Jimi Hendrix was arguably the greatest instrumentalist in the history of rock music. 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. Many musical currents came together in his playing. Free jazz, Delta blues, acid rock, R&B, soul, hardcore funk, and the songwriting of Bob Dylan and the Beatles all figured as influences. 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 on November 27th, 1942, in Seattle. His mother was 17-year-old Lucille Jeter. His father, James “Al” Hendrix, was in the U.S. Army, stationed in Camp Rucker, Alabama, at the time of his son’s birth. Once out of the service, Al would take primary responsibility for raising him. “My dad was very strict and taught me that I must respect my elders always,” Hendrix said of his childhood. “I couldn’t speak unless I was spoken to first by grownups, so I’ve always been very quiet.” Al also formally changed his son’s name to James Marshall Hendrix at age four.
Al Hendrix father bought his son his first guitar, a secondhand acoustic that cost five dollars, 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 Jimi an electric guitar, a Supro Ozark 1560 S, and he joined the Rocking Kings. “My first gig with them was at a National Guard armory,” Hendrix recalled. “We earned like 35 cents apiece. We used to play stuff by people like the Coasters.” Hendrix, a left-hander, played a right-handed guitar without restringing it, a unique stylistic quirk.
In the summer of 1961, Hendrix enlisted in the Army. Stationed at Fort Ord, California, he wrote home: “The Army’s not too bad, so far. . . . All, I mean, all my hair’s cut off and I have to shave. . . .” That fall, he was shipped Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where he trained to become a paratrooper. On the side he formed a band, the King Kasuals, with a fellow soldier, bassist Billy Cox. Hendrix’s personality made it difficult for him to adapt to the regimented life of a soldier, and in 1962 he was given an honorable discharge.
Following his abortive stint in the Army, 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. In 1965, Hendrix went to New York with Little Richard’s band and over the next several months, he’d play with a variety of musicians, including saxophonist King Curtis. He also took a job with a club band called Curtis Knight and the Squires. Recordings with that group would later be issued on Capitol Records after he achieved fame with the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
In 1966, Hendrix formed a band called Jimmy James and the Blue Flames. It included 15-year-old Randy Wolfe on guitar. Renamed Randy California by Hendrix, this budding prodigy would later form the group Spirit back home in Los Angeles. Hendrix wrangled a residency lasting several months at Café Wha? in Greenwich Village. In 1966, former Animals bassist Chas Chandler caught Jimmy James and the Blue Flames at Café Wha? 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 – coincidentally, the very day that possession of LSD became illegal in the U.S. The following week, the Experience undertook a four-day French tour, supporting French pop singer Johnny Hallyday.
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 ten, with “Purple Haze” peaking at #3. Their May 1967 debut album, Are You Experienced?, became one of the defining releases of the psychedelic movement, reaching #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 #5 and remaining on Billboard’s album chart for two years. The very title of the album posed a challenge – not unlike that issued on the West Coast by Ken Kesey and the Merry Prankers (“Can YOU Pass the Acid Test?) - implicitly acknowledging the notion of enlightenment through psychedelic drugs, with which Hendrix was experimenting.
After conquering Britain, Hendrix found fame in his homeland as a result of a memorable performance at the Monterey International Pop Festival – in Monterey, California – on June 18, 1967. The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s virtuosity and mastery of the emerging psychedelic style, delivered with flair and theatricality by an exotically attired Hendrix, made him one of the breakout artists of the festival (along with Janis Joplin, Otis Redding and the Who). The Jimi Hendrix Experience played only eight songs at Monterey, but the force of their performance would quickly propel him to fame in this country – thanks, in large part, to his inclusion in D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop film documentary, which included Hendrix’s incendiary finale. After a highly sexualized performance of the Troggs’ “Wild Thing,” Hendrix set fire to his Fender Stratocaster. “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. Wheras 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. Both albums were recorded in England, with Chas Chandler producing. For Electric Ladyland, the Jimi Hendrix Experience did most of their work in New York at the Record Plant, with Hendrix largely self-producing. Engineer Eddie Kramer, however, was again involved, as he had been for the first two albums.
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”). Hendrix’s rhythm & blues roots surfaced in “Crosstown Traffic,” which reached Number 52 on the pop chart. One of the highlights of Electric Ladyland was Hendrix’s electric reworking of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” (from John Wesley Harding). “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.
In 1968, Smash Hits, a greatest-hits compendium, was released in Britain; a year later, it appeared in America with an altered track lineup. Meanwhile, a long-simmering schism between Redding and Hendrix, further fueled by Hendrix’s desire to explore other musical areas, led to the disbanding of the Jimi Hendrix Experience after a final performance at the Denver Pop Festival in June 1969. With the Experience defunct, Hendrix debuted a short-lived experimental band called Gypsy Sun & Rainbows at the Woodstock music festival. The group included his old army buddy, Billy Cox, on bass; the Experience’s Mitch Mitchell on drums; Larry Lee on rhythm guitar; and Juma Sultan and Jerry Velez on percussion. He took the stage on 7:30 a.m. on August 18th, 1969. It was the festival’s aftermath, and Hendrix performed a heavily jammed-out set to those stragglers who hadn’t yet left the muddy, garbage-filled site. Hendrix’s freedback-drenched version of “The Star Spangled Banner” was a highlight of the two-hour Woodstock film documentary, as 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’s performances at Monterey and Woodstock have become part of rock and roll legend. What is often overlooked is how hard he worked – or how hard he was worked by his management company – as a touring artist. In the spring of 1968, for instance, the Jimi Hendrix Experience performed 63 shows in 66 days. Hendrix 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, thereby resolving an old contractual debt to the label (dating back to pre-Experience days). Band of Gypsys was the last Hendrix-approved album released in his lifetime.
Under extreme pressure from a combination of hears of nonstop work, sudden celebrity, creative demands and drug-taking, Hendrix was beginning to show signs of exhaustion by 1970. It was evident in his relatively lackluster performance at the Isle of Wight Festival that August. He performed his last concert in Germany on September 6. On September 18, he died from suffocation, having inhaled vomit due to barbiturate intoxication. He was 27 years old.
In the wake of Hendrix’s death, a flood of posthumous albums - everything from old jams from his days as an R&B journeyman to live recordings from his 1967-1970 prime to previously unreleased or unfinished studio work - hit the market. There have been an estimated 100 of them, including The Cry of Love (1971), Rainbow Bridge (1971), War Heroes (1972) and Crash Landing (1975). 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. Assembled from tapes, notes, interviews and song lists by Hendrix engineer Eddie Kramer and Hendrix historian John McDermott, it was released on compact disc in 1997.
First Rays of the New Rising Sun appeared on MCA Records in cooperation with Experience Hendrix, the company that was formed by his father, Al Hendrix, and half-sister, Janie Hendrix, after control of his catalog was granted to them in an out-of-court settlement. The 1997 appearance of that disc coincided with remasters of the original studio albums – Are You Experiencd?, Axis: Bold As Love and Electric Ladyland – prepared for CD using the original two-track master tapes. There have subsequently been numerous reissues and newly issued archival works by Hendrix, including concert recordings, by Experience Hendrix.