Hendrix, Jimi (1942-1970)

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Hendrix, Jimi (1942-1970)

Jimi Hendrix was the quintessential 1960s rock star. A black superstar in what was by then predominantly a white industry and an American who first found success in Great Britain, Hendrix embodied many of the contradictions of the late 1960s music scene. As a guitar player, he single-handedly redefined the genre's most important instrument and remains widely considered the best ever to have played it. As a performer, he combined showmanship and musician-ship in equal parts, and played the best remembered sets of the two best remembered music festivals of the period. His death at age 27 from an overdose of drugs (albeit prescription) completed the picture of what became a cultural archetype of the late twentieth century: that of the enormously talented, misunderstood rock star whose meteoric rise to fame is matched by a tragic fall and early death.

Johnny Allen Hendrix was born in Seattle on November 7, 1942, to 17-year-old Lucille Hendrix while his father, Al, was in the army. His early childhood was one of nonstop confusion, as he lodged with a variety of family members in houses and hotels as far away as Texas, California, and Vancouver. In 1946 Al changed his son's name to James Marshall. Lucille died in 1958 when Jimmy was 15, the same year he got his first guitar. He began playing in the high school band until he dropped out in 1960. Arrested for riding in a stolen car, Hendrix received a suspended sentence by promising to sign up with the military. He became a parachutist in the 101st Airborne in 1961. He soon tired of the military life, though, and was discharged after breaking his ankle in 1962. At this point he became a professional musician, setting up his own group in Nashville with army buddy Billy Cox, and backing up a variety of rhythm-and-blues artists who came through town. In the spring of 1963, Hendrix left Nashville as part of "Gorgeous" George Odell's band.

For the next three years, Hendrix backed up many of the biggest names in R & B—the Isley Brothers, Little Richard, Ike and Tina Turner, King Curtis, Sam and Dave—though he made no significant recordings. Anxious to make his own music, he settled in New York City in 1965 and by early 1966 was focusing his efforts on his own band, Jimmy James and the Blue Flames. They performed in theGreenwich Village folk-rock club Café Wha? for a pittance in front of a scant audience, but his astonishing command of blues, soul and rock guitar styles greatly impressed fellow musicians like Mike Bloom-field, John Hammond Jr., and a small group of cognoscenti. In September of 1966, Animals bassist Chas. Chandler, who was looking to make his mark as a manager and producer, signed Hendrix and took him to England.

London was in the midst of a blues craze, led by John Mayall, the Rolling Stones, and Eric Clapton. It was immediately apparent that Hendrix was head and shoulders above the top local guitarists: Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Pete Townshend all made a point of seeing Hendrix wherever he was playing, before he had a recording contract or even a band. After sitting in at London's hippest clubs, Hendrix formed the Jimi Hendrix Experience with two young white Englishmen, bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell. At Chandler's insistence, the group's first single was a cover, "Hey Joe," but the gifted guitarist soon demonstrated his skill as a composer and came up with the next single, "Purple Haze"—probably his best known composition. Though there is no evidence that Hendrix had taken LSD at that point, his generous use of guitar effects—unusual intervals like flatted fifths and sharp ninths, and bizarre lyrical themes—perfectly suited him to lead the psychedelic movement which was starting to sweep through rock 'n' roll.

Released in the spring of 1967, the first Experience album, Are You Experienced? was a tour de force, replete with complex guitar sounds that had never been heard before. By then, following the Beatles' lead, every British band that counted was scrambling to pile up as many weird sounds and special effects as they could, but none had Hendrix's touch for making consistent musical sense with them. Like Stevie Wonder a few years later, Hendrix humanized electronic effects, using the rapidly advancing technology of the late 1960s to communicate timeless emotions. And when it suited the material, he could create perfectly beautiful music without any effects at all (as in"The Wind Cries Mary," the third Experience single). The album also contained his first protest song, "I Don't Live Today," which he often dedicated in concert "to the American Indian." And he wasn't above exploiting the stereotype of the macho black male, as in "Fire."

The U.S. release of the album was supplemented with the "A" sides of the first three singles; two blues numbers were excised, helping create the myth of Hendrix as an ahistorical, purely intuitive talent. A highly anticipated performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967 marked the Experience's American debut, complete with guitar-burning theatrics, and cemented Hendrix's reputation as an international star, though his wild appearance and demeanor tended to be promoted at the expense of his musicianship. A second album, Axis: Bold As Love, followed close behind the first; it contained his most-covered composition, "Little Wing," the individualist anthem "If 6 Was 9," and an experimental tape collage, "EXP," plus innovative use of effects like wah-wah and phasing.

By the end of 1967 Hendrix's relationship with Chas. Chandler had deteriorated, and he took over the production reins himself for his next album, Electric Ladyland, at the same time keeping to a heavy touring schedule. Released as a double LP in October 1968, the set's sprawl offended some critics, and the UK cover, featuring photos of 21 nude women, caused some controversy, but it went to the top of the charts (the only No.1 album Hendrix ever had in the United States) thanks to hard rock classics including "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)" and the Bob Dylan cover "All Along the Watchtower." Despite their commercial success the Experience was having problems. Hendrix was arrested in Sweden in January 1968 after smashing up his hotel room, a lawsuit by unscrupulous producer Ed Chalpin was holding up the band's royalties, and Noel Redding was more interested in his side project, Fat Mattress. The Experience broke up in June 1969 after abortive attempts at a fourth album, and Hendrix went into seclusion in upstate New York while he tried to figure out his next move.

Even without a steady band, Hendrix's mystique was enough to earn him headliner status at the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival. Unfortunately, being the final act at a chaotic three-day show meant that he and his barely rehearsed rag-tag group finally went on stage at eight o'clock on Monday morning when most of the crowd had already left. If not for the sound and film crews on hand, Hendrix's performance might have gone virtually unnoticed. As it was, his earsplitting rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" became the symbol of the peace-and-love counterculture celebration. Offstage, however, Hendrix was overwhelmed by problems. He was busted for bringing drugs into Canada; his Band of Gypsys group with Buddy Miles and Billy Cox fell apart shortly after forming; nearly every dollar he made touring was sunk into the building of his own state-of-the-art recording studio, Electric Lady Studios. Several more attempts at recording went sour, even though a new band stabilized around Cox and Mitchell, and it wasn't until mid-1970, after the studio was completed, that Hendrix was able to make a serious push to finish a new album, tentatively titled First Rays of the New Rising Sun. Recording was complicated by a judgment awarding Ed Chalpin rights to one album's worth of Hendrix material. The award was based on a 1965 contract Hendrix had signed with Chalpin that Chandler had inadvertently failed to buy out—not a bad return on a one dollar investment—and several songs intended for First Rays wound up on a hastily assembled live recording, Band of Gypsys, released in April 1970. Though seriously flawed, the album did include "Machine Gun," an anti-war number with a lengthy, breathtaking guitar solo. Band of Gypsys was the last album Hendrix would live to see released.

In August 1970, Hendrix reluctantly left New York, where the new album was nearing completion, for a European tour. He played in front of his largest audience yet at the Isle of Wight Festival, but the tour fell apart a few days later after a bad LSD trip sent Cox into paranoid delusions. On September 18, after spending several days visiting friends, Hendrix took several prescription sleeping pills belonging to girlfriend Monica Dannemann, fell asleep and never woke up—he choked to death in the ambulance en route to the hospital. Though Rolling Stone Brian Jones had died prematurely in 1969, Hendrix was the first well-known rock star to die of a drug overdose. What seemed a tragic isolated accident at the time soon became just another cliché surrounding the fast-paced rock 'n' roll lifestyle: Janis Joplin died of a heroin overdose two weeks later, and Jim Morrison followed in less than a year, giving anti-hippie pundits plenty of ammunition to attack rock music as hedonistic and self-destructive.

But Jimi Hendrix's three complete albums (dozens more, mostly of abominable quality, followed after his death) and countless live appearances had changed popular music more than any superficial moralizing could undo. Beyond his direct imitators—Stevie Ray Vaughan, Ernie Isley, Robin Trower, Funkadelic's Eddie Hazel and Mike Hampton—Hendrix's influence extended directly and indirectly to all pre-punk guitar players; Led Zeppelin and a horde of hard rock and heavy metal bands made their careers exploring areas Hendrix had opened up. In rock 'n' roll, almost any black man with a guitar was compared with Jimi Hendrix, including musicians as dissimilar as Vernon Reid and Prince; while Chuck Berry and Little Richard are remembered as musical founders but not as continuing sources of inspiration. Criticism is necessarily reductive: a white rock band will often be compared to the Beatles, the Stones or the Velvet Underground; a white male solo artist to Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison or Bruce Springsteen; a female singer to Janis Joplin or Joni Mitchell. But for black men in rock, Jimi Hendrix is the only archetype available.

—David B. Wilson

Further Reading:

Henderson, David. ' Scuse Me While I Kiss The Sky: The Life of Jimi Hendrix. New York, Doubleday, 1978.

Shapiro, Harry, and Caesar Glebbeek. Jimi Hendrix Electric Gypsy. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1991.

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Hendrix, Jimi (1942-1970)

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