On November 27, 1942, arguably the greatest instrumentalist in the history of rock music was born: Jimi Hendrix. In less than three decades, he expanded the range and vocabulary of the electric guitar into areas no musician had ever ventured before. His boundless drive, technical ability and creative application of such effects as wah-wah and distortion forever transformed the sound of rock and roll. Hendrix helped usher in the age of psychedelia with his 1967 debut, Are You Experienced, and the impact of his brief but meteoric career on popular music continues to be felt.
More than any other musician, Jimi Hendrix realized the fullest range of sound that could be obtained from an amplified instrument. He was influenced by the songwriting of Bob Dylan and the Beatles, and bridged myriad genres, from acid rock, Delta blues and free jazz to hardcore funk, R&B and soul. Yet the songs and sounds generated by Hendrix were original, otherworldly and virtually indescribable. In essence, Hendrix channeled the music of the cosmos, anchoring it to the earthy beat of rock and roll.
Hendrix was born Johnny Allen Hendrix in Seattle to 17-year-old mother Lucille Jeter and father James "Al" Hendrix, who was stationed at the US Army's Camp Rucker in Alabama when his son was born. Once relieved of service duty, Al became Hendrix's primary caretaker and formally changed his son's name to James Marshall Hendrix at age four.
Hendrix received his first guitar – a secondhand acoustic that cost $5 – as a gift from his father when he was 16. "Jimi told me about it and I said, ‘Okay,’ and gave him the money,” Al recalled. “He strummed away on that, working away all the time, any spare time he had.” A year later, he bought Hendrix an electric guitar, a Supro Ozark 1560 S.
In the summer of 1961, Hendrix enlisted in the Army, but his personality made it difficult for him to adapt to the regimented life of a soldier, and in 1962 he was given an honorable discharge. Once free of Army service, Hendrix hit the road with a succession of club bands and as a backup musician for such rhythm & blues artists as Little Richard, the Isley Brothers, Jackie Wilson, the Impressions, Ike and Tina Turner and Sam Cooke.
By 1966, Hendrix, playing in band Jimmy James and the Blue Flames, caught the attention of the Animals bassist Chas Chandler during a performance at Café Wha? in Greenwich Village. Chandler quickly became Hendrix’s manager and convinced him to relocate to London. There, Hendrix absorbed the nascent British psychedelic movement, altered the spelling of his first name to “Jimi,” and formed a trio with two British musicians, bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell. The Jimi Hendrix Experience held its first rehearsal on October 6, 1966.
Hendrix was an instant sensation in Britain, where he was befriended by such admiring colleagues as Eric Clapton (then playing with Cream). The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s first three singles – “Hey Joe,” “Purple Haze” and “The Wind Cries Mary” – all made the British Top 10, with “Purple Haze” peaking at Number 3. Their May 1967 debut album, Are You Experienced, became one of the defining releases of the psychedelic movement, reaching Number 2 in the U.K. and remaining on the British charts for eight months. Released three months later in the U.S. with a slightly amended track lineup, Are You Experienced proved hugely influential, peaking at Number 5 and remaining on Billboard’s album chart for two years.
Hendrix's memorable performance on June 18, 1967 at the Monterey Pop Festival introduced his homeland to the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s virtuosity and mastery of the emerging psychedelic style, delivered with flair and theatricality by an exotically attired Hendrix, who finished the band's eight-song set with a highly sexualized cover of the Troggs' "Wild Thing" and set fire to his Fender Stratocaster. The performance made him famous. “It was like a sacrifice,” Hendrix later explained. “You sacrifice the things you love. I love my guitar. I’d just finished painting it that day and was really into it.”
Remarkably, the Jimi Hendrix Experience recorded its three landmark albums - Are You Experienced, Axis: Bold As Love and Electric Ladyland - in a two-year period. Whereas Are You Experienced was an album of discreet songs, Axis: Bold As Love was constructed as an album-length experience, and it carried Hendrix’s fascination with alien intelligence and otherworldly sounds even further.
Electric Ladyland upped the ante yet again, being conceived as a double album with longer tracks divided between earthy blues (such as the nearly 15-minute “Voodoo Chile”) and psychedelic fantasias (such as "1983… A Merman I Should Turn to Be”). A highlight of Electric Ladyland was Hendrix’s electric reworking of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower." “Before I came to England, I was digging a lot of the things Bob Dylan was doing,” Hendrix said. “He is giving me inspiration.” Hendrix’s dynamic new arrangement brought to the fore the portents of apolcalypse in Dylan’s lyrics, and Dylan himself would ultimately perform it much like Hendrix did.
The Experience disbanded in 1969, when Redding left the group. On August 18, 1969 at 7:30 am, Hendrix's short-lived experimental band, Gypsy Sun & Rainbows (with Billy Cox on bass, the Experience’s Mitch Mitchell on drums, Larry Lee on rhythm guitar, and Juma Sultan and Jerry Velez on percussion) took the stage at Woodstock. In the festival's aftermath, with stragglers dotting the muddy, garbage-filled grounds, Hendrix delivered a blistering set, including a feedback-drenched version of "The Star Spangled Banner," where Hendrix evoked the pyrotechnic sounds of war in the jungles of Vietnam as he interpreted the National Anthem for a young and increasingly war-weary generation.
Hendrix then commenced work on a projected double album and performed with a new trio, Band of Gypsys – which included bassist Billy Cox and drummer Buddy Miles - at the Fillmore East on New Year’s Eve 1969 and New Year’s Day 1970. The shows were recorded and culled for relase on Capitol Records as Band of Gypsys. It would be the last Hendrix-approved album released in his lifetime.
Under extreme pressure from a combination of years of nonstop work, sudden celebrity, creative demands and drugs, Hendrix was beginning to show signs of exhaustion by 1970. He performed his last concert in Germany on September 6, and passed away 12 days later at the age of 27. Hendrix was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992.
The best attempt to reconstruct First Rays of the New Rising Sun, and the album Hendrix was working on at the time of his death, came decades later in 1997.