James Marshall Hendrix was born in Seattle, dropped out of high school, joined the Army (rather than go to prison for riding in a stolen car) and was discharged about a year later. Stories have circulated for years on why (and how) Hendrix got his Army hitch shortened. One maintained he got injured on a parachute jump. Another claimed Hendrix faked being a homosexual. Pretty funny, considering Jimi's later, rather pronounced, reputation as a lady's man. More likely, Hendrix was a disinterested, sub-par soldier that was of little use to the Army. Either way, he was back on the street.
Along the way, Jimi mastered the electric guitar. That may be an understatement. Deeply influenced by Blues and Rock 'n' Roll, and blessed with a combination of talent and drive, Hendrix re-invented guitar playing. He began working in various touring bands, including Little Richard's, where he was allegedly fired for diverting too much attention from the star. While playing in New York under the name Jimmy James he was "discovered" by the Animals' bass player Chas Chandler. Chandler was about to leave the Animals and go into artist management.
Call it beginner's luck, Chandler uncovered a powerful force. He shipped Jimi to England and held auditions for band members. Noel Redding (bass) and Mitch Mitchell (drums) were hired and The Jimi Hendrix Experience was born. Their debut LP, released in '67, "Are You Experienced?" was a Rock classic with the raw opening track "Purple Haze." The first U.K. single was a cover of the Leaves "Hey Joe." "Fire," "Manic Depression" and "Foxey Lady" were other highlights. The songs featured psychedelic lyrics ("'cuse me while I kiss the sky") and Jimi's intoxicating yet precise guitar. "Axis Bold As Love," the second LP followed suit, with "You Got Me Floatin'," "Bold As Love" and "Spanish Castle Magic." The original Spanish Castle was a Seattle area teen club.
The pinnacle for the Experience was the third, double album, "Electric Ladyland." "Crosstown Traffic," "Burning The Midnight Lamp" and "House Burnin' Down" contained dazzling guitar expositions along with Jimi's most confident and expressive vocals. It reached its pinnacle with the stone brilliant cover of Bob Dylan's "All Along The Watchtower." Hendrix took a non-descript song and turned it into a classic blending acoustic and electric guitars and providing just the right amount of vocal swagger. The album featured contributions from Steve Winwood and Chris Wood from Traffic and Jefferson Airplane's bassist Jack Casady. Casady's participation caused Redding to get bent out of shape. He soon left to start his own group, which went nowhere. Mitchell stayed a bit longer but Hendrix eventually lined up Billy Cox (bass) and Buddy Miles (drums) for the less than stellar, Band Of Gypsys. A New Year's Eve show ('69) recorded at the Fillmore East and some recently released rehearsals for that show is all that remains. Jimi's playing was looser with a more Soul oriented approach as he attempted to expand his horizons. While there were some good tracks, the group's chemistry failed to gel. Hendrix was working on the solo "Cry Of Love" when he died from a barbiturate OD - he choked to death on his own vomit. If there is such a thing as a good way to go, that certainly wasn't one of them.
There was some talk, in Jimi's last days, of his teaming with Jazz great Miles Davis. However enticing, such a pairing probably wouldn't have worked. Usually two geniuses in the same room is one too many. Still, they might have come up with a breakthrough or something totally incoherent - likely no middle ground. But who knows? In the end, speculation regarding what Jimi would have accomplished in the '70s and beyond is fun, but moot. It just wasn't to be.
Hendrix is often lumped together with fellow '60s icons Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison. All three checked out in the early '70s from drug related causes, though only Joplin's death was officially listed as an overdose. But both Joplin and Morrison appeared at the end of their tether when they escaped the mortal world. Only Jimi's career had any real future. His life reads like a half-finished novel. If only there was more… Actually, there was - tons. But it wasn't what everyone was hoping for.
Following Jimi's death there was the meandering film "Rainbow Bridge" (the soundtrack is OK and contains "Dolly Dagger"). Concert footage, demos, outtakes, alternate takes, bootlegs, pre-fame recordings as a backing musician (notably with King Curtis) and even Hendrix vocal and guitar tracks with new backing musicians, rolled out in a constant stream (reportedly culled from over 1,000 hours of material). But a radiant moment here and there was outweighed by the dregs. It wasn't Jimi's fault. The unfinished or ill-conceived ideas/jam sessions were never meant to be released. But the keepers of the Hendrix legacy, especially producer Alan Douglas, saw there was a money to be made from these scraps. Cashing in seemed to be the mode of operation. After a long legal battle, the Hendrix family was able to gain control of the recordings.
The vast array of Hendrix recordings was easy to figure. He had one thing that most other Rock stars of the era didn't - his own studio. He could go down to Electric Ladyland in NY any time to work on songs or just mess around. When Experience Hendrix gained control of the catalog the search began anew. And so, not to anyone's surprise, Hendrix 'returned' in '10 with "Valleys Of Neptune," a 12-track collection of previously unreleased or rarely heard tunes, including some of his last recording sessions - but the album spanned sessions from '68 - '70. Aside from the title track, the album contained studio covers of Elmore James' "Bleeding Heart" and Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love." Live versions of both tracks have been available for years.
Just prior to the album's release came The Experience Hendrix tour with guitarists Joe Satriani (Deep Purple), Jonny Lang, Eric Johnson, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Brad Whitford (Aerosmith) and Vernon Reid (Living Colour). "It's a thrill for me to play Jimi's music for audiences now as it was in the 1960s," said Cox. "The Experience Hendrix tours have shown how timeless this music really is."
"I finally get to pay tribute to my hero the right way, on stage with an amazing, once in a lifetime, line up of musicians!" added Satriani.
Jimi Hendrix Discography
The Jimi Hendrix Experience
1967 Are You Experienced (1967)
1967 Axis: Bold as Love (1967)
1968 Electric Ladyland (1968)
Jimi Hendrix/Band Of Gypsys (with Buddy Miles and Billy Cox)
1970 Band Of Gypsys [recorded live]
Notable Posthumous Studio Albums
1971 The Cry Of Love
1971 Rainbow Bridge
1975 Crash Landing
1997 First Rays Of The New Rising Sun
2010 Valleys Of Neptune
Given the incredible amount of material that has been posthumously released, you might assume Hendrix never ventured far from a tape recorder. However, his essential works are the three Experience albums. For "Are You Experienced" Hendrix re-invents Rock guitar. While "Purple Haze" is certainly lyrically dated, the music is as vibrant as ever. Add to that the blasting fun Rockers "Fire" and "Foxey Lady." Even the "experimental" songs "Third Stone From The Sun" and "Are You Experienced?" are fascinating.
"Axis: Bold As Love" contains "If 6 was 9" but is somewhat subdued compared to "Are You Experienced" with ballads "Little Wing" and "Castles Made of Sand." These two albums laid the groundwork for Jimi's crowning achievement "Electric Ladyland." The double album has some of Hendrix's best work including the Blues jam "Voodoo Chile." Also, Hendrix started moving away from the power trio line up of the first two albums and used outside musicians.
The Band of Gypsys was a deservedly short-lived group. Hendrix, seeking a new direction, doesn't get much support. Buddy Miles' ham-handed drumming drags rather than propels. The straight-ahead, anti-war "Machine Gun" is among the set's more memorable efforts. Following Jimi's death "Cry Of Love" was eventually pieced together. Given that, it's a solid, accomplished effort with "Freedom" and "Ezy Rider."
Except for "Greatest Hits/Best Of" packages, most everything released after '71 (a year after Jimi's death) is only for collectors or those with money burning a hole in the pocket. An exception is "Valleys Of Neptune," which despite the heady title, actually favors electric Blues rather than psychedelic exhibitionism.
Many of the tracks have appeared before, in one form or another ("Bleeding Heart," "Hear My Train A-Comin'" "Sunshine Of Your Love" and "Red House"), yet they are still telling examples of the guitarist's artistry. But alternate versions of "Fire" and "Stone Free," while entertaining, are not that much different than the single versions and clash with the album's overall direction. They are better suited as "bonus tracks" on a reissued "Smash Hits."
The title track, so captivating that it's shocking that it sat on the shelf for so long, and "Sunshine Of Your Love" have immediate impact. Hendrix is justly recognized for reimagining Bob Dylan's half-baked "All Along The Watchtower." All a film director has to do is play the opening chords of the Hendrix version and the audience is transported to the 1960s - usually related to Vietnam for some reason. Hendrix pulls off the same trick with one of Cream's most celebrated songs. The riff is a searing powerhouse (played faster and more aggressively than on the original) with stunning solos that begin where Eric Clapton left off. It's a true tour de force.