Towards the end of 1963, Hendrix was based in Nashville playing with a group called the King Kasuals when a talent scout fed him a line about becoming a big star in the Big Apple. The rest of the band opted to stay put, but the ambitious ax man decided to seek his fortune in New York City. Prospects were initially bleak, and with little more than a borrowed winter coat to his name, he was often forced to pawn his guitar to survive. Even after he won a talent competition – and a badly needed $25 – at Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater, he spent most of his days hanging around local clubs, angling for a chance to jam with the house bands. It was at one such venue, the Palm Café, that he met Lithofayne “Faye” Pridgon, a stylish and streetwise woman who had once dated Sam Cooke. Hendrix became her latest conquest, and she provided him with both a place to sleep and an entrée into the Harlem music scene.
In the winter of 1964 he caught the attention of Tony Rice, an associate of high-octane R&B clan` the Isley Brothers. “Tony said this kid – he was about 15 or 16 – was the best and that he played right-handed guitar with his left hand,” Ron Isley says in Becoming Jimi Hendrix. “I said to Tony, ‘Aw, come on, man, he can’t be that good. Is he better than …’ and then I started naming all the guitar players we knew we’d like to have in our band. And Tony said, ‘He’s better than any of them.'” Their interest piqued, the brothers arranged an audition at their rented New Jersey home. Hendrix showed up with all of his worldly possessions contained in a battered, and otherwise empty, guitar case. After borrowing a six-string, he proceeded to play searing versions of their chart toppers, including “Twist and Shout” and “Shout.” By the end of the afternoon, he was the newest member of their backing group, the I.B. Specials. “He had no place to stay, so he stayed at my mother’s house,” Ernie Isley recalled. “They asked him if he wanted a new guitar, what kind … So they got him one, and he said, ‘Wow! I’ve got a new [guitar] and I’m playing with the Isley Brothers: This is everything.'”
Hendrix earned a respectable $30 dollars a night on the touring circuit, but his flamboyant scarves and shiny bracelets put him at odds with the clean-cut Isleys, who began enforcing a dress code. “We weren’t allowed to go onstage looking casual,” he remembered in a 1967 interview with Rave. “If our shoe laces were two different types we’d get fined five dollars. Oh, man, did I get tired of that!” After several months on the road, the band convened in a New York City recording studio that spring to cut a new single. The result, “Testify” (Parts 1 & 2), was unlike anything the Isleys had released before, a sprawling six-minute call-and-response gospel epic running rampant across two side of vinyl. The brothers spew faux fire and brimstone like demented preachers while Hendrix tears off spiky lead riffs that battle with the five-piece horn section. Practically devoid of dynamics, it’s less like a studio production and more like a live revivalist sermon.
The song stiffed when it was released that June, and Hendrix left the band not long after. He returned briefly the following year to record another single, “Move Over and Let Me Dance” coupled with “Have You Ever Been Disappointed,” before going his own way for good. Despite the strict dress code, he left on good terms. “He used to ask us if we had any copies of the records we made together,” Ron recalls in Ultimate Hendrix. “We didn’t because of contracts, but we knew the tapes were coming back to us and when we told him about it he said, ‘If there is any stuff I played that isn’t right, let me know and I’ll come in and do it over.’ I told him not to worry about it. Jimi never played anything wrong.”