One of the most pioneering and influential artists in the progression of American music was James Marshall Hendrix. Born in Seattle
on November 27, 1942, Jimi Hendrix’s prowess on the guitar would influence countless musicians both Black and White. Heavily influenced by the blues and many of his contemporaries, Hendrix didn’t just simply create a new way of performing the blues, but expanded the way in which the guitar took centerpiece in all contemporary American music.
He created soundscapes on his Fender Stratocaster that would several decades later mirror the kinds of sounds and crackles that emerged out of Terminator X’s work for the ’80s rap group, Public Enemy. His version of the “Star Spangled Banner,” which he performed at Woodstock, became an incendiary indictment against the Vietnam War. With its heavy use of feedback to simulate the sounds of exploding bombs, screaming jets and people, this version became an anthem for many Vietnam soldiers fighting in the war.
When he was fifteen, Hendrix got his start as a musician after his father bought him a guitar. A few years later, he enlisted in the Army following a few run-ins with the law, later joining the 101st Airbourne Division as a paratrooper. During this time, he was either always practicing his guitar and or thinking about playing his guitar, much to the exclusion of his regular duties. Three years after he was discharged, he played in and around the club scenes in Nashville with friend Billy Cox, eventually playing back up to such artists as Little Richard and the Isley Brothers on the chit’lin circuit.
But it wasn’t until 1966, while in the band, Jimmy James and the Blue Flames, that he was noticed at Cafe Wha?, a popular club in New York City, that he got his first big break at stardom. Chas Chandler, a former member of the British group The Animals, after being told about Hendrix by a girlfriend of Rolling Stones’ guitarist Keith Richards, saw him perform and decided to manage him. Hendrix was taken to England, given the stage persona he would become known and remembered for and a new band, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, featuring Noel Redding on bass and Mitch Mitchell on drums.
Fairly quickly, Jimi’s name went the rounds in the London club scene as the new artist to keep an eye on. Other musicians such as Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, the Who, the Beatles, and others, often went to see his performances and were left in awe. After recording their first album, Are You Experienced?, the Jimi Hendrix Experience saw its popularity increase in England. Yet, it wasn’t until Jimi’s performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in the summer of 1967, in which he wowed the crowd with his guitar-playing and stage theatrics (at one point he lit his guitar on fire) that he was catapulted to the top of the American rock hierarchy. Two more albums would follow Are You Experienced?, as well as countless outtakes and re-mixes of old songs.
Yet, increasingly, fame came with dissatisfaction. Drugs played a part, but so too did Jimi’s dissatisfaction with his stage persona and theatrics, which came to dominate a greater part of his musicianship. As Jimi started to grow as a musician, delving back deeper into his blues influences as well as into his interests in jazz fusion (he and Miles Davis expressed interest in collaborating), his fans, many of whom were there at the start of his career, refused to see him as anything other than a Black exotic alien who created otherworldly sounds. The more Hendrix became trapped in this persona, one that was created for him and not designed of his own making, the more he became disenchanted.
Though not outwardly political, Hendrix was concerned about building up his Black audience. At the time, Hendrix’s fan base was mainly white, and this troubled him. Hoping to build up his Black fan base, Hendrix performed in Harlem on the back of a flat bed truck. But whenever he played his wilder rock tunes, the audience who gathered to hear him on the street booed and threw things at him. It wasn’t until he dug into his bluesier tunes that he was able to win over this tough crowd.
Management problems and disputes with band members eventually led to the break up of The Jimi Hendrix Experience. During this period, Hendrix began to experiment more in the studio. He formed a new group, Band of Gypsies, with friend Billy Cox and Buddy Miles to achieve a rawer, grittier blues sound. One of the more well-known songs that came out of this period was “Machine Gun,” a gritty anti-war song. It was during this period that the Band of Gypsies performed at Woodstock.
Yet as Jimi moved more into blues-based music, his white fan base started to fall away. At the Isle of Wight Festival in September 1970, in what would be one of the last times he would ever perform live before his death, he was disappointed that his fans wanted to hear his earlier rock tunes. Fans would boo and jeer at him in several other performances as well.
Not long after, Jimi Hendrix was dead after asphyxiating on his own vomit from a drug overdose.
While Hendrix’s life and career was short-lived, the legacy he has passed down in American music, blues, and rock and roll, is unarguably rich. Yet, in his lifetime, Hendrix was never able to build on a strong Black following, though his music was very much steeped in the blues. It wasn’t until years following his death, that the Black community began to appreciate and honor the legacy Hendrix brought to Black music and American music in general.