This is my personal tribute to the greatest electric guitarist of all time, the incomparable Jimi Hendrix. Rather than open Wikipedia or Rolling Stone or any of the websites that have exhaustively detailed Jimi's life and accomplishments and read it to you, I have decided to personalize my words and speak from the heart, because that is where Jimi Hendrix lives within me.
His story is as unique and solitary as anything that ever happened in the history of rock 'n roll. There was only one Jimi Hendrix. There will never be another. I have studied several life stories of rags-to-riches rock 'n roll stars, but this story is about an introverted, completely disadvantaged boy with virtually nothing who grew up to become a legend beyond anyone's wildest dreams, only to die in the bloom of his youth, leaving behind a window to the most extraordinary music from his soul that again and again scaled unimaginable heights of sonic ecstasy. And he did a lot of it playing with his teeth.
November 27th is Jimi Hendrix's Birthday. He would be 75 years old if his body had survived the life he occupied for the last 3 years of his physical existence on this planet with us. To say that he went out undefeated and untied in his field would be about as accurate as possible.
You could ask anyone who was around when Hendrix was playing and they'd all agree and then some. The astounding impact that he had when he exploded on the scene in 1967 was at that time indescribable, but the group of rock stars who were witnessing what he did were to a man, knocked over backwards by the sheer brilliance of his playing combined with showmanship beyond anything that anyone had ever dreamed of up to that point. I'll go back to this after I lay a little groundwork of Jimi's life, because I feel I must apply an outline here for timeline purposes.
Johnny Allen Hendrix was born in November of 1942 to a young, unstable girl who had no idea of how to take care of a child and a father who was away in the armed forces In World War II. He spent a lot of his childhood with his grandmother, who had been a vaudeville dancer on the Dixie circuit in her youth. His father renamed him James Marshall Hendrix after his brother died and the nickname Jimmy stayed with him. With a broken family life, living in abject poverty and being shuffled from one home setting to another, he was actually the privileged one of his six siblings, whose real parentages were in question and their frequent absences for all intents and purposes made Jimmy an only child. He grew up shy, withdrawn and prone to fantasy and daydreaming, but he did memorize all of his grandmother's records, which were blues recordings from many years past.
He was not an outstanding student in school, but he did show a natural intelligence that his teachers took notice of and they recommended music as a career path. He was 12 when he got his first guitar and he never put it down. By the time he was 15 his dad got him his first electric guitar, which to me is an amazing fact in this man's life. He had only been playing electric for less than 8 years when he hit the big-time, and the first few years of that, he was playing without an amp.
A stint in the Army paratrooper division, a broken ankle and the true fact that Jimmy Hendrix was not intended for anything in life except one thing...playing guitar....ended well with his honorable discharge from the service in 1962.
His playing evolved quickly and he rose up from the ranks of local and regional bands to join Little Richard and then the Isley Brothers before he had an awakening; an epiphany, and he decided to move to New York in 1965. He had become fascinated with the lyrical poetry of Bob Dylan, and he was also hugely impressed by the power and energy of the white rock 'n roll bands, as well as thoroughly schooled in the realm of soul and blues music. The cornerstone of his future had been laid by this time.
He had developed and refined a completely realized alter-ego from his previous gigs and the two Jimmy Hendrixes that existed by this time had completely separated from each other. The onstage showman who frightened his audiences with roaring power, amazed them with musical mastery, plus the visual image of the mix of the wild mixed Afro and Cherokee guy wearing a psychedelic bandleader suit, dancing on his effect pedals. setting his guitar on fire and conjuring unheard-of sounds out of his row of amps, and the offstage, private, sensitive, soft-spoken and articulate poet whose troubled mind was tormented by his life as a star. His struggle to find emotional and psychological freedom in life, combined with his supremely gifted musical talent as a tool to release this inner storm created a once-in-a-lifetime...Experience.
By the time Chas Chandler, retiring bass player from the Animals and looking to start a new career as a producer and manager, dropped in to the Cafe Wha? in Greenwich Village to see this kid play on the recommendation of a friend, Jimmy James and the Blue Flames were established locally as a pretty hot act but they were living hand-to-mouth, playing dives for chump change and just hanging by a thread in New York's lower East side. Chas saw potential in this kid. Chandler had a vision in his mind from seeing what Jimmy could do and he made him an offer he couldn't refuse...move to England and put the pieces together of a band like no other. Dare to be great. Take it beyond the next level. Create a new dimension. All these seemingly pie-in-the-sky ideals made sense to Jimmy Hendrix. He went to England in 1966 and did what Chandler said to do. Chandler changed the spelling of Jimmy's name to Jimi. He held auditions for his band and settled on John "Mitch" Mitchell, and guitarist Noel Redding as his band, which he aptly named "The Jimi Hendrix Experience".
The next three years have been thoroughly documented day-by-day and detailed from every perspective possible, but in summary I can say that he didn't have much down time until the end. Drugs, endless touring, managerial and band personnel changes, intense recording, jamming with many of his contemporaries and a fringe lifestyle took their toll, and he often found himself inexplicably homeless and penniless at the height of his fame, just as he'd been when he started out. This kind of predicament was almost expected to happen back then. This was before rock 'n roll started getting up at 5 AM and went jogging, had accounting firms, and teams of lawyers directing their finances and had nutritionists and fitness gurus controlling their diets and exercize regimens. In the late 60s, rock stars like Hendrix were living on the razor's edge between life and death. It would be a long time before that situation would change, and it never really completely did change.
There were notable peaks. The Monterrey Pop Festival gig. Woodstock. The Fillmore East New Year's Eve gig (which Bill Graham said was the best show he ever saw). His 5 albums: Are You Experienced, Axis: Bold As Love, Electric Ladyland (on which he played almost all of the bass parts since Noel had left the band by then), Band of Gypsys (from the Fillmore East gig), The Cry Of Love, and Rainbow Bridge are the real and lasting documents of his career.
All of the main musicians from his bands that played on these records and toured and performed with him, and many of his mentors have died except for Billy Cox, his bass player with the Band of Gypsys. Mitch Mitchell, Noel Redding, Chas Chandler, Buddy Miles, Jesse Ed Davis, Michael Jefferies, all gone. Billy Cox has continued to promote Hendrix's legacy, philosophy and style with his continued career. Larry Lee, Jimi's rhythym guitarist at Woodstock, as well as Juma Sultan and Jerry Velez from the same band, Gypsy Sun and Rainbows, are still around. Eddie Kramer, the engineer on Jimi's official Capitol Records recording projects, is still living. Alan Douglas was in possession of some of Jimi's studio noodlings, and he put 2 albums together from those tapes with posthumous backing from studio musicians. Not recommended, but in existence, nonetheless.
I believe his finest moment was at Woodstock in August of 1969. His impomptu version of the Star-Spangled Banner has stood the test of time and was a truly inspired anthem that united a nation for decades to come. In my world, that event in his life stands as a testament to Jimi Hendrix's genius and the depth, passion and conviction that he possessed. It is the song I have picked as Jimi's greatest.
His array of effects were not trickery; they were all analog devices that anybody else could buy at a music store. He had a Dallas Arbiter Fuzz-Face pedal, an Electro-Harmonix Big Muff, which is a power-booster and distortion pedal, a Uni-Vibe reverb and vibrato pedal, a Vox Cry-Baby Wah-Wah pedal, and they were all battery-powered. His amp of choice was a Marshall 100-watt stack with 4 12-inch Celestion speakers. Everything was turned up all the way. He controlled the volume with his guitar's volume knob. The studio effects that were applied to his music were phase-shifting, delay and echo, voice-doubling and octave-splitting. He didn't use any of the studio effects in live performance, though. This was before digital technology took over, and they tuned by ear back then.
Completely self-taught, he was a 100% left-handed guitarist. His setup was a perfect mirror-image of a right-handed player. Even the guitar was flipped over instead of him using a left-handed player's guitar, but it was strung properly. The upside-down Stratocaster was an iconic image that is instantly identified with the Hendrix style. Others have tried to copy him and duplicate what he did, but hey. Sorry, guys. You're good, but you, sir, are no Jimi Hendrix.
I've seen them try. Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Johnson, Robin Trower, Frank Marino, Randy Hansen, Ernie Isley, even to some extent, Randy California, who in my opinion had the right to do it since he was renamed Randy California by Hendrix when he played in Jimmy's band in Greenwich Village before the Experience and Randy's band Spirit came to be. I saw Jose Feliciano play an incredible "Purple Haze" one night. The Red Hot Chili Peppers did an excellent "Crosstown Traffic". There were many more, but for as great as these guys could play, for the sincerity and depth of their determination to keep Hendrix's music alive, and for all the respect I have for them, no matter how great of an example of your playing ability you are making, Jimi Hendrix simply cannot be redone and have it sound like the original. Eric Clapton's version of "Little Wing" and Stevie Ray's "Voodoo Chile" are indeed great, but I'd pick one original Hendrix song over everything that has been done to cover his work combined.
As a musician, I can simply say: Hendrix happens. When he shows up in you. You don't calculate and predetermine what time that will be and what Hendrix you're going to play. HE does it. It's happened to me. Here is the best way I can describe it: You're playing, you reach a certain point, and there he is. A door opens and he walks in and takes over. It's fleeting, but it's the most awesome feeling a guitarist could ever have.
I have never attempted to sound, imitate or "be" like Jimi Hendrix. The few times I was compared to him, I flatly refused to accept that compliment, despite the good intentions of the people who said that to me. It's not true.
Hendrix is a living spirit. He exists in the realm of pure inspiration. He manifests himself within the soul of the artist. That is where you'll find him. It's the only way his spirit could live all these years until his soul and his body are unified in eternity as a natural existential element of passage. That didn't happen when his body died. Since then he wandered the earth restlessly, without peace, and his journey continued until his karma evened out. I have recently felt that with Jimi's 75th year, his soul is finding peace at last. As for me, his brief presence was grace from God. I have no doubt that not all of us have had that happen, but that is my belief. It happened to me.
To Jimi, to all of us, and to the Lord, I am grateful for this time to write to you today. Thank you. May God bless Jimi Hendrix and all he did for us.
Let the good times roll.
Love to All, JB
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