Hailed by Rolling Stone as the greatest guitarist of all time, Jimi Hendrix was also one of the biggest cultural figures of the Sixties, a psychedelic voodoo child who spewed clouds of distortion and pot smoke.
A left-hander who took a right-handed Fender Stratocaster and played it upside down, Hendrix pioneered the use of the instrument as an electronic sound source. Players before Hendrix had experimented with feedback and distortion, but he turned those effects and others into a controlled, fluid vocabulary every bit as personal as the blues with which he began.
But while he unleashed noise with uncanny mastery — see: the hard-rock riffs of "Purple Haze," "Foxy Lady," and "Crosstown Traffic" — Hendrix also created tender ballads like "The Wind Cries Mary," the oft-covered "Little Wing," and "Angel," as well as haunting blues recordings such as "Red House" and "Voodoo Chile." Although Hendrix did not consider himself a good singer, his vocals were nearly as evocative as his guitar playing.
Hendrix's studio craft and virtuosity with both conventional and unconventional guitar sounds have been widely imitated. His songs have inspired several tribute albums, and have been recorded by a jazz group (1989's Hendrix Project), the Kronos String Quartet, and avant-garde flutist Robert Dick. Hendrix's musical vision had a profound effect on everybody from Miles Davis to Sly Stone and George Clinton to Prince and OutKast. Hendrix's theatrical performing style — full of unmistakably sexual undulations and showman tricks like playing the guitar with his teeth and behind his back — has never quite been equaled.
Beyond his virtuosic guitar playing, gifted songwriting, ahead-of-his-time attention to studio production, and electric stage presence, Hendrix was also an icon that transcended music; nobody else from his era wore an afro better. In the decades since Hendrix's death, pop stars from Rick James and Prince to Lenny Kravitz and Erykah Badu have evoked his look and style.
Born November 27, 1942, in Seattle, Washington, Hendrix taught himself to play guitar as a teenager, listening to records by blues guitarists Muddy Waters and B.B. King and rockers such as Chuck Berry and Eddie Cochran. He played in high school bands before enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1959. Discharged in 1961, Hendrix began working under the pseudonym Jimmy James as a pickup guitarist. By 1964, when he moved to New York, he had played behind Sam Cooke, B.B. King, Little Richard, Jackie Wilson, Ike and Tina Turner, and Wilson Pickett. In New York he played the club circuit with King Curtis, the Isley Brothers, John Paul Hammond, and Curtis Knight.
In 1965 Hendrix formed his own band, Jimmy James and the Blue Flames, to play Greenwich Village coffeehouses. Chas Chandler of the Animals took him to London in the autumn of 1966 and arranged for the creation of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, with Englishmen Noel Redding on bass and Mitch Mitchell on drums.
The Experience's first single, "Hey Joe," reached Number Six on the U.K. chart in early 1967, followed shortly by "Purple Haze" and its double-platinum debut album, Are You Experienced? (Number Five, 1967). Hendrix fast became the rage of London's pop society. Although word of the Hendrix phenomenon spread to the U.S., he was not seen in America (and no records were released) until June 1967, when, at Paul McCartney's insistence, the Experience appeared at the Monterey Pop Festival. The performance, which Hendrix climaxed by burning his guitar, was filmed by D.A. Pennebaker for the documentary Monterey Pop.
Hendrix's next albums — Axis: Bold as Love (Number Three, 1968), Electric Ladyland (Number One, 1968) — were major hits and he quickly became a superstar. Stories such as one reporting that the Experience was dropped from the bill of a Monkees tour at the insistence of the Daughters of the American Revolution became part of the Hendrix myth, but he considered himself a musician more than a star. Soon after the start of his second American tour, early in 1968, he renounced the extravagances of his stage act and simply performed his music. A hostile reception led him to conclude that his best music came out in the informal settings of studios and clubs, and he began construction of Electric Lady, his own studio in New York.
Hendrix was eager to experiment with musical ideas, and he jammed with jazz fusionists John McLaughlin, Larry Coryell, and members of Traffic, among others. Miles Davis admired his instinctiveness (and, in fact, planned to record with him), and Bob Dylan — whose "Like a Rolling Stone," "All Along the Watchtower," and "Drifter's Escape" Hendrix performed and recorded — later returned the tribute by performing "Watchtower" in the Hendrix mode.
As 1968 came to a close, disagreements arose between manager Chas Chandler and co-manager Michael Jeffrey; Jeffrey, who opposed Hendrix's avant-garde leanings, got the upper hand. Hendrix was also under pressure from Black Power advocates to form an all-black group and play to black audiences. These problems exacerbated already existing tensions within the Experience, and in early 1969 Redding left the group to form Fat Mattress. Hendrix replaced him with an army buddy, Billy Cox. Mitchell stayed on briefly, but by August the Experience was defunct. In summer 1969 the double-platinum Smash Hits (Number Six) was released.
In August 1969, Hendrix appeared at the Woodstock Festival with a large, informal ensemble called the Electric Sky Church, and later that year he put together the all-black Band of Gypsys — with Cox and drummer Buddy Miles (Electric Flag), with whom he had played behind Wilson Pickett. The Band of Gypsys' debut concert at New York's Fillmore East on New Year's Eve 1969 provided the recordings for the group's only album during its existence, Band of Gypsys (Number Five, 1970). (A second album of vintage tracks was released in 1986.) Hendrix walked offstage in the middle of their Madison Square Garden gig; when he performed again some months later it was with Mitchell and Cox, the group that recorded The Cry of Love (Number Three, 1971), Hendrix's last self-authorized album. With them he played at the Isle of Wight Festival, his last concert, in August 1970, a recording of which would see release in 2002. A month later he was dead. The cause of death was given in a coroner's report as inhalation of vomit following barbiturate intoxication. Suicide was not ruled out, but evidence pointed to an accident.
In the years since his death, the Hendrix legend has amplified through various media. Randi Hansen (who appeared in the video for Devo's 1984 cover of "Are You Experienced?") became the best known of a bunch of full-time Hendrix impersonators, even re-forming the Band of Gypsys with bassist Tony Saunders and Buddy Miles, who, briefly in the late Eighties, was replaced by Mitch Mitchell.
Well over a dozen books have been written about Hendrix, including tomes by both Redding and Mitchell; David Henderson's 'Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky is generally considered to be the most authoritative bio, while Charles R. Cross's Room Full of Mirrors delves deepest into Hendrix's early years in Seattle.
Virtually every note Hendrix ever allowed to be recorded has been marketed on more than 100 albums, some of which mine his years as a pickup guitarist; various bootlegs and legitimate live concerts and jam sessions; and even taped interviews and conversations. A controversial series produced by Alan Douglas, who recorded more than 1,000 hours of Hendrix alone at the Electric Lady studio in the last year of his life, garnered attention through the mid-Nineties. With the consent of the Hendrix estate, Douglas edited the tapes, erased some tracks, and dubbed in others, with mixed results. Radio One collected energetic live-in-the-studio performances by Hendrix and the Experience recorded for British radio in 1967; the later BBC Sessions mined the same material more thoroughly.
In 1990 the first of several Hendrix tribute albums, If Six Was Nine, was released. Former Free/Bad Company/Firm vocalist Paul Rodgers released another tribute (The Hendrix Set, 1993) and appeared on the all-star Stone Free, which featured Hendrix covers from musicians ranging from Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy to the Cure, Ice-T, and classical violinist Nigel Kennedy.
In 1991 Hendrix's ex-girlfriend Kathy Etchingham, along with Mitch Mitchell and his wife Dee, began prodding Scotland Yard to reopen an investigation into their friend's death. England's attorney general finally agreed to the request in 1993; in early 1994 Scotland Yard announced it had found no evidence to bother pursuing the case any further. In 1993 an audio-visual exhibit of Hendrix's work called "Jimi Hendrix: On the Road Again" toured college campuses and art galleries in the U.S., to enthusiastic — and predominately young — audiences.
In 1994 a 24-year-old Swede named James Henrik Daniel Sundquist claimed to have been conceived by the guitarist and Eva Sundquist during a 1969 Stockholm sojourn. Sundquist legally challenged Hendrix's father, James "Al" Hendrix, as the sole heir to the Jimi Hendrix estate, which was estimated to be worth at least $30 million. A year earlier, Al Hendrix, who in the mid-Seventies had signed away the rights to portions of his son's work to various international conglomerates, had claimed that he'd been misled. With the financial aid of Paul Allen, the billionaire Hendrix fan who'd cofounded Microsoft with Bill Gates, the elder Hendrix filed a federal lawsuit against those conglomerates and against the holding companies and lawyers connected to the estate.
In 1995 he regained complete control of his son's estate, which included Jimi Hendrix's finished and unreleased recordings, as well as his musical compositions. This evolved into a series of CD reissues that were remastered from the original tapes. Having re-released CDs of the guitarist's entire catalogue, the Hendrix estate, under the Experience Hendrix imprint of MCA, also issued the album on which Hendrix was working at the time of his death, First Rays of the New Rising Sun (Number 49, 1997). South Saturn Delta (Number 51, 1997) delved further into the archives. Experience Hendrix: The Best of Jimi Hendrix (Number 133, 1998) followed, as did the double-CD BBC Sessions (Number 50, 1998), the Band of Gypsys-era Live at the Fillmore East (Number 65, 1999), Live at Woodstock (Number 90, 1999), and, in 2000, the four-CD/eight-LP Jimi Hendrix Experience box set. (Several other live discs were made available through an online imprint, Dagger Records.)
Meanwhile Paul Allen amassed his cash to fund a modest Jimi Hendrix museum, which eventually blossomed into the $100 million Experience Music Project. Eight years in the making, the high-tech, interactive rock & roll museum — complete with a Jimi Hendrix Gallery — opened at the Seattle Center in 2000.
When Al Hendrix died of congestive heart failure in 2002, discrepancies over his will pitted Hendrix's heirs against each other; in 2005, a judge assigned an independent trustee to oversee finances at Experience Hendrix. Live albums and box sets containing previously released songs, alternate versions and outtakes have continued to surface from Experience Hendrix and Dagger including 2002's Blue Wild Angel: Live at the Isle of Wight (Number 113); 2003's Live at Berkeley; 2005's Live at the Isle of Fehmarn, recorded in Germany; 2009's Live at Woburn, another U.K. Date; as well as a 10-disc collection of singles containing two to four songs apiece.
In early 2010, Experience Hendrix announced the upcoming release of Valley of Neptune, a 12-song collection of unreleased material, primarily drawn from early 1969 sessions. According to an Rolling Stone interview with Jimi's stepsister Janie Hendrix, who now runs his estate, more releases are planned: "In the past decade, we've discovered so much unheard audio and video that we'll be able to put out two discs a year for at least the next decade."
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Mark Kemp contributed to this story.