Elvis and Michael better watch out. Jimi is making a move.
Forty years after his death, Jimi Hendrix is enjoying the kind of a resurgence in the posthumous rock-star derby that might rival the sales of Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson. Last week, Hendrix’s estate released the first bona fide “new” Jimi album in decades (the often awesome, occasionally underwhelming “Valleys of Neptune,” recorded mostly in 1969) as well as deluxe remastered versions of his three landmark studio albums. A Hendrix “Rock Band” video game is promised this year, and there’s talk of a Jimi “Anthology” a la the Beatles.
There’s a concert tour called “Experience Hendrix” — an all-star revue of guitar heroes, including Joe Satriani, Robert Randolph, Ernie Isley and Jonny Lang, performing tunes from the Hendrix catalog.
Isley said the mission of “Experience Hendrix” is to prove that the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer was well rounded — a first-rate songwriter, imaginative interpreter and, as any rock fan knows, a pioneering guitar virtuoso.
“He brought to the electric guitar what Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis brought to the trumpet. He expanded the boundaries of the instrument,” said Isley, who is making his first foray on this tour, which also did brief runs in 2007 and ‘08. “He got out every sound that the instrument or amplifier could make. He was like George Washington. There might be other people to follow you, but you’ll always be the first.”
Isley knew Jimmy Hendrix (he hadn’t changed the spelling yet) firsthand. From spring of 1963 until Thanksgiving 1965, the guitarist lived in the Isley family’s New Jersey home while playing with the Isley Brothers, the R&B stars known then for “Shout” and “Twist and Shout.”
Isley, who was 11 at the time, remembers watching the Beatles’ debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show” with Hendrix sitting on the couch between him and his younger brother Marvin.
Recalled Isley: “After that, there was a meeting with the band and my brother Kelly said, ‘They’ve got two guitar players but we’ve got Jimmy.’ When he said that, Jimmy started grinning.”
Hendrix, who was 10 years older than Ernie, used to stay in a back room at the Isley house. Self-taught, he’d practice his electric guitar without an amplifier and listen to a 5-foot-high stack of blues 45s by Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters and others.
Ernie, who didn’t take up guitar until he was 15, remembers Hendrix practicing how to play guitar behind his back and between his legs — moves that’d later break out with the Isleys onstage.
Hendrix liked to watch TV, too — “Bonanza,” “Wild Kingdom” and cartoons.
“He got along well with kids,” Isley said. “He was polite. Great sense of humor. I can talk about Jimmy Hendrix and Pez candy, or Jimmy Hendrix and Saturday-morning cartoons with me and Marvin.”
One of the boys might ask “Can you play the ‘Beanie and Cecil’ song?” and Hendrix would take out his guitar and play it. “Didn’t hit a wrong note. That was fascinating as a kid.”
After leaving for England with his white Stratocaster guitar (purchased by the Isley Brothers) and his destiny as Jimi Hendrix, he did visit the Isley household in 1967 en route to the Monterey Pop Festival in California.
“He looked different in terms of his clothes,” Isley recalled. “He had a hat, scarf, rings on every finger, stuff around his neck. He walked down the hallway sounding like (cowboy character) Shane. ‘Man, is that Jimmy?’ ‘Yeah, he’s killin’ ‘em in England!’”
Isley opens the “Experience Hendrix” show, backed by Stevie Ray Vaughan’s drummer, Chris Layton, and bassist Billy Cox, who befriended Hendrix in the Army and played with him in 1969 and ‘70. Isley says he doesn’t necessarily try to replicate Hendrix’ work, but Satriani says that’s unavoidable.
“Some of the stuff I love so much and I just have to hear it played as close to the way Jimi had played it,” Satriani said. “Having said that, Jimi played it a million different ways. I imagine if (tour producer) John McDermott comes to me before I go on and says, ‘We have twice as much time as I thought, so have fun,’ then I can think about some more outrageous, exploratory versions of the songs and stretch it out.”
Music historian McDermott is catalog director for Experience Hendrix LLC, which is run by Jimi’s younger stepsister, Janie. After each performer submitted a request list, McDermott decided who would play which songs — and with whom, to create special moments. Satriani gets “Third Stone From the Sun,” “Foxey Lady” and “All Along the Watchtower” backed by the band Living Colour, featuring guitarist Vernon Reid.
Satriani, 53, who started as a drummer, was profoundly affected by Hendrix’ death from a drug overdose at age 27 in 1970.
“The day he died was so devasting to me,” he said, “that I remember quitting the (high school) football team — I was a tight end — and marching home and announcing to my family that I was going to become a guitar player.”