Widely considered to be the greatest rock guitarist who ever lived, Jimi Hendrix spent three short years establishing a legacy that spanned decades and earned legions of new fans with every new generation. Though born in America, Hendrix first gained popularity in England, where he was brought by ex-Animals bassist Chas Chandler to form The Jimi Hendrix Experience. After releasing his groundbreaking debut album, Are You Experienced? (1967), which featured hits like "Hey Joe," "Purple Haze" and "Foxy Lady," he returned to the United States where he went from unknown to sensation overnight following his incendiary performance at the famed Monterey Pop Festival. Over the course of the next year and a half, Hendrix became a superstar and one of the periods' most popular figures, thanks in part to relentless touring that featured wild onstage antics like playing with his teeth and behind the back, and occasionally setting his guitar on fire. Though he quickly tired of such gimmicks, fans continually demanded them much to his ever-increasing dismay. Following his second album Axis: Bold As Love (1967), he frustrated his producers and band mates with his unrelenting perfectionism while recording his third and ultimately final completed studio record, Electric Ladyland (1968), which contained one of his most popular songs, a reimagining of Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower." After the Experience officially broke up in 1969, Hendrix embarked on his most creative period, playing some of his most fully realized concerts at the end of the year which were captured on the Band of Gypsys (1970) album, which many considered to be the best playing Hendrix ever delivered. Following a highly-successful spring and summer tour in 1970, he went back to England and never returned. Though his time on Earth was brief, Hendrix remained one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century, counting some of music's most talented players as disciples. With a wealth of recorded material released by his estate over the years, Hendrix was set to retain his influence for decades to come.
Born on Nov. 27, 1942 in Seattle, WA, Johnny Allen Hendrix was raised by his father, Al, a soldier in the U.S. Army then stationed at Fort Sill, OK, and his mother, Lucille. Around the time of his birth, his father was sent to fight in France during World War II, leaving his alcoholic mother to work odd jobs. Eventually, Hendrix's care was given over to friends of the family while his mother struggled to earn a living. After the war, his father returned home and reclaimed his position as head of the family, but had trouble securing a job. Because the family was plunged into deep poverty, his parents drank heavily and argued, while Hendrix began acting up and doing poorly at school. His parents eventually divorced in 1951 when Hendrix was nine years old, which led to him and his brother, Leon, to get shuffled around between parents and grandparents. In 1958, Lucille died from a ruptured spleen while suffering from cirrhosis following years of alcohol abuse, an event that left the teenaged Hendrix devastated. Deeply affected by the loss of his mother and his abject poverty - he often wore threadbare clothes - Hendrix found solace engaging his imagination and creativity by strumming an old broom and eventually a ukulele found in the garage.
Around the time of his mother's death, Hendrix received his first guitar - an acoustic his father bought for five dollars from a friend. He began spending most of his free time learning how to play while delving into early influences like Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Buddy Holly. Eventually, Hendrix went electric and formed several early bands, including the Velvetones and the Rocking Kings, which sported white shirts and red blazers. Even at this early point in his career, Hendrix displayed wild stage antics like playing behind his back or with his teeth, while going off on extended improvisations and using an excessive amount of feedback - all of which led to conflicts with his band mates. Meanwhile, both his performance and attendance at the racially diverse Garfield High School suffered greatly, resulting in his expulsion during his junior year. When he was 17, Hendrix was in trouble with the law after he was caught twice riding in stolen cars. Faced with the choice of two years in prison or joining the army, Hendrix chose enlistment and began basic training in 1961, after which he joined the famed 101st Airborne Division in Fort Campbell, KY.
But much like his student career, Hendrix was a poor soldier. He disregarded authority, slept on duty and ignored protocol, leading to a discharge after one year. But in that span of time, he forged a friendship with Billy Cox, a bassist who played an integral part in both Hendrix's early and later career. Upon his discharge, Hendrix and Cox moved to Nashville, TN, where they gigged around town as The Casuals, which soon changed to King Kasuals after learning about another band of the same name. Hendrix moved on to the Chitlin' Circuit, a series of black-friendly venues in the deep South where he was a backup musician for R&B artists like Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson and Chuck Jackson. Frustrated with bandleaders trying to clamp down on his showman antics, Hendrix moved north to Harlem, NY, where he won first place in an amateur contest at the famed Apollo Theater, which soon led to a sideman gig with The Isley Brothers in 1964. Once again, Hendrix was dissatisfied with having to follow orders and left the band. He soon took up a position with Little Richard, performing live and recording the track "I Don't Know What You've Got, But It's Got Me." Hendrix clashed with the star over a variety of issues, namely his tardiness and stage antics that occasionally managed to upstage Richard himself.
After leaving Little Richard in 1965, Hendrix made a brief return to The Isley Brothers before joining Curtis Knight and the Squires, recording the single "How Would You Feel." Also at the time, he made what amounted to be the single worst business decision of his career in signing a binding three-year contract with PPX Industries in October 1965, which paid Hendrix a royalty of just one percent and caused legal entanglements that were still unraveling by his estate well into the 21st century. Meanwhile, he continued serving as a sideman for the likes of King Curtis, Lonnie Youngblood and Jimmy Norman before finally branching out on his own in early 1966 with The Blue Flame under the name Jimmy James. They performed regularly around New York, particularly at the Cafe Wha? in Greenwich Village. But it was at the Cheetah Club uptown that he was discovered by Linda Keith, then girlfriend of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, who befriend Hendrix and introduced him to ex-Animals bassist, Chas Chandler, who had left the band to become a talent manager. Impressed with his sound, Chandler brought Hendrix to London, where he teamed him with guitarist-turned-bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell, forming The Jimi Hendrix Experience.
In 1966, Hendrix began taking England by storm, quickly making an impression among the populace while also earning fans among the musical elites, including Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Brian Jones, Pete Townsend and members of The Beatles. He released singles like a reworking of the traditional song "Hey Joe" and his own composition "Stone Free," while blazing through R&B hits like B.B. King's "Rock Me Baby" and Howlin' Wolf's "Killing Floor" during live performances. Following a tour across the United Kingdom and parts of Europe in early 1967, where at one point he first lit his guitar on fire, Hendrix released his first album, Are You Experienced? (1967), which became a huge hit in the U.K. Featuring such classics as "Hey Joe," "Purple Haze" and "Foxy Lady," the album climbed all the way to No. 2 on the charts. Despite his enormous popularity across the pond, Hendrix remained a virtual unknown in his native United States. But that all changed following his performance at the Monterey Pop Festival, where he shocked audiences with his incendiary playing and wild stage antics, all of which was punctuated by setting his guitar alight following a feedback-heavy version of The Trogg's "Wild Thing." Images of Hendrix kneeling down before his guitar and calling up the flames with his fingers became one of the most iconic photos in rock history.
Following his triumph at Monterey, Hendrix released Are You Experienced? in the United States, where it again nearly topped the charts. More importantly, the album exposed fans to a style of guitar playing never before heard, even by the likes of Clapton and Townsend. Are You Experienced? had a reverberating effect across generations, becoming one of the most influential records to young musicians learning to play guitar. Meanwhile, Hendrix began playing clubs in Los Angeles and New York before becoming the opening act for The Monkees on their first North American tour, only to quit after a few dates because of the less-than-thrilled reception from the mostly teen audience. Later in the year, he released his second album, Axis: Bold as Love (1967), which featured one of his best-known songs, "Little Wing," which was covered by numerous artists over the years, most notably Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan and John Mayer. Following its release, the Experience performed a short tour in Sweden in early 1968, where troubled popped up when Hendrix's drink was allegedly spiked and caused a freak-out that ended with him trashing a hotel room. Hendrix injured his hand and was arrested, and ultimately paid a fine for the damages.
In 1968, Hendrix began recording his third studio album, Electric Ladyland, which became marred by conflict stemming from his relentless perfectionism and his insistence in allowing hangers-on to fill the studio. In fact, manager and producer Chas Chandler quit in May 1968 over his frustrations with the numerous takes - Hendrix reportedly recorded "Gypsy Eyes" over 50 times alone. Meanwhile, bassist Noel Redding became increasingly disillusioned over having to give up playing his favored instrument, the guitar, while often finding his bass lines re-recorded by Hendrix himself. To fill in the gap, Hendrix called upon old Army buddy Billy Cox to play bass, while also including musicians like Chris Wood, Dave Mason, Steve Winwood and drummer Buddy Miles. The result was a No. 1 album that featured hits like "Crosstown Traffic" and a cover of Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower," which impressed him enough to re-record the song according to Hendrix's arrangement. But Hendrix's quest for perfectionism led to high studio costs that prompted him to seek his own recording space. With the help of manager Michael Jeffrey, Hendrix embarked on a two-year ordeal to build Electric Lady Studios, which wound up costing twice as much as projected while causing enormous headaches for the artist.
By the end of the year, the division between Hendrix and Redding hastened the disintegration of the Jimi Hendrix Experience. In early 1969, the band played their last European gigs at the Royal Albert Hall before embarking on several fruitless recording sessions back in New York. More trouble followed when Hendrix was arrested while checking through customs in Toronto, Canada, for possessing small amounts of heroin and hashish. He was bailed out in order to perform that evening and later claimed that the drugs were slipped into his bag by a fan. Though drugs were without a doubt part of Hendrix's lifestyle, there were few indications that he was a heroin user, with alcohol, marijuana and LSD being his substances of choice. Following their last gig at the Denver Pop Festival in June 1969, where teargas fired by riot police drove the band off stage, Noel Redding announced he quit the band for good. Hendrix again turned to Billy Cox to fill the void and formed a larger ensemble that included a second guitarist and a bongo player that he unofficially called Gypsy Sun and Rainbows. The group had little time to rehearse for their headlining gig at what became the defining moment of the 1960s era, the Woodstock Music & Art Fair. Though initially slated to play Sunday night, bad weather and logistical problems forced the band to perform on Monday morning, a time when most of the crowd had already gone home. Though the band was somewhat unpolished, Hendrix was in top form and played a ferocious pace, including an incendiary version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" punctuated by whammy bar dive bombs and loud feedback. The rendition caused a stir for both good and ill, with some calling it one of the most defining moments of the counterculture era.
With a contractual dispute hanging over his head stemming from the contract he signed in 1965, Hendrix formed another power trio, this time using Cox on bass and Buddy Miles on drums and calling them the Band of Gypsys. To satisfy his pending legalities, Hendrix had the group play four shows over the course of two nights on Dec. 31, 1969 and Jan. 1, 1970, releasing what became the last album authorized by Hendrix and the only live one during his lifetime, Band of Gypsys (1970). With all new material previously unheard, the album featured some of his finest playing ever captured, including the 12-minute "Machine Gun," an antiwar protest song that consisted of a long improvised solo punctuated by controlled feedback that simulated the sounds of dropping bombs, helicopter blades and machine gun fire. The song became highly influential among most anyone learning how to play guitar and was considered to be one of the finest solos ever recorded. But just a few weeks later, Hendrix hit a low point with the Band of Gypsys during a benefit concert at Madison Square Garden, where the guitarist lashed out at an audience member and walked off stage after only two songs. Rumors swirled that someone had spiked him with LSD, but the reasons for his melt down remained unknown.
Things began to look up for Hendrix in the spring when he embarked on what became known as the Cry of Love tour with Billy Cox on bass and drummer Mitch Mitchell from his Experience days. Featuring both new songs and old, the 30-date tour was a huge success and marked some of Hendrix's most precise and exploratory playing. It ended in Honolulu, HI, where footage from a free performance near the Haleakala volcano in Maui was used in the concert documentary "Rainbow Bridge" (1972). Also during this time, Hendrix spent four months recording material for a fourth album that was tentatively called First Rays of the New Rising Sun, which consisted of numerous songs like "Freedom," "Dolly Dagger," " Straight Ahead" and "Hey Baby" that were introduced during the Cry of Love Tour. In August 1970, Hendrix finally completed construction of his long-awaited Electric Lady Studios in New York following numerous delays. He spent just over two months recording in the still unfinished studio before flying off to the United Kingdom to perform at the Isle of Wight Festival, where he performed in the wee hours on Aug. 30th. The festival proved to be the last time Hendrix was recorded on film.
Instead of returning to the States, a rather unwilling Hendrix spent a week touring Sweden, Denmark and Germany, which ended abruptly following Cox's departure due to paranoia brought on by being spiked with LSD. Hendrix returned to London, where he stayed with girlfriend Monika Dannemann. After delivering what would be his last public performance on Sept. 17, an informal jam with Eric Burdon at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club, Hendrix was found dead by police in his flat on Sept. 18, 1970. He was 27 years old, joining the likes of Brian Jones, and later Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison in the so-called "27 Club," all rocks stars who died suddenly at that age. Though there was much speculation as to the cause of death, it was later revealed that he had died from asphyxiation on his own vomit after downing several strong sleeping pills and drinking red wine. Interred in his native Seattle, Hendrix left behind a legacy that stretched for decades as being not one of, but the best rock guitarist who ever lived, with a new legion of fans emerging with each successive generation. He also left an enormous amount of recorded material: fully recorded songs, loose studio jams and countless live performances. Much of his material had been scattered about among various parties claiming ownership, particularly producer Alan Douglas, who released several remastered albums over the years. But eventually his father and adoptive sister, Janie Hendrix, managed to secure all the material and began releasing it through the estate, starting with First Rays of the New Rising Sun (1997), the album Hendrix had been working on at the time of his death. Meanwhile, Hollywood long tried to develop a viable Hendrix biopic with such varied artists as Lenny Kravitz, Quentin Tarantino and Paul Greengrass trying to push the project forward, all to no avail.