It’s hard to define a truly iconic moment in the career of James Marshall Hendrix, known otherwise to friends, family and fans as Jimi Hendrix. Did it happen at the end of the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967? Was it that legendary version of the Star-Spangled Banner at Woodstock? Or maybe one of his many classic hits – “Purple Haze”, “Foxy Lady” and “All Along the Watchtower” to name a few. Chances are you would say all of the above – after all, this is a man many consider to be the greatest rock and blues guitarist of all time.
Born in Seattle, Washington on November 27, 1942 to Al and Lucille Hendrix, Jimi was originally known as Johnny Allen and renamed James Marshall, or “Jimmy” in 1945. The Hendrix family lived in abject poverty, and three of his four siblings were eventually sent off to foster homes. After years of fighting and boozing, Al and Lucille divorced in 1951 when Jimmy was nine, and seven years after that, Lucille Jeter Hendrix died of cirrhosis of the liver at the age of 32. Hendrix would drop out of high school in 1959 – at this point, he was beginning to hone his guitar chops in a number of local bands. Some of Hendrix’s earliest influences included bluesmen B.B. and Albert King and rock ‘n’ rollers Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley.
After a brief spell in the US Army, Hendrix became a regular in the “chitlin’ circuit” and would soon become a sideman of choice for some of America’s biggest names in R&B, including Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson and Little Richard. After being spotted by Linda Keith (Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richard’s then-girlfriend) at New York’s Cheetah Club, Hendrix was endorsed to former Animals bassist Chas Chandler, who was then beginning his career in band management. In September 1966, Hendrix arrived in London, all set to be signed by Chandler and his partner, former Animals manager Michael Jeffery.
Thanks to the management team of Chandler and Jeffery, the slightly-renamed Jimi Hendrix became an overnight success in the UK. Also featuring bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell, the Jimi Hendrix Experience recorded three consecutive US and UK Top 5 albums together – Are You Experienced? and Axis: Bold as Love in 1967, and Electric Ladyland in 1968. Shortly after the release of Are You Experienced?, Hendrix finally attained stardom in his homeland, with an unforgettable guitar smashing and burning finale at the Monterey Pop Festival.
Dissatisfaction within the Experience led to the power trio’s unofficial breakup in June 1969, following a performance at the Denver Pop Festival. Hendrix would then reformat his backing band, retaining Mitchell and hiring several African-American musicians, including former Army buddy Billy Cox on bass. This new group would appear at the Woodstock Music Festival in August 1969, an event where Hendrix’s psychedelic instrumental version of the Star-Spangled Banner is still the highlight for many of those who attended.
Unfortunately, rock stardom began to take its toll on Hendrix, who was increasingly dependent on hallucinogenic drugs as the ‘60s ended. A live album Band of Gypsys was released early in 1970, and several festival performances that year were huge successes for Hendrix and his ever-changing band of backup musicians. However, nobody could have guessed how prophetic Hendrix’s comment “I’ve been dead a long time” would be less than two weeks later. This comment was made at Germany’s Isle of Fehmarn Festival, where a visibly wasted Hendrix ended his set after just two songs.
Jimi Hendrix died in his London flat on September 18, 1970, following what many believe was an accidental overdose of sleeping pills. The circumstances of his death are still shrouded in mystery, but Hendrix’s indelible impact on rock music as we know it is one that needs no explanation whatsoever.