When Jimi Hendrix boarded a flight to London on September 23, 1966, he had no idea how dramatically his life was about to change. His luggage – pretty much everything he owned – showed how hard times had been for him in New York City. He carried with him just one Fender Stratocaster electric guitar and a small bag with a change of clothes, plastic hair curlers, and acne medicine. His pocket held $40 borrowed on his way to the airport. The 23-year-old was traveling first class, though, courtesy of his new manager, Chas Chandler.
That July, Chandler, bassist for the popular British group the Animals, had heard Jimi play at Café Wha in New York’s Greenwich Village. Jimi’s set included one of Chandler’s favorite songs, Tim Rose’s “Hey Joe.” “Jimi was just an explosive kid whose potential struck me,” Chandler remembered in John McDermott’s Jimi Hendrix Sessions. “As much as his version of ‘Hey Joe’ impressed me, what convinced me of his talent was another song he did that day, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ by Bob Dylan. He did it with tremendous conviction, and the lyrics came right through to me.” Jimi accepted Chandler’s offer to record him in London once the Animals’ current U.S. tour was completed. Chandler, ambitious to become a record producer, was determined to have Jimi record “Hey Joe” as his first single.
Hendrix landed at London’s Heathrow Airport at 9:00 the following morning. It was Saturday, and as Charles Cross recounts in his excellent Hendrix biography, Room Full of Mirrors, publicist Tony Garland picked Jimi up from the airport and took him straight to the home of bandleader Zoot Money. Jimi tried to play his Strat through a stereo record player, but when that failed, he wowed Zoot with his performance on a borrowed acoustic. Andy Summers, later the guitarist for the Police, was living in Zoot’s house and witnessed this performance. Thus, writes Cross, Summers became “the first of legions of Great Britain’s guitar players to be awed and dazed by Jimi.”
Jimi’s next stop that day was the Scotch of St. James, a club where musicians and record company execs hung out. Hendrix asked if he could jam with the house band, and when he began playing blues, the crowd was awestruck. Among the attendees was 20-year-old Kathy Etchingham, former girlfriend of Brian Jones and Keith Moon. Kathy accepted Hendrix’s invitation to spend the night. During the weeks that followed, she introduced him to “Swinging London,” and for the next two years they’d be an on-again, off-again couple.
Two days later, Chas took Jimi to meet Eric Burdon, lead singer of the Animals. As Burdon recounts in Tony Brown’s Jimi Hendrix: A Visual Documentary, “The first time I heard him play, I was in a rehearsal room putting together the New Animals, and this shadowy figure stepped into the room wearing a large Western, sombrero kind of hat, beads around it, and he looked almost sort of purple, you know, in the darkness of this club. And he just grabbed hold of Vic Briggs’ guitar and in the same instant said, ‘Do you mind if I have a jam?’, you know, and cracked up into an up-tempo blues jam with John Wieder. And Barry Jenkins and Danny McCulloch from my band just leapt in and chased him on this incredible jam. I mean, the sounds just rocketed around the room, like ricocheted around the room. I was totally stunned and from that point on I became unashamedly a Jimi Hendrix addict.”
On his fourth day in London, Hendrix sat in with a group called the VIPs at the Scotch of St. James. As Jimi played, Kit Lambert, founder of Track Records, tried to talk Chandler into having Jimi sign with his fledgling label. The next day Jimi phoned Seattle to speak to his dad. In the book we wrote together, My Son Jimi, Al Hendrix recounted the conversation: “One day in late September 1966, our phone rang and the operator said ‘London calling.’ At first I was wondering who in the heck was calling me – I didn’t know anybody over there. It was Jimi, and he was all excited as he told me, ‘Dad, it looks like I’m on my way to the big time.’ He went on to say he was in England, auditioning for a bass player and a drummer. ‘I’m gonna call the group the Jimi Hendrix Experience,’ he said, ‘and I’m gonna have my name spelled J-i-m-i.’ Jimi also talked about he was going to sing. ‘Yeah, dad,’ he said, ‘all these other guys sing, and they ain’t got no voice and they’re just hollering and going on. You know I ain’t got no voice, but heck, I’m gonna do it too.’”
Initially, Jimi had wanted a nine-piece revue like the one he’d played in with Little Richard. Chandler, though, wanted a trio, both to save money and to ensure that Jimi was the focus of attention. The first recruit, guitarist Noel Redding, had recently auditioned for the Animals. Chandler asked him if he’d be interested in playing bass for Hendrix, and Redding agreed to give it a try. On September 29, after jamming on “Hey Joe” and “Have Mercy on Me Baby,” Jimi offered Noel the gig. In the coming weeks, Chandler tutored Noel by showing him scales and walking patterns on bass. On occasion, Jimi would also teach him the parts he wanted to hear. During his first few months with the Experience, Noel used Chandler’s Gibson EB-5 semi-acoustic bass, and then got his own Fender Jazz Bass.
While sitting in with Brian Auger’s Trinity, Jimi had his first encounter with a Marshall amplifier. He instantly rolled all the dials to 10 and shocked the crowd with a wall of feedback before playing launching into “Hey Joe.” “Everyone’s jaw dropped to the floor,” Auger remembered. “The difference between him and a lot of the English guitar players like Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Alvin Lee was that you could still tell what the influences were in Clapton’s and Beck’s playing. There were a lot of B.B. King, Albert King, and Freddie King followers around in England. But Jimi wasn’t following anyone – he was playing something new.”
At the time, Eric Clapton was considered England’s foremost guitar slinger – to the point where people had scrawled “Clapton Is God” on London buildings and subway walls. Now he was making the scene with Cream. Just one week after he’d landed at Heathrow, Hendrix went to see Cream. In Clapton: The Autobiography, Eric described what happened: “On October 1, we were booked to play at the Central London Polytechnic on Regent Street. I was hanging around backstage with Jack [Bruce], when Chas Chandler, the bass player with the Animals, appeared, accompanied by a young black American guy whom he introduced as Jimi Hendrix. He informed us that Jimi was a brilliant guitarist, and he wanted to sit in with us for a couple of numbers. I thought he looked cool and that he probably knew what he was doing. We got to talking about music, and he liked the same bluesmen I liked, so I was all for it. Jack was cool about it, too, though I seem to remember Ginger [Baker] was a little bit hostile.
“The song Jimi wanted to play was by Howlin’ Wolf, entitled ‘Killing Floor.’ I thought it was incredible that he would know how to play this, as it was a tough one to get right. Of course Jimi played it exactly like it ought to be played, and he totally blew me away. When jamming with another band for the first time, most musicians will try to hold back, but Jimi just went for it. He played the guitar with his teeth, behind his head, lying on the floor, doing the splits, the whole business. It was amazing, and it was musically great, too, not just pyrotechnics. Even though I had already seen Buddy Guy and knew a lot of black players could do this kind of stuff, it’s still pretty amazing when you’re standing right next to it. The audience was completely gobsmacked by what they saw and heard, too. They loved it, and I loved it, too, but I remember thinking that here was a force to be reckoned with. It scared me, because he was clearly going to be a huge star, and just as we were finding our own speed, here was the real thing.” “It must have been difficult for Eric to handle,” Jack Bruce later commented, “because people were writing Clapton was ‘God,’ and this unknown person comes along and burns.”
Chandler, meanwhile, was hard at work completing the Experience. Drummer Aynsley Dunbar rehearsed with Noel and Jimi on October 4. The following day, Mitch Mitchell, who’d recently left Georgie Fame’s band, was brought in. As Mitchell described in Tony Brown’s book: “It was strange. I met this black guy with very wild hair, wearing a Burberry raincoat. I think we did ‘Have Mercy on Me Baby’ first. Jimi didn’t really sing, just mumbled along to the music. And for two hours we run through what we all knew – Chuck Berry, Wilson Pickett, basically R&B, after which Hendrix said, ‘Okay, I will see you around.’ After the initial session, I think it was only a few hours later that I got a call from Chas saying, ‘Yes, we’re interested.’ Chas said there was a gig in Paris the next week with Johnny Halliday and asked if we fancied doing it. So I said okay and spent three days rehearsing. Then off we went and that was how it started.” Chandler later revealed, “It was a toss-up between Aynsley Dunbar and Mitch Mitchell, and literally we just spun a coin – we couldn’t make our minds up – and it fell for Mitch.”
Next on Jimi’s agenda was French tour opening for singer Johnny Halliday, who’d seen him jamming in a nightclub. First, though, he needed to score a better amp than the 30-watt Burns model Chandler had supplied. On October 8, Mitch took Jimi to see Jim Marshall of Marshall Amplifiers. “I thought he was just another one who wanted to have something for nothing,” Marshall recalled in Brown’s book. “But he seemed to read what I was thinking and he said, almost in his next breath, ‘Well, I don’t want it for nothing. I wanna pay full price, but I want good service.’ And that’s what we gave him.”
The newly named Jimi Hendrix Experience gave their debut performance on October 13, 1966, at the Novelty in Evreux. Their set consisted of “Midnight Hour,” “Have Mercy on Me Baby,” “Land of a Thousand Dances,” and “Hey Joe.” This first performance garnered a surprisingly bad review in the local newspaper L’Eure Éclair: “Il s’agissait d’un chanteur guitariste à la chevelure broussailleuse, mauvais cocktail de James Brown et de Chuck Berry qui se contorsionné pendant un bon quatre d’heure sur la scène en jouant parfois de la guitare avec le dents. Il termina la première partie qui fut suive d’une assez long entracte.” This roughly translates to “he was a singer and guitar player with bushy hair, a bad cocktail of James Brown and Chuck Berry who writhed onstage for a good quarter of an hour and sometimes played the guitar with his teeth. After he ended, there was a long pause.”
But Mitch Mitchell, for one, came away impressed: “Jimi was a quiet bloke, at least until he got onstage,” Mitchell recalled in his must-read autobiography, Inside the Experience. “It was on this first gig that we saw the whole other person, completely different from anything I’d seen before, even during rehearsals. I knew he played really tasty guitar, but I didn’t know about the showmanship that went with it. It was like, ‘Whoosh! This man is really out-front!’ The showmanship – playing behind his head, with his teeth, etc. – was amazing. But even then it was obviously not just flashiness, he really did have the musicianship to go with it.” The trio garnered far better reviews when they played l’Olympia in Paris five days later, where Jimi blew everyone’s mind with “Killing Floor,” “Hey Joe,” and a pull-out-the-stops cover of “Wild Thing.” They then returned to London, where, exactly one month after Jimi’s arrival in London, the Experience began making records.
With Chandler producing, the trio recorded “Hey Joe” at London’s DeLane Lea Studios on October 23. Jimi played his Strat through a Marshall twin stack. Chandler had to convince Jimi to overcome his insecurity about his voice. “It was the first time I’d ever sung on record,” Jimi would later confess. More than 30 takes were needed to complete the backing tracks, but in the end, the Jimi Hendrix Experience had its first hit single in the can. But what to put on the other side? Jimi wanted to cover “Mercy, Mercy” or “Land of a Thousand Dance,” but Chandler told him he’d need to write his own songs to make publishing royalties. So the following day Jimi sat down and wrote all of “Stone Free,” recorded and mixed on November 2. On October 25, the Experience made its London debut at the Scotch of St. James. With money from his early club gigs – typically £25 a performance – Jimi purchased mod clothing in the boutiques along Carnaby Street, the center of the “Swinging Sixties” fashion scene.
While Chandler shopped for a record deal, eventually signing with Track Records, Jimi began working on more songs. He developed early versions of “Can You See Me” and “Remember,” as well as two songs inspired by science fiction books he’d borrowed from Chandler – “Third Stone from the Sun” and “Up from the Skies.” He also kept up a busy rehearsal schedule.
On October 29, the British publication Record Mirror ran Richard Green’s “Ex Animal Adventures,” the first English-language article about the Jimi Hendrix Experience. The write-up misspelled both of Jimi’s names and misstated his age by three years: “Never one to let a good thing pass, Chas Chandler has signed and brought to this country a 20 year old Negro called Jim Henrix who – among other things – plays the guitar with his teeth and is being hailed in some quarters as main contender for the title of ‘the next big thing.’ . . . ‘He looks like Dylan, he’s got all that hair sticking all over the place,’ Chas told me. ‘He’s coloured but he doesn’t think like a coloured person.’” Ouch. But wait, there’s more: “‘He’s better than Eric Clapton,’ Chas claimed, getting to the main point about Jim. ‘He played with the Cream at a London college date and played Clapton off the stage. Ginger Baker didn’t want him to go on because he said he had to have Eric there to work with him. Clapton admitted that Jim was a fantastic guitarist.’”
Beginning on November 9, the Experience played three nights in Munich, Germany, to ever-increasing crowds. “This was really the first time we all knew something big was going to happen,” Noel Redding remembered. “You could feel we were just on the cusp of success.” Using a long cord to walk into the adoring crowd, Hendrix damaged his guitar getting back onstage. In anger, he lifted it over his head and threw it to the ground. The crowd went berserk, and soon guitar smashing – often the same guitar, glued back together each night – became a standard part of the set. Hendrix did not pioneer this attention-getter, though. Pete Townshend of The Who was already an old-hand at smashing guitars, and in the film Blow-Up, released earlier in 1966, Jeff Beck is seen angrily destroying a guitar during a Yardbirds set.
Upon his return from Germany, Jimi watched while the Rolling Stones recorded “Ruby Tuesday” at Olympic Studios and visited a Who session at IBC Sound Studios. On November 24, two days before his 24th birthday, he recorded “Love or Confusion” at DeLane Lea Music.
The following day, Jimi played at the Bag O’ Nails and gave his first published interview to Peter Jones, who headlined his December 10th Record Mirror article “Mr. Phenomenon.” Jones was decidedly kinder – and a better speller – than Richard Green. “Now hear this – and kindly hear it good! Are you one of the fans who think there’s nothing much new happening on the pop scene? Right. Then we want to bring your attention to a new artist, a new star-in-the-making, who we predict is going to whirl round the business like a tornado. Name: Jimi Hendrix. Occupation: Guitarist-singer-composer – showman – dervish – original. His group, just three-strong: The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Bill Harry and I dropped in at the Bag O’ Nails club in Kingley Street recently to hear the trio working out for the benefit of press and bookers. An astonished Harry muttered: ‘Is that full, big blasting, swinging sound really being created by only three people?’ It was, with the aid of a mountain of amplification equipment. Jimi was in full flight. Whirling like a demon, swirling his guitar every which way, this 20-year-old (looking rather like James Brown) was quite amazing. Visually he grabs the eyeballs with his techniques of playing the guitar with his teeth, elbow, rubbing it across the stage. But he also pleasurably hammers the eardrums with his expert playing. An astonishing technique, specially considering he started playing only five or six years ago. Sweatily exhausted, Jimi said afterwards: ‘I’ve only been in London three months – but Britain is really groovy. Just been working in Paris and Munich.’”
Jones asked Jimi to describe his music: “‘We don’t want to be classed in any category,’ said Jimi. ‘If it must have a tag. I’d like it to be called ‘free feeling.’ It’s a mixture of rock, freakout, blues and rave music.’ . . . About that thing of playing the guitar with his teeth: he says it doesn’t worry him. He doesn’t feel anything. ‘But I do have to brush my teeth three times a day.’”
In early December, Jimi, Kathy Etchingham, Chas Chandler, and Chas’ girlfriend Lottie Lexon took residence at 34 Montagu Square in London; the flat’s previous tenant was Ringo Starr. During the next two years, Jimi would eventually amass a collection of nearly a hundred albums in the places he’d share with Kathy Etchingham. While he owned everything from Holst and Handel to comedian Bill Cosby – I Started Out as a Child was reportedly his all-time favorite album – most of his collection was dedicated to the blues, with Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Sonny Boy Williamson being particular favorites. He also had a deep admiration for Bob Dylan. “People will argue with me,” Etchingham told James Rotondi in Guitar Player magazine, “but I tell you, that guy was a bluesman. That’s where his heart really lay. Anybody who tells me he would have become a jazz musician – well, balls to them. What he really liked, and what he really played at home, was blues.”
On December 13, the Jimi Hendrix Experience taped “Hey Joe” for the popular British TV show Ready, Steady Go! Watching that performance was effects wizard Roger Mayer, who’d built the custom fuzz boxes used by Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck with the Yardbirds. “I said, ‘Damn, this guy is incredible,’” Mayer told me in a 1979 interview. “He was the epitome of what any rock guitarist should be – we had no one of that caliber in England.” Mayer would soon give Hendrix the Octavia octave-doubling device heard at the end of “Purple Haze.”
Later that evening, the band had a recording session at CBS Studios. Jimi brought along four Marshall cabinets and told engineer Mike Ross, “Stick a microphone eight feet away, and it will sound great.” It did sound great, Ross observed, “but it was the loudest thing I ever heard in that studio. It was painful on your ears.” With Chandler very much in charge of the session, they completed “Foxy Lady,” “Red House,” “Can You See Me,” and “Third Stone From the Sun,” all of which would be included on the British version of the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s debut album. Three days later, “Hey Joe”/“Stone Free” was issued as a single, eventually making it all the way to #6 in the British pop charts.
The Experience’s December 21 club gig earned a rave review from Chris Welch in the December 31 issue of Melody Maker: “Jimi Hendrix, a fantastic American guitarist, blew the minds of the star packed crowd who went to see him at ‘Blaises’ club, London, on Wednesday. Among those in the audience were Pete Townsend, Roger Daltrey, John Entwhistle, Chas Chandler and Jeff Beck. They heard Jimi’s trio blast through some beautiful sounds like ‘Rock Me Baby,’ ‘Third Stone from the Sun,’ ‘Hey Joe’ and even an unusual version of The Troggs’ ‘Wild Thing.’ Jimi has great stage presence and an exceptional guitar technique which involved playing with his teeth on occasions and no hands at all on others! Jimi looks like [he’s] becoming one of the big club names of ’67.” In 1980, I asked Jeff Beck about his relationship with Jimi: “It was a bit difficult. We could never enjoy a real close friendship because of what we did. He and I were both after the wild guitar playing. I liked Jimi best when we didn’t talk guitars.”
For Pete Townshend, watching Jimi perform was even more cathartic. “Seeing Jimi absolutely, completely destroyed me,” he told Matt Resnicoff in their September 1989 Guitar Player cover story. “It was horrifying, because he took back black music. He came and stole R&B back. He made it very evident that’s what he was doing. He’d been out on the road with people like Little Richard, had done that hard work, and then he’d come over to the U.K. And when he took his music back, he took a lot of the trimmings back too. Seeing Jimi shifted my emphasis, as it did for Eric Clapton. It was very strange for Eric and me. We went and watched Jimi at about ten London shows together. It got to the point where Eric would go up and pay his respects every night, and one day I got up to pay my respects. He was hugging Eric, but not me – he was kind of giving me a limp handshake – just because Eric was capable of making the right kind of approach to him.
“You have to remember the other thing about Jimi – that he was astonishingly sexual. You could just sense this whole thing in the room where every woman would just go for him at a snap of a finger. There was a slightly prince-like quality about him, this kind of imp at work. I found him very charming, very easy, a very sweet guy. You know, I just kept hearing stories, like the night that he went up to Marianne Faithful when she was there with Mick Jagger and said to her in the ear, ‘What are you doing with this asshole?’
“Slowly but surely Jimi became sure of himself. I’m talking about the first few weeks he was in London. You know, it was a new band, and they were just taking London by fucking storm! You can’t believe it. You’d look around and the audience was just full of record company people and music business people. I suppose I went away and got very confused for a bit. I kind of groped around. I had a lot of spiritual problems. I felt that I hadn’t the emotional equipment, really, the physical equipment, the natural psychic genius of somebody like Jimi. I realized that what I had was a bunch of gimmicks which he had come and taken away from me. He attached them not only to the black R&B from which they came, but also added a whole new dimension. I felt stripped, and I took refuge in my writing.”
In Christmas Eve publications, the British music press raved about Jimi’s first single. New Musical Express proclaimed: “Here’s a young man who could make a profound impression in the future. This is a raw uninhibited treatment of a traditional number. It’s in the insidious R&B pattern, with thundering drums, some spine-tingling guitar work and a hypnotic slow beat. It’s guttural, earthy, convincing and authentic. Flip: Much the same remarks apply to this side, except it’s faster-paced and more fancy-free. This is a disc for the connoisseurs.” Record Mirror’s review, published the same day, was even stronger: “Should justice prevail, this’ll be a first-time hit. The most genuinely soulful record ever made in Britain. Jimi has really inspired the other two musicians. Dig the way the bass comes through. The best record Polydor has issued. A must. Flip is more urgent and equally soul-laden.” These write-ups doubtlessly fuelled Jimi’s holiday cheer.
On the day after Christmas, the Jimi Hendrix Experience performed at the Upper Cut club. In the dressing room backstage, Jimi wrote the lyrics for what was to be one of his most enduring songs, “Purple Haze.”
The Jimi Hendrix Experience gave its final performance of 1966 on New Year’s Eve, at the Hillside Social Club in Folkestone. Afterward, the band visited Noel’s mother, Margaret, who lived nearby. “It was very cold that night,” Mrs. Redding remembered in Tony Brown’s book. “Jimi asked me if it would be alright to stand next to the fire, and that’s how he got the idea for the song ‘Fire.’”
News of Jimi’s success during his head-spinning first three months of 1966 reached all the way back home to his dad. “When Jimi first went to England,” Al remembered in My Son Jimi, “I didn’t think he was going to be that successful, but then I started getting reports on him after he started playing as the Experience. There was a notice of him in some music magazines, and then one of my stepdaughters saw a picture of Jimi with a caption that said ‘The Wild Man of Borneo.’ When she first looked at the picture, she thought it was me for a minute. She said, ‘What’s Al doing in London?’ Then she looked again and said, ‘Ooh, that’s Jimi Hendrix – ‘The Wild Man of Borneo’ and ‘The New Sensation of London.’ Jimi was on his way.”
Jimi Hendrix would remain headquartered in London for the first half of 1967, cutting records, playing clubs and concerts, and making forays into other European countries. Less than nine months after he left New York City impoverished and uncertain of his future, he returned to the U.S. a conquering hero, stealing the show at that summer’s Monterey Pop Festival.
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© 2010 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This article may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.