On November 27, 1942, Jimi Hendrix was born. While his career was brief—less than four years of leading his own band—he made an extraordinary impact in that time and is generally considered to be one of the finest electric guitar players of all time.
His childhood was a difficult one. His father, Al Hendrix, had only recently enrolled in the military when Jimi was born. While Al was in the service, Jimi’s mother, Lucille, struggled financially, and Jimi was often in the care of other relatives and family friends. When Al was discharged from the military in 1945, he had trouble finding Lucille, and finally tracked down Jimi at the home of a family friend who was attempting to adopt him. Al and Lucille eventually reunited, but both struggled with alcoholism, making it difficult for either to hold a job. Jimi and his four younger siblings spent much of their childhood in and out of foster care.
Hendrix got his first guitar when he was fifteen, and taught himself to play by listening to records and watching other local guitarists. He formed a band, but his acoustic guitar could barely be heard over the rest of the group; he finally convinced his father to buy him an electric guitar.
In 1961, after twice being caught riding in stolen cars, Hendrix was given a choice between prison or the Army. He enlisted, and after completing basic training, was stationed at Ft. Campbell in Kentucky. By the end of the year, he had begun performing on weekends with older soldiers. He completed his paratrooper training with generally good marks, but within a few months, his superior officers were routinely complaining about his behavior and reporting that Hendrix was not well suited to military life. He received a general discharge in June 1962.
A year later, when Hendrix’s friend Billy Cox was discharged from the Army, the two formed a band, the King Kasuals. They were based in Nashville and spent some time playing on the “chitlin’ circuit,” southern theaters that were hospitable to African-American performers. Hendrix also worked occasionally as a backup guitarist for a variety of more established R&B singers. Over the next few years, he’d work for (among others) the Isley Brothers, Little Richard, and Curtis Knight and the Squires. The Hendrix retrospective box set West Coast Seattle Boy opens with a generous sampling of Hendrix’ work as a sideman.
In 1966, Hendrix moved to New York, where he formed a new band, Jimmy James and the Blue Flames. Chas Chandler, a former member of the Animals who was looking for an opportunity to get into management, heard him play and signed him to a management deal. They went to London that fall and recruited bass player Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell to form the Jimi Hendrix Experience. This was when Hendrix changed the spelling of his first name from “Jimmy” to “Jimi.”
The band released its first single in England in December 1966, and by the time they released their first album, Are You Experienced, in May 1967, they’d already had three top ten hits there—“Hey Joe,” “Purple Haze,” and “The Wind Cries Mary.” The album was equally successful, kept from the #1 spot on the UK charts only by the enormous success of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. When the album was released in the United States a few months later, it made the top ten here, too.p>That American success was greatly aided by Paul McCartney, who agreed to serve on the organizing board for the Monterey Pop Festival only if Hendrix was invited to play. He was one of the biggest hits of the festival in June 1967, famously ending his set by burning his guitar. After Monterey, the Experience played a few concerts in the San Francisco area, then booked their first US tour as the opening act for The Monkees. The Monkees were great fans of Hendrix; their fans, largely young and female, were not, and Hendrix left the tour after six shows.
The group’s second album, Axis: Bold as Love, was less guitar-centered, and focused attention on Hendrix’s developing skill as a songwriter. Hendrix was experimenting with the recording process, finding innovative ways to use feedback and stereo recording to create new sounds, and several of the album’s songs were rarely performed live. The album didn’t make much impact on pop radio, but some of its songs—“Little Wing,” “Castles Made of Sand,” “If 6 Were 9”—are now staples at classic rock stations. The album’s cover art featured Hindu religious iconography, which generated some controversy. Hendrix was not involved in creating or approving the art, and expressed some unhappiness with it, saying, “You got it wrong, I’m not that kind of Indian.” He had some Cherokee ancestry.
When the band got together in 1968 to work on what would become the double album Electric Ladyland, strains among the band’s members were beginning to show. Chas Chandler, who was producing the album, was frustrated by Hendrix’s perfectionism; and Noel Redding, who had formed his own band, was often absent, leaving much of the bass playing to be done by Hendrix.
By early 1969, things between Hendrix and Redding had gotten so bad that Hendrix brought in his old Army friend Billy Cox to finish the album; the original trio performed together for the last time in June. The album was a success, though, and featured Hendrix’s biggest-selling American single; his cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” was his only top 40 hit, peaking at #20.
When Hendrix played the Woodstock festival in August 1969, he was working with mostly unfamiliar musicians with less than two weeks of rehearsal. He was the festival’s highest-paid performer, but by the time he closed the festival on Monday morning, much of the crowd had already left. His performance featured a performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” with lots of guitar feedback and distortion that was widely interpreted as a protest against the Vietnam War.
Hendrix’s last album came about after several years of litigation over a recording contract he had signed before forming the Experience. To settle the legal dispute, Hendrix agreed to record a new album for producer Ed Chalpin. It was recorded live on two nights at the end of 1969 with Billy Cox on bass and Buddy Miles on drums. The band and the album were both called Band of Gypsys, and this trio performed only one other concert.
The new Experience lineup—Hendrix, Cox, and Mitchell—began work on a fourth studio album in early 1970, and began a tour that summer. Hendrix wasn’t enthusiastic about beginning the European leg of the tour; he had just opened a new recording studio in New York, and wanted to be there instead.;
On the morning of September 18, 1970, Hendrix was at the apartment of a friend in London; when she woke up, she found him breathing, but unconscious. She called an ambulance, but doctors were unable to revive him, and he died early that afternoon. A coroner’s inquest concluded that he had choked to death on his own vomit while using barbiturates.
In 1971, two albums (The Cry of Love and Rainbow Bridge) were built around songs that had been recorded for the Experience’s unfinished fourth album. Between 1975 and 1995, producer Alan Douglas released four albums of Hendrix’s music. Douglas was criticized for replacing and adding newly recorded tracks performed by studio musicians; some of the songs on these albums featured nothing original beyond Hendrix’s voice and guitar. The Hendrix estate has disavowed the Douglas albums.
In 1995, Jimi’s father, Al Hendrix, gained control of Jimi’s music. Since then, the family company Experience Hendrix has released several albums of previously unreleased music, beginning with their attempt to recreate the unfinished fourth album, First Rays of the New Rising Sun. The most recent authorized release was 2018’s Both Sides of the Sky.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1992; in 2005, Are You Experienced was added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry.