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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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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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