If you weren’t around back then, it’s almost impossible to convey how wildly popular Jimi Hendrix was. He was not only a great musician, but he was a vital part of the Sixties scene. He was cool, he was hot, he was amazing. Of Jimi it can easily be said if he didn’t exist, it would have been necessary to invent him. If you looked in the dictionary next to the word ‘cool,’ there he’d be.
Johnny Allen Hendrix was born in 1942 in Seattle, Washington. (In 1946, Johnny’s parents changed his name to James Marshall Hendrix, in honor of Al and his late brother Leon Marshall.) While his father Al was in the military, his mother Lucille (great blues name!) did her best to raise little Jimmy. (He didn’t become “Jimi” permanently till 1966.)
You could fairly call his childhood Dickensian. His parents drank and fought, eventually putting their other birth-disabled children in foster care. They divorced when Jimmy was nine with his father Al getting custody of Jimmy and his brother Leon. Jimmy, nicknamed Buster, went back and forth between various relatives’ houses, often having little to eat.
When he was 15, Hendrix found a ukulele which he would use to play along to Elvis songs. Within a year he knew the triumph of having his first acoustic guitar and the grief of his mother dying of cirrhosis. Jimmy, already a shy, sensitive kid was devastated by his mother’s death. The songs “Angel,” and “Castles Made of Sand,” are about her and “Little Wing” is at least partially influenced by her.
Hendrix, a shy, sensitive kid, spent hours learning old blues songs. (An unsung hero of this story is a fellow boarder named Ernestine Benson. She turned him on to the blues then bugged Al to “get that boy a guitar.”) He eventually saw Elvis perform and heard Little Richard – who had for a time renounced rock n’ roll – preach. He later played behind Richard and pissed him off by showboating and being even prettier than Richard.
By the late ’50’s, Hendrix was playing in local bands with a Supro electric guitar which his father bought him. (Do not be misled into thinking Al is some kind of hero. His treatment of his kids can be easily considered negligent, always staying one step ahead of child services. Good hiding place – the local bar.)
The Washington state music scene seems to have been a pretty good one at the time with its most famous venue being the now-defunct almost spooky-looking Spanish Castle. (Hence the song “Spanish Castle Magic.”)
One of the things I learned in reading about Hendrix is how destitute – and hungry – he was for much of his childhood and early adulthood. They’d sometimes give him food down at the burger joint before closing. He was just kind of a lost soul and in some ways, like his contemporary Janis Joplin, always remained one.
Interestingly, in a weird way, this itinerant, hungry lifestyle actually somewhat prepared him for his career. He wanted only to play guitar and did had no interest in a regular job of any sort. So he got pretty good at surviving with no money, no food, no place to live. (Question – What do you call a guitar player who breaks up with his girlfriend? Answer – homeless.)
In 1961, Hendrix joined the Army. He did this not only because there were no real jobs for young black men in Seattle, but because he started getting in trouble. He was trained as a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Division and claims to have become a sharpshooter.
He never really saw combat, although if it had been a few years later, he might well have gone to Vietnam. He did meet fellow serviceman and bass player Billy Cox with whom he wound up playing and later, touring in bands. (If you recognize the name, several years later Cox played with the Band of Gypsys, Hendrix’ post-Experience band.)
After the service, Jimi went on to play in the so-called “chitlin circuit” in the US, which effectively meant black bands playing to black audiences. This included all the usual indignities of a segregated US in the 1950’s – eating in the kitchen, staying in cheap hotels, being refused service.
In addition to his own band, Jimi backed such notables as Sam Cooke, Wilson Pickett, Jackie Wilson, the Isley Brothers and, as mentioned, Little Richard. (He met the Isleys in February 1964 and watched the Beatles first US appearance on the Ed Sullivan variety show with them.)
He also backed Curtis Mayfield of whom he said, “Curtis was a really good guitarist … I learned a lot in that short time. He probably influenced me more than anyone I’d ever played with up to that time, that sweet sound of his, you know.”
In 1964, Hendrix was playing with singer/songwriter Don Covay, who later wrote “Chain of Fools, ” which Aretha Franklin recorded. Covay had a hit with a song called “Mercy, Mercy,” which the Stones later covered. It’s notable because while it’s uncertain that Jimi plays the opening guitar figure (probably), it was fairly recently established that he is actually playing on the song.
Hendrix learned a lot about playing rhythm and blues (these were tight show bands) and spent his own time mastering the blues. As often as not he got thrown out of bands, mostly because he played too “wild” for them. The mind-blowing stuff we learned to later love so well did not fit into the choreographed R&B band structure of the ’50’s.
Consistently in and out of bands, by 1965 Jimi was guitarist for a band called Curtis Knight and the Squires. This is significant for at least two reasons. One, because Hendrix signed a contract that he thought bound him as a sideman but turned out to haunt his estate after his death. (Besides drugs, seems to me the other downfall of so many musicians is signing crappy contracts they haven’t read with no representation. And because they travel so much, the perils of transportation under all sorts of conditions.)
The other reason it’s significant is because this may be the first recording of Jimi’s where he steps out and there is no dispute that it is him playing. I like this precisely because the sound is so clean. It’s nice to hear Jimi sometimes without a swirl of amps and foot pedals:
In late 1965, Jimi, who always seemed to have some mystical foreknowledge of his fate, told friends that he “dreamed in Technicolor that something would happen” for him in 1966.
Next post – Jimi makes his way to Greenwich Village. Starts to really develop his sound and style. And meets, among other people, Animals’ bassist Chas Chandler.
Sources: Wikipedia, Room Full of Mirrors, Charles R. Cross. Hachette Books. 2005