Going Postal: How Jimi Hendrix Got Stuck to a Postage Stamp
The pastel, psychedelic portrayal of Jimi Hendrix in his military jacket and scarf that graces the latest installment of the United States Postal Service’s Music Icons series of Forever stamps has long been in the making. The guitar idol’s sister, Janie, tells Rolling Stone the process took about a year on her end, though Susan McGowan, the USPS director of stamp services, says the total time has been nearly three years. In August, the second Music Icons stamp representing a rock musician, Janis Joplin, will come out; the result, too, of years of planning.
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While these latest additions to the Music Icons series – which debuted last year with stamps honoring Johnny Cash, Ray Charles and Tejano songstress Lydia Mendoza – seem like no-brainers, McGowan says the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee, comprised of everyone from college professors to postal service workers, has spent that time debating which genres and musicians to honor. The committee sought to honor musicians who have made the biggest impact on various genres over the years; no small task considering the USPS offers only 20 new stamps a year. For 2014, the committee wanted to tips its philatelic hat to rock and roll, and with South by Southwest as the deadline for the unveiling, “everything just aligned,” according to McGowan.
For Janie Hendrix, born 18 years after Jimi, it’s been worth the wait. Despite deferring to the USPS on her big brother’s depiction, she’s pleased with the final result. In planning the stamp, she sent the postal service a variety of photos and, considering the Bandleader of Gypsies had a chameleonic knack for changing his look, settling on one era was no easy task. “Jimi was probably the most photographed artist of his time, and he looked so different every year,” she says. “He was in the public eye for only four years, but every year he looked so different – his hair, how he wore his clothes, different hats and scarves. I think the stamp really reflects who he was.”
Moreover, seeing her big brother’s visage on a stamp is an important accolade, and one more part of a growing legacy that, she says, will soon include more posthumous music releases in the coming years and a Seattle park honoring Jimi. “He’s definitely one of our American icons, so I definitely hope the fans feel the same way about the stamp,” she says. “It’s an honor to put that stamp on any letter or card that you send, and it’s just a constant reminder of who he was and who he continues to be in our lives.”
These ideas of legacy and cultural heritage are what the USPS was aiming for with its Music Icons series. “America has so much in its culture about music and movies and pop culture,” McGowan says. “We would be remiss if we didn’t include those kinds of subjects and topics in our stamp program. You have to have a mix of historical, patriotic, pop culture and educational [themes]. So having movies, music, et cetera, is what the American public likes.”
Last month, a list of possible future stamps leaked online featuring one controversial rumored addition to the Music Icons series: John Lennon. The musician’s non-American origins has made some stamp collectors question whether he should be a part of the series. McGowan says that his nationality is less important than his influence and that the stamp “could be a reality.” “We do try to focus on people who are American or things that are American, but we also focus on subjects and themes that truly changed American culture,” she says. “The Beatles and John Lennon had a huge impact on our country and culture.” McGowan confirmed that all the names on that list are approved subjects that are under consideration by the committee.
In the meantime, the USPS is deciding how it wants to commemorate Elvis Presley for a second time. The original 29-cent Elvis issue came out in 1993 and has become the best-selling commemorative stamp of all time. “We’re planning on doing something fun with that,” McGowan says. “When the stamp first came out, we asked the American public to vote on the Elvis stamps. You would go into the post office and you had little postcards there that you could mail in. We asked people if they liked the younger Elvis or the older Elvis, and it really engaged America in a debate over which Elvis to put on the stamp. We haven’t done anything like that in a while, so we’re hoping to do something like that.”
As for the future of the Music Icons series, she says 2015 will see a departure from rock and roll, but declined to reveal which genre will be its focus. “I definitely see that we need to pay a little honor to some other genres that haven’t been covered,” she says. “For example, jazz is something that will be in the foreseeable future, or Motown and types of music that we need to recognize.” She says the USPS hopes to continue the series for years to come.
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Janie Hendrix, however, won’t be buying new stamps anytime soon after her next purchase. “I’m going to buy thousands of dollars’ worth of these [Jimi Hendrix] stamps, and that’s all I’m going to use,” she says.
But wait, even with her brother crying Mary on the face of the current series, she won’t get free stamps? “Nope, you have to buy every one,” she says with a laugh.