In September 1966, when James Marshall Hendrix arrived in London to record his debut album, fronting his own band, he was just two months shy of his 24th birthday. He had been playing professionally since 1962, when he and bassist Billy Cox had left the US Army, where they met, and moved to Nashville. While he was in Tennessee, Hendrix played on the Chitlin’ Circuit, sometimes referred to as the urban theater circuit. These were venues in the South, the Eastern Seaboard, and the Midwest that featured African-American performers. Hendrix backed a number of soul singers during his time on the circuit, including Wilson Pickett and Sam Cooke.
Hendrix moved to Harlem in early 1964, where he auditioned for the Isley Brothers. This influential R&B group had been successful since the late ’50s; he played on their two-sided single “Testify (Pts. 1 & 2),” and toured with the Isleys for much of the rest of the year. He also appeared on Don Covay’s “Mercy Mercy” before moving on in October to join Little Richard’s band. Hendrix played on Little Richard’s cover of another Don Covay song, “I Don't Know What You Got but It's Got Me,” but his stage antics took some attention from the great rocker, who let him go in July 1965. Hendrix returned to the Isley Brothers briefly and then left them to play with Curtis Knight & the Squires, adding to his recording résumé in both cases. He also played with soul music saxophonist King Curtis.
By 1966, Hendrix was tired of life as a backing musician on the R&B circuit and moved to Greenwich Village. At that time, he was using the stage name Jimmy James. He started playing at Cafe Wha?, and began a residency there fronting the house band as Jimmy James and the Blue Flames. The band included guitarist Randy Wolfe and bassist Randy Palmer. To differentiate them, Hendrix gave Palmer the name Randy Texas, after his home state, while Wolfe, hailing from California, became Randy California—the name he kept when he formed the band Spirit with his stepfather, drummer Ed Cassidy.
Hendrix quickly became the talk of the town, and other guitarists came into Cafe Wha? to see him play. Mike Bloomfield, who helped Dylan go electric, would say later, “He burned me to death.” British rockers on tour in the United States, like Bryan “Chas” Chandler, bass player with the Animals, would stop by. In the summer of 1966, the Animals were about to split and Chandler was looking to get into managing and producing. Model Linda Keith, Keith Richards’s girlfriend at the time, had told Chandler about Hendrix. Chandler was impressed and offered to manage and record him when the Animals finished their final tour. Chandler came back to the Village in September, and soon he and Hendrix were on a plane to London.
When they arrived in England, Chandler convinced Hendrix to change his first name to the more exotic-sounding “Jimi,” and the two of them began auditioning musicians for a band. They selected Noel Redding on bass and “Mitch” Mitchell on drums to form the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Chandler arranged for Hendrix to sit in for a few songs with Cream at a gig at the Polytechnic of Central London. Cream is considered to be the world’s first supergroup, and Hendrix was a fan of guitarist Eric Clapton. Hendrix guested with other bands and built a following, especially among guitarists, who were both impressed and intimidated.
Chandler brought the Experience into the studio in October 1966 to record “Hey Joe,” which Hendrix had played in his Cafe Wha? sets. The song had already been covered by the Leaves, the Byrds, Love, and many others, but Hendrix’s version became the definitive one. He played it in a less aggressive and more fluid style, based on folk singer Tim Rose’s recording of the song. Noel Redding was a guitar player when he joined the group and had to use Chandler’s bass for the session.
Although Hendrix followed the broad outlines of Rose’s recording of “Hey Joe,” he charts his own course for the song with the intro, where he plays a series of single notes against an open E string, then switches to a lower note interval, before being joined by Mitchell and Redding as he plays the final riff that leads into the song. While Hendrix is known for his innovative use of volume, distortion, and feedback, he plays “Hey Joe” with a clean tone.
His command of the fingerboard is apparent in every moment of the song, which Hendrix fills with intervals and hammer-on variations on its simple chord progression, expanding and developing the harmonic possibilities. The solo is brief, but tightly constructed, and combines single notes with intervals and chord fragments. Hendrix often played with a lot of speed and flash, but this solo unfolds easily, staying close to the melody while demonstrating how logically and thoughtfully he developed his solos.
In early November, the trio recorded “Stone Free,” a Hendrix composition that became the B-side of his first single. Hendrix wanted to record a cover of “Killing Floor,” but Chandler suggested that it would be better to start recording Hendrix’s own tunes. “Hey Joe,” backed with “Stone Free,” hit the charts in late December and peaked at No.6. In January 1967, Hendrix recorded “Purple Haze,” which reached No.3 on the UK charts when it was released in March. The Experience had already begun recording its first album, and Track Records released Are You Experienced on May 12, 1967. It remained in the UK album chart for 33 weeks, peaking at No.2.
In America, Hendrix was not gaining traction. Reprise Records, his US label, had released “Hey Joe,” but it stiffed. Hendrix’s breakthrough in his own country was his performance at the Monterey Pop Festival on June 18, 1967. Paul McCartney had encouraged the festival’s organizers to book Hendrix, and his appearance there created a sensation. The Who had been on stage earlier that evening, and in his set he pulled out all the stops to outdo them. He played the guitar behind his back and with his teeth (tricks he had learned from guitarists on the Chitlin’ Circuit) and turned his Marshall and Sound City amplifiers up full. At the close of the set, he lit his guitar on fire and smashed it on the stage.
Hendrix’s big splash at Monterey led to a series of gigs on the West Coast, creating even more buzz around him. Reprise finally released Are You Experienced in the United States on August 23, 1967. At Hendrix’s request, the label changed the cover to a brighter, more psychedelic one, with a photo of the Experience taken with a fish-eye lens. The photo emphasized Hendrix’s unique sartorial style, which added his own flair to the Carnaby Street fashions that were the rage at that time.
The label also pulled some songs that were on the UK release of the album, substituting the three UK singles that had been released, “Hey Joe” and “Purple Haze,” and “The Wind Cries Mary.” Reprise also changed the sequence of the remaining songs on the album. For many years, that was the album Americans knew as Are You Experienced, and it’s arguable that it’s a stronger record because of those changes. The album reached No.5 on the Billboard 100 and stayed in the charts for 106 weeks.
“Purple Haze” opens the US version of Are You Experienced, and Americans hearing it for the first time in 1967 were introduced to music that was revolutionary, even by the standards set by the other classic rock albums released that same year. The song begins with Hendrix playing two notes, an A# and the same note an octave higher, against Redding’s playing of the same pattern in E on the bass. Mitchell plays a series of snare hits and pumps the kick-drum pedal. The rhythm section continues as Hendrix plays a line on the low strings in Mixolydian mode, which he repeats and then resolves with the next two lines in a blues pentatonic scale.
I won’t subject every tune on Are You Experienced to an outline of the music theory behind it, but the chord progression of “Purple Haze” does include an E7#9—now known as the Hendrix chord—and an A6, which were not typical chords used in rock at the time. Hendrix’s musical sophistication extends to the solo, which combines jazz phrasings, blues riffs, and even Eastern scales. The solo’s unusual tone comes from his use of an Octavia, a foot pedal that adds distortion and a higher or lower octave note to each note played.
The Experience had recorded its singles and a good deal of Are You Experienced at De Lane Lea and CBS Studios in London. After the success of the first two singles, Polydor, which distributed Track Records, gave Chandler a line of credit to use at Olympic Studios. Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones had recommended the studio to Chandler for its good acoustics and sophisticated recording equipment. There, Hendrix met and worked with Eddie Kramer, who would go on to engineer, mix, and master Hendrix’s subsequent recordings. He remixed “Purple Haze,” along with the recordings that would become part of Are You Experienced, playing a key role in putting Hendrix’s musical vision on tape.
The flanging effect on the rhythm guitar on “Purple Haze,” the effects on Hendrix’s vocals, the placement of the strange spoken words in the background during the guitar solo, and the overall tone of the recording resulted from Kramer’s talent in the studio and his eagerness to experiment. Hendrix and Chandler collaborated during recordings, and the producer was important in moving things in the right direction, but it was Kramer’s expertise that tied things together.
Hendrix’s solo on “Manic Depression” balances brutal, fast barrages of notes with clearly stated melodic passages, and mirrors the mix of emotions expressed in the lyrics, which describe the frustrations of some aspects of life and the release and relief provided by music. Listening to the song confirms how important the other two musicians in the Experience were in helping Hendrix achieve his ends. Mitch Mitchell’s shots to the bell of the ride cymbal and his rolls on the snare and toms throughout help center and propel the music. Redding’s bass shadows Hendrix’s riffs during the song, but it has a softer edge that plays well against the sharpness of the guitar tone and fattens the sound of the track.
The 1967 UK release of Are You Experienced omits “The Wind Cries Mary,” which Track Records released as a single just before it cut the LP loose. It’s one of Hendrix’s best songs, and its inclusion on the US version helps illustrate the full range of Hendrix’s songwriting abilities. It also allows listeners to hear that Hendrix was a gifted lyricist. He had played several Dylan songs live, including “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?,” and in a few months he would record a stunning version of “All Along the Watchtower.” It’s easy to hear Dylan’s influence on the lyrics to “The Wind Cries Mary,” but Hendrix had a unique poetic ear:
After all the jacks are in their boxes
And the clowns have all gone to bed
You can hear happiness staggering on down the street
Footprints dressed in red
And the wind whispers “Mary”
The rhythm guitar playing shows how much Hendrix absorbed from R&B players like Curtis Mayfield—a great songwriter and an underrated guitarist. The chord progression is simple, but Hendrix’s fills and arpeggios build upon it and develop it. His beautiful guitar solo is understated, taking the song’s melody and adding new dimensions. Along with “May This Be Love,” the second ballad on the American release, “The Wind Cries Mary” illustrates how sensitive a songwriter Hendrix could be; a romantic, without becoming mawkish. These two songs also prove him to be a strong and distinctive singer, a talent he downplayed.
“Fire” and “Foxey Lady” are full-out rockers, garage rock filtered through Hendrix’s exceptional guitar abilities and R&B sensibilities. Other songs on Are You Experienced defy easy description. “I Don’t Live Today” is built around a distorted riff that could vaguely be described as heavy metal, but the chord progressions at the song’s opening and chorus are unlike anything else in rock. Hendrix’s unique ear for chords and his use of complex harmonic combinations run through the album, but are particularly evident on “I Don’t Live Today,” “Are You Experienced?,” and “Third Stone From the Sun.”
Hendrix used feedback and other sonic experiments in ways that were deeper and more nuanced than other musicians of the time. He never employed these effects as novelties. Feedback served his ends in the same way unusual flights of sound and noise allowed jazz musicians like John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, or Charles Lloyd to go beyond tonality in order to evoke feelings of frustration, anger, or spiritual longing. When Hendrix played “The Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock in 1969, he used feedback and other effects, often created with the aid of the whammy bar on his guitar, to illustrate the tensions and violence created by the war in Vietnam, anti-war protests, and the civil rights movement.
Are You Experienced is now available on CD in both the UK and US track lineups, with songs originally deleted from the LPs now added to give a full measure of Hendrix’s first recordings with the Experience. “Stone Free” is a prime example of the kind of heavy funk he would explore with the Band of Gypsies two years later. “Can You See Me” pays tribute to his R&B roots, and “Red House” exhibits his formidable command of the blues and his talent in bringing the music forward while staying true to its essence.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience released Axis: Bold as Love on December 1, 1967, and Reprise did not alter the song lineup on that album. It included the beautiful ballad “Little Wing,” and one of Hendrix’s strongest rock’n’roll tunes, “Spanish Castle Magic.” The guitarist’s jazz chops were in full display on “Up From the Skies,” a song that so impressed jazz arranger Gil Evans that he was eager to work with Hendrix. Evans would record an album of Hendrix songs in 1974.
Hendrix brought in other musicians, including Steve Winwood of Traffic and Jack Casady of the Jefferson Airplane, to help out on Electric Ladyland, which he largely recorded in New York at the newly opened Record Plant. The chaotic nature of the sessions, along with Hendrix’s perfectionism, led to Chas Chandler’s departure as producer. Chandler left his managing duties with business partner Michael Jeffery. Noel Redding’s commitments to a second band he had started, Fat Mattress, interfered with some of the recording schedule, and Hendrix himself ended up playing many of the bass parts. Reprise and Track released the album in October 1968.
Electric Ladyland displays the many sides of Hendrix’s growing talents as songwriter, singer, and guitarist. The track that gives the album its title is a gorgeous example of sweet soul that pays tribute to Curtis Mayfield. “Voodoo Chile” and “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” demonstrate his love for the blues and his continuing ability to find new things to say in the genre. His cover of Earl King’s “Come On” pays homage to his R&B roots, and “House Burning Down” announces his interest in addressing social issues.
The album’s masterpiece is a Bob Dylan song. I could devote an entire essay to Hendrix’s interpretation of “All Along the Watchtower,” perhaps the most perfect four minutes of music ever committed to tape. The tone of the guitars, the way Hendrix uses Dave Mason’s 12-string rhythm guitar playing (closely supervised by Hendrix) more as percussion than for the guitar chords, Hendrix’s phrasing as he sings Dylan’s lyrics and finds poetic nuances that even Dylan didn’t quite nail in his recording of the tune on John Wesley Harding, and Mitch Mitchell’s astonishing drum work all add up to a masterpiece of playing, arranging, and recording. Hendrix’s solo unfolds in three distinct sections, each of them brilliant, and each contributing to a tightly constructed, carefully thought-out musical statement.
Hendrix spent time in the recording studio during the first six months of 1969, but by June, Redding had quit and the Experience was defunct. Hendrix experimented with other lineups, such as the six-piece group including Billy Cox and Mitch Mitchell that played at Woodstock. Cox and Hendrix also recorded demos with drummer Buddy Miles, who had played with the Electric Flag.
Hendrix, Cox, and Miles appeared in two shows at the Fillmore East on December 31, 1969 and January 1, 1970. Capitol Records released Band of Gypsys, composed of recordings from the Fillmore shows, in March 1970. The music combined funk, R&B, and hard rock, and featured some of Hendrix’s most concentrated and focused live playing. The effects he produced with a few pedals and a guitar proved that the recording studio was an important tool, but only an extension of Hendrix’s extraordinary playing technique.
After he had completed Electric Ladyland, Hendrix was recording constantly with Billy Cox, Mitch Mitchell, and many other musicians. The Band of Gypsys lasted until late January 1970, and came to an end because Hendrix’s exploitative manager, Michael Jeffery, sabotaged the group in order, he hoped, to reform the Experience. He also imposed a brutal touring schedule on Hendrix, in part to help Jeffery with his own badly managed finances, but also to help pay for the cost of Hendrix’s studio time and the construction of Electric Lady Studios, which Hendrix and Jeffery co-owned.
Electric Lady Studios was built in Greenwich Village, NYC, to Hendrix’s specifications with help from Eddie Kramer. Hendrix had made a few recordings at his new studio before he left for a short tour of Europe that commenced with a headline appearance at the Isle of Wight Festival on August 30, 1970. He played the remaining European shows, but was distracted because he was eager to get back to his new studio. Hendrix was also in talks with Chandler and others to find a way to extricate himself from Jeffery’s management. On September 16, he jammed with Eric Burdon & War at Ronnie Scott’s, in London. Two days later, Jimi Hendrix choked to death in his sleep after taking a large dose of barbiturates. The coroner’s report said, “. . . there is no evidence as to intention to commit suicide.”
Mitch Mitchell and Eddie Kramer assembled the first posthumous studio release by Jimi Hendrix, The Cry of Love, in 1971. Roughly half the album consists of mixes Hendrix had overseen before he died and the remaining tracks were mixed by Kramer. Hendrix had recorded extensively over the previous two years, and a flood of albums featuring these studio recordings have appeared since his death. First Rays of the New Rising Sun (1997) includes the ten tracks from The Cry of Love, augmented with selections that likely would have appeared on the two-LP set Hendrix was working toward.
The many posthumously released albums of Hendrix’s live and studio recordings—too numerous to list here—illustrate his versatility and boundless facility as a guitarist, his eagerness to expand his songwriting into R&B, blues, and beyond, and his growing confidence as a singer. We can never be certain, though, what he might have intended the studio recordings to sound like in their finished form. Hendrix played compulsively, a guitar almost always in his hands. He recorded the same way, eager to get his ideas down on tape.
The three studio albums he completed, along with The Cry of Love and First Rays of the New Rising Sun, are the essential Hendrix. First Rays was the first collection to be released after the Hendrix family regained control of Hendrix’s recorded legacy in 1995. All the studio collections that follow contain examples of his genius, but they often feel unfinished. Of the live albums, Band of Gypsys (1970), Live at Monterey (2007), and Live at Winterland (1987) stand out, and the many others are, to varying degrees, well worth hearing.
Jimi Hendrix was such a unique and visionary musician that even now, 50 years after his death, it’s hard to fully explain him. His many biographies describe his affection for the blues and R&B, and David Henderson’s ’Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky contains hints from Hendrix’s father that his son probably heard the great jazz guitarist Charlie Christian when he was growing up. Part of Hendrix’s skill came from constant playing. The guitar gave him respite from a childhood that was unhappy, even by the standards one might expect of an African American growing up in Seattle in the ’40s and ’50s.
But Hendrix’s command of the guitar goes beyond practice and into the indefinable qualities that defy full explanation and lead to great art. His music contains elements of blues and jazz, but solos veer off to evoke other genres, including ragas from India and strains of Middle Eastern music. Hendrix seems to have absorbed and remembered everything he ever heard and used it to create the sounds coursing through his imagination. He went beyond the technology available to guitarists at the time, so far beyond that guitar electronics designers would soon invent pedals to recreate the sounds he made.
Great records expand the definition of what is possible in music. I can still remember how thrilling it was to play the debut albums by the Doors or Led Zeppelin, and to hear Rubber Soul, Revolver, Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, and so many others for the first time. I still feel that thrill when I hear them now, but they don’t sound as exotic and new as they did the first few times. Hendrix’s records still do. Even after all these years, his music often sounds like something from another culture. Only a very few records, such as Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew or Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, retain that strangeness, the feeling that there is still some secret contained in them that can’t quite be revealed.
Jimi Hendrix died two months before he would have turned 28. He was a star for less than four years, but in that time he released three studio albums, a greatest hits collection, Smash Hits (1968), and a live album. He recorded countless additional hours of music. He influenced many guitarists, and his impact on other musicians went in some unexpected directions. Much of what George Clinton did with Funkadelic is hard to imagine without Hendrix; Prince certainly took some cues from him, and the first two Mahavishnu Orchestra albums are clearly part of a musical world Hendrix helped create. Even Miles Davis’s masterful forays into “electric” music, In a Silent Way (1969) and Bitches Brew (1970), reflect something of Hendrix’s musical imagination.
It’s interesting to speculate on the directions Hendrix would have taken had he survived. It’s also a waste of time. Enjoying the music he left us is enough.
. . . Joseph Taylor