For several years I wrote numerous non-fiction books for Enslow Publishers, ranging from science books to biographies. Among the biographies were four for a series called American Rebels, for which I wrote books on Johnny Cash, Janis Joplin, Andy Warhol…and Jimi Hendrix.
For this week’s Saturday special, the introduction (complete with footnotes!) to Jimi Hendrix: Kiss the Sky. Which you can purchase here, if you’re interested!
Jimi Hendrix: Kiss the Sky
By Edward Willett
Shortly after 9 a.m. on Saturday, September 24, 1966, a young black man stepped off a Pan American Airlines airplane at London’s Heathrow Airport. All he had with him was $40 in borrowed cash, a small bag containing a change of clothes, pink plastic hair curlers and a jar of Valderma face cream…and his guitar.[i]
But a guitar was all he really needed. Within an extraordinarily short time, that young man would be famous around the world. Decades later, he’s still famous: “King Jimi,” a “guitar god,” the “master of electric-guitar sound and style.”[ii]
Later that same evening, Jimi Hendrix was onstage at The Scotch of St. James, a club that attracted people in the music industry. As he started to play, the club fell silent.
“He was just amazing,” Kathy Etchingham, then just twenty-four and soon to be Jimi’s girlfriend (one of many), recalled. “People had never seen anything like it.”[iii]
Among the musicians in the crowd was Eric Burdon of the Animals. His take: “It was haunting how good he was. You just stopped and watched.”[iv]
Burdon was the first famous guitarist to be awed by Hendrix’s ability. He wouldn’t be the last. On January 11, 1967, Hendrix and his new band, The Experience, played at a basement club called the Bag O’Nails in the Soho district of London.
Hendrix had been in England just three and a half months (and had spent several weeks touring France and Germany with the Experience), but that night his show was attended by rock greats Pete Townshend and John Entwhistle of the Who, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr of the Beatles (plus their manager, Brian Epstein), Mick Jagger and Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck…and many others.[v]
People all over the world stopped and watched when Jimi Hendrix played…but it all ended on September 18, 1970, when he died in London at the age of twenty-seven.
Jimi Hendrix crammed a lot into his short life. The consummate rebel, he somehow fought his way past every barrier that rose between him and his lifelong dream of stardom. He rebelled against his father, who thought his music was a waste of time. He rebelled against the strict regimentation of the bands in which he played as a back-up guitarist. He rebelled against the expectation that he would limit himself to playing for black audiences. He rebelled against conventional notions of how the electric guitar should be played. He rebelled against conventional ideas of sexual morality. And, tragically and fatally, he rebelled against restrictions on his use of drugs.
Tony Palmer, a friend of Hendrix’s who today is a renowned director of music documentaries, wrote in The Observer newspaper on September 20, 1970, “Whatever Mozart and Tchaikovsky have come to mean to lovers of classical music, Hendrix meant the same if not more to a whole generation.”[vi] He added, “Jimi Hendrix was born Jimi Hendrix. Great musicians are not created; they are born. Jimi was meant for music.”[vii]
Looking back, it seems as if Jimi Hendrix was always meant to be a star. Certainly he always thought so. But for most of his life, stardom seemed a very long way away…
[i] Cross, Charles R., Room Full of Mirrors: A Biography of Jimi Hendrix, New York: Hyperion, 2005, pp. 153-154.
[ii] Potash, Chris, ed., The Jimi Hendrix Companion: Three Decades of Commentary, New York: Schirmer Books, 1996, pp. xv, xviii.
[iii] Cross, p. 136.
[v] Ibid, pp. 176-177.
[vi] Lawrence, Sharon, Jimi Hendrix: the Man, the Magic, the Truth, New York: HarperEntertainment, 2005, p. 217.
[vii] Ibid., p. 322.