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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.

February 6, 1992
jimi hendrix 623 cover
Jimi Hendrix on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Gered Mankowitz

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."

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