Jimi Hendrix and the 'Room Full of Mirrors'
ED GORDON, host:
A routine decision can sometimes change the course of your life. Almost 40 years ago, a young guitarist made one of those simple decisions, and that decision later made him a rock 'n' roll giant. NPR's Farai Chideya has more.
FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:
Music critic Nelson George once called Jimi Hendrix, quote, "the revenge of the R&B sideman." Before Hendrix became Jimi, he was a nameless back-up guitarist touring the chitlin circuit with dozens of R&B bands like the Isley Brothers and Little Richard. In 1966, he took his first trip to London. He was only 22 years old.
(Soundbite of "Purple Haze")
CHIDEYA: In less than a week, the anonymous sideman was a rock 'n' roll star.
(Soundbite of "Purple Haze")
Mr. JIMI HENDRIX: (Singing) Purple haze all in my brain. Lately things just don't seem the same. Acting funny, but I don't know why. Excuse me, while I kiss the sky.
CHIDEYA: In London, Hendrix formed his first trio, the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Thirty-nine years ago today, that band played its first show as a headliner. It was Munich. The show was alive with all the electric energy, guitar-smashing and powerful rock that's made Hendrix shows true experiences. Charles Cross is author of "Roomful of Mirrors: A Biography of Jimi Hendrix." In that book, he describes the founding of the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
Mr. CHARLES CROSS (Author, "Roomful of Mirrors"): Thank you.
CHIDEYA: Well, tell us first who Jimi Hendrix was in September of 1966, before he got on the plane to London, and why did he go in the first place.
Mr. CROSS: Well, at that point he was not even really Jimi Hendrix. He called himself Jimmy James for a good part of that last year there. He was, indeed, a back-up musician. He's played with a number of bands. But by the summer of '66, he kind of got this vision, listening to Bob Dylan and also taking LSD for one of the first times, that maybe he could lead his own band, and it just so happened that that summer a few magical things happened. Jimi met a woman named Linda Keith, who was Keith Richards' girlfriend, she became one of his first supporters, dragged three producers to see him, two of them passed, and the third, Chas Chandler--who'd been the bass player for The Animals--was so excited when he saw Jimi playing at the Cafe Wha that he spilled a milk shake on himself.
CHIDEYA: What did Chas do for Jimi and what kind of experiences did he lead Jimi towards?
Mr. CROSS: Well, Chas was quite a veteran of the British music scene and when he heard a hit, you know, he knew it was a hit. And Jimi was playing a song that summer that was "Hey Joe," a song that had been covered by a number of groups in the Village, and done in a folk version. Jimi was doing a rock version of that song. And when Chas heard that, it immediately came to him that this song could be a hit in England.
(Soundbite of "Hey Joe")
Mr. HENDRIX: (Singing) Hey, Joe, said now, where you gonna run to now? Where you gonna go? Well, dig it! I'm going way down south, way down to Mexico way. All right!
Mr. CROSS: Chandler saw Jimi as a rock star and wanted to put him in the rock arena and very much wanted to fashion a trio, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, much like the band Cream at the time. Jimi was still very hooked on the idea of being an R&B band, and, in fact, one of the more interesting things revealed in my book is that, basically, during Jimi's entire period of fame, he is constantly trying to form the traditional nine-piece R&B band, with horns, and partly because of their poverty, Chandler said, `We can't afford a nine-piece band.' And Chandler paired Jimi with Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell and the rest, as they say, was truly history.
(Soundbite of "Foxy Lady")
Mr. HENDRIX: (Singing) Foxy lady. Here I come, baby. I'm coming to get you now! Foxy lady, yeah, yeah! Ooh! You look so good, foxy lady.
CHIDEYA: What role did race play in Jimi's ascent London? It seems to me that if he's coming and wanting to be a nine-piece R&B band, and someone else has a view of him as a straight-up rock 'n' roll singer, there's gonna be some tensions.
Mr. CROSS: Well, there was, and I think that you can't underplay the role that race had played in Jimi's sort of life up to that point and also at this crucial moment. One of the reasons Jimi couldn't get recognized in America because there was such a strict racial line in America in 1966. There was essentially African-American music and there was white music. And the two did not cross. The ideas that Jimi was working with, incorporating blues and moving that into the rock arena, no one was doing that. Then Jimi goes to England and suddenly his race is no longer a defining characteristic. In fact, his race ends up being an asset, because he was given a level of authenticity immediately by the British public. What's interesting is then when he comes back to America, he's still facing huge racial issues that I think he thought that he'd left behind when he was in England.
CHIDEYA: Before we move on to how he was received back in the US, we should talk more about how people like Eric Clapton, and, certainly, The Rolling Stones, venerated the black blues musicians, and stole freely from their works, and so for them to see someone like Jimi must have been kind of a revelation. Tell us how he impressed Eric Clapton, for example.
Mr. CROSS: Well, Jimi arrived in England on September 24th, 1966, and within a week of landing in England he was a star. And one of the reasons he rose so quickly was that he went to a Cream show that happened at a London college and asked if he could jam with Cream, and no one had ever asked before if they could jam with Cream. Cream was so taken aback, they didn't know what to say. They just said, `Sure.' So Jimi plugs in and plays an incredible version of Howlin' Wolf's "Killing Floor," and as related by some eyewitnesses in my book, they said that the difference was is that Clapton, you could hear his influences. He was, obviously, very emulating Albert King, who was Clapton's biggest role model. Hendrix, you could hear the influences, too, but they were more shaded by Jimi's own blues styling.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. CROSS: Essentially Jimi blew Eric Clapton away and that was one of the beginning pieces of Jimi's legend. After that point, everybody came to see him in the London stage.
CHIDEYA: So what happens when Jimi Hendrix, the newly princely Jimi Hendrix, returns to his roots in the US?
Mr. CROSS: He's a superstar in England, at this point, huge in Europe, and he hasn't been back in America in nine months. And he returns to play the Monterey Pop Festival, which, of course, is going to also make him famous in America. But two days before the Monterey Pop Festival, Jimi stops in New York for a layover, and he stops in a hotel, and he's in the lobby of a hotel, and within just a few minutes of being there, a woman comes up and asks him if he'll take her bags to her room. She has mistaken him, because of the color of his skin, as a bellhop.
CHIDEYA: Was he able to shrug off the sleights of race in America or did he take it to heart?
Mr. CROSS: Well, I think he both was able to shrug it off, but at the same time it did hurt him. You know, one of the other interesting stories in 1969 was that Jimi played Woodstock, which we all know about, but two weeks later he played a free show in Harlem, which he was far more interested in the audience reaction. And he was booed by some in the African-American crowd because he had a girlfriend who was Puerto-Rican. Some people thought she was white, and that was such a hot-bed issue, and he had white musicians in his band. So I think race was something that was forever a difficult thing for Jimi Hendrix, and his music was so far ahead of its time that we can only kind of look at it now and say, `My God. I mean, he was such a grandfather of so much that we hear today and really truly one of the sort of founding fathers of rock.'
CHIDEYA: And we never got to hear his nine-piece R&B band, did we?
Mr. CROSS: We never did. Even at the very end of his life, just--in an interview Jimi did just a couple weeks before he died, the last interview ever, he was still talking about putting together that R&B band. And one has to imagine if there is a rock 'n' roll heaven, Jimi is in a nine-piece R&B band, and, you know, probably playing behind Jackie Wilson and some of the great soul singers.
CHIDEYA: Oh, we could only look forward to that. Charles Cross is the author of "Roomful of Mirrors: A Biography of Jimi Hendrix." Thank you so much.
Mr. CROSS: Thank you.
(Soundbite of "Voodoo Child")
GORDON: That was NPR's Farai Chideya.
(Soundbite of "Voodoo Chld")
GORDON: Thanks for joining us. That's our program today.
To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.
(Soundbite of "Voodoo Child")
Mr. HENDRIX: (Singing) Well, I stand up next to a mountain.
GORDON: I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS & NOTES.