Crosstown Traffic: Hendrix in London

“You never told me he was that fucking good!” – a gobsmacked Eric Clapton on first jamming with Jimi Hendrix.

In the mid-1960s, mysterious graffiti began appearing on walls around London. ‘Clapton is God’, these simple messages said, but their writers meant it very seriously indeed. This painted phrase was the work of the legendary rock and blues guitarist Eric Clapton’s legion of devoted fans, who completely idolised their talented hero to the point of such deification.

However, as good as Clapton was (and he was – his groundbreaking work with Cream and The Yardbirds still sounds amazing today), he was soon to be eclipsed by the arrival in London of the man who was eventually to become the greatest guitar god of them all…

Born in Seattle in November 1942, Johnny Allen Hendrix (later renamed James Marshall Hendrix by his father) was fascinated by the guitar from a very early age. As he was growing up, his family life became more and more difficult and disrupted, which must have made music an important and necessary escape for the young Jimi.

He was already playing in various local bands when he enlisted in the army at the age of 19, a career choice made apparently in order to avoid jail time for some minor offences. Jimi and the army didn’t really see eye to eye (as you can imagine), and he was to leave, probably with a sigh of relief on both sides, after only a brief period in the service.

This parting of the ways gave Jimi the ideal opportunity to concentrate on his music, and he began a short but relatively successful career as a session musician, working for some true legends of the era including Ike & Tina Turner, Little Richard, The Isley Brothers and Sam Cooke.

At the same time as all that was going on, he was also playing gigs and jamming with other bands at small New York venues and clubs. It was on this New York scene, through Linda Keith (the then-girlfriend of Rolling Stones guitar god Keith Richards), that Jimi met Chas Chandler, bassist for the Newcastle-Upon-Tyne based British Invasion band The Animals – the man who was to give Hendrix his big break.

Chandler was, at that point, moving from playing music into the management and production side of things, and was immediately impressed by this young ex-soldier’s nascent showmanship as well as his obvious talent on the guitar.

Signing Jimi up, Chandler brought him over to London and helped his protegé put together a new band to be named – entirely accurately – The Jimi Hendrix Experience. It was here, in London, and with this band (alongside British musicians Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell) that Hendrix experienced his first taste of fame.

Almost unknown in the States, Jimi Hendrix arrived in London in September 1966 and made an immediate impact, despite initially not having the correct work permit to actually perform. The Experience’s late 1966 debut single Hey Joe went top ten and spent several months on the British charts, earning the band their first major mainstream exposure.

Jimi was to be seen all around ‘Swinging’ London, making jaws drop everywhere he played and rapidly making friends with some of the biggest British rock stars of the day, including the Rolling Stones, Jeff Beck, Pete Townsend of The Who and, of course, Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker of Cream.

Hanging out with rock stars, wearing the latest sixties fashions with a distinctive and unique flair, dating various beautiful, glamorous women, living it up in the hippy enclave of Notting Hill and electrifying the clubs of London – by 1967 Jimi was certainly behaving like the true rock god he was later perceived to be, although, behind the scenes, he was actually a very normal, sensitive young man who apparently enjoyed board games and didn’t like people seeing him with his curlers in!

His success on the London scene catapulted him to world-wide success, but it was here, in London, a mere four years after his initial arrival and at the height of his international fame, that Hendrix was to make his final impact (in life, anyway) by dying suddenly and somewhat mysteriously in a Notting Hill basement flat in September 1970, aged only 27.

Yesterday marked the fortieth anniversary of the still much-debated death of this true rock innovator. As with so many rock stars who have died before their time, much has been written about Hendrix’s last hours – including, like Brian Jones before him, the suggestion that the guitarist was actually murdered, a theory still stoked by the coroner reaching an open verdict on Jimi’s case.

Although such discussions have their inevitable morbid fascination, I prefer to remember Jimi Hendrix as the remarkable, ground-breaking and unique musician that he was, and for the impact his (albeit small) body of work continues to have on generations of musicians. He was clearly an interesting and charismatic man off stage and on, and the circumstances surrounding his untimely death will probably continue to be subject to endless speculation for all eternity – but it is his incredible, timeless music that is his real, lasting legacy.

In a way, that goes without saying; after all, this is Jimi Hendrix we’re talking about – the self-taught, left-handed (he played right-handed guitars upside down) young African American musician from a poverty-stricken background who completely re-wrote the rock rule book in four short years and remains one of the masters of the genre forty years later, the ex-soldier turned musician who advocated peace at a time of war, the sensitive, charismatic and creative young man who came to London with virtually nothing and managed to set the music world – and his guitar – on fire…

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