Black History Month: A Look At The Life, Career and Legacy of Jimi Hendrix



Hendrix will always be remembered as a rising star lost in their prime. Given the fluid nature of his music and the rapid speed at which it evolved, I think its safe to say that the world will always be left wondering what would have come after the triumphant success of Electric Ladyland and his magnum opus on guitar Band of Gypsys. Not only did he help to blaze a trail for black musicians in the rock world, but he helped to tie soul, rhythm and blues and funk elements into the blues/psych rock world. This unique approach to merging genres led to him further tearing down musical boundaries by experimenting with techniques and effects never used before in mainstream rock (see below). Innovation aside his raw talent and intensity on the guitar set a whole new standard in the rock world and inspired a whole generation of new guitarists.

Musical output aside, Hendrix’s most important contributions to the world of music came in the form of the risks and innovations that he brought into his creative process. Unlike others at the time, he favoured overdriven amplifiers with high volume and gain. He was the first major musician to embrace guitar amplifier feedback and was instrumental in its popularisation. He was also among the first to extensively use tone-altering effects units in mainstream rock, such as fuzz distortion. Not only that but he was the first major musician to use stereophonic phasing effects in recordings. His willingness to take these risks changed the attitude of the rock world as a whole and without his brilliance and innovation there’s no telling where we would be today.

Life and Career

For those who don’t know Hendrix was born Johnny Allen Hendrix but would later change his name to James Marshall Hendrix and got by Hendrix. His early life involved learning guitar in his early teens before briefly enlisting in the military. Following his service, he became involved in the Southern blues scene and played with a number of acts on the Chitlin Circuit including The Isley Brothers, Little Richard (see video here), and Curtis Knight and the Squires. He then moved to England to work with Chas Chandler of the Animals. This is where his career really took off and the Hendrix that we know, and love became to take shape.

Once moving to England Hendrix developed a style that was a combination of blues rock and psychedelic rock. This sound would slowly develop over the course of the coming years, growing bolder, more distorted and more technical. Initially Hendrix’s music was more blues rock leaning and led to the formation of The Jimi Hendrix Experience. They found major mainstream success through their first album Are You Experienced (1966) which featured a number of chart-topping hits including Hey Joe, Purple Haze, and The Wind Cries Mary. The release of this album saw Hendrix and his band catapulted into the spotlight, leading to record deals in the UK and US, festival shows, widespread media coverage and critical acclaim.

Axis: Bold as Love, the band’s second full-length album would follow in 1967 and showed the band’s shift towards a more psychedelic approach. This can be seen musically but also in regard to the album’s artwork, which is a psychedelic play on Hindu iconography featuring Hendrix. Moreso than that, the album featured more influences from hard rock, rhythm and blues, and jazz. The album drew mixed reviews from many critics, with some praising it as a refinement of the band’s sound and a step towards its final form, while others saw it as less memorable and daring than the band’s debut. Regardless of opinion, the album bore two monumentally popular singles Up From the Skies and One Rainy Wish and performed extremely well in the charts.

Then in 1968 the band released Electric Ladyland, their third and final album and the album that would forever cement Hendrix as a guitar god. The album is generally viewed as both his and the band’s finest work and is regarded as one of the greatest rock albums of all time. At the time of its release the album confused critics, who found it too loud, experimental and unstructured. Regardless of their views the album reached number 1 in the charts and remained there for some time. It featured the band’s most critically acclaimed and commercially successful song, a psychedelic cover of Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower. It also featured a number of other masterpieces such as Voodoo Child (Slight Return), Crosstown Traffic and the band’s longest single recording Voodoo Chile.

Unfortunately in 1969 growing tensions between Hendrix and Noel Redding came to a head due to his unpredictable work ethic, conflict with BBC due to Jimi’s eratic behaviour live on air and controlling nature with the creative process. Following a show on June 29, 1969, at Denver Pop Festival the band parted ways. Following this, Hendrix was asked to play Woodstock and rescheduled the show to close out of the festival, a choice granted to him as the highest paid act on the bill and the highest paid rock musician in the world at the time. He pulled together a new group of musicians with two weeks’ notice and rebranded as Band of Gypsys. This new entity would be the vessel to deliver his final ever album Band of Gypsys, a live album released in January 1970. Unfortunately, this new band would have a short lived lifespan and that same year would break up for Hendrix to reform The Experience without Noel Redding.

During this time the band worked on The Cry Of Love (an album that was stated in 1968 but would only be released after Hendrix’s death), but unfortunately this was abandoned to focus on touring. A large-scale tour was conducted including the largest US show that Hendrix ever played at the Atlanta International Pop Festival. During this time Hendrix’s drug use had reached an all time high and some of these shows were considered to be of poor quality. In fact, some of these shows were meet with booing and Hendrix even walked out after only three songs while performing in Denmark. This sudden decline in performance quality was a combined result of drug use, depression and wanting to focus on studio work. Earlier that year Hendrix and Michael Jeffery had jointly opened Electric Lady Studios, a recording studio in New York and this was where he wanted to be, rather than touring. His final ever live show would take place on this tour in at an unofficial show in Ronnie Scotts Jazz Club, where he would play with Eri Burden’s War.

Less than two days after this show Hendrix would be pronounced dead at St Mary Abbots Hospital due to asphyxiation from his own vomit due to an overdose of barbiturates. Monika Dannemann who was Hendrix’s girlfriend at the time later admitted that he took nine Vesparax sleeping tablets, 18 times the recommended dosage. His body was buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Renton, Washington, USA.

In 1971, following his death, Hendrix’s final studio album was released, titled The Cry Of Love. The album was mostly made up of songs that he had been recording in 1970 at Electric Lady Studios. These tracks had been mostly completed and mixed by Hendrix prior to his death. A number of tracks from the album performed extremely well including Freedom, Ezy Ryder, Angel and Night Bird Flying. The album reached number three in the US and number two in the UK.

Later that year the album Rainbow Bridge would be released, featuring yet more unreleased tracks, including Dolly Dagger, Hear My Train A Comin and Hey Baby (New Rising Sun), as well as a studio version of Hendrix’s famous rendition of Star Spangled Banner. The following year saw the release of War Heroes, which featured yet more unreleased tracks including Stepping Stone, Izabella, and Beginnings.

Since then numerous other various compilation albums have been released as there is always an ongoing demand for all things Hendrix. The Jimi Hendrix Experience was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992 and the UK Music Hall of Fame in 2005. A star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame was dedicated to Hendrix on November 14, 1991. In 1998, Hendrix was inducted into the Native American Music Hall of Fame during its first year.In 1999, readers of Rolling Stone and Guitar World ranked Hendrix among the most important musicians of the 20th century. These are just a few of the countless accolades and honours bestowed upon Hendrix posthumously, as his legacy withstands the test of time.

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