Full name, James Marshall Hendrix; born November 27, 1942, in Seattle, Wash.; died from suffocation as a result of acute barbiturate intoxication, September 18, 1970, in London, England; son of James Allen (a landscaper) and Lucille Hendrix. Education: Attended Garfield High School, Seattle, Wash., to age 16. Military service: U.S. Army, 1959-c. 1961; served with 101st Airborne Division.

Without a doubt, Jimi Hendrix will be remembered as the most innovative electric guitarist of all time. In a professional career that lasted less than a decade, he created music that still sounds as fresh and breathtaking today as it did when he took the pop world by storm in 1967. As producer Alan Douglas told Guitar World, Hendrix "essentially established the school and nobody's graduated from the school yet. Consequently, he is the only reference."

Hendrix picked up the guitar at age eleven and was soon playing with local rock groups as a teenager in his hometown of Seattle, Washington. He left school at sixteen and, with the permission of his father, joined the Army a year later as a paratrooper. But that career ended after he was injured on his twenty-sixth jump, forcing him to be discharged. While in the service he befriended bassist Billy Cox and the two jammed together and swapped guitar licks. Hendrix absorbed the music of the blues masters like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Albert and B.B. King, and Lightnin' Hopkins, and even went so far as to sleep with his guitar because he had heard that his idols had done the same. (The blues influence was very deep; check out his song "Red House").

Once out of the Army he began concentrating on music and hit the chitlin circuit as a backing guitarist for a host of popular rock and rhythm and blues artists: Little Richard, Jackie Wilson, the Isley Brothers, Curtis Knight, Wilson Pickett, Ike and Tina Turner, King Curtis, and James Brown. Hendrix also teamed with Cox in the King Kasuals, providing support for performers including Slim Harpo and Nappy Brown. During this period, from around 1962-1964, he began incorporating trademark crowd-pleasers (playing the guitar with his teeth, behind his back, and between his legs) and could just as easily peel off a Charlie Christian-styled jazz lick, a scorching rocker, or a low-down blues.

Hendrix hit New York in 1964, changing his name to Jimmy James and fronting his own band called the Blue Flames. Fellow guitarist John Hammond, Jr., heard them playing at a dingy little club called the Cafe Wa in Greenwich Village and asked Hendrix to join his group, but their eventual collaboration at the nearby Cafe Au Go Go lasted only a few weeks. "I knew there was no way he was going to be my guitar player," Hammond told Guitar Player. "He was his own star." Others--including the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Animals--caught wind of the new hot-shot guitarist who made colleagues feel embarrassed that they had even picked up the instrument.

Chas Chandler (former Animals' bassist) convinced Hendrix to come back with him to London, where the music scene was really taking off. On the promise that he would get to meet Eric Clapton, Hendrix agreed and headed overseas to search for the proper backup band. The rhythm section auditions produced Mitch Mitchell, a free-form jazz flavored drummer, and Noel Redding, a guitarist who switched to bass for the job. In just three weeks the Jimi Hendrix Experience was formed and playing live. Managers Chandler and Michael Jeffrey had the trio frizz their hair and dress as outlandishly as possible to create a stir as their first single, "Hey Joe," went all the way to Number 6 on the U.K. charts in 1967. An appearance on the British television show "Ready, Steady Go" followed before their next single, "Purple Haze," set the world on its ear with Hendrix's distorted guitar assault.

Beatle Paul McCartney persuaded Monterey Pop Festival officials to book Hendrix despite the fact his first album had not even been released yet. His performance transformed the twenty-four-year-old into a immediate superstar. While noted for being shy and unassuming offstage, Hendrix's showmanship floored the Monterey audience as he pulled out all the stops following the Who's thunderous set and finalized the gig by burning his guitar onstage. Amazingly (or foolishly), the Jimi Hendrix Experience was then booked as the opening act for the Monkees 1967 U.S. tour but, as the two acts appealed to totally different audiences, it was a short-lived venture. Supposedly, Hendrix's management team concocted a false story that the Daughters of the American Revolution had Hendrix banned. Regardless, his debut LP, Are You Experienced?, was soon commanding listener's attention with an exciting new sound: "The Wind Cries Mary," "Third Stone From the Sun," "Fire," "Foxy Lady," the two previously releases singles, and five more tunes. Guitar Player 's Jas Obrecht called it the "most revolutionary debut album in rock guitar history."

Hendrix had literally reinvented the electric guitar's potential and became its first true innovator since Chuck Berry. Although earlier in his career Hendrix could play ambidextrously, he eventually settled on using a right-handed Fender Statocaster restrung upside down and played left-handed. He manipulated the tone and volume controls (which were now on top) to make unique effects and became the first to fully realize the vibrato arm's usefullness by creating dive-bombing shrieks and bending full chords. He custom shaped the bar himself in order to obtain a three-step variation instead of the stock bar's one step. His rapid-fire flicking of the toggle switch produced a bullet-spitting rattle ("Machine Gun") while his huge hands allowed for extreme reaches and funky chordings.

Compared to contemporary guitarists, Hendrix's use of special electronic effects seems very limited. His basic setup included a Univibe (to simulate a rotating speaker), a wah-wah, and a fuzz-box. They key, however, was to channel this through a stack of screaming Marshall amplifiers with the volume wide open. Hendrix harnessed the feedback whereas others had barely been able to control it. His ability to play clean leads and distored rhythm simultaneously is still a mystery. Like John Coltrane on the tenor sax, Hendrix expanded the boundaries of his instrument like no one before or since.

In 1968 Chandler quit and Jeffrey became sole manager of the Experience, an arrangement which troubled Hendrix until his death (almost twenty years later, Hendrix's estate is still a financial nightmare). He released his second LP, Axis: Bold as Love, which contained more of his magical sounds on tunes like "Little Wing," "If 6 Was 9," "Castles Made of Sand," and "EXP." His third album, the double set Electric Ladyland, was released just nine months later and displayed Hendrix's flair for studio tricks and included guest musicians that included Steve Winwood and Jack Cassidy.

Larry Coryell told Guitar World that Hendrix "had a Christ-like appeal; he was more than just a guitar player, he was a personality." As his first three LPs went gold, Hendrix began getting caught up in the superstar trappings. The band became consumed by drinking, pill-popping, and dope smoking while Hendrix's voracious sexual appetite was fueled by a constant barrage of hangers-on. "In a way, Jimi's ego fed off it; but in the end the necessity and constant pressure to be Jimi Hendrix took much more out of him," Redding stated in Musician. "Everyone took, took, took from Jimi. The only things they gave were drugs." By mid-1969 the Experience had disintegrated. They played their last show on June 29th at the Denver Pop Festival, the same month their Smash Hits LP was released (featuring their first and only Top 20 single, "All Along the Watchtower").

In August of 1969 Hendrix played the Woodstock Festival with an assemblage of fellow musicians and created a triumph of improvisation on "The Star Spangled Banner," complete with exploding bombs and electronic warfare. Pressured by black militant groups, but wanting no part of politics, Hendrix formed the all-black Band of Gypsys with former Army pal Bill Cox on bass and Buddy Miles on drums. Although the group lasted only a few months, a live performance was captured on the Band of Gypsys LP. Hendrix went next with the lineup of Cox and Mitchell for the Isle of Wight Festival and his final performance at the Isle of Fehmarn in West Germany on September 6, 1970. Twelve days later Hendrix died after inhaling his own vomit caused by barbiturate intoxication.

Debates continue as to whether or not Hendrix was washed up musically just prior to his death. Some say that he could not perform at all, which is not surprising given his physical state. Others point out that he was experiencing a sort of musical rebirth and was very excited about future projects which included moving towards jazz and avant garde areas. He had also expressed an interest in utilizing big-band musicians and classical concepts in addition to learning music theory. An idea of where Hendrix was headed can be heard on Nine To The Universe, released in 1980 and filled with some very unique studio jams.

Since 1974 producer Alan Douglas has been in charge of releasing all posthumous Hendrix material. However, his first two efforts, Crash Landing and Midnight Lightning, received the outrage of purists who were upset that Douglas had stripped the recordings of everything but Hendrix's guitar and then hired studio musicians to play the missing parts over. Even so, with the general public so hungry for Hendrix's genius, Crash Landing became a Top Ten LP. After a few more less than satisfactory LPs, Douglas finally came across with two fine compact disc versions of vintage Hendrix, Live at Winterland and Radio One. But, with dozens of bootleg LPs available, Hendrix will also be remembered as one of the most ripped-off and artistically abused artists of all time.

The aura of Hendrix still lives: guitarists like Robin Trower and Stevie Ray Vaughan pay their respects to the master while turning on new generations to his music. Others, like Randy Hansen's Machine Gun, go so far as to try and recreate Hendrix's image and sound note-for-note, but the aping seems futile, as some of the material just cannot be reproduced even today. A film biography has also been in the works for some time but finding an actor to fill the lead is proving troublesome.

Speculation exists as to what Jimi Hendrix would be playing were he still alive. Sadly, the best answer to that question probably came from the late Roy Buchanan in Rolling Stone, "I wasn't surprised at all when Hendrix died. You knew he was going to die just by listening to his music. It was all there, he had done it [all] and he almost had to die to finalize it."

by Calen D. Stone

Jimi Hendrix's Career

Began playing guitar at age 11; played with various local rock bands during while attending high school; following discharge from U.S. Army, performed as touring backing guitarist for numerous rock and rhythm and blues artists, including Little Richard, Jackie Wilson, the Isley Brothers, Curtis Knight, Wilson Pickett, Ike and Tina Turner, King Curtis, and James Brown, c. 1962-64; performed as Jimmy James with band the Blue Flames, in New York City, 1964; moved to London, England and formed the Jimi Hendrix Experience (with guitarist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell), c. 1967, group released first record, 1967, dissolved, June 29, 1969; solo performer, 1969-70.

Jimi Hendrix's Awards

Named pop musician of the year by Melody Maker magazine, 1967 and 1968; selected Billboard artist of the year, 1968; Rolling Stone magazine's performer of the year and rock and roll album of the year, 1968; presented key to the city of Seattle, 1968; named Playboy magazine's artist of the year, 1969; elected to down beat magazine's Readers' Poll Hall of Fame, 1970; named Guitar Player magazine's rock guitarist of the year, 1970, and presented the magazine's lifetime achievement award, 1983.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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