Perhaps the most traumatic moment in Hendrix’s life was the day he first met his father.
Little Johnny Hendrix was born in Seattle in 1942 to a flighty teenage mum, Lucille, who was unprepared for motherhood. His father Al had been drafted into the army before his son was born. Lucille was flighty, something of a drinker and had to work to make a living, so struggled to look after Johnny for more than a few days at a time. Johnny was mostly looked after by aunts and people from his church. At two he was taken from Seattle to California to live with a friend of his grandmother. At last Johnny had some stability.
His father returned from the army in 1945 and traveled to California to see his son for the first time. After just a few days Al took Johnny from the family where he had spent the last year or so being nurtured and cared for and took him eight hundred miles by train back to Seattle. On the way back a confused Hendrix cried to his dad “Leave me alone! I want my family!”
If that wasn’t unsettling enough, suspecting Johnny may have been named after a boyfriend his wife had taken whilst he was at war, Al renamed the confused nearly four-year-old boy James Marshall Hendrix.
So young Johnny is still not four years old and he is ripped away from his family to live with a stranger who says he is his father, and who gives him a new name, Jimmy.
Thanks Dad. You’re a brick.
New family, new town, new name, and new brothers… Leon was born a year later, and soon after Lucille had a third son, Joseph. All might have worked out had Al and Lucille been more capable.
But Jimmy’s parents – never happily married it seemed – divorced by the time Jimmy was nine years old and Al got custody of James and Leon, whilst Joseph was “fostered out”.
Concerned neighbours would leave food for the neglected teenage boys as their father would go out gambling. Later Leon too would go to a foster home.
It’s a tough, unstable childhood, the sort of subject matter John Steinbeck might have dismissed as being a bit too grim for one of his novels, capped when Jimmy’s mother died of a ruptured spleen when he was fifteen years old. Heck, even Morrissey might have thought twice about writing about such matters…
Music was the one thing that could take Jimmy away from his troubles.
When he was fourteen years old Hendrix saw Elvis perform at Sick’s Stadium in Seattle. What captivated him more than Elvis was the backing band. “They made playing music seem like the best thing in the world” he said. When he turned sixteen – and after playing an acoustic guitar for a couple of years – Jimmy finally got his first electric guitar earned by helping his father in the garden. Jimmy would take his guitar to school, and sit at the steps, endlessly playing and figuring out chords to the latest pop tunes.
Jimmy got into trouble when eighteen, “borrowing” cars and shoplifting. A counsellor took him to one side and Jimmy got the message. If he went to jail, he knew he wouldn’t be able to play guitar. In 1961 he signed up for the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army. But wearing a uniform and conforming to his superiors wasn’t a natural fit. Within eighteen months he engineered a discharge.
Jimmy travelled to Nashville to find work as a musician and for a couple of years backed Curtis Mayfield, Wilson Pickett, Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke. In 1964, tired of the circuit and still only 21 years old, Jimmy travelled to New York. He played with the Isley brothers and Little Richard, but throughout it all, he was broke, and felt a failure. He had been four years out of the army and success still felt miles away. As it happened, things were about to change…
The second time a stranger renamed Hendrix was in far happier circumstances than the first time.
By 1966, Jimi had followed in the footsteps of Bob Dylan, playing in Greenwich Village in New York. Now billed as Jimmy James and The Blue Flames, an early show was seen by an English model, Linda Keith, who happened to be Keith Richards’ girlfriend. Linda told Chas Chandler of The Animals about Jimi. Chas had been looking for a chance to step into management or record production. Chas liked what he saw. He signed him up, and they agreed to go with the new, more striking spelling of “Jimi”. Stage names still seemed to be compulsory in the sixties, as Arnold Dorsey* found out to his cost.
From this moment Jimi was a fast worker. He left for the UK the day his first passport arrived in the post at the end of September 1966. The night he arrived in England he met Kathy Etchingham, who would be his girlfriend for the next couple of years. Like I said, a fast worker.
The most striking thing about this story now is the pace of Jimi’s rise in fortunes.
It’s the Autumn of 1966, and with a few notable exceptions, the pop charts are still mostly rubbish. Jim Reeves’ “Distant Drums” is number one. Ken Dodd is a credible pop star in the Top Thirty. Ken Dodd! It might not know it yet, but the world is crying out for The Next Big Thing, and it feels a decent bet The Next Big Thing won’t be hailing from Knotty Ash.
Music is revving up a little. The Beatles have released Revolver. The Stones have “Have You Seen Your Mother Baby Standing In The Shadows”. The Who has “I’m A Boy” and The Small Faces “All or Nothing”. I mean, sure, The New Vaudeville Band is in the top ten with something called “Winchester Cathedral” which is properly, fundamentally terrible, but hey, two months ago Eric Clapton joined forces with Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce in Windsor to debut a band that would explore the blues as a power trio. They’ve called it “Cream”…
On October 1st 1966, a week after arriving in the UK, Chas Chandler arranged for Jimi to “sit in” at a Cream concert at London Polytechnic. Ever the Surrey gent, Clapton politely allowed Hendrix to play a song of his choice, Howlin’ Wolf’s Killin’ Floor. As he saw Jimi play, Clapton’s jaw banged loudly as it hit the floor.
Hendrix fired off his licks whilst Clapton turned pale and by all accounts was rendered speechless. Hendrix admitted “it seems so pushy that I would have barged into someone else’s show that way. I can hardly believe that I treated Clapton – a hero of mine – with so little respect. I knew I was being rude. But at the time I had to get moving.”
Jimi still didn’t have a band, but just a few days after the Clapton show the line up for The Experience was finalised. Brilliantly, the choice of taking either Mitch Mitchell or Aynsley Dunbar on drums was decided by the toss of a coin, which approach would certainly make the X-Factor a briefer experience for all involved without really affecting the end product.
After three weeks “Hey Joe” was released on Track Records, because Decca turned Jimi down, continuing their catastrophic strategy of not signing the world’s greatest pop acts, just as they had The Beatles.
Well done them.
Nevertheless, the single failed to chart at first.
So just a month after the release of “Hey Joe”, and with his debut single not in the charts, Jimi would have another one of those traumatic moments in his life, only this time for all the right reasons…
On November 25 1966 Chas Chandler arranged a showcase gig for the new band. It was a make or break strategy. Invite the press to a lunchtime showcase to show off the new band. Jimi and band would play, and hopefully blow everyone away. Play a bad show, and the only thing they would blow would be the opportunity. What’s more, to attract the press, an audience was assembled featuring one or two well known musicians. No-one important, just Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Pete Townsend.
No pressure then.
The still virtually unknown Hendrix – just 23 years old and with a hard life behind him – had to perform the gig of his life, at a lunchtime showcase in front of the world’s most famous musicians and the assembled press with his hastily assembled six-week-old band. And if they blew it, they were back to the drawing board, and would be branded a failure.
Hendrix and co played for forty incendiary minutes. The set included Hey Joe, Wild Thing, Like A Rolling Stone and Johnny B Goode and they went down a storm. John Lennon was first in the dressing room afterwards to offer his compliments.
Boosted by the press coverage and publicity “Hey Joe” entered the charts by the end of the year, eventually reaching number six. Two more singles followed, including “The Wind Cries Mary” which Jimi wrote after arguing with Etchingham (whose middle name is Mary) about her miserable attempt to make mashed potatoes, causing her to smash plates and walk off down the street. This is, I am sure, exactly what you imagined that beautiful song was about.
The debut album “Are You Experienced?” was released in May 1967 and on 4th June The Experience was topping the bill at The Saville Theatre, opening their set with the title track of Sgt Pepper, released just two days before, impressing the onlooking McCartney.
Less than two weeks later Jimi, Mitch and Noel were to appear in the USA at the Monterey Pop Festival, just as their debut album reached number 2 on the UK album charts.
Celebrated documentary maker DA Pennebaker was hired to film the festival. He was told to shoot one song per performer and Jimi was one of the last to go onstage.
On went Hendrix in front of an expectant audience. The Who had been on already. They had won a coin toss to make sure they wouldn’t have to follow Jimi. That’s right, The Who won the toss and the world’s loudest band with the maddest of madcap drummers, alpha male vocalist, ox-like bassist and a guitar-smashing guitarist elected to bat first to avoid being blown offstage by Jimi.
And to Pennebaker it quickly became clear that he was witnessing something very special indeed. After the first song, instead of stopping, he decided to keep shooting a second song, so remarkable was the performance. Then a third. And a fourth….
By the end of the set, Hendrix had set fire to his guitar and Pennebaker had just shot every single mesmerising song. Pop history was made and Hendrix had a platform to global stardom.
No wonder he liked Bob Dylan…as his record collection in the new exhibition in Brook St reveals.
The flat in Brook St? It’s the one that he and Kathy Etchingham moved into in 1968, which has just been restored and opened to the public.
It’s like a time machine…
There’s a 1951 FT79 Epiphone acoustic guitar bought second hand in New York for $25 on which Hendrix composed many of his songs over the next three years. (The guitar was later given to Alan Parker who used it on the recording of Bowie’s Diamond Dogs).
In the bedroom there’s a game of monopoly, a carpet sweeper, and his record collection.
I wondered about the Monopoly set. Kathy Etchingham wrote in her memoir “the little spare money we did have we would spend on games like Risk, Monopoly, Scrabble and Twister, which we would buy at Hamleys. It was as if we both wanted to indulge ourselves in the sort of childhoods we had missed.”
Given their chaotic upbringings, it is easy to understand why they would have done that. Hendrix and Etchingham furnished the apartment, nipping down to the fabric department in John Lewis and Hendrix described the flat as the “first real home of my own”
It was Jimi’s days in the army coupled with time playing as a uniformly-dressed sideman to the likes of Little Richard that led to his flamboyant fashion sense. After a life of conformity, he was finally able to be himself. His room was similarly decorated with feathers and elaborate fabrics, whilst for clothing he would go shopping in Portobello market and the Kings Road. “In some ways his tastes were more feminine than mine” notes Etchingham.
And the record collection? It’s fascinating as a music enthusiast to flick through the LPs laid out next to Hendrix’s turntable (note: the LPs are all replicas of ones in Jimi’s collection, but the feeling is the same). There’s plenty of Dylan (the most battered records Hendrix owned), blues LPs and Handel’s Messiah (well, of course – they “flat-shared”!). Django Reinhardt’s Django is there – Hendrix named his “Band of Gypsys” in honour of the guitarist. Also present is an album by Sam Gopal – whose 1967 album Escalator featured Hendrix’s former roadie, the recently departed Lemmy, on guitar…
The Handel / Hendrix Museum at 23 Brook St is now open to the public.
- “Through Gypsy Eyes” by Kathy Etchingham.
- “Jimi Hendrix The Man, The Magic, The Truth” by Sharon Lawrence
* The real name of Mr Englebert Humperdinck
Categories: Rock Music