Well I guess I’ll go back over yonder
Way up across the hill
Well I guess I’ll go up yonder
Way up ‘cross the hill
Guess if my baby don’t love me no more
I know her
Up until 1966, Jimi Hendrix had played guitar mostly as a musician in someone else’s R & B band. But in that year, he learned about places in Greenwich Village like Cafe Wha? (still there) and Cafe Au Go Go (closed in late ’60’s).
Cafe Wha? is legendary for being the first club where Bob Dylan performed when he arrived five years earlier. This was no small matter to Jimi as he was a worshipful Dylan fan, waxing eloquently to anyone within earshot about Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde album. By now Jimi had started hanging around and jamming at the Wha, mostly to small crowds of teenage kids from the suburbs.
On one of his visits to the famous music instrument store Manny’s (sadly, also gone), he met a 15-year-old guitarist named Randy Wolfe, who he asked to join his band, and whom he christened Randy California, after his home state. (If you recognize that name, that is because Randy California later went home and formed a band called Spirit. And it is his estate that is suing Led Zep over Stairway to Heaven.)
And it is in the cafés of Greenwich Village that backup player Jimmy James reverted back to his real name of Jimi Hendrix. This band, Jimmy James and the Blue Flames (with California), lasted only a few months. Their repertoire included standards like “Wild Thing,” and “House of the Rising Sun.”
And even though the band was short-lived, its duration was sufficient enough for Hendrix to really come to the fore and use all the tricks he’d learned (playing behind his back, with his teeth, doing splits) on the chitlin circuit. And truthfully, none of those were new. They’d just never been witnessed before by a white rock audience.
One of the songs Jimi played was “Red House.” It’s his song but it mirrors a million other slow blues. This number is, in my opinion, just about the best blues song I’ve ever heard.
NOTE: I had to look for alternate sources for some of these songs. Mostly they should play but you may have to hit them twice. Failing that, if you really want to hear them, you may have to look around the net, perhaps for live versions.
A girl Hendrix was seeing, Linda Keith, believed strongly in Jimi’s talent and tried and tried to get someone in the industry to sign him. A complicating factor was that Linda – a staunch blues aficionado and another heroine of this story – was also a girlfriend of Keith Richards, which didn’t make the Stones’ guitarist too happy when he found out about it.
At one point, Jimi was without a guitar and so she borrowed Richards’ white Stratocaster which began that particular love affair. (You can get a Hendrix-type Strat for about $900 USD if you’re so inclined.) Hendrix, who was left-handed, used to turn it upside down and restring it.
No one had ever seen anything like Jimi’s playing. Jaws dropped and people just stared. Chicago guitarist Mike Bloomfield came in, saw Hendrix play, and reportedly said he was quitting playing guitar.
In an interview he said, “H-bombs were going off, guided missiles were flying – I can’t tell you the sounds he was getting out of his instrument. He was getting every sound I was ever to hear him get, right there in that room with a Stratocaster, a Fender Twin amp, a Maestro fuzz box, and that was all… He had melded them into a perfect blend.”
Here’s a nice tune called “Hear My Train a comin'” that he played throughout his career:
Linda Keith eventually convinced Chas Chandler, bass player for the Animals, to come down and give a listen. Chandler, who was looking to move to the management side of things, was blown away. Chandler convinced Hendrix to come back to England with him, start playing the circuit, form a band and put out a record.
Within, literally, days of Jimi’s arrival in London, most of the great British guitarists had seen him and also been blown away. Not just blown away, but often jealous and pissed off. How could this guy we never heard of come out of nowhere and be so good? We are the fucking guitar heroes, not him.
One anecdote tells the whole story. Jimi told Chandler he wanted to meet Eric Clapton. So, one night Chandler took Jimi to see Cream. And after watching one set, Jimi asked if he could jam with them. Now, the guys in the band were astonished because most players were intimidated to play with them. But Jack Bruce said, sure, and let him plug into his bass amp.
And then Jimi got up and played a wild version of Howlin Wolf’s “Killin’ Floor.” Clapton later said, “My God, this is like Buddy Guy on acid.” Jack Bruce later ruminated on the fact that “Clapton is God” graffiti was prevalent in London at the time and that this night’s events affected Clapton significantly. (If you’ve never played in a band, it can be frighteningly cutthroat. The movie Whiplash – although wildly overstated – captures some of this).
And as noted in “Room Full of Mirrors, “Jimi had been in London only eight days. And he had already met God. And burned him.”
There’s a brief clip from a BBC documentary wherein Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker and Chas Chandler discuss this momentous event. Notably missing is Eric Clapton. Chandler tells how he went backstage where Clapton, his “hands shaking” trying to light a cigarette, said, “Is he really that good?”
Next – One of the greatest debut albums in the history of music is released. And Hendrix takes over. But fame comes at a price in ways both expected and unexpected.