Author Chronicles Life of Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix

hide captionJimi Hendrix died in 1970.

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On what would have been the 65th birthday of music icon Jimi Hendrix, Charles R. Cross, author of Room Full of Mirrors: A Biography of Jimi Hendrix, cross-examines the lesser-known personality of blues legend Jimi Hendrix.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

We usually think of Jimi Hendrix in this way.

(Soundbite of song, "Purple Haze")

Mr. JIMI HENDRIX (Guitarist, Singer, Songwriter): (Singing) Purple haze, in my brain. Lately, things just don't seem the same. Acting funny, but I don't know why. 'Scuse me, while I kiss the sky.

MARTIN: The iconic song "Purple Haze" helped launch his career and assured him a place in rock 'n roll history. But like many artists, Hendrix's musical roots began in a genre with which he's rarely identified: the blues.

Today would have been Hendrix's 65th birthday. We thought it fitting to take a look back at the guitar genius's life and legacy. Joining us to talk about his is author Charles R. Cross. He's the author of "Room Full of Mirrors: A Biography of Jimi Hendrix," and he joins us from Seattle, Washington.

Thanks for joining us.

Mr. CHARLES R. CROSS (Author, "Room Full of Mirrors: A Biography of Jimi Hendrix"): Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: How long have you been studying Jimi Hendrix's life?

Mr. CROSS: Well, I was a fan when I was a teenager. I was too young to have seen Jimi Hendrix play live, but I had all the records and I grew my hair in the best version of an afro I could find at the time. And I lived in New York when I was a kid, and I remember going to Electric Ladyland Studios just to sort of touch the wall of the studio, because that was a special place. So…

MARTIN: They let you do that sort of thing with your fro, with your raggedy fro?

Mr. CROSS: There are fans - if you have a fro and you're a white guy, you can go in that studio and do whatever you want.

MARTIN: Okay. What do you think attracted you so much to his music? What is it about that music that grabs you so much?

Mr. CROSS: Well, anybody who ever picked up a guitar - and I have to admit, like many rock critics, I'm a failed guitar player. But anyone who ever picked up a guitar has to appreciate what Jimi Hendrix was able to do with that instrument. You know, he's been dead now for over 35 years, and it's absolutely remarkable what he managed to do and how far ahead of the time he was. I mean, you almost have to use spiritual words to describe the talent that he had with the guitar.

And you know, listening to those records, it suggested an adult world that I didn't understand at the time when I was a teenager. I mean, Jimi was a very sophisticated musician. And it made me think about a world that I had yet to experience. And, of course, later, I became an adult and never lived as wild a life as Jimi Hendrix. His music always had greater romanticism to it than most of the artists from that era, in my mind.

MARTIN: And as we said before, he is known, primarily - I bet people today think of him primary as a rock 'n roll guy. But he was very rooted in the blues and recorded various blues songs throughout his career. Is there a song in particular that you think showcases his talent in blues?

Mr. CROSS: Well, there are dozens that he did, and a lot of them have not even been officially released. But "Hear My Train A Comin'" is a great example, I think, of Jimi playing a much more traditional 12-bar blues song. And he was just as good at that as he was at doing, you know, the sort of rock-jazz hybrid stuff that people identified with him later in his career.

(Soundbite of song, "Hear My Train A Comin'")

Mr. HENDRIX: (Singing) Well, I waiting 'round the train station, waiting for that train. Waiting for the train, yeah. Take me, yeah, from this lonesome place. Well, now a whole lot a people putting a lot change, yeah. My girl done called me a disgrace.

MARTIN: You know, he lives in the blues. I mean, he just - it's like a glove on a hand.

Mr. CROSS: Absolutely. What many people don't know is that, you know, Jimi did not develop suddenly in 1967, when he first became famous as a full-blown rock star. He spent a number of years on what they called the Chitlin' Circuit, which was a sort of circuit of African-American roadhouses and icehouses and chicken shacks in the South. And he played on that circuit for three years. And almost all of what he played exclusively during that time was soul and blues music. So that truly was the music that he grew up on and that he learned, and the sort of rock world that he discovered when he went to England and, you know, was second to him.

MARTIN: Why do you think he never released a complete blues album while he was alive?

Mr. CROSS: Jimi had this odd thing where he felt that his audience expected something out of him. And despite the fact that he was one of the best-paid musicians of the time and conceivably had a lot of power, owned his own studio, and - he still very much was afraid that he was going to fail. I think that part of that was the fact that he grew up in just abject poverty. So he was always afraid of scarcity. So he felt that if he didn't give the public what they wanted - and he thought they wanted the sort of rock that he had been established doing - that he wouldn't find an audience.

Towards the end of his life, he was talking, however, about going back to the traditional African-American soul band. He wanted to have horns. He wanted to have a large band, and - at Woodstock, people forget that Jimi was on stage with quite a number of musicians. And he did a very different set that day. People remember the version he did of the "Star-Spangled Banner," which is him solo, basically. But, you know, already, by the time of Woodstock in 1969, he was experimenting with a little bit of different lineup.

(Soundbite of song, "The Star Spangled Banner")

MARTIN: But why do you think that the subsequent fans haven't discovered the blues recordings? I mean, why do you think - because, you know, he's a - people still play his - I mean, I know, you know, student bands where kids study Jimi Hendrix, you know? I know a teenager who worked on playing the "Star-Spangled Banner" for a month until he could get it down note by note. So I'm just wondering why it is that his blues recordings don't seem to have gotten more attention, even though he didn't really promote them while he was alive.

Mr. CROSS: Yeah. Well, that was something he struggled with. He, you know, even while he was alive, people don't remember that Woodstock happened in August of 1969. And two weeks later, Jimi played a free show in Harlem. In that show, he was far more concerned about the response of the audience than he was at Woodstock. So I think he struggled forever with the perception of him versus the reality. And, you know, the irony is is that even after his death, as you said, we perceive him as someone who played electric rock music and not someone whose tradition was very deeply rooted in the blues, the music that he loved.

MARTIN: Jimi Hendrix, of course, died in September of 1970. As we said earlier, he would have been 65 years old today. Had he enjoyed a longer life, what do you think would have happened with his music? Do you think he would have - it's hard to speculate, of course. Do you think he might have gotten more confident and gone back to the roots, as it were? Pushed the blues out more?

Mr. CROSS: I do. And he talked about that as an option towards the end of his life. The performer that I see today, that I kind of close my eyes and get a little misty eyed and think this is what Jimi would have been like, is Buddy Guy. Great blues player, contemporary of Jimi, knew Jimi, and, you know, came up as an electric blues player. But now, when you see Buddy play, most of what his sets are are acoustic blues done on the acoustic guitar. Back to the roots. And if Jimi were to have lived, that's what, at least, I like to imagine he'd be doing today.

MARTIN: So is there a Jimi Hendrix blues song that we should say goodbye on?

Mr. CROSS: Well, there are a lot of them. You know, you really ought to - fans should try to track down some of these recordings, because they're really classics. But "Catfish Blues" is one of my very favorite Jimi blues songs that many people haven't heard.

MARTIN: All right. "Catfish Blues."

Charles Cross is author of "Room Full of Mirrors: A Biography of Jimi Hendrix." He joined us from member station KUOW in Seattle, Washington.

Thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. CROSS: Thank you.

(Soundbite of song, "Catfish Blues")

Mr. HENDRIX: (Singing) Well, I wish I was a catfish swimming in the deep blue sea…

MARTIN: This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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