Although rock and roll guitar legend Jimi Hendrix (pictured) gained much of his widespread notoriety in a short burst of mainstream success before his tragic passing, his impact on music — and especially the electric guitar — cannot be overlooked. Although the spread of his work happened posthumously, Hendrix is considered by many publications, experts, and a legion of fans as the best guitarist of all time. Hendrix released four records while he was alive, including a live album in 1970. The recordings are still lauded for their innovation and technique today.
Born Johnny Allen Hendrix on this day in 1942 in Seattle, the future star would later have his name changed to James Marshall after his father, Al, who wasn’t able to name his son because he was away fighting in World War II. Hendrix endured a troubled childhood, with his father and mother at odds over how he should be reared. Between his parents’ fighting and shuttling between Seattle and Canada to stay with his grandmother, Hendrix became a bit of an emotional recluse. As a teenager, he lost his mother to liver disease and the experience stuck with him from that point forward.
Watch Hendrix perform “Purple Haze” here:
It was around this time Hendrix would start playing the guitar. He was largely self-taught, studying Elvis Presley, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Chuck Berry, and other music greats of his time. Playing small gigs in Seattle and Vancouver, Hendrix’s penchant for playing outside the normal confines of sound would initially place him as an outcast. Because of some run-ins with the law, he was given a choice between serving time and joining the Army much like his father before him. Hendrix chose the latter path, while still obsessively playing his guitar. He was so attached to the instrument, fellow servicemen would argue with him about playing at all hours of the night.
Hendrix was honorably discharged after one year of service in June of 1962. This opened up a path to his budding music career in 1963, when he and a former Army friend Billy Cox would move to Tennessee to work on their craft. After bouncing around a bit, they landed in Nashville and began working the “Chitlin Circuit” for gigs. Playing in backing bands for Wilson Pickett, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, and others, Hendrix honed his craft during his time on the circuit.
Moving to New York City for a break, Hendrix won the famed Amateur Night completion at the Apollo Theater and eventually landed a gig playing with The Isley Brothers.
After touring with the Isleys and Little Richard, Hendrix’s fortunes would change exponentially after a chance meeting with manager Chas Chandler by way of Linda Keith, the then-girlfriend of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. Impressed with his sound, Chandler flew Hendrix to London and helped him form the new band, The Jimi Hendrix Experience. In 1967, his debut album, “Are You Experienced,” rocked music charts in his newly adopted United Kingdom but failed to connect back in his native land. He would embrace new techniques and incorporated the use of a “wah-wah” pedal on his second LP, “Bold As Love,” which was also released in 1967.
Unfortunately, troubles with drinking and the growing specter of fame began to consume Hendrix.
Hendrix became an iconic figure after his stint as the closing act at Woodstock music festival. His rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” remains as one of the most-chilling and original versions of the song ever made. Drugs and alcohol was a present fixture in Hendrix’s life, often leading to violent outbursts and the like. He was infamous for trashing hotel rooms and warring with band members and romantic partners. His wild, partying ways would eventually cut his life way too short, and he was pronounced dead on September 18, 1970, in London.
Watch Hendrix perform the “Star Spangled Banner” here:
Jimi Hendrix’s legacy lives on mainly through the many artists he inspired. His use of amplifier feedback and his complex playing style has been mimicked by Prince, Eddie Hazel, Ernie Isley, Eric Clapton, and many others spanning the genres of R&B, funk, rock, and hip-hop. An upcoming biopic featuring rapper-actor Andre “Andre 3000” Benjamin as the guitarist is slated for release, although will feature no music from Hendrix as the family estate has not approved the use of the tunes.
Jimi Hendrix’s career may have been short and full of turbulence, but the influence and wealth of sounds he left behind will live on forever.
Happy Birthday 70th birthday, Jimi.