Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Who was Jimi Hendrix?

Before the days of Wikipedia, one of my young students asked me this question:

Who was Jimi Hendrix?

Jimi Hendrix was born Johnny Allen Hendrix, Seattle, Washington, USA, November 27th 1942. His father, Al, was African American, his mother, Lucille, Native (Cherokee) American. He was re-named James Marshall Hendrix by his father in 1946. A lonely child, deserted by his mother, he began playing guitar in his early teens, inspired by his father's Muddy Waters records and the music he heard on the radio. He became a professional musician at the age of 18, after being invalided out of the US Paratroops with a broken ankle. If he had not broken his ankle he would almost certainly have been sent to Vietnam where he would almost certainly have been killed in action. He spent five years as an R'n'B sideman on numerous package tours from which he would usually be sacked for lateness or absentee-ism or for displaying too much individuality. He made his recording debut in 1962 and continued to do studio session work whenever he could find it, which was not often. By 1965, he was based in New York City where he experienced homelessness and dire poverty. He was inspired to start writing and singing his own material on hearing and subsequently meeting Bob Dylan.

By the time of his 'discovery' in 1966, Hendrix had fully developed a completely revolutionary electric guitar technique. An entirely self-taught musician of exceptional ability, Hendrix found his style through a combination of methods. Firstly, he thoroughly absorbed the work of contemporary 'Urban' blues guitarists such as Buddy Guy, Magic Sam, Otis Rush, and his particular favourite, Albert King. He then integrated this with the more commercial soul/R'n'B guitar styles he had been required to provide as backing guitarist for artists such as The Isley Brothers and Little Richard, these having been learned from guitarists such as Steve Cropper and Bobby Womack. In addition to these, he demonstrated an unusual fondness for the 'primitive' blues of such as Elmore James and John Lee Hooker - as well as his beloved Muddy Waters and his great contemporary, Howlin' Wolf. Using this rich blend as bedrock, Hendrix practised ceaselessly, day and night, until he had arrived at an entirely personal musical vision which exploited to the utmost every sonic possibility of the electric guitar. There has been much speculation over the years as to the uniquely individual sounds he brought to bear. One theory has it that he was trying to reproduce the sounds he had heard whilst parachuting. More prosaically, Hendrix played a right handed guitar left handed (as did Otis Rush), and consequently had an entirely different perspective on the controls of the electric guitar; but this in itself does not explain his extraordinary ability to control feedback and other essentially non-musical sonic phenomena.

After taking 'Swinging London' by storm, Hendrix became an international star in 1967. His songwriting and singing, his enormously charismatic stage appearances, his understanding of the possibilities of the recording studio - in all of these areas Hendrix excelled, and his guitar playing was very quickly recognized as being both revolutionary and phenomenally exciting. He was soon being labelled as "the best guitarist in the world" - which annoyed him intensely. Chronically unsatisfied with his own achievements, under constant pressure to deliver, increasingly distrustful of the praise he found lavished upon him, Hendrix grew more dependent on the drink and drugs he had always used with alarming abandon. Frustrated, he broke up his successful group and tried fruitlessly to form another. Then he broke up that one and re-formed the old one (albeit with his old buddy Billy Cox on bass in place of the unfortunate Noel Redding). He dabbled with jazz but felt hamstrung by his inability to read music (he talked of taking a year off to learn orchestration but his management would not hear of it, nor could he find a suitable teacher). He casually re-invented the American National Anthem at the Woodstock Festival in August 1969. By this time he was experiencing constant legal and financial problems, compounded and often caused by criminally poor management, which necessitated his being forced to undertake lengthy concert tours he didn't want to do performing material which no longer interested him. He died in London at the age of 27 on September 18th 1970, of asphyxiation due to an accidental overdose of sleeping pills.

In a recording career of just over four years, Jimi Hendrix changed forever the sound of not only the electric guitar, but of amplified music in general. Quite apart from his enormous significance as a symbol of his time (his influence remains highly controversial in this area, but no-one doubts its importance), on a purely musical level Hendrix was one of the very few musicians who can be said to have changed the way in which people hear music. He moved the goalposts.

(He was also, by the way, the coolest, hippest, best dressed, baddest, sad-eyed magic boy to ever play a guitar the wrong way round, to smile slyly and shyly to himself, to murmur "dig", or "aw, shucks" into the microphone while effortlessly launching into a phrase to slice the top of your head off and sail it away like a weightless frisbee. Listen...)

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