Jimi Hendrix never took formal lessons, learned to read music, or cracked open a guitar instruction book. Yet in the course of a few years beginning in 1966, he established himself as rock’s greatest guitarist. Like most players who learn by ear, Jimi was influenced by recordings of other musicians. Thanks to the recollections of his dad and his girlfriend in London, Kathy Etchingham, we can trace the evolution of Jimi’s favorite singles and his personal album collection.
The Seattle Singles
One of my great journalistic pleasures was co-authoring James “Al” Hendrix’s memoir, My Son Jimi (Book). Our interviews took place between 1995 and 1998 at Al’s home in Seattle. Early on, I asked him when Jimi’s love of music kicked in. Al responded that it was while Jimi was attending Meany Junior High in Seattle. Destitute at the time, Al had sent Jimi to stay with his brother Frank’s family, and for nearly a year Jimi shared a room with his cousin Bobby. “They had a record player,” Al explained, “and Bobby remembers that that’s when Jimi became really interested in music. Jimi liked to listen to a 45 of Elvis Presley’s ‘You Ain’t Nothing but a Hound Dog,’ and he liked Little Richards’ 45s. When he was around 14, Jimi went to an Elvis concert to see what it was all about. Jimi liked Elvis, and he sketched a picture or two of him.”
Al ambled into his bedroom, fumbled around under his bed, and came back into the living room carrying a box. He lifted the lid to reveal dozens of Jimi’s original works of art, done before his son had become a guitarist. “These are some of the few things of Jimi’s that haven’t been stolen from me,” he sighed. “I’ve been saving them ever since Jimi was a kid.” Among them was a notebook-paper sketch showing a side view of a young, rockabilly-style Elvis playing guitar. Surrounding the image were song titles in Jimi’s handwriting and spelling: “Rip It Up,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “My Baby Left Me,” “Love Me Tender,” “Heart Break Hotel,” “Peace in the Valley,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Hound Dog,” “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You,” “Parilized,” “Honey Don’t,” “I’m Playing for Keeps,” “Be Bop a Lu-La,” “I Need Your Lovin’,” and “Too Much.” Most are titles of Elvis singles circa 1956 and ’57, the exceptions being Gene Vincent’s “Be-Bop-a-Lula” and Carl Perkins’ “Honey Don’t.” It’s doubtful that Jimi actually owned any of these records, but the drawing does suggest some of the first rock music he was into.
For a few years, Al and Jimi bounced from one living situation to another, sometimes staying with relatives, other times renting rooms. They did not own a record player during this period. According to Al, Jimi showed no interest in playing music until the death of his mother, Lucille Jeter Hendrix, in 1958. Not long after her funeral, Al came home and found broom straws on the floor of the room he and Jimi shared in a Seattle boarding house. “I was sitting there making believe the broom was a guitar,” Jimi explained to his dad. James McKay, the grown-up son of their landlady, often sat on the porch playing blues on an acoustic guitar as Jimi listened in. When Jimi told his father he wanted to learn to play, Al purchased McKay’s guitar for five dollars. At first, Al recalls, Jimi concentrated on teaching himself easy riffs, “just like a person plunking away with one finger on the piano. One of the first things that he learned how to play was the theme song from Peter Gunn, so even when he was just starting, he could make music out of the guitar. Who knows – playing guitar could have been his way of working through some of his feelings about his mother. He just worked at it and worked at it, practicing night and day. He played the guitar every day. He carried it around with him all the time.” This habit continued until Jimi was well into his twenties, when he often fell asleep with his guitar still in his hands.
The songs covered by Jimi’s teenage band in Seattle, the Rocking Kings, suggests other records he enjoyed: Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba,” Boots Randolph’s “Yakety Sax,” Bobby Freeman’s “Do You Want to Dance,” Danny & The Juniors’ “At the Hop,” the Coasters’ “Poison Ivy” and “Charlie Brown,” and two songs Jimi would later record with the Experience, Ray Anthony’s “Peter Gunn” and Shirley & Lee’s “Let the Good Times Roll.” Presaging stage moves to come, during this period Jimi began doing Chuck Berry’s celebrated duckwalk.
Jimi’s playing took a quantum leap when Al brought home a big console stereo record player with detachable speakers. At the time, Jimi was attending Garfield High School and he and Al had just moved in with Al’s girlfriend, Willeen Stringer, on Yesler Way. “One of my gardening customers worked in a store where they sold record players,” Al told me, “so I got a good deal on one of the first stereos that came out. It was a turntable with two detachable satellite speaker boxes. Jimi would split the speakers apart, set one over on one side of the room and one on the other, and this would give it a stereo sound. The stereo played LPs, 45s, and 78s, and if you push a button the arm would swing back to a particular place on the record.
“Jimi would put my 45s on the turntable, and play along on his guitar. He’d try to copy what he’d heard, and he’d make up stuff too. He lived on blues around the house. I got a lot of records by B.B. King and Louis Jordan and some of the downhome guys like Muddy Waters. Jimi was really excited by B.B. King and Chuck Berry, and he was a fan of Albert King too, because he liked all them blues guitarists. Jimi also had some of his own 78s and 45s, but he never did ask me to buy him any records. He would buy his own. We also had a radio and television on Yesler. I didn’t see Jimi pay too much attention to the radio, but he liked to lay on the floor or sit on the couch and watch TV. Usually when I’d come home from work, he’d be sitting there with the TV on, and then he’d be playing along to the stereo during commercials. When the program would come on again, he would watch that again.” Late in life, Al still had that stereo and couch in the basement of his Seattle home. While Al couldn’t remember the names of specific records they had around the house, I suspect there was a copy of Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ Stone,” since Jimi reworked the song as “Catfish Blues” while he was in London.
Once Jimi left Seattle to join the 101st Airborne, he never lived with Al again, although he’d stop by to visit while on tour. After his discharge, Jimi knocked around Nashville for a while and worked as a low-paid sideman in a string of bands. It’s unlikely he had much extra money to buy records during this period of his life. This situation changed dramatically in September 1966, when a penniless Jimi moved to London and began his rapid ascent to worldwide acclaim. (This portion of Jimi’s life is documented here: http://jasobrecht.com/jimi-hendrix-in-london/ .) With the sudden influx in income, Jimi Hendrix was able to indulge himself with all the records he wanted.
Jimi’s Album Collection in London
Soon after his arrival, Jimi began sharing a series of London flats with his girlfriend Kathy Etchingham. At their best-known residence, 23 Brook Street in Mayfair, where they lived in 1968 and ’69, Jimi gathered a collection of nearly a hundred albums. His favorite record store was One Stop Records on South Molton, while HMV on Oxford Street was a reliable source for classical LPs. My friend James Rotondi spoke with Kathy Etchingham about these days for the April 1996 issue of Guitar Player. “Jimi would buy records out of curiosity,” Kathy said. “Often he’d go through the record racks, look at something for a moment, and buy it. Then he’d listen to it once and never play it again.” One of these impulse buys was John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Two Virgins with the controversial nude cover. Once home, they’d spin their records on a Bang & Olufsen turntable run through a Leak-70 amp and a pair of Lowther 30-watt speakers. Their habit of playing records loud resulted in many blown speakers. While these were in the shop getting re-coned, they made do with a Decca portable stereo with flip-up speakers.
While Hendrix owned everything from Holst’s The Planets and Handel’s Messiah to comedian Bill Cosby’s I Started Out as a Child – reportedly his all-time favorite album – most of his collection was dedicated to blues. “People will argue with me,” Kathy said, “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. The way Jimi was, if he was with a jazz musician, he liked jazz. If he was with a folk singer, he liked folk. But what he really liked, and what he really played at home, was blues.”
Etchingham remembered Elmore James, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Muddy Waters as being particular faves. The Best of Elmore James was frequently on their turntable, and they also had the fiery Chicago slide guitarist’s Memorial Album. Jimi’s love of Muddy Waters extended from bluesman’s the very first recordings – a well-worn copy of Down on Stovall’s Plantation – to the just-released Electric Mud. He likewise treasured Muddy’s The Real Folk Blues and More Real Folk Blues, which likely contained some of the singles Al had bought. One of Jimi’s two John Lee Hooker albums, the excellent Live at Café Au Go-Go, featured Muddy and band providing skin-tight backup. Jimi’s other Hooker album was Drifting Blues.
Jimi collected at least five Lightnin’ Hopkins albums – The Roots of Lightnin’ Hopkins, Soul Blues, Lightnin’ Strikes, Something Blue, and Earth Blues – and Howlin’ Wolf’s Moanin’ in the Moonlight, The Howlin’ Wolf Album, and More Real Folk Bluus. His other postwar blues holdings included The New Jimmy Reed Album, Albert King’s Live Wire – Blues Power, Lowell Fulsom’s self-titled Arhoolie album, Charlie Musselwhite’s Stand Back!, Canned Heat’s self-titled debut, Smokey Smothers’ The Driving Blues, Junior Wells’ It’s My Life, Baby (featuring Buddy Guy), and Guitar Slim and Jelly Belly’s old-timey Carolina Blues. Jimi purchased albums by both Sonny Boy Williamsons – Sonny Boy I’s Classic Blues on Arhoolie, and Sonny Boy II’s Down and Out Blues and More Real Folk Blues.
He enjoyed prewar country bluesmen as well. Yardbirds manager Giorgio Gomelsky gave him a copy of Robert Johnson’s first album on Columbia, King of the Delta Blues Singers, and Jimi also had copies of Blind Blake’s Bootleg Rum Dum Blues, Lead Belly’s Take This Hammer, and Washboard Sam’s Classic Blues. Among his blues anthologies were Heavy Heads with Muddy Waters and Little Walter, American Folk Blues Festival ’66, We Sing the Blues, Original Hits of the Great Blues Singers, Vol. II, and the first volume of Vanguard’s landmark three-record Chicago/The Blues/Today, featuring Junior Wells’ Chicago Blues Band, J.B. Hutto and the Hawks, and Otis Spann’s South Side Piano.
Jimi was outspoken in his love for Bob Dylan’s music – Al told me that hearing Dylan had inspired Jimi to sing. At his London flat Jimi had well-worn copies of Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, Greatest Hits, Nashville Skyline, and John Wesley Harding, the source of his covers of “All Along the Watchtower” and “Drifter’s Escape.” Jimi sought out albums featuring other artists doing Dylan tunes – The Hollies Sing Dylan, The Byrd’s Fifth Dimension and Younger Than Yesterday, and Joan Baez’s Any Day Now. His taste for progressive folk and folk-rock led him to Roy Harper’s Sophisticated Beggar, Tim Buckley’s Goodbye and Hello, and Richie Havens’ Electric Havens and Mixed Bag.
As the British rock scene was reaching its ’60s peak, Jimi collected The Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, Magical Mystery Tour and Abbey Road, George Harrison’s Wonderwall Music, the Rolling Stones’ Their Satantic Majesty’s Request, the Spencer Davis Group’s Autumn ’66, the Bonzo Dog Band’s Doughnuts in Granny’s Greenhouse, and the Animals’ The Twain Shall Meet. He had two albums featuring Eric Clapton: the John Mayall Blues Breakers album and Fresh Cream. He also had John Mayall’s Crusade, featuring young Mick Taylor on guitar. Kathy recalled that Jimi was also very fond of an an up-and-coming Australian group: “The Bee Gees’ 1st album was one of the first records in the collection. We used to listen to that quite a lot. Jimi thought their harmonies were really great.”
Jimi’s taste in jazz leaned toward the progressive: Wes Montgomery’s A Day in the Life, Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery’s The Dynamic Duo, Jaki Byard’s Freedom Together and Sunshine of My Soul, the Free Spirits’ Out of Sight and Sound with Larry Coryell, Acker Bilk’s Lansdowne Folio, the Roland Kirk Quartet’s Rip, Rig and Panic, and the Charles Lloyd Quartet’s Journey Within. Among his soul-oriented platters were The Immortal Otis Redding, the Temptations’ Puzzle People, and James Brown’s Showtime and Ain’t It Funky.
His American rock holdings were surprisingly limited: anthologies of 1950s rockers Elvis, Eddie Cochrane, and Little Richard, as well as Vanilla Fudge’s debut LP, The Band’s Music From Big Pink, the Mothers of Invention’s Freak Out, and Delaney and Bonnie’s debut album Home. He also had Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison, Nina Simone’s Nuff Said, and Clara Ward’s Gospel Concert and Hang Your Tears Out to Dry. Jimi especially treasured his Bill Cosby comedy albums, I Started Out as a Child and Revenge, which Kathy describes as “Jimi’s absolute favorites. He just loved them, and he’d play them for everyone who came by our flat.”
As you’d suspect, there were some psychedelic rarities tucked away in the collection: The Zodiac’s Cosmic Sounds, Friar Tuck and His Psychedelic Guitar, Red Krayola’s The Parable of Arable Land, The Soundtrack From The Trip, and the prog-rock Norwegian band the Dream’s Get Dream. In keeping with the times, Jimi also had selections of Indian music: The Sounds of Subbulakshimi and Ravi Shankar’s Sounds of the Sitar, both gifts from Brian Jones, as well as Ravi Shankar’s Master Musician and Portrait of a Genius. And let’s not forget his two keyboard albums, E. Power Bigg’s Bach on the Pedal Harpsichord and Pierre Henry’s synth-driven Le Voyage. All told, quite an eclectic collection!
Did Jimi Hendrix take good care of his albums? Not a chance. For starters, he taped a nickel to his record player’s arm to correct an imbalance. “He was terrible,” Kathy told James Rotondi. “He never put the records back in the sleeves. They were all over the floor, and that’s why they were all so damaged.” During the 1990s, many albums from the London collection were sold to the Experience Music Project in Seattle.
The New York Albums?
There are likely other Jimi Hendrix albums, but to my knowledge, their whereabouts today are unknown. On the day we began the book, Al described going to New York immediately after he was informed by telephone of Jimi’s death. Alan Douglas picked him up at the airport. “That’s the first time I met him, and I didn’t know anything about him,” Al said. “He told me he and Jimi were so buddy-buddy, but Jimi never mentioned anything to me about him.” Later that day, Al continued, “We went over to Jimi’s place. It was hard being there and knowing that that’s where he lived. Jimi’s apartment was okay, but it was messy. It looked like he’d just left to go down the street. He had a bunch of gold records on the wall, a reel-to-reel tape recorder, and boxes with a lot of LPs in them.” Al then headed back to Seattle to prepare for the funeral.
What albums did Jimi have in New York, and what became of them? “I was told that after Jimi died, some people went into his apartment and ripped off a bunch of stuff,” Al said. “Michael Jeffrey sent some stuff, but it wasn’t nearly as much as what I saw in his apartment. I never got his jewelry or some of the other things I’d seen. They did send Jimi’s gold records to me, but then they got stolen around 1985 from the house I live in today. People have ripped off so many of Jimi’s things.” If you know of other Hendrix-owned records, feel free to list ’em below.
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© 2011 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This article may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.