1: What’s in a name?
Jimi’s original first names when he was born in Seattle in November 1942 were actually Johnny Allen, something his father later legally changed to James Marshall, though he was always affectionately called ‘Buster’ by his family from day one and also ‘young Jimmy’. The unusual spelling ‘Jimi’ was the invention of The Animals’ bassist Chas Chandler, who became Hendrix’s manager in the 1960s.
2: A new broom
Every musician has humble beginnings, and in the 1950s, Hendrix began with his father Al’s broom, which he would pretend to strum like a guitar. Al spotted an opportunity, giving young Jimmy a ukelele (which had only one string to start with), then a second-hand acoustic guitar in 1958 that cost $5, at which point Jimmy joined the Velvetones. Al purchased his son’s first electric guitar soon after, a Supro Ozark 1560S, when he joined The Rocking Kings. From 1966 onwards, Jimi’s preferred axe was the iconic Fender Stratocaster (more of which below), a 1968 survivor of which type that once belonged to Jimi sold for a record US$168,000 at auction four years ago (a world away from an old brush) – but at various times he also played the Fender Duosonic, Jazzmaster, Jaguar and Telecaster, as well as the Gibson ‘Flying V’, SG and Les Paul.
3: Military imprecision
Hendrix’s image as a laid-back character went back a long way. Having got into trouble after a spot of car crime, in 1961 Hendrix chose a two-year stint in the army over jail, but would regularly fall asleep on duty and showed a lack of discipline and soldiering skills. He was eventually discharged early by his superiors. Jimi rarely spoke of his army career thereafter, though he did once claim he’d had to leave the military because he’d broken his ankle in a parachute jump.
4: Keeping good company
It’s hard to imagine now when we think of his reputation as a showman lead guitarist who played his guitar behind his back or with his teeth, but in the early 1960s, Hendrix was an anonymous session musician. Having begun the band The King Casuals with his best friend and former army comrade Billy Cox after he left the military, Jimmy (as he still was) then played with the likes of Tina Turner, Sam Cooke, the Isley Brothers (who recorded the original version of the Beatles hit Twist and Shout) and Little Richard. It was after this that he became lead guitarist with his own new band Jimmy James and the Blue Flames, where he attracted the attention of Chandler, who persuaded him to move to Britain and start the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
5: London calling
Hendrix based his life mainly in the UK from 1966 when the Jimi Hendrix Experience were formed, living at his girlfriend’s flat at 23 Brook Street in the exclusive Mayfair district of London from 1968–9. The building was right next door to a house once occupied by 18th-century composer George Frideric Handel at number 25. Today, English Heritage ‘blue plaques’, placed on buildings associated with famous residents of the country, adorn both the houses in their memory.
6: A different sound
Apart from his sublime skill in making his guitars sing, Hendrix is probably best known for smashing and setting fire to many of them. Though he was left-handed, Jimi would use a right-handed Fender Stratocaster strung upside-down. Not only did this look unusual, but it meant that the Strat’s bridge pick-up was also reversed, making the lower strings more resonant and producing a unique sound.
7: Naked controversy
The final album from the Jimi Hendrix Experience caused controversy on its release in 1968, but not for the songs Voodoo Child or the cover version of Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower for which it’s now best remembered. Hendrix had specifically requested an image of the band taken by photographer Linda Eastman (aka Linda McCartney, wife of the Beatles’ Paul) for the cover of Electric Ladyland, which was ignored, the UK version having a picture of lots of naked ladies, something Hendrix resented and thought irrelevant. An alternative cover, using a fiery orange image of Hendrix singing, was later substituted. Though it was named after Hendrix’s Electric Lady studio, opened in the US in 1967, the album was actually recorded back in the UK and elsewhere in New York, and due to a mistake by a studio engineer was almost called Electric Landlady by accident until Hendrix noticed the error!
8: Who do you think you are, the bassist?
In later years, Hendrix directed production proceedings, and ‘artistic differences’ eventually spelled the end of the original Jimi Hendrix Experience. Long-suffering bassist Noel Redding would have to leave the studio on occasions to compose himself, only to find that his bass parts had been recorded by Hendrix himself when he returned. Jimi would also let groupies into the studio, much to Redding’s irritation, with one of these hangers-on indignantly asking him who he was when Redding tried to return to his position after one such breather.
9: Kiss this guy? No thanks
As well as the stage showmanship that had seen him eclipse The Who’s own destructive display at the 1967 Monterey Music Festival by burning his own guitar and famously play the fuzzy, feedback-laden version of The Star-Spangled Banner at Woodstock in 1969, Hendrix also had a sense of humour when performing. Playing on his fans’ mishearing (or ‘mondegreen’) of the line ‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky’ in Purple Haze, misheard as ‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy’, Hendrix would point at either Noel Redding or drummer Mitch Mitchell. At Woodstock, however, he took the line seriously, pointing to the sky as he sang.
10: No more hippy love
For many, Hendrix epitomised the crossing of the race and gender divide and set the tone for the ‘hippy’ look made popular by Monterey and Woodstock, wearing psychedelic shirts, wide-brimmed ‘Western’ hats and flowery flared trousers, and imitating Bob Dylan’s hairstyle. He bought some of his clothes from fashion designer Chris Jagger – the brother of the Rolling Stones’ Mick – one of his best outfits being the painted silk shirt he wore at Monterey with a pink fetherboa. Like the Beatles’ split the same year, Hendrix’s tragic death in 1970 from an accidental overdose of sleeping pills also largely spelled the end for the magical hippy era in many fans’ minds.
Thanks to RedBull.com for some of these fun facts!