In 1959, James Marshall Hendrix enlisted in the U.S. Army and served as a paratrooper, which is appropriate, because his style was so revolutionary that in retrospect, he seemingly dropped from the sky armed with a guitar and blazed a trail followed by a generation of players.
After being released from the Army, Hendrix cut his teeth on the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” a string of clubs in the South so named because they served chitlins’ and other soul food. He was employed as lead guitarist by blues singer/harmonica player Slim Harpo, soul singer/guitarist Curtis Mayfield, rhythm and blues singer Sam Cooke, and rock and roll singer/piano player Little Richard, among others. These varied apprenticeships fed the wellspring from which Hendrix’ musical vision flowed.
Looking to step out of the shadows and into the limelight, Hendrix moved to New York’s Greenwich Village, where he fronted his own band, Jimmy James and the Blue Flames. While playing a gig at the Cafe Wha?, Hendrix was discovered by Chas Chandler, bassist of the Animals, who brought Hendrix to London and became his manager. Upon his arrival in England, Hendrix changed the spelling of his first name to “Jimi,” and formed the Jimi Hendrix Experience, with Noel Redding on bass and Mitch Mitchell on drums.
In the early days of the Experience, Jimi began playing a Fender Stratocaster. While sitting in with Cream, he first plugged into a Marshall, which then became his amplifier of choice. Among the vanguard in the use of effects pedals, Hendrix used Crybaby and Vox Wah Wahs, a Uni-Vibe, and a Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face to articulate his trademark distortion drenched leads. These musical engines fueled Jimi’s journey into the rock and roll stratosphere.
The band’s debut album asked the question “Are You Experienced?,” and the answer was that no one had ever experienced anything like it. “Foxey Lady,” “Fire,” “The Wind Cries Mary,” and “Hey Joe” are among the classic songs that have since become psychedelic rock standards. The LSD influenced “Purple Haze” featured the Octavia, a guitar effect invented by Roger Mayer that mixed the instrument’s original note with a tone an octave higher. The title song was driven by an overdubbed, backwards guitar solo that took the listener on a musical acid trip.
In June of 1967, the Experience performed at the Monterey International Pop Festival on the recommendation of Paul McCartney. Their set included covers of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby,” and the Troggs’ “Wild Thing.” Following The Who on stage, Jimi was looking for a way to top Pete Townshend’s guitar smashing finale, “My Generation.” Before the show, Hendrix searched the crowd for a bottle of lighter fluid, which he used to set his guitar ablaze, at the conclusion of “Wild Thing.” With his virtuosic musicianship and outlandish stage theatrics, Hendrix amazed the Monterey audience, heralding his triumphant return to America.
Jimi’s second album, “Axis: Bold as Love,” expanded the lyrical and musical universe he had created. “Up from the Skies” was a science fiction themed single with jazzy, wah wah inflected rhythm and lead parts. A Leslie speaker gave the slow, wistful “Little Wing” a liquid tonal quality. “If 6 Was 9” voiced the hippie street politics of the Sixties, and “Bold as Love” was colored by a studio produced phasing effect that transported the listener into outer space.
While recording “Electric Ladyland,” Hendrix augmented his musical palette with the addition of various instrumentalists. Keyboard player Steve Winwood and Jefferson Airplane bassist Jack Casady jammed on “Voodoo Chile,” drummer Buddy Miles sat in on “Rainy Day, Dream Away” and “Still Raining, Still Dreaming,” Al Kooper played piano on “Long Hot Summer Night,” and guitarist Dave Mason strummed rhythm on Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.” The album closed with “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” a masterpiece which captured the essence of Jimi’s improvisational spirit.
After the “Ladyland” sessions, Noel Redding left the band, and was replaced by Jimi’s Army buddy, bassist Billy Cox. Mitch Mitchell remained on drums, while guitarist Larry Lee and percussionists Juma Sultan and Jerry Velez were added. This group, named Gypsy Sun and Rainbows, backed Hendrix at Woodstock. On a stunning version of “The Star Spangled Banner,” Hendrix artfully manipulated the Strat’s whammy bar to replicate the sound and fury of “the bombs bursting in air and the rockets’ red glare.”
On December 31st, 1969, Hendrix celebrated New Year’s Eve by playing a concert at the Fillmore East with the Band of Gypsys. Flanked by Billy Cox and Buddy Miles, Jimi tore through a set highlighted by “Machine Gun,” a Vietnam protest song in which Hendrix’ Uni-Vibe laced guitar lines and Miles’ military drum bursts simulated the sounds of battle.
Hendrix then formed the second Jimi Hendrix Experience with Billy Cox and Mitch Mitchell. This trio embarked upon a tour which included an appearance at the Isle of Wight, where they played the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” and “Red House,” Jimi’s signature slow blues composition. “Freedom,” “Angel,” “Room Full of Mirrors,” and “Dolly Dagger” are among the unfinished sketches posthumously released on “First Rays of the New Rising Sun,” the album Hendrix was in the process of recording before he died on September 18th, 1970.
Although his flame was extinguished at the early age of twenty seven, Jimi Hendrix’ revolutionary guitar pyrotechnics ignited an inferno that still rages through the heart and soul of rock and roll.