On November 27, 1942, Jimi Hendrix was born as John Allen Hendrix in Washington at Seattle General Hospital. His childhood was not a privileged one, however, he did indulge himself in one particular way: Jimi loved to play the guitar. At first he played an old acoustic, and later a cheap Silvertone electric, which were both strung for a lefty on a right-handed guitar, one of the defining Hendrix traits (Murray 34- 5) .
As a teenager, young Jimi listened to the music which affected his music so greatly later: “‘everyone from Buddy Holly to Muddy Waters and through Chuck Berry way back to Eddie Cochrane’” (Wilmer 38). He played in a few bands in high school, but then dropped out before his senior year. After working as a laborer for a few months, Jimi decided that he was not destined for that line of work, so in 1959, he enlisted into the 101st Airborne (Murray 36).
Jimi’s parents were of mixed descent, with Jimi’s family tree had whites, blacks, and Cherokee Indians. Jimi never denied his ethnic diversity, but rather accepted his diversity and publicly allowed it to show through in his music. Jimi said it best in “If 6 was 9” on Axis: Bold As Love when he said “I’m gonna wave my freak flag high.” Hendrix’ first forays into professional music came after he received his honorable discharge from service in the summer of 1962 (Murray 36). His background in R&B, a type of music dominated by black artists at that time, led him to play with many R&B singers from the time, such as Little Richard, King Curtis, Joey Dee and the Starliters, the Isley Brothers, and many others (Murray 38-42).
The development of his own style of music, which would later be displayed at various stages of its evolution in his four completed studio albums, came from an amalgamation of his intimate familiarity with the blues, ethnic background, the years he spent as an R&B sideman, and his exposure to new musical styles and scenes. The development of Hendrix’ music to our modern perception of it occurred after his move to New York City and the formation of Jimmy James and the Blue Flames, where a young producer named Chas Chandler discovered his act, which by then included Hendrix’ famous playing with his teeth and behind his back.
Chandler brought Jimi to London, where blues-based bands such as John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, The Yardbirds, and Chandler’s old group, The Animals were immensely popular and on the cutting edge. Hendrix and Chandler auditioned a number of musicians to be in the new band, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and decided upon a trio with Hendrix on guitar and vocals, Mitch Mitchell on drums, and Noel Redding on bass (Fairchild, “Are You Experienced” 3).
The first album was recorded and released as Are You Experienced? on May 12, 1967 in England and after its initial success there, it was released on August 26, 1967 in the United States (Fairchild, “Are You Experienced?” 5-6). On Are You Experienced?, Hendrix shows for the first time in a studio album the heavy bluesy-rock and extraordinary guitar playing that Chandler observed an embryonic form of in Greenwich Village. However, the album definitely has a commercial feel to it, probably necessitated by Chandler’s desire to collect on his investment and Jimi’s lack of experience in being the leader of a band. Of the single “Hey Joe,” which was the first song recorded for Are You Experienced?, Hendrix said: “It’s a commercial record,…but everyone found that better for the first time. It’s just a phase, it’s only a very small part of us” (Fairchild, “Are You Experienced?” 7).
On the other hand, another track on the album, “Red House,” represented something else entirely. “Red House” is a more traditional blues number, written by Jimi Hendrix, which is a perfect example of what Jimi began his musical experimentation with. Jimi showcases his blues guitar playing and singing on “Red House.” The lyrics tell the story of a man who loses his woman but who manages to keep his guitar, and if his woman won’t love him any more, he says “I know her sister will.” With “Red House,” Jimi extended his identity in relation to pop culture to include not only rock star status, but great musician — both blues and otherwise — as well. In a 1967 Rolling Stone article titled “Hendrix and Clapton,” Jon Landau states: “He [Jimi Hendrix] is… a great guitarist and a brilliant arranger. On ‘Red House,’ the only straight blues he recorded,… he establishes himself as an absolute master of that musical form” (18).
Another Hendrix tune from Are You Experienced? was “Purple Haze,” that Jas Obrecht described as “the band’s break-through single in America” (Obrecht 29). Beyond the surface interpretation of the song referring to drugs (the lines “Purple haze, all in my brain” and “Got no money, don’t know why” are brought to mind), Harry Shapiro and Caesar Glebbeek in Electric Gypsy suggest that the inspiration may have come from Hendrix’ Native American background and more specifically reading The Book of the Hopi (Fairchild, “Axis: Bold As Love” 7).
The Indian interpretation of “Purple Haze” and the traditional blues “Red House” are the two best examples of Hendrix paying homage to his ancestry on Are You Experienced? The structure and lyrics on most of the songs on Are You Experienced? form the basis upon which it is possible to measure the change in the style of Hendrix, both lyrically and musically, that were to occur until his untimely death in 1970.
The commercial success of the album and the confidence that Jimi must have gained from reviews which called him things like “an absolute master” allowed Jimi to make smooth transitions to whatever he felt like experimenting with or changing. The importance in Are You Experienced? lies in the fact that it was successful, and that the Jimi Hendrix that everyone heard on that album would be acceptable whether he was playing straight-forward blues, playing “Stone Free” or covering “Hey Joe.” Are You Experienced? represents the starting point from which Jimi Hendrix would take his new style of music and make himself into one of the most influential musical figures of his time.
The true arrival of Jimi Hendrix occurred with the release of The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s second studio effort, Axis: Bold As Love. With this album, production costs were estimated at ten thousand pounds, allowing Jimi the valuable studio time he needed in order to more completely master his craft. Approximately three thousand of those pounds were spent production costs of the album sleeve, which picture Jimi and his bandmates in and surrounded by Indian imagery, to which Jimi responded: “The three of us had nothing to do with that Axis cover. When I first saw the that design I thought, ‘It’s great, they have an Indian painting about us, but maybe we should have an American Indian’” (Fairchild, “Axis: Bold As Love” 5).
Axis: Bold As Love marks a more obvious return to Hendrix’ Native American heritage. Where Are You Experienced? was more intent on reaching the mass market, Axis’s purpose was as much for Hendrix himself as it was for his audiences. When asked about the difference between the two albums, Hendrix said: “The changes in music between the two records are for you to decide. We’re just playing the way we feel” (Wenner and Wolman 13).
As for the meaning of the title, Axis: Bold As Love, Hendrix said: “The Axis of the earth turns around and changes the face of the world and completely different civilizations come about or another age comes about. …Well, the same with love; if a cat falls in love or a girl falls in love, it might change his whole complete scene: Axis, Bold as Love…” (Werner and Wolman 13). The presence of Native American imagery is dually noted in the tracks “Little Wing” and “Castles Made Of Sand.” “Little Wing” was “based on a very, very simple American Indian style” and Hendrix added one of the most memorable introductions ever (Fairchild, “Axis: Bold As Love” 13).
“Little Wing”’s best attribute is its pleasing incorporation of Native American belief with guitar playing which could in no way be considered abrasive. The writing and production of “Little Wing” seems to mark the development of Hendrix’ confidence in both his lyrical and compositional skills. As for “Castles Made Of Sand,” Michael Fairchild states that “rock music reached its sensitive fragile depths when Jimi’s Indian lullabye whispered ‘Castles Made Of Sand’” (Fairchild, “Axis: Bold As Love” 17).
On the track “If 6 Was 9,” Hendrix sings “White-collared conservative flashing down the street/Pointing their plastic finger at me…/I’m gonna wave my freak flag high.” “If 6 Was 9” is Hendrix’ statement for musical and social freedom. About “If 6 Was 9,” Hendrix states “How could ‘If 6 Was 9’ be anger? I don’t say nothin’ bad about nobody, it just says, man, let them go on and screw up theirs, just as long as they don’t mess with me” (Fairchild, “Axis: Bold As Love” 16).
Jimi’s change of confidence in himself between Are You Experienced? and Axis: Bold As Love did not go unnoticed by critics of the time. Hendrix had clearly stated himself as an individual musician, not just a man defined by his group or by his producer and record label. In Jim Miller’s April 6, 1968 review of Axis: Bold As Love for Rolling Stone, he said: “Axis: Bold As Love is the refinement of white noise into physchedelia, and (like Cream) it is not a timid happening; in the vortex of this apocalyptic transcendence stands Hendrix, beating off on his guitar and defiantly proclaiming ‘if the mountains fell in the sea, let it be, it ain’t me.’ Such cocky pop philosophy shall not go unrewarded” (21).
Axis: Bold As Love represented the change of Hendrix from not just Top 40 hit-maker, but also complete acceptance by those who judge most harshly, the critics. Miller also called Axis: Bold As Love “the finest Voodoo album that any rock group has produced to date” (13). The term “Voodoo,” as applied to Hendrix’ music, brings to mind Hendrix’ mixture of African and Native American influences. Axis: Bold As Love was Are You Experienced? minus the commercial appeal, but plus the “real” Hendrix that gave him his true appeal. The next album by The Jimi Hendrix Experience was titled Electric Ladyland, which Hendrix said was a reference to “…groupies, but I prefer the term ‘Electric Ladies.’ My whole Electric Ladyland album is about them” (Fairchild, “Electric Ladyland”
Some of the songs on Electric Ladyland, such as “Crosstown Traffic” and the cover of Bob Dylan’s song “All Along the Watchtower, mark a departure from the Jimi Hendrix established by Axis: Bold As Love. “Crosstown Traffic” is more along the vein of songs included in Are You Experienced? and Hendrix was frustrated that it was released as a single. “See, that LP was in certain ways of thinking. …They always take out the wrong ones. You find yourself almost running away. People, they don’t give me inspiration except bad inspiration, to write songs like “Crosstown Traffic,” ‘cause that’s the way they put themselves in front of me, the way they present themselves,” Hendrix said (Fairchild, “Electric Ladyland” Despite Hendrix’ aversion to the commercialization of “Crosstown Traffic,” he must have been happy that his single of “All Along the Watchtower” was The Experience’s most popular U.S. single ever (Murray 51).
“All Along the Watchtower” was written by Bob Dylan, about whom Hendrix said: “Sometimes I do a Dylan song and it seems to fit me so right that I figure maybe I wrote it. I felt like “Watchtower” was something I’d written but could never get together. I often feel that way about Dylan” (Fairchild, “Electric Ladyland 20). “All Along the Watchtower” is a protest song, pure and simple. During this period of the late 1960’s, music had become a popular medium for protest against the Vietnam War, the draft, and the government in general. Hendrix recorded “All Along the Watchtower” after a period in 1967 in which he wore a military jacket to all of is performances (Fairchild, “Electric Ladyland”
The military jacket represented both Hendrix’ support of soldiers in the then on-going Vietnam War, and served as a type of protest against the war. “Come On,” another cover, this time from Earl King, was included on Electric Ladyland and was inspired by five days of anti-Vietnam protesting and rioting in Chicago at the 1968 Democratic National Convention (Fairchild, “Electric Ladyland” 12-13).
Despite those tracks, Electric Ladyland also contained many Hendrix originals that were completely ground-breaking. Perhaps the most representative of the changes that were taking place in him was the almost epic-length blues number “Voodoo Chile.” “Voodoo Chile” is Hendrix statement of his own heritage, his refusal to deny himself and, as he said it, “dedicated to our friends from West Africa” (Fairchild, “Electric Ladyland”
Hendrix biographer Charles Shaar Murray said this of “Voodoo Chile” in his book Crosstown Traffic: “The relationship between the blues and Voodoo as a hold-over from West African religious and mystical practice and philosophy has been the subject of at least one first-class book- length study…, but in the context of the life and work of Jimi Hendrix, it is worth reiterating that his self- identification as the Voodoo Chile functions as his statement of black identity: a staking of claim to turf that no white bluesmen could even hope to explore, let alone annex.
Whether Hendrix intended ‘Voodoo Chile’ as an explicit challenge to the hegemony of Western rationalism and black American Christian culture is ultimately not the point. That Hendrix was announcing, explicitly and unambiguously, who he thought he was, is” (Murray 147). “1983…(A Merman I Should Turn To Be),” the eleventh track on Electric Ladyland, is called by Murray: “rock’s premier work of science fiction; Hendrix was the music’s first and funkiest cyberpunk” (216).
“Merman” marked the pinnacle of Hendrix’ producing skills, and Electric Ladyland was the first album that he himself produced. “Merman”’s lyrics indicate Hendrix’ increasing agitation with the world. In Tony Glover’s November 9, 1968 review of Electric Ladyland for Rolling Stone, he describes “Merman”: “Hendrix’ vision of the future shows a world torn by war, on the verge of destruction as he and his lady go for a walk by the sea, and dream of living in the water”
The songs on Electric Ladyland show a marked turn for Hendrix that indicates that as his comfort in his own abilities and heritage grew, the faith that he once had in the world was being torn apart by the Vietnam War and his increasing realization that everything in the world is not necessarily made better by his own success. The social awareness shown on Electric Ladyland was nearly unprecedented, with both of his two earlier albums only hinting at social and cultural malcontent in songs like Axis: Bold As Love’s “If 6 Was 9.” By the time that the next album was ready to be recorded, The Jimi Hendrix Experience was broken up, with Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell moving on to different projects. Hendrix’ new band, Band of Gypsys, included Buddy Miles on drums and Billy Cox on the bass (Alterman 10).
The album that they recorded , titled Band of Gypsys, , represents the least amount of development Hendrix made between any two albums. Band of Gypsys, the last album that Hendrix would cut and release as a whole during his life, Murray reports that: “Hendrix was always ambivalent about the…album, Band of Gypsys.” (54). Band of Gypsys was a collection of new songs that were recorded at the 1969 New Year’s Eve party at the Fillmore East in New York City (Murray 54).
Lorraine Alterman, a writer for Rolling Stone who attended the party, wrote: “Only one number, ‘Machine Gun,’ stands out as truly exciting. Hendrix dedicated it to all the soldiers in Detroit, New York, Chicago and, oh yes , Vietnam.” Of the other songs, she wrote: “The rest of the songs…tend to sound very much alike. Stylistically they aren’t far from ‘Purple Haze’ days” (Alterman 10). Through “Machine Gun,” the “towering, explicitly anti-war” song, one can begin to interpret Hendrix’ mentality as he planned that track. The title itself gives away the meaning of the song, and Hendrix had given up all hopes of subtlety. The combination of this song, along with Hendrix’ new all black band, made it seem to Mike Jeffery, his current manager, that “Hendrix was about to sign up with the Black Panther Party” (Murray 54-55).
There were many rumors going around at the time that seemingly substantiated this myth. Lorraine Alterman reported “…Hendrix is involved with militant blacks and perhaps this is why he now has an all-black group and has thrown away the gimmicks of his act” (10). After a few shows with his new band, Hendrix called it quits. He said : “The Band of Gypsies was outasite as far as I’m concerned. It was just…going through head changes is what it was, I really couldn’t tell – I don’t know…. And here I’d been fighting the biggest war I ever fought. In my life. Inside, you know? “ (Burks 42). Hendrix got together with The Experience midway through 1970, but they never recorded another album (Burks 40).
The Band of Gypsys was Hendrix’ failed attempt to become a black rock superstar in an all-black band, the only way in which he could fully be recognized for his greatness at that time in which black superstars were few and far between, especially the rock music. His success in his previous three albums was not as important if the praise that was lavished upon him was because his band included two other white members. Through the filter of history, though, the praise that Hendrix has been given has been both color- blind (as far as his influence on modern-day rock musicians) and based on his ethnicity (when he is praised as a blues and R&B guitarist).
The evolution of the albums of Jimi Hendrix was influenced by multiple occurrences: his early affinity for the blues, the years he spent as a R&B guitarist, his life in Greenwich Village, his trip to London, the Vietnam War, and the years of rioting and protest against war and racial injustice all infused themselves into Jimi’s albums.
The early commerciality and an undeveloped form of Hendrix’ later song-writing and playing are displayed on Are You Experienced? On the second album, Axis: Bold As Love, Jimi expressed his ethnic individuality, he expanded his musical repertoire, and he began his first voicings of malcontent. Electric Ladyland and Axis: Bold As Love mark the apogee of Jimi Hendrix’ short career. Electric Ladyland combines the pure perfect blues found earlier in “Red House” on “Voodoo Chile,” It also shows the pinnacle of his lyrically and musically creative side, with songs like “1983…(A Merman I Should Turn To Be).”
Despite the fact that his next album, Band of Gypsys, was a relatively lackluster effort, it does, without a doubt, show a period of Hendrix’ development in which the pressure of being a star and the many social and societal ills that surrounded him caused a major change. His death in 1970 seemed to indicate a feeling of apathy from Hendrix; he died choking on his own vomit (Anonymous 1). Looking back on his albums, there is definite pattern of personal growth and decay, all influenced by everything that happened around, and inside, the legendary musician we know as Jimi Hendrix.
Hendrix’ music can serve as an accurate interpretation of what was occurring around him, and inside of him, in the music he made at any given time. He went from a shy R&B sideman to an showboating, behind-the-back- playing guitarist to a man troubled about what was going on around him in the world, societal, cultural, and his own personal forums.
The evolution of Jimi Hendrix as an individual contained an increasing acceptance of his racial heritage – which included culture and music – as well as Jimi’s broadening awareness of the problems of his day. This chain of events eventually led to his death, but it can be traced by all of us today though the intricate and sublime music of this incredible visionary in the four completed albums he left for us.