…wispy white hair escaping from hairnet, saggy stockings around ankles above stout black shoes. Floral sprig dress and apron. An ordinary day in a pretty garden. We’re strolling around, admiring the herbaceous borders... It was a purrfick day, as they say in southern England, blue sapphire sky, fluffy white bits, gentle breeze, impossibly green hills, that garden…and I hear a parrot squawk. SCREEE-CH. Hullloo love. SCREEK.
      'There’s a parrot in your apple tree.
      'I know, dear. M’nephew gave it to me to look after, poor old thing.'
It looked rather moth-eaten, but clearly Auntie was doing her best to give it a happy retirement. Who wouldn’t be happy sitting in an apple tree all day?
      'So, have you had it a long time?
      'No dear. just a few years. M’nephew, you see, he lives just over that hill there. Eric Clapton’s his name…he plays guitar. And the parrot was Jimi Hendrix’s, you see, and Eric took him when Jimi died, and now I look after him. Goodness knows what that bird’s seen.'