Most people are lucky if they can get a college degree within four years, or perhaps get a startup business to begin producing profits. In that length of time, Jimi Hendrix changed the world. > Read more
Jimi Hendrix: The Beginning
Like so many creative types, James Marshall "Jimi" Hendrix (born Johnny Allen Hendrix) had a sad and unstable past, marked by periods of separation from his immediate family members, and marred by his parents' alcoholism and occasional violence. As a teen, he taught himself to play guitar, steeping himself in the albums of greats like Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Chuck Berry, and Eddie Cochran -- music that spanned the genres of both rock and blues.
Hendrix later served in the Army as a paratrooper, and was honorably discharged in 1962. He then made his way from the Army base at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, to nearby Clarksville, Tennessee, where he started playing on the "Chitlin Circuit," a series of venues scattered across the eastern half of the country (from the upper Midwest to the Deep South) that was hospitable for African American musicians during the pre-Civil Rights era (the circuit was active from the early 1800's to the 1960's).
Jimi Hendrix: The Playing Years
Hendrix started by playing backup with the Isley Brothers, and then with Little Richard, Curtis Knight, and The Squires. Playing under the pseudonym Jimmy James, he formed his own band, the Blue Flames, to make the circuit of the coffee houses in Greenwich Village. Eventually, he picked up music manager Chas Chandler (bass player for The Animals), taking his act international in 1966, when the band made their way to London. It was with Chandler that he developed The Jimi Hendrix Experience, taking on bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell. After scoring several top 10 hits in the UK (with "Hey Joe," "Purple Haze," and "The Wind Cries Mary"), he broke into the US charts following his '67 performance at the Monterey Pop Festival.
The following year, Hendrix produced his third (and tragically last) studio album, Electric Ladyland, which hit the #1 spot on the US charts. Unbelievably, it was his only album to reach this plateau, catapulting him to the top of the list of best-paid performing acts of that time.
In 1969, Hendrix was the headline act at the infamous Woodstock Festival, where he completely turned the world upside down with his reinvention of the US National Anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner." The next year, however, he died suddenly of asphyxia after taking 18 times the recommended dose of his girlfriend's prescription of Vesparax, a sleeping pill, on top of at least half a bottle of wine. He was only 27 years old.
Jimi Hendrix: The Legend
Hendrix still remains listed as the #1 guitarist in history on Rolling Stone's list of greatest guitar players, and though he himself didn't believe he had much singing talent, he is widely acclaimed for his vocal abilities, as well as his remarkable songwriting abilities. According to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Hendrix was, "arguably the greatest instrumentalist in the history of rock music".
What did Hendrix do in four short years to keep him atop these prestigious lists nearly 5 decades after his death? Other guitar players had already started playing with feedback and distortion, but Hendrix was the first to harness these effects with massive control and skill that was uniquely his own. He played a right-handed Fender Stratocaster with his left hand, upside down. He levied the electric guitar sound as no one had before.
Hendrix drew heavily from both electric blues and rock and roll, but created his own unique style using overdriven amps, incredibly high volume and gain, and leveraging amp feedback like no one had even dreamed of doing. He also pioneered the use of the wah-wah pedal and utilized stereophonic phasing during his recording sessions.
Hendrix became the father of unconventional guitar sound, sparking multiple tribute albums and inspiring the likes of Miles Davis, Sly Stone, George Clinton, Prince, and many others. He was as much as a performer as he was a guitar player, pioneering unabashed onstage sexuality and stunts like playing guitar behind his back and with his teeth.
Hendrix contributed style to the world of music, in addition to his innovative guitar experimentation. He made the Afro cool, inspiring the eventual looks of other African American musicians, such as Rick James, Prince, and Lenny Kravitz.
Many of Hendrix's awards came posthumously, due to his untimely passing, but he did receive critical acclaim during his lifetime. He was voted "Pop Musician of the Year" by fans of the music newspaper Melody Maker and named "Performer of the Year" by Rolling Stone in 1968. In 1969, Disc and Music Echo awarded him with the distinction of "World's Top Musician." He was tagged "Rock Guitarist of the Year" by Guitar Player in 1970.
Three of his studio albums were listed as among the "100 Greatest Albums of All Time" by Rolling Stone, including: Are You Experienced, Axis: Bold as Love, and Electric Ladyland. Posthumously, Hendrix received induction into the U.S. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame posthumously in 1992, and the UK Music Hall of Fame in 2005.
Hendrix's music ran the gauntlet from melodic ballads to blues to hard rock -- it's difficult to visualize achieving more lasting success in a shorter period of time. Yet his personal life, like most true artists, was marred with troubles. After the Army, he fell into a habit of drinking, and eventually the naive young man became something of a poster child for the drug-abusing lifestyle that's practically synonymous with rock-n-roll, especially during the madness of the 60's.
Jimi Hendrix: The End
Beginning with booze and progressing quickly to pot, hash, and amphetamines, he eventually worked his way into the "harder stuff", reportedly developing a taste for cocaine and LSD. According to those who knew him best, his alcohol and drug abuse sometimes spurred bouts of uncharacteristic violence in the otherwise chill musician. Most likely, the drinking and drugs (and violence) were sparked by his unhappy past, which included neglect and abuse. He and his brother were sometimes in foster care, other times with their alcoholic and violent parents, occasionally separated, and never made to feel secure.
In the end, though LSD might have played at lest some part in his successful musical experimentation, the drugs took their toll, along with his life. His girlfriend, who was with him at the time of his death, took pictures the afternoon prior, about which many of his friends remarked how unhealthy he looked. His drug use occasionally landed him behind bars, as well, most notably his brush with Canadian law enforcement following a drug bust at the Toronto airport in 1969. Later, his entourage stated that they believed someone planted those drugs, because they all knew to expect a drug search upon exiting the plane. He was acquitted seven months later, at his trial, but the whole affair reportedly took its toll on his nerves and his health.
There aren't many deceased musicians that actually create an entire industry of impersonators (like Elvis), but Hendrix is one. After his passing, some musicians were able to reincarnate his likeness and make impersonating him a full-time profession. Writers, too, borrowed his incredible fame, penning more than a dozen books and biographies about the man, his music, his struggles, his long series of lovers, and his musings about his traumatic childhood.
His music got borrowed heavily, too, with some estimating that every riff and lick he put down on tape got used on as many as 100 other records. Many of those recordings span back to his days as a pickup guitar player, and include no shortage of illegitimate copies of his live concerts and informal, impromptu jam sessions.
At the time of his death, Hendrix was worth an estimated $80 million. His father, Al Hendrix, inherited it in the absence of a will, but eventually sold most of the valuable rights to Hendrix's music, later suing to reclaim those rights and asserting he'd been scammed. After Al's passing in 2002, he left the bulk of his estate to stepdaughter, Janie Hendrix, who opened the business Experience Hendrix.
But Janie apparently failed to make payments to about 10 family members who were supposed to receive allotments from various trust funds. Additionally, Jimi's brother, Leon, was left completely out of Al's will, according to the judge, due to his addiction problems and failure to get the treatment he needed.
After a nasty lawsuit among surviving family members, Janie was allowed to keep control of Experience Hendrix, but is no longer in charge of making payments to family members who are to benefit from various trust funds. Sadly, even one of Hendrix's two illegitimate children have also sued his estate for a piece of their father's inheritance.
The legal battle cost the Hendrix estate approximately $1.7 million, a sad legacy for such a talented man who, according to those closest to him, was really just all about love.