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Jimi Hendrix: 10 Great Pre-Fame Tracks

Hear the guitar legend in his early sideman days alongside Little Richard, the Isley Brothers and others

Before he was experienced, Jimi Hendrix was a hard-working sideman, playing studio session dates and backing bands across the so-called Chitlin’ Circuit and beyond during the first half of the Sixties. After his discharge from the 101st Airborne Division following his brief spell as a paratrooper, the chance to dive headlong into rhythm & blues behind pros like Little Richard, King Curtis and the Isley Brothers served as a valuable apprenticeship – though a decidedly unglamorous one. In later years he spoke with little fondness of the days when work was slow. “We’d get a gig once every twelfth of never,” he told Rave in 1967. “We even tried eating orange peel and tomato paste. Sleeping outside them tall tenements was hell. Rats running all across your chest, cockroaches stealing your last candy bar out of your pocket …”

Despite the challenges, a letter Hendrix sent to his father during this period reveals his steely resolve to realize his destiny. “I still have my guitar and amp and as long as I have that, no fool can keep me from living,” he writes. “Although I don’t eat every day, everything’s going all right for me. It could be worse than this, but I’m going to keep hustling and scuffling until I get things to happening, like they’re supposed to for me.” This baptism by fire forged the singular style that would make his name cultural shorthand for musical virtuosity. On what would have been his 75th birthday, we look back at some of James Marshall Hendrix’s earliest musical offerings. 

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Curtis Knight and the Squires, “Hornet’s Nest” (1966)

Hendrix spent the rest of the summer of 1965 more or less at loose ends. On July 27th he signed a multi-year contract with Sue Records – home of Ike & Tina Turner and Baby Washington – but didn’t record a note. He retreated back to the Isley Brothers that August for some gigs and the recording date that yielded “Move Over and Let Me Dance,” but he knew this was just a temporary solution. His luck changed in October when he was introduced to singer Curtis Knight in the lobby of the Americana Hotel in New York City. The frontman of a group called the Squires, enthusiastic purveyors of Top 40 R&B in the New York metro area, Knight hit it off with Hendrix immediately. By the next day they were jamming at Studio 76, a facility run by a man named Ed Chalpin. With Hendrix’s Fender Jazzmaster at the pawnshop, Knight lent him a Danelectro to record “How Would You Feel,” a track that owes a major debt to Bob Dylan’s recent smash “Like a Rolling Stone.” The similarity was likely not an accident: Chalpin’s production company, PPX Enterprises Inc., specialized in making cheap covers of hit songs for the overseas market.

Chalpin liked what he heard and offered Hendrix a one-page contract to “produce and play and/or sing exclusively for PPX Enterprises Inc. for three years” in exchange for a one percent royalty and one dollar up front. Hendrix, desperate for any opportunity to play, likely didn’t even read it. (“He would sign a contract with anybody who came along that had a dollar and a pencil,” Faye Pridgon later said.) Seemingly unbothered by the fact that he was already contracted to Sue Records, he put pen to paper. The move would have major ramifications in years to come, as Chalpin reissued Hendrix’s PPX-era recordings in a myriad of misleading – and some would say unscrupulous – compilations. But in the short term, Hendrix earned his first label credit as arranger on “How Would You Feel” when the song was released as a single in April 1966, and his first composer credit a short time later with the release of the instrumental “Hornet’s Nest.”

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Jayne Mansfield, “Suey” (1966, released 1967)

Easily the most bizarre of all of Hendrix’s pre-Experience activities is this alleged collaboration with the B-movie bombshell. Even stranger is the fact that he never mentioned it in interviews, leading some to question whether it really happened at all. Hendrix could be forgiven for simply being embarrassed by the song, with its cringe-y hep-cat spoken phrases – “It makes my liver quiver,” “it makes my knees freeze” and “it makes my back crack” – from the mind of disc jockey Douglas “Jocko” Henderson. Chalpin insists that Hendrix played guitar and bass on “Suey” and possibly its A side, the lushly orchestrated “As the Clouds Drift By,” though this last point seems unlikely. Since Chalpin had a history of licensing out completed instrumental tracks to other artists for vocal overdubs, it’s certainly possible that the backing is from one of Hendrix’s PPX dates with Curtis Knight, making it equally plausible that Hendrix himself had no idea that Mansfield ultimately sang on it. According to a 1966 report in Billboard, Chalpin planned to release the song as the inaugural single on his new label, Chalco Records, but this was abandoned. “As the Clouds Drift By”/”Suey” wasn’t issued until just after Mansfield’s fatal car accident on June 29th, 1967. 

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Ray Sharpe with the King Curtis Orchestra, “Help Me” (Part 1 & 2) (1966)

King Curtis and his Kingpins were the support act for the Beatles on their tour of the United States in the summer of 1965, during which time they crossed paths with Hendrix when he briefly returned to the Isley Brothers’ fold. Hendrix bonded with the group, particularly guitarist Cornell Dupree, and together they played basketball and jammed in hotel rooms on the road. By the following January Hendrix was invited to join the band on tour and also at Atlantic Studios in New York City. The first song they recorded together was “Help Me (Get the Feeling),” an ultra-bluesy two-part track reminiscent of Them’s garage-rock anthem “Gloria.” Ray Sharpe sang the lead vocals on the song, but the backing track went on to have a life of its own. Jamaican proto-reggae star Owen Grey recycled the instrumental for his own cover that same year, and in 1967 it was used as the bed for the Aretha Franklin single “Save Me” – although Hendrix’s contributions were mixed out of the final track. King Curtis himself got the final word, rereleasing the song with additional overdubs in 1969 as “Instant Groove.”

Prior to departing the band in the summer of 1966, Hendrix reportedly recorded three more songs with King Curtis during a session in April, but these were apparently lost in a fire at the master-tape library. To date, no safety copies have been found.  

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The Icemen, “(My Girl) She’s A Fox” (1966)

On the cusp of his explosion with the Experience, Hendrix produced some of the best material of his early musical career during the mid-1966 sessions with the Squires’ saxophone virtuoso Lonnie Youngblood. “Curtis started to lose interest in the band,” Youngblood later explained, “and at the same time, I had a couple of job offers to be a bandleader. I knew I didn’t want to play in his band forever, so I told Jimi and a couple of the guys in the band about it and they said, ‘Let’s go!’ From there, we started playing a few gigs at the Blood Brothers. I was an enterprising guy and wanted to cut me some records.”

Records were indeed cut at New York’s Abtone Studio under the stewardship of local impresario John Brantley, who first cut his teeth in rock & roll alongside legendary disc jockey Alan Freed. Together they made electrifying discs like “Go Go Shoes”/”Go Go Place,” “Soul Food (That’s What I Like)”/”Goodbye Bessie Mae” and another single with vocalist Jimmy Norman, “You’re Only Hurting Yourself”/”That Little Old Groove Maker.” A highlight of their work is “(My Girl) She’s A Fox,” penned by the Poindexter Brothers – Richard and Robert – who later scored a hit with the Persuaders in 1971, “Thin Line Between Love and Hate.” Bearing a title strikingly close to a future Hendrix standout, it was released under the name “The Icemen,” an outfit including Hendrix, Youngblood, and the vocal duo Gino Armstrong and James Stokes. 

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Lenny Howard, “Keep the Faith, Baby” (1966)

Similar to Hendrix’s experience with King Curtis and Ed Chalpin, John Brantley took the approach of reusing instrumental backings. The track released as “Keep the Faith, Baby” with Lenny Howard singing lead also survives in five other vocal variations, including a version sung by Billy Lamont called “Sweet Thang.” Perhaps the most tantalizing incarnation exists as “Wipe The Sweat,” which features Hendrix and Youngblood swapping seemingly ad-libbed lyrics. The take wouldn’t see the light of day until after Hendrix’s global fame, but it predates his first official lead vocal on “Hey Joe” by nearly six months. But faced with several chart flops, Youngblood noticed Hendrix stepping back from the project. “We ran out of money, and Jimi changed his way of thinking. His concept was changing in the middle of what we were about. I witnessed the transformation. I saw him as R&B and other blues kind of things. He loved that music, but after a while he didn’t feel it anymore.”

Hendrix could feel the shift too. As he toured with Joey Dee & the Starliters that year, he felt strangled by the role of a professional sideman “I couldn’t imagine myself for the rest of my life in a shiny Mohair suit with the patent leather shoes and a patent leather hairdo to match,” he reflected. “I didn’t hear any guitar players doing anything new. I was bored out of my mind. I wanted my own scene. I wanted my own music. I was starting to see you could create a whole new world with an electric guitar because there isn’t a sound like it.”

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