This tale of one of rock’n’roll’s greatest icons began in America back in 1958, when a left-handed, fifteen-year-old, acoustic-guitar-wielding, Jimmy Hendrix joined his first real group, the Velvetones. By the end of the decade he had become the proud owner of his first electric guitar and had moved on to join the Rocking Kings.
Hendrix’s direction took a sideways turn in the spring of 1961 when he enlisted into the US Army, as a member of the 101st Airborne Division. Whilst stationed at Fort Campbell in Kentucky, he met bass player Billy Cox and they formed the King Casuals. His army career came to an abrupt end just over a year later, when he reputedly broke his ankle in a parachute jump. Although, there is much speculation that Hendrix never actually suffered a fractured ankle, Army life wasn’t really for him and he just wanted to move on and play music.
After leaving the Army Hendrix had a brief spell in Nashville, before heading up to Vancouver and joining Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers. The band included guitarist Tommy Chong, who later found fame as the hippie duo Cheech and Chong. Hendrix, sometimes calling himself “Jimmy James”, then went on to spend his time backing some of rock’n’roll’s finest, both in the recording studio and on the road. He toured with Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson and Little Richard, and played session guitar on a number of singles including the Isley Brothers’ Testify, and Don Covay and the Goodtimers’ Mercy, Mercy in 1964, and Little Richard’s I Don’t Know What You’ve Got but It’s Got Me, in the summer of 1965.
Hendrix’s career started to take shape after he met Curtis Knight in New York, in the autumn of 1966. Knight was a well-established musician and singer. He invited Hendrix to become the lead guitarist with his band the Squires. Shortly afterwards he introduced him to his manager Ed Chalpin, who signed Hendrix to a three-year exclusive recording agreement. Knight had just written How Would You Feel, a seminal black rock protest song. On the single Hendrix is accredited as arranger, Jimmy Hendrix. That contract with Chalpin, signed on 15 October 1965, came back to haunt Hendrix in a big way. After he parted company with Knight and Chalpin, Hendrix met Chas Chandler, became the Jimi Hendrix Experience and found international fame. When Chalpin noticed Hendrix’s new-found success he invoked the contract and claimed his share of the spoils. The initial settlement included 100% of the royalties from Hendrix’s fourth album, Band of Gypsys. The legal wrangling continued long after Hendrix’s death. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves now, meanwhile back at the plot…
In mid-1966 Hendrix reverted to his stage name and formed Jimmy James and the Blue Flames, with a lineup that included future Sprit founding member Randy California. Keith Richard’s girlfriend, Linda Keith, became a fan of Hendrix and introduced him to the Animals’ bassist, Chas Chandler. The Animals were at the end of their journey and in America for their final tour. Chandler was contemplating a change of direction from bassist to artist manager. When he saw Hendrix at the Café Wha? he knew that he had found what he was looking for. The Animals folded and Chandler persuaded Hendrix to move to England. Around the 24 September (dates vary) Hendrix arrived in England. Jimmy became “Jimi” and the hunt was on for a rhythm section.
Drummer Mitch Mitchell started out as a successful child actor, playing Jennings in a 1958 TV production of Jennings at School and Wendover in the 1960 Jimmy Edwards movie Bottoms Up. In the early 1960s Mitchell was a member of Peter Nelson and the Travellers and Chris Sandford and the Coronets. (Yes, that’s the same Chris Sandford that played Walter Potts in Coronation Street and also released the single Not Too Little Not Too Much.) He went on to become a founding member of the Riot Squad and had stints with: The Tornados, The Pretty Things, and Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames. He also narrowly missed out on becoming the Who’s drummer, losing out to Keith Moon, and the Artwoods drummer, losing out to Keef Hartley. Mitchell’s time finally came when he joined the Jimi Hendrix Experience in early October 1966. Although, he nearly lost out there too. Urban legend has it that he became the Experience’s drummer after a decision between him and Aynsley Dunbar was decided on the toss of a coin!
Bassist Noel Redding was originally a guitarist and in the first half of the 1960s played in: The Strangers, The Lonely Ones, Neil Landen and the Burnettes, and The Loving Kind. The parting of the ways for the Loving Kind came after the band released three unsuccessful singles on the Piccadilly label. Shortly after this split Redding met Jimi Hendrix, moved from guitar to bass and the Jimi Hendrix Experience was born.
Two weeks after Hendrix arrived in London, Cream were playing at the Central London Polytechnic. The new guitarist on the block was very keen to play with Eric Clapton and after an introduction from manager Chas Chandler, he joined them on stage and jammed on the Howlin’ Wolf classic, Killing Floor. Legend has that Clapton was blown away by this unknown guitarist’s skill. Just three weeks after he had arrived in London, the Jimi Hendrix Experience was on stage for their debut performance. They opened for Johnny Hallyday at the Novelty Cinema in Evreux, near Paris and a legend was born.