Jimi: The Man and the Music

His revolutionary synthesis of guitar violence, improvisational nerve and melodic reverie first began to transform popular music in the late Sixties.

jimi hendrix 623 cover
Gered Mankowitz
Jimi Hendrix on the cover of Rolling Stone.
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When Jimi Hendrix sent his Fender Stratocaster up in flames at the end of his historic performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, it was the ultimate in mind-blowing rock & roll spectacle, a brilliant grand-stand play by a consummate psychedelic showman well schooled in the show-stopping high jinks of great rhythm & blues entertainers like T-Bone Walker and Little Richard. It was also a profound gesture of affection and gratitude.

"I could sit up here all night and say, thank you, thank you, thank you ... I just wanna grab you, man," Hendrix told the adoring crowd. "But, dig, I just can't do that. So what I wanna do, I'm gonna sacrifice something here I really love. Don't think I'm silly doin' this, because I don't think I'm losin' my mind ... But today, I think it's the right thing ... There's nothing more I can do than this."

With that, Hendrix let out a feedback Tarzan yell with his guitar and led his British sidekicks, bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell, into a truly incendiary reinvention of the Troggs' "Wild Thing," literally burning his signature into the pages of rock & roll history. Twenty-five years later – and more than two decades after his death – Jimi Hendrix is finally receiving formal recognition of his achievements as a performer, guitarist and musical visionary. On January 15th, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame alongside Bobby "Blue" Bland, Booker T. and the MGs, Johnny Cash, Sam and Dave, the Yardbirds and, ironically, his former employers the Isley Brothers.

But for Hendrix, making his American concert debut with his trio, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, after nine months' exile in England, his spectacular homecoming reception at Monterey was reward enough. Igniting his Strat was his way of saying thank you, a theatrical but heartfelt act inspired by the drama of the event and rooted in his love for the instrument and its great communicative powers. This was a young man, only twenty-four, who had actually slept with his axe in his army bunk during a brief stint in the military and, later, on tour buses while he made the chitlin-circuit rounds as a junior R&B sideman. Shy and self effacing in conversation, Hendrix had devoted his life to articulating his dreams and troubles in sound and to the creation of a new guitar language of explosive, orchestral possibility and raw, soulful eloquence.

"The wah-wah pedal is great because it doesn't have any notes," he said in his first major Rolling Stone interview, in early 1968. "Nothing but hitting it straight up using the vibrato and then the drums come through, and that there feels like, not depression, but that loneliness and that frustration and the yearning for something. Like something is reaching out."

That yearning was the motivating force in every note Hendrix played or sang – onstage, in the recording studio and in the innumerable jam sessions that were his off-hours passion. The combination of that creative drive with his stunning technique, sonic imagination and ingenious, painterly exploitation of effects like wah-wah, feedback, distortion and sheer earthquaking volume transformed rock & roll – and its primary instrument, the electric guitar – forever. Hendrix left an indelible, fiercely individual mark on popular music, accelerating rock's already dynamic rate of change in the late Sixties with his revolutionary synthesis of guitar violence, improvisational nerve, spacey melodic reveries and a confessional intensity born of the blues.

Hendrix was also a pivotal figure in the continuum of American black music. Although marketed to white audiences as a rock & roll wild man and, in the beginning, widely rejected by the black community as such, Hendrix ambitiously recast the music of his forefathers and elders – Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Charlie Christian, Chuck Berry – into electrifying future soul and elegiac cosmic balladry. His experiments with funk rhythms, heavy blues, electronic-sound collages and sensually charged romantic pop, in turn, laid the foundation for later innovations in black rock and R&B by George Clinton, Miles Davis, Prince and Living Colour. At the same time, Hendrix set a new standard in stage outrage with his jaw-dropping act of rubber-limbed playing positions and blatant erotic suggestion.

Sadly, Hendrix died in 1970, little more than three years after Monterey and far too early to see his musical vision fully realized. Considering the enormousness of his legacy today and his continuing influence, it is hard to believe that in his lifetime Jimi Hendrix officially released only three studio albums – his cataclysmic debut, Are You Experienced?; the more lyrical follow-up, Axis: Bold As Love; and the epic double album, Electric Ladyland all in just over a year and a half. But he'd spent his life preparing for them, if not for the sudden, often traumatic success they brought him.

James Marshall Hendrix was born in seattle on November 27th, 1942; his mother, Lucille, originally named him Johnny Allen Hendrix, but his father, Al, who was serving in the army at the time of his birth, changed it four years later. Hendrix didn't get his first guitar, a secondhand acoustic model that cost five dollars, until he was nearly sixteen. But it proved to be a crucial, stabilizing element in a childhood scarred by his parents' rocky marriage and subsequent divorce, his erratic schooling and his mother's death in 1958.

In 1959, Hendrix graduated to the electric guitar and joined his first group, the Rocking Kings. Except for an aborted career as an army parachutist (he was discharged in 1962, after only a year, for "medical unsuitability" – he broke his ankle during a parachute jump), Hendrix spent the next seven years on the road. He gigged with a motley succession of club bands, including the King Kasuals, which featured army buddy and future post-Experience bassist Billy Cox, and worked as an itinerant backup musician for, among others, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, the Impressions, Little Richard and the Isleys.

Hendrix eventually made his vinyl debut on a pair of singles released in late 1963 and 1964 by a minor sax player, Lonnie Youngblood. But his first significant studio date as a sideman was with the Isley Brothers on their storming 1964 single "Testify"; his emphatic rhythm-guitar work and piercing lead flourishes show evidence of an already unique style. Hendrix actually lived with the Isleys for a couple of months in 1964 (the Isleys also bought him his first Fender guitar), and guitarist Ernie Isley, just a youngster at the time, remembers hearing that style evolve as Hendrix practiced in the house.

"He could play wonderfully without an amp," Isley told writer Harry Weinger. "He would play in the hallway of our house while we were in the dining room. With his back to us, no amplifier, the sound and the feeling emanating from him was quite something. Seeing him that way, through the eyes of a child, [what he was all about] came through clean and clear and pristine."

Up through the first half of 1966, Hendrix continued his sideman odyssey, working with Little Richard, King Curtis and Curtis Knight. A live recording made with Knight in late December 1965 at a club in Hackensack, New Jersey, shows just how far Hendrix's sound and stage act had evolved. Given room to roam in "Drivin' South," Hendrix coaxes serrated sustain from his instrument, twists his meaty riffing into bluesy pretzel logic and fires off spiky high notes shivering with vibrato. At one point, you can also hear Knight yell, "Eat that guitar! Eat it! Eat it!" It's only a one-chord jam, and the recording is of the two-Dixie-cups-and-a-thread variety, with clumsy overdubs added later when it was issued in the early Seventies as Early Jimi Hendrix. Nevertheless, "Drivin' South" is a rough but revealing glimpse of what Hendrix would later do with the blues.

In the fall of 1965, Hendrix signed a three-year recording contract with Knight's manager and producer, Ed Chalpin, for a one-dollar advance, a deal that would come back to haunt him later. But the deal that really mattered came in the summer of 1966, when bassist Chas Chandler of the Animals caught Hendrix playing with his own group Jimmy James and the Blue Flames at the Cafe Wha?, in New York's Greenwich Village. Chandler, on the lookout for management and production opportunities, was knocked out by Hendrix's fierce sound, outrageous look and gymnastic stage presence.

On September 23rd, 1966, under Chandler's aegis, Hendrix flew to England to pursue stardom in earnest. A flurry of auditions in London yielded bassist Noel Redding – who had actually turned up to try out for a guitar seat in the Animals – and drummer John "Mitch" Mitchell, a former child actor who had played with Screaming Lord Sutch, the Riot Squad and Georgie Fame. The Jimi Hendrix Experience (the exotic spelling was Chandler's idea) was born.

In Redding and Mitchell, Hendrix found the perfect accomplices for his guitar attack. The fact that Redding had never played the bass before joining the Experience was, in fact, a plus; Hendrix knew just what he wanted from the instrument, and Redding proved a malleable learner. His sturdy, anchoring bass work freed Mitchell, a proficient drummer adept at both jazz and rhythm & blues, to fly all over the kit. Together, they complemented the rhythmic idiosyncrasies of Hendrix's songs and playing style with their own turbulent blend of hardy soul dynamics and breathtaking acid-jazz breakaways. The sound was fluid enough for open-ended jamming yet free of excess instrumental baggage, tight and heavy in the hard-rock clutches.

In concert, Hendrix often chose to go with the flow, taking his melodies and riff ideas out on distended solo detours, leaving Mitchell to strike his own parallel rhythm path while Redding usually maintained a steady course. But on record, especially in the tightly focused three- and four-minute performances on Are You Experienced?, you can hear the form and force of the Experience in pummeling microcosm. In "Manic Depression," Mitchell generates a tidal drum wave under Hendrix's agitated riffing and Redding's echoing bass, fueling the cork-screw-waltz rhythm with convulsive Elvin Jones-style patterns. On "Hey Joe," the group's comparatively tame debut single, the song's simple folk-blues structure cracks at the end under the strain of Hendrix's choppy chording and Mitchell's impatient accenting. Hendrix later experimented with other lineups and expanded instrumentation, but he always returned to the power-trio concept epitomized by the Experience.

The furor Hendrix created upon his arrival on the London pop scene was unprecedented. Here was a young American black man who did not conform to British fantasies of sharp-dressing soul belters and grizzled old bluesmen, who played rock & roll guitar with a physically aggressive, avant-garde edge. Hendrix quickly became the darling of the music and tabloid presses; the leading lights of British pop – the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Eric Clapton – were among his most ardent fans. According to Clapton, Cream's biggest hit, "Sunshine of Your Love," was a de facto hymn to Hendrix, actually inspired by an Experience show at London's Saville Theater. (Hendrix returned the compliment by frequently making the song a feature of his own shows.)

For Hendrix, Redding and Mitchell, the last months of 1966 and the whole of 1967 were a crush of interviews, promotional activities, punishing concert tours and frenzied studio activity. Yet those hectic recording sessions, Hendrix's first as a leader, were arguably his most productive. In fourteen months, Hendrix and the Experience recorded not only the classic singles "Hey Joe," "Purple Haze" and "Burning of the Midnight Lamp," but all of Are You Experienced? and Axis: Bold As Love. In addition, the band cut a knockout series of live-in-the-studio tracks for broadcast on BBC Radio (released in 1989 as Radio One).

Collectively, that wealth of material captures Hendrix's genius in its first full flowering. The early singles and Are You Experienced?, in particular, provide a striking summation of the lyric dreams and musical schemes that had boiled inside Hendrix during his journeyman years. In his trademark blues "Red House" (featured on the original U.K. edition of Experienced?), he reaffirmed his pride in his black roots with a celebratory vengeance. He also cooked up a volcanic freak beat with the propulsive riffing and head-spinning guitar effects of "Stone Free" (the flip side of "Hey Joe") and "Love or Confusion," reveling in the errant six-string behavior that earlier had made him the bane of conservative R&B bandleaders.

In enduring ballads like "The Wind Cries Mary" and "May This Be Love," Hendrix demonstrated a depth of feeling and ambition often eclipsed by the assaultive force of "Purple Haze" and "Foxey Lady." Combining pastoral melodicism and aqueous electronic effects, he created a music of otherworldly beauty and poignance, coding his deeper torment in introspective dream-speak. The result was a kind of blues in orbit, musically spacious ruminations on loneliness and loss. "The Wind Cries Mary," actually released in its original demo form (Mitchell later claimed subsequent studio versions sounded too sterile), has a lush, inviting quality, like a classic Curtis Mayfield ballad that belies its bittersweet premise: "The traffic lights they burn blue tomorrow/And shine their emptiness down on my bed."

"Burning of the Midnight Lamp" is also a song of startling melancholy, the confessions of a man long separated from his home and family and now left rootless and battered by the pressures of sudden transatlantic fame and the demands of salesmen. Hendrix wrote the song in midair, on a flight from Los Angeles to New York during his first flush of American success in the fall of 1967: "And soon enough the time will tell/About the circus in the wishing well/And someone who will buy and sell for me/Someone who will toll my bell/And I continue to burn the same old lamp, alone."

At its core, Hendrix's music was all about the blues. The true power of his genius lay in his musical and lyrical candor. For many of his British admirers, like Clapton, Jeff Beck and Pete Townshend, the blues was a religion, an object of worship and aspiration. For Hendrix it was the substance of life. When he immigrated to England, the career he left behind was distinguished mostly by misunderstanding and rejection. He had been exiled from the R&B mainstream, chastised for being too far out, and as a rocker he was so far underground – playing chump-change gigs in Greenwich Village coffeehouses – that he was unknown even in the evolving psychedelic community.

Stardom allowed Hendrix the freedom, onstage but more importantly in the studio, to give free rein to his troubled muse. The energy and sexual vigor in his music certainly spoke volumes about the joys of his new life. The confusion and desperation so often voiced in his lyrics and lacerating guitar work also testified not only to the lingering pains of his childhood and sideman years but to the wants and fears – physical, emotional, musical – that would dog him for the rest of his life.

Hendrix often felt unequal to the task of getting onto tape everything he heard in his head and felt in his heart. "Most of the time I can't get it on the guitar, you know?" he said with characteristic modesty in Rolling Stone in early 1970. "Most of the time I'm just laying around daydreaming and hearing all this music ... If you go to the guitar and and try to play it, it spoils the whole thing ... I just can't play the guitar that well, to get all this musk together."

Widely considered a minor masterpiece compared with Are You Experienced?, Axis: Bold As Love – released in the U.S. less than six months after its predecessor – suffered in the circumstances of the recording. It was done between May and October 1967, one of the busiest periods of Hendrix's entire career, and there was friction between Hendrix and Chas Chandler over the production. The original mix of the album was lost; because of release deadlines, Hendrix, Chandler and engineer Eddie Kramer were forced to remix the whole record in just eleven hours.

In spite of all this, Axis makes up in adventuresome songwriting what it lacks in sonic theater. The anger, angst and raw sex that charged Experienced? give way to flashes of humor in the droll Mose Allison-style swing of "Up From the Skies" and the trippy nostalgia in the driving "Spanish Castle Magic," which partly salutes the Spanish Castle in Seattle, a black music club that was one of Hendrix's teenage haunts. Axis also features Hendrix's finest ballad, "Little Wing," a compact beauty (less than two and a half minutes) with a fatherly lullaby vocal and a gorgeous, spidery guitar solo in the fade-out.

"I wanted to make it a double LP," Hendrix once said of Axis, "which would be almost impossible ... The record producers and companies don't want to do that. I'm willing to spend every single penny on it, if I thought it was good enough."

With Electric Ladyland, issued in the U.S. in the fall of 1968, Hendrix finally had the time, money and opportunity to indulge himself in the studio. The only album released in his lifetime over which he had complete artistic and conceptual control, it is a sprawling but compelling self-portrait of the young artist as a seeker. The deep-space soul suite – "Rainy Day, Dream Away," "1983 ... (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)," "Moon, Turn the Tides ... gently gently away" – which took up all of side three, reflected his obsessions with symphonic guitar effects and underwater dreams (the whooshing sound known as phasing is drenched over almost everything on the record). He also framed his roots in radical new contexts, taking the blues to Mars with the dark, elastic jamming on "Voodoo Chile" and the psychedelic romp through "Come On (Part 1)," an R&B nugget by New Orleans guitarist Earl King.

There was plenty of vintage Experience fire on tap – "Crosstown Traffic," "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" – but Hendrix made no secret of his growing desire to play with other kindred souls, expanding the group to include guest musicians like Steve Winwood, Al Kooper and Jefferson Airplane bassist Jack Casady. Hendrix also paid homage to one of his favorite songwriters, Bob Dylan, with a howling, locomotive interpretation of "All Along the Watchtower" that jacked up the steely irony of Dylan's original reading into feverish desperation.

"The first two albums are tremendous landmarks, but Electric Ladyland is more of a complete statement," said engineer Eddie Kramer, who was Hendrix's studio soul mate from Axis on. Actually, taken together, Are You Experienced?, Axis: Bold As Love and Electric Ladyland are a comprehensive expression of the sounds and feelings that Hendrix fought to express not only during his R&B road-warrior days but even amid his success. Weighed down by the stage image of Cock-Rock Guitar God, Hendrix liberated himself on record, while blazing new trails of possibility for the guitar and for the recording studio as an instrument.

But the Experience was growing frayed at the edges, exhausted after two years of nonstop work. Redding and Mitchell were also dissatisfied with the financial sleight of hand of comanager Mike Jeffrey. The band broke up in mid-1969, and Hendrix embarked on his next recording venture, a projected double album entitled First Rays of the New Rising Sun. Beset by his own difficulties with Jeffrey, other contractual tangles and continuing demands by his audience for nightly reprises of his old wild-man stunts, Hendrix spent most of 1969 and 1970 looking for new collaborators and testing new musical directions.

There were spectacular high points – the guitar fireworks treatment of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Woodstock, a vivid blast of rage and pain for a nation torn asunder by the Vietnam War; the fiery Fillmore East shows by his short-lived Band of Gypsys, a hard-funk trio featuring Billy Cox and drummer Buddy Miles. One of the last songs he recorded in 1970 was the haunting ballad "Angel," written two years earlier after he had a dream about his late mother.

Hendrix also pursued his longtime interest in jazz, jamming with guitarist John McLaughlin and multireed maestro Roland Kirk. Portions of 1969 sessions featuring organist Larry Young and bassist Dave Holland were issued in 1980 on Nine to the Universe. Over the years, Hendrix had formed a mutual-admiration society with Miles Davis, with occasional talk of collaboration. But that never came to fruition, nor did a planned big-band project featuring Hendrix with legendary jazz arranger and Davis cohort Gil Evans.

In 1970 the escalating costs of constructing his dream studio, Electric Lady, in New York forced Hendrix back on tour. With Billy Cox on bass and Mitch Mitchell back on drums, Hendrix was on the road from the late spring through the summer. The day after the official opening of Electric Lady in August, Hendrix had to leave for a European tour. He never returned.

On September 18th, 1970, Jimi Hendrix was rushed by ambulance from his London hotel to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival. Over the years, friends and associates of Hendrix have continued to offer conflicting accounts of how and why he died. But with no evidence to suggest either foul play or suicide, the coroner returned an open verdict and listed the cause of death as "inhalation of vomit due to barbiturate intoxication." Hendrix was twenty-seven years old.

Jimi Hendrix was a brilliant musician but an appallingly poor businessman. At the time of his death, his estate was in hopeless disarray, a legal and accounting nightmare that has never been fully resolved or explained. Posthumous album releases bearing his name still flood record stores. Many are cheap cash-ins, some with only nominal Hendrix involvement. Even his label, Warner Bros., has been guilty of some appalling travesties: the studio-leftovers compilation War Heroes; the 1970s albums Crash Landing and Midnight Lightning, on which producer Alan Douglas replaced the original backing tracks with stiff rerecorded arrangements.

But there have been "new" Hendrix records of considerable historical and musical worth. The tracks featured on the 1971 albums The Cry of Love and Rainbow Bridge together constitute much of the planned First Rays of the New Rising Sun. Radio One is an essential collection of the Experience's recordings for BBC Radio. The recent four-CD collection Stages features four entire Hendrix performances from 1967 through 1970.

More importantly, the Hendrix legacy continues to mushroom. Every hard-rock and heavy-metal band from Anthrax to ZZ Top owes great debts of inspiration and often direct influence to the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Echoes of Hendrix's blues power resonate in the playing of recent innovators like Robert Cray and the late Stevie Ray Vaughan. Likewise, his absorption of jazz concepts and rhythm ideas into his own music later bore fruit in the jazz-fusion movement of the Seventies (most vividly in the post-Bitches Brew work of Miles Davis) as well as in the harmolodic movement captained by Ornette Coleman and the scorching jazz-funk of Coleman disciples Ronald Shannon Jackson and James "Blood" Ulmer.

The Seventies funk sound popularized by Parliament-Funkadelic, the Ohio Players and his old bosses the Isley Brothers was a direct product of Hendrix's controversial marriage of glitzy, suggestive showmanship and freaky down-home soul. Prince has since put his own stamp on that marriage, right down to his flashy sartorial style. His songwriting, like Hendrix's, is a vibrant tug of war between the spiritual and the sassy, and the orgasmic scream of his guitar is unapologetically Hendrixian.

The burgeoning black – rock movement spearheaded by Living Colour has taken great inspiration from Hendrix's pivotal achievements. The Black Rock Coalition was founded in 1985 to confront the same problems that plagued Hendrix during his career: racial prejudice, musical pigeonholing, the lack of contractual as well as artistic control in business dealings, the reclamation of rock & roll as black music. Hendrix rarely spoke about his music in purely racial terms, but there was nothing colorblind about the way he could tear into Howlin' Wolf's "Killing Floor" or Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode."

Hendrix has also endured as a songwriter. His rockers and ballads alike have been covered by artists running the gamut from Rod Stewart and Eric Clapton (with Derek and the Dominos) to the Pretenders and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The Kronos Quartet put an avant-classical spin on "Purple Haze," and although Hendrix and Gil Evans never got to work together, Hendrix compositions like "Little Wing" and "Up From the Skies" were staples of Evans's stage and studio repertoire in the Seventies and Eighties.

Not long after the Monterey show, Hendrix told Newsweek about his plans for the future. "In five years, I want to write some plays. And some books. I want to sit on an island – my island – and listen to my beard grow. And then I'll come back and start all over again as a bee-a king bee."

He never really left. And he'll always be a king.

This story is from the February 6th, 1992 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 623: February 6, 1992