Welcome to the “Black History Month” edition of the Evolving Man Project’s ‘Evolved Man of the Week’ profiles. Each week in February, we will highlight a historical black male figure that embodies what it meant to be an evolved man, famous and non-famous alike. The world needs to know their stories and deeds. This week’s honor goes to the musician, veteran, artist, and rock n’ roll legend, Jimi Hendrix.
Jimi Hendrix was born Johnny Allen Hendrix (later changed by his father to James Marshall) on November 27, 1942, in Seattle, Washington. He had a difficult childhood, sometimes living in the care of relatives or acquaintances.
His mother, Lucille, was only 17 years old when Hendrix was born. She had a stormy relationship with his father, Al, and eventually left the family after the couple had two more children together, sons Leon and Joseph. Hendrix would only see his mother sporadically before her death in 1958.
In many ways, music became a sanctuary for Hendrix. He was a fan of blues and rock and roll, and with his father’s encouragement taught himself to play guitar. When Hendrix was 16, his father bought him his first acoustic guitar, and the next year his first electric guitar—a right-handed Supro Ozark that the natural lefty had to flip upside down to play. Shortly after that, he began performing with his band, the Rocking Kings. In 1959, he dropped out of high school and worked odd jobs while continuing to follow his musical aspirations.
In 1961, Hendrix followed in his father’s footsteps by enlisting in the United States Army. While training as a paratrooper, Hendrix still found time for music, forming a band named the King Kasuals. Hendrix served in the army until 1962 when he was honorably discharged after injuring himself during a parachute jump.
After leaving the military, Hendrix began working under the name Jimmy James as a session musician, playing backup for such performers as Little Richard, B.B. King, Sam Cooke, and the Isley Brothers. In 1965 he also formed a group of his own called Jimmy James and the Blue Flames, which played gigs around New York City’s Greenwich Village neighborhood.
Throughout the latter half of 1965, and into the first part of 1966, Jimmy played the rounds of smaller venues throughout Greenwich Village, catching up with Animals’ bassist Chas Chandler during a July performance at Caf‚ Wha? Chandler was impressed with Jimmy’s performance and returned again in September 1966 to sign Hendrix to an agreement that would have him move to London to form a new band.
Switching gears from bass player to manager, Chandler’s first task was to change Hendrix’s name to “Jimi.” Featuring drummer Mitch Mitchell and bassist Noel Redding, the newly formed Jimi Hendrix Experience quickly became the talk of London in the fall of 1966.
The Experience’s first single, “Hey Joe,” spent ten weeks on the UK charts, topping out at spot No. 6 in early 1967. The debut single was quickly followed by the release of a full-length album Are You Experienced, a psychedelic musical compilation featuring anthems of a generation. Are You Experienced has remained one of the most famous rock albums of all time, featuring tracks like “Purple Haze,” “The Wind Cries Mary,” “Foxey Lady,” “Fire,” and “Are You Experienced?”
Although Hendrix experienced overwhelming success in Britain, it wasn’t until he returned to America in June 1967 that he ignited the crowd at the Monterey International Pop Festival with his incendiary performance of “Wild Thing.” Literally, overnight, The Jimi Hendrix Experience became one of the most popular and highest-grossing touring acts in the world.
In 1969, Hendrix performed at another legendary musical event: the Woodstock Festival. Hendrix, the last performer to appear in the three-day-plus festival, opened his set with a rock rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” that amazed the crowds and demonstrated his considerable talents as a musician.
Also, an accomplished songwriter and producer by this time, Hendrix had his own recording studio, Electric Lady, in which he worked with different performers to try out new songs and sounds.
In late 1969, Hendrix put together a new group, forming Band of Gypsys with his army buddy Billy Cox and drummer Buddy Miles. The band never really took off, however, and Hendrix began working on a new album tentatively named First Rays of the New Rising Sun, with Cox and Mitch Mitchell. Sadly, Hendrix would not live to complete the project.
Details are disputed concerning Hendrix’s last day and death. He spent much of September 17, 1970, with Monika Dannemann in London, the only witness to his final hours. Dannemann said that she prepared a meal for them at her apartment in the Samarkand Hotel around 11 p.m. when they shared a bottle of wine. She drove him to the residence of an acquaintance at approximately 1:45 a.m., where he remained for about an hour before she picked him up and drove them back to her flat at 3 a.m. She said that they talked until around 7 a.m. when they went to sleep. She awoke around 11 a.m. and found Hendrix breathing but unconscious and unresponsive. She called for an ambulance at 11:18, which arrived at 11:27. Paramedics then transported Hendrix to St Mary Abbot’s Hospital, where Dr. John Bannister pronounced him dead at 12:45 on September 18.
Hendrix was inspired by American rock and roll and electric blues. He favored overdriven amplifiers with high volume and gain and was instrumental in popularizing the previously unwanted sounds caused by guitar amplifier feedback. He was also one of the first guitarists to make extensive use of tone-altering effects units in mainstream rock, such as fuzz distortion, Octavia, wah-wah, and Uni-Vibe. He was the first musician to use stereophonic phasing effects in recordings. Holly George-Warren of Rolling Stone writes:
“Hendrix pioneered the use of the instrument as an electronic sound source. Players before him had experimented with feedback and distortion, but Hendrix turned those effects and others into a controlled, fluid vocabulary every bit as personal as the blues with which he began.”
In 1967, readers of Melody Maker voted Hendrix the Pop Musician of the Year, and Rolling Stone declared him the Performer of the Year in 1968. Disc and Music Echo magazine honored him with the World Top Musician of 1969, and Guitar Player named him the Rock Guitarist of the Year in 1970. 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. Rolling Stone ranked the band’s three studio albums among the 100 greatest albums of all time and ranked Hendrix the greatest guitarist and the sixth greatest artist of all time.
“When the power of love overcomes the love of power the world will know peace.”
Jimi Hendrix holds a special place in my heart. Like Jimi, I grew up in foster homes and found my escape through art. Like many people from working-class backgrounds, we both found ourselves in the Armed Services. His magnum opus, “Machine Gun,” stands as one of my personal all-time favorite songs and also considered one of the best guitar solos in the history of music. Jimi’s music continues to influence a diverse array of musical genres from funk, blues, rock, soul, heavy metal, hip-hop, and jazz.
Jimi Hendrix wasn’t a perfect human being, he was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, he dealt with addiction issues, and he was involved in instances of domestic violence. He died at the age of twenty-seven when his talent was still reaching its peak. He was taken from this world far too soon, but many of his fans considered him not of this world. He was just a strange visitor gracing us with far-out music for a brief spell. Today we honor Jimi Hendrix as our Evolved Man of the Week.