hendrix: blues or rock?

Classifying singers into neat little musical categories so that their recordings would fit into neat little lists and into the right boxes at record stores was always a challenging task, especially for musicians experimenting with new sounds. When you listen carefully to the songs of Jimi Hendrix (1942-70), for example, there is an unmistakable blues background in spite of his designation as a “rock” performer. In the Hendrix “experience” one can definitely hear the influence of great bluesmen such as Lightnin’ Hopkins, B.B. King and especially Albert King. “Jimi took the blues from the mud of the Mississippi Delta into the stratosphere, all the way to Venus,” said Eric Burdon of the Animals.

According to UltimateGuitar.com, the young Hendrix was charged with riding in a stolen car in 1961 and was given a choice of either going to jail for two years or joining the army. Jimi ended up in the 101st Airborne Division, but was discharged a year later for bad behavior. After the army “experience,” Hendrix traveled the chitlin’ circuit, a series of venues sympathetic to black performers, in order to earn a living. He backed many important singers of the early 1960s, including Wilson Pickett, Sam Cooke and the Isley Brothers. Jimi’s flamboyant style of playing his guitar with his teeth, behind his head or between his legs, however, did not sit well with other band members. An inevitable clash of egos occurred after Hendrix teamed up in 1964-65 with Little Richard’s band called the Upsetters. Jimi was never a good team player so ­­sparks flew and Richard finally fired Hendrix.

Undaunted, Jimi staged a comeback. He had a brief career as front man in Jimmy James and the Blue Flames playing the same chitlin’ circuit he played with the previous bands. In late 1966 he got his big break and was offered a trip to England after being discovered by Linda Keith who introduced him to Animals bassist Chas Chandler who became interested in being Jimi’s manager, explains the online publication Quora. In September 1966, the Jimi Hendrix Experience was formed there after jazz drummer Mitch Mitchell and guitarist-turned-bassist Noel Redding were recruited by Chandler, and recorded a cover of the Billy Roberts song “Hey Joe,” kicking Hendrix’s musical career into interstellar overdrive (Moshcam.com). It was ironic, then, that Hendrix’s star began to rise in Europe more than in the States, at first.

In the rock music field, it is often stated the music can be divided into “before Hendrix” and “after Hendrix” periods because Jimi was allegedly “the greatest guitarist of them all.” High praise indeed, but nobody before Hendrix had manipulated guitar sound so effectively. Will Brewster, writing in Mocham.com explains: “Jimi first experimented with effects pedals on the guitar solo for ‘Purple Haze’, where he used an octave doubling pedal designed by close friend Roger Meyer, who would build many effects for Hendrix over his career. After hearing it being used on recordings by Eric Clapton and Frank Zappa, Hendrix frequently utilized the wah-wah pedal in his music, pioneering the effect as a musical tool which few have been able to replicate.”

There is no doubt that Hendrix’s unique guitar talent represented a challenge to other musicians of the time. While performing “Killing Floor” with Cream in 1966, the then-unknown Hendrix’s playing caused guitar-great Eric Clapton to walk off stage in disbelief, or so the story goes.­ Many critics were also upset by Jimi’s use of the guitar to replicate the sound of guns and other armaments in protest of the ongoing war in Vietnam. They always point to Hendrix’s rendition of the national anthem at the three-day Woodstock Festival in August 1969, which they said was “unpatriotic” because the artist used those sounds therein. The 500,000 people attending that festival probably did not even notice. There is a saying: “If you remember the 1960s, you weren’t there.”

Hendrix, like many other American performers of his time, died due to a drug overdose. Jimi passed on September 18, 1970 in London due to inhaling his own vomit after overdosing on barbituates. Beatles guitarist and singer George Harrison later told television talk show host Dick Cavett that rock performers took drugs to compensate for the tremendous pressure of creating great music but also to get closer to that ultimate love that all of them were seeking. Jimi thus joined the “27 Club,” meaning the collection of performers who died at that age (see previous post). Just think what Hendrix could have achieved had he not passed at such a young age.

So, was Hendrix a blues or rock performer? The answer to that one is easy: he was both. Songs like “Red House” or “Hear My Train A’ Comin’ showed his ability and love of blues. Percussionist Juma Sultan said, “Jimi was mixing the old and the new. He was taking the original blues sound of the old masters to another plateau.” It is doubtful that any guitarist will ever join the great Jimi Hendrix on that plateau.

Jimi Hendrix plays “Hey Joe”

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