Fifty years after his death in1970 at the peak of his fame, Hendrix is still revered as the premium electric guitarist. His music became part of the soundtrack of a generation’s revolt. In the six years of his recorded output, he produced just four albums. But these, the hit singles from them and the new tonal and emotional territories he established with the electric guitar, make him one of the most important musicians of the century. Hendrix began playing on the Chitlin’ Circuit with, amongst others, the Isley Brothers and Little Richard. The first known recording of Jimi is in 1964 on Don Covay’s Mercy Mercy. Hendrix’s rhythm guitar on the intro and the break is gentle and intricate. He was already a superb guitarist. Broke and out of work in 1966, he was signed up by Chas Chandler, the ex-bassist of the Animals, and brought to London.
Like many black musicians, it took playing outside the US to bring him recognition. Several factors converged to provide Jimi Hendrix with the platform he needed to demonstrate then develop his musicianship. He arrived in the middle of the London blues boom — American black music played largely by white musicians. Hendrix agreed to come over on condition he could meet a guitarist he particularly admired — Eric Clapton. This was a few years before Clapton’s racist tirade which sparked the forming of Rock Against Racism. He formed The Jimi Hendrix Experience with drummer Mitch Mitchell and bassist Noel Redding. Mitch’s jazz drumming, heavily influenced by Elvin Jones, became a key component of the Experience. Within a year, the band had three hit singles and two hit albums.
Many musicians during the so-called “psychedelia” period of the late 1960s used recordings of instruments played backwards. But Hendrix’s use was different. Mitch Mitchell comments: “Hendrix could play something forwards and know exactly how it would sound if it was played back in reverse.” Jimi’s third album, Electric Ladyland, is a masterpiece. There are three important achievements: Voodoo Chile (Slight Return) demonstrated his deep immersion in blues guitar but took it into an electric stratosphere not heard before and unmatched since. The fifteen-minute jam on the longer Voodoo Chile is the track where he breaks free.
Hendrix had a very clear idea of what he wanted and the track achieves a spectacular level of blues/jazz improvisation — in particular the soloing call and response with Stevie Winwood’s Hammond organ. There are also the studioengineered sonic paintings of 1983 and Rainy Day which include a series of multitracked fluid imaginative guitar lines transformed by studio engineered effects. His style and the technology to capture it advanced together. He was also moving towards working with other, often jazz musicians. Not long before his death, Miles Davis and his arranger, Gil Evans, were due to work with him. Hendrix refused to openly state his political views, instead expressing them through his music.
But the riots following the death of Martin Luther King in 1968 and the growing chorus of anti-war protests had an effect. Despite his denials, it’s impossible to consider his incredible version of the Star Spangled Banner at the Woodstock festival in 1969, or Machine Gun with the Band of Gypsies as anything but part of the war protests. Jimi and his band the Experience played in the black area of Newark very soon after King’s assassination. According to one observer: “Hendrix came out to enormous applause and said: ‘This number is for a friend of mine’, and he abandoned completely his normal set. The band played an improvisation which was absolutely hauntingly beautiful — a lament for Martin Luther King. And within minutes the whole audience was weeping … The music had a kind of appalling beauty. Harrowing music. When he came to the end there was no applause. He just put down his guitar, the whole audience was sobbing, and he just walked quietly off the stage.”