'Hey, man, can you play this?'

For years, the wild man of rock was a mere backing musician. Then Jimi Hendrix burst into the limelight. In a new book, Keith Shadwick describes the moment it all changed
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The Independent Culture

During early 1966, Hendrix had been living in hotel rooms close to New York's downtown districts and Greenwich Village. He was looking for a more congenial climate than Harlem had been providing for him. "I couldn't stand it there," he said later, "because they talk about you worse than any place else."

While the guitarist's social life continued the drift downtown, he felt that his New York professional career would make no progress while he played support roles for bands at uptown and midtown venues. Most of the clubs offered different entertainment from that which interested Hendrix.

Midtown places usually provided first-rate dance-based bands playing precise covers of chart hits and other popular material. Uptown, where R&B, soul and funk predominated, a finer balance was struck between music for dancing in larger venues and music for relaxing in a tiny club or bar. Hendrix was professionally equipped to play these venues, and certainly continued to do so to earn what pittance he could. But by summer 1966 he had slipped into a very different way of thinking about music and performance. His on-stage persona no longer sat comfortably with the demands of the midtown club clientele.

In early June 1966 he went down to the Café Wha?, going (as directed by the musician Richie Havens) on an evening early in the week when it would not be too crowded. He introduced himself to the owner, Manny Roth; Havens had told Roth he was a guitarist worth looking out for. Hendrix, calling himself Jimmy James at the time, had arrived with his new guitar but without any backing musicians: he was intent on keeping this new initiative separate. Roth suggested that when the house band took a break, he get up and play solo. Hendrix did just that, starting a slow blues that was suited to solo performance.

The house bassist, Tommy "Regi" Butler, came back from his break and, interested in what he heard, joined the guitarist on the platform. According to Butler's wife: "At the end of the song Jimmy turned to Regi and said, 'Hey man, can you play this?' and proceeded to let loose with one of his infamous riffs." They played, she claims, for about an hour. It seems that the house drummer also came into the jam, for he joined up to create Hendrix's first trio, a group that later became the house band at the Wha?. The previous week had seen Joni Mitchell make her US debut at the same club.

The Café Wha? had declined in status from its early 1960s peak as the fashionable Village hangout for those interested in folk and the post-Beat scene, but it was still a popular destination for people from the suburbs and further afield who came to the area at night and on weekends looking for something a little exotic. Being squarely among all the nightspots, it was a regular on the Village tour habitually undertaken by visiting UK pop acts.

But it was still trading largely on its reputation. The club's ads in local papers rarely, if ever, named the attraction, relying instead on its credentials as a left-of-centre cellar featuring performers of a different stripe. Hendrix certainly fitted that description. He was earning peanuts, had no name to make him an attraction, and had to start by working as leader of a house band rather than as a featured artist at different venues in the way Richie Havens, a man with a Village track record, was able to do. Hendrix soon discovered that he was on another treadmill of sorts, and that he would again have to manoeuvre some kind of escape.

One route was to find work for the group away from the two nights a week at the Wha?. Butler remembered organising one gig for the band at Connie's Ballroom in Harlem, where they managed one set before the owner, flanked by his bouncer, asked that they play dance music - like every band that played there. After getting the inevitable reply that the band didn't know any, the owner told them: "You all just pack this noise on up, and take it back downtown." That was the end of Hendrix's involvement with professional music-making in Harlem until after his ascent to stardom.

Meanwhile, his ideas about his own band were beginning to develop. He made friends with a variety of young men around the Village and midtown. Hendrix found another like mind hanging out at Manny's instrument store. Randy Wolfe was 15, newly arrived with his family from California and a devotee of Delta blues. Wolfe was in the store to buy a guitar. "He told me his name was Jimmy James, and he invited me down to the club that night, the Café Wha?, to play with him," Wolfe said. "He told me it was his first gig not playing behind somebody else."

Wolfe went down to the club that evening. Ignoring the fact that he was under age, Hendrix taught him a clutch of songs backstage before the next set began - including "Like A Rolling Stone", "Wild Thing" and "Shotgun" - and they went out to play. Jimmy also made time soon after to teach him "Hey Joe", a song Wolfe had not come across before.

Hendrix was about to make a significant change. As the band line-up began to settle down to a consistent quartet of members, he made a decision about his working name, changing the spelling of Jimmy to Jimi. This was not a marketing decision: it happened before anyone had ever heard of Hendrix as a solo act.

All his life, Hendrix had liked toying with words and using unusual spellings. His adoption of "Jimi" may have been influenced by the fashion for re-spelling given names among some blacks in the US at the time. A look down the list of musicians on The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Volume 1 album released in late 1965 on ESP-Disk (the label that released The Fugs records Hendrix knew and enjoyed) finds the percussionist Jimmy Johnson re-spelling his given name as Jimhmi. Contemporary American poets were toying with changes of spelling. Bob Dylan played with such devices, and Hendrix could have been moved to experiment himself through that connection. The new spelling of his name would stick because he would be world-famous before he got the opportunity to play around with it again. Of course, such a relatively subtle change often failed to register with the managers of clubs in which he was playing, and they consistently advertised the band on their billboards as Jimmy James & The Blue Flames.

The group's second guitarist Randy California (Hendrix's name for Wolfe) recalled some intriguing snippets of the repertoire The Blue Flames played. Hendrix's love of Dylan's music and his familiarity with "Like a Rolling Stone" from the previous autumn made that song an obvious choice. "Shotgun" was kept on from his R&B days, while "Wild Thing" was a new arrival. It had been a hit for The Troggs as recently as May that year in the UK, reaching the US Top 10 in July.

Hendrix's girlfriend Carol Shiroky recalled that he learnt "Wild Thing" direct from the radio in their hotel room during the last two weeks of June, shortly before the couple split up. It is a very simple song with a limited chord progression, so it was quickly pressed into service with The Blue Flames. California remembers Hendrix teaching him the tune just before his first gig with the band - so despite California's recollection that Hendrix had only just started at the club when he joined, he probably came on board two or three weeks into Hendrix's debut season at the Café Wha?, when The Troggs' record had received radio airplay and entered the charts.

"Hey Joe" was another song in The Blue Flames' repertoire. Various people have recalled Hendrix hearing Tim Rose's version of the song while in Greenwich Village, and this may have been his first contact with it. But Curtis Knight is adamant that Hendrix knew another version first. "'Hey Joe' was originally recorded by a... group called The Leaves," Knight said. "I was with Jimmy when he bought the record, at a record store in New York. He always had some idea of what he wanted to do with that record. We never played it, but this is how it happened, this is where it started." Clearly Hendrix was struck by the song; he immediately began playing "Hey Joe" with his own group in New York and retained it in his repertoire on moving to England.

Hendrix continued to indulge his career-long love of jamming while playing at the Wha? and hanging out in the Village, studying other groups' routines at different clubs. Bob Kulick, a member of The Random Band then playing Village clubs, often saw Hendrix about. "He was constantly at one club or another, either hanging out or picking up girls. Jimi was a consummate musician who would jam with anybody, any time. When he watched bands, he would even take notes. He would pick up stuff from everybody, no matter how bad they were... There wasn't anybody around who could play like him. No one could even figure out what he was doing. He played tons of blues, but his signature song was 'Hey Joe'. He also did a primitive version of 'Third Stone from the Sun'. I asked him who his biggest influence was, and he told me Curtis Mayfield."

Kulick observed that Hendrix already had a louche lifestyle and often relied on girlfriends to pay for him when earnings at the club were thin. "He was doing fine playing all the places, and he always had plenty of women taking care of him. When Hendrix wasn't hanging out with bands, the girls were all over him. I think between what he made playing, which wasn't a lot, plus what his girlfriends gave him, he did all right."

During this time, the Butterfield Blues Band guitarist Mike Bloomfield was tipped off about a wild guitarist playing in the nearby Cafe Wha?. He wandered over to check out the band: instead, he got the shock of his life.

Bloomfield recalled: "I was performing with Paul Butterfield and I was the hot-shot guitarist on the block ­ I thought I was it. I'd never heard of Hendrix... I went across the street and saw him. Hendrix knew who I was, and that day, in front of my eyes, he burned me to death. H-bombs were going off, guided missiles were flying ­ I can't tell you the sounds he was getting out of his instrument. He was getting every sound I was ever to hear him get, right there in that room with a Stratocaster, a [Fender] Twin [amplifier], a Maestro fuzz [box], and that was all ­ he was doing it mainly through extreme volume. How he did this, I wish I understood... I didn't even want to pick up a guitar for the next year.

"That day, Hendrix was laying things on me that were more sounds than licks. But I found, after hearing him two or three more times, that he was into pure melodic playing and lyricism as much as he was into sounds. In fact, he had melded them into a perfect blend."

Nobody has explained Hendrix's genius more concisely ­ and Bloomfield seems to have been the first musician to witness him using extreme volume, distortion and feedback in a controlled, intentional way. The timing of Bloomfield's observation fits in with Hendrix's statements that he first learnt to control and use feedback during his stint in the Village in summer 1966.

That summer, Hendrix got lucky. The Animals had arrived in the US on 27 June for their final pre-disbandment tour, staying briefly in New York before moving on to Hawaii and the West Coast to begin the tour proper.

Hendrix's friend Linda Keith decided to buttonhole The Animals' bassist Chas Chandler about Hendrix. "I didn't know [Chandler]," she said, "but I knew he was one of The Animals." What she also didn't know was that Chandler was planning his post-Animals future and thinking of going into management. Musically astute and with a good deal of common sense, Chandler was keeping his eyes open for acts to manage. Keith had struck blind but lucky. Chandler was sufficiently interested to agree to a rendezvous at the Café Wha? the following afternoon, even though The Animals had an important gig that evening in Central Park. "I think [Jimi] was getting quite desperate to record or at least to make another step," Keith recalled, "so Chas came down to see him and was, like... it was instantaneous, there was no question in his mind."

Chandler's recollections of what he saw the afternoon of 3 August were just as positive. "I went with her the next day to a little club called the Café Wha? in Greenwich Village, which was a little coffee house, really, with musicians playing downstairs." Chandler may not have been overly impressed by the venue, nor was he awestruck by the raggedy band on stage, but the guitarist Linda Keith had talked about was something else. "I thought immediately that he was the best guitarist I'd ever seen," Chandler said. "He was playing with a little pick-up band... The first song Jimi played on stage that afternoon was "Hey Joe". He had it all. You just sat there and thought to yourself, 'This is ridiculous ­ why hasn't anybody signed this guy up?'"

Straight after that first set, Chandler introduced himself to Hendrix and called him to a table to talk. He said he was at the beginning of a tour and would be unable to act immediately, but he was seriously interested in managing Hendrix. Chandler had already decided that Hendrix should divorce himself as quickly as possible from the rest of the group, whom he regarded as a poor lot. His plan was that, once his Animals tour was over, he would take Hendrix back to London, where he had many contacts and potential sources of finance. There he would look for deals and set him up in a band.

Chandler wanted Hendrix to reassume his real surname, but was relaxed about him retaining the unusual spelling of his first name. He felt that the name Jimi Hendrix should be the focal point of the new band.

On the evening of 23 September 1966, Hendrix and Chandler departed New York City's JFK airport on a Pan Am flight. On arrival at Heathrow, Her Majesty's Customs took some convincing that this louche-looking black American had anything beneficial to offer Britain, especially as he had no work permit, no accompanying papers, and only Chas Chandler's word that he wouldn't be a burden on the United Kingdom's welfare state.

Hendrix outlines his strategy in a letter to his father in August 1965

'Nowadays people don't want you to sing good. They want you to sing sloppy and have a good beat to your songs. That's what angle I'm going to shoot for. That's where the money is. So just in case about three or four months from now you might hear a record by me which sounds terrible: don't feel ashamed, just wait until the money rolls in because... people are singing worse and worse on purpose and the public buys more and more records. I just want to let you know that I'm still here trying to make it. Although I don't eat every day, everything's going all right. It could be worse than this, but I'm going to keep hustling and scuffling until I get things to happening, like they're supposed to for me.'

The truth about Woodstock

The tired, wet, bedraggled crowd had waited long enough to see him, with many thousands, in fact, having already started the trek home. Those who stayed received a decidedly mixed and muffled message. The cinemagoers who saw him later in the documentary of the festival got a different perspective again. Even today, after something like three generations of commercial audio and visual releases of the August 1969 Woodstock festival appearance by Hendrix, it is only on the bootlegs of the group's set that the entire picture is revealed. This is for a combination of reasons, mostly to do with the fashioning of an event for popular consumption and the preconceptions of what ought to be presented as the Hendrix legacy. So, for example, the two numbers sung by Larry Lee, "Call Me Mastermind" and "Gypsy Woman", have yet to appear on an official release. They were important to Hendrix as they were representative of the kind of communal music-making he wanted to present to his public, showing that he could deliver a satisfying set with different ensembles and under very different musical circumstances from those normally seen in concert. The absence of these songs from official releases distorts what was being presented that morning. The other prime distortion ­ a technical problem to do with the live recording ­ is the balance between the instruments on the issued material. The percussionists tend to be buried in the mix and Lee's guitar is recessed in favour of the band's backbone, Hendrix-Cox-Mitchell. Again, it provides a false picture of what Hendrix was offering as his preferred music on the day.

A young David Bowie complains about a reviewer's praise for Hendrix in a letter to 'Record Mirror', May 1967

'I was treated to a proverbial feat of journalistic insanity in last week's review... Like a can of knowledgeable Windolene, he wiped off the cloud of mystery surrounding Jimi "out of sight" Hendrix and 123. How, I ask myself, could the 123, with their chromatic quarter-tone and chordal harmonies, hope to compare with the ethnic, emotion-filled E chord of Mr H? Why should they think that open harmony and subtle colouring could hold a light to the volcanic battery of one's senses and involved tongue-wiggling from the tentacle-headed flower show from Greenwich Village?'

'Jimi Hendrix: Musician' by Keith Shadwick is published on 20 November by Backbeat Books (£24.95); details from Guitar XS (01795 538877; sales@guitarxs.com)

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