When Jimi Hendrix died 40 years ago this season, he wasn’t really ‘black’.
Oh yeah, everyone could tell he was a black guy by ethnicity (although they might have missed the Cherokee part of his lineage), but he wasn’t seen as a full-fledged member of the black cultural legacy. He dressed too weirdly, he played his guitar too loudly, and he had no discernable connection whatsoever to any black tastemaker or cultural tradition. Hendrix was seen by black people as a rock star, and rock was seen by black people as something that black people did not do.
Of course, much of that perception has changed over time. Hendrix’ first major biographer was a black guy, novelist David Henderson (’Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky, 1978), who added nuance and context to the Hendrix-as-wild-rocker perception. The Band of Gypsies concert album, Hendrix’s only recording with an all-black band, came to be seen as an important piece of the funk canon. His music was widely acknowledged as a huge impetus for Miles Davis’ blasting off into fusion and beyond. By the time Prince emerged in the late-‘70s, picking up with the guitar hero/utopian lyricist/freaky persona thing where Hendrix left off, the tables had been somewhat turned: he got his first radio airplay on R&B stations, while many white rock fans rejected him as a Hendrix knockoff.
Later, Charles Shear Murray’s Crosstown Traffic (1987) showed how much Hendrix was influenced, and influenced in turn, by jazz and blues. The release of the compilation Blues showed how deeply his roots in that genre ran, down to the cover art that created Hendrix’s visage from snapshots of all the great blues guitarists who came before him. “Red House”, his most famous blues song, is now as much a part of the blues legacy as “Purple Haze” is a rock standard.
Becoming Jimi Hendrix: From Southern Crossroads to Psychedelic London, the Untold Story of a Musical Genius
(Da Capo; US: Sep 2010)
Now, Hendrix has been claimed by the black mainstream as a cultural innovator of the highest order – make that a black one. The most recent manifestation of that came back in June, when black history magazine American Legacy splashed him on the cover of its annual Black Music issue, complete with a lengthy Hendrix-for-dummies essay by cultural critic Greg Tate, one of a legion of black writers and artists who came of age in the years after his death and drew inspiration from his life and work (full disclosure: I wrote for previous titles published by the magazine’s founder, Rodney Reynolds – he and I are not related – and my wife has written for the magazine).
But back when he died, hardly anyone had the slightest notion that for all his sonic and lifestyle extremes, Jimi Hendrix was very much a product of no less black a tradition than the chitlin’ circuit.
Ever since the earliest days of the modern show business industry, the term “chitlin’ circuit” referred to the network of nightclubs and theaters across the country which booked black touring acts for black audiences. It wasn’t a formally organized entity, and many of the venues were far from the beaten track. Not all of the spots held the glamour of New York’s Apollo Theater and other urban black entertainment palaces. But from vaudeville through early R&B, the circuit was an all-black ecosystem where black bands criss-crossed the country from gig to gig, and where black fans could see their stars up close and personal.
It’s tempting to assign the chitlin’ circuit to the deep recesses of history, seeing as how the need to have a separate pathway for black acts to tour lessened as mainstream venues became more inclined to book them. It’s equally tempting to see Hendrix as someone of a more modern time and sensibility who emerged wholly formed from some not-specifically-black netherworld and propelled himself directly into the future. But for all his sonic and literal pyrotechnics, for all the things he did that no guitarist had ever done before, his music was rooted in both the good and bad experiences he had in the three years of beating the bushes on the circuit, playing backup guitar for R&B bands that barely tolerated his already emergent musical and sartorial style.
Virtually all the Hendrix bios to date cover this period in a couple of chapters, speeding through those formative years on the way to chronicling the years of his global stardom. Becoming Jimi Hendrix: From Southern Crossroads to Psychedelic London, the Untold Story of a Musical Genius (Da Capo, 2010) is the first major fleshing out of the formative period during which Hendrix discovered not only who he was, but who he wasn’t.
Hendrix expert Steven Roby (he wrote Black Gold: The Lost Archives of Jimi Hendrix) and writer Brad Schreiber pick up the story with Hendrix’s 1961-62 enlistment in the Army (it was either that or get sent to jail for riding in stolen cars). If you’re having trouble picturing the avatar of ‘60s groovy far-outness being a soldier at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, fear not: Hendrix never did take to military life, and mercifully was given an honorable discharge after about a year of it. Still, it was a fateful time: at Fort Campbell he met Billy Cox, a fellow private who had taken up the bass. Hendrix and Cox became fast friends, and latched on with other musicians to pick up gigs around the area.
By that time, it was clear to anyone paying attention that music was Hendrix’s first and only love. Moreover, he had some different ideas about how a guitar could sound, and was already showing signs of the volume and power he’d be known worldwide for in just a few years. But when Cox took Hendrix to a recording audition in Nashville, the man behind the boards, legendary R&B deejay Bill “Hoss” Allen, rejected Hendrix’s wild improvisations.
After their respective Army days were through, Hendrix and Cox eventually wound up in Nashville, as part of the house band at one of the major black nightclubs in town. He also picked up some occasional side gigs, and got his first taste of touring on a brief jaunt supporting the personality Gorgeous George, which led to a brief period playing with Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. Brief, because Hendrix was soon fired for playing way more guitar than the R&B star wanted or needed in his band.
Thus was the pattern set for Hendrix’s early career. He hated the restrictive style of ‘60s R&B, and bandleaders who couldn’t or wouldn’t tolerate his increasingly confident boundary pushing. He repeatedly rubbed his employers the wrong way, both by his playing and his increasingly flamboyant personal style. But it’s also clear that those years of grinding for little or no pay were important for his development. He started developing the showmanship that would characterize his early concerts with the Jimi Hendrix Experience (while playing a guitar with his teeth or behind his head was part of the shock-of-the-new he brought to rock audiences, Hendrix—and others – had done it all the time in R&B and blues contexts). And all those years of churning out rhythm parts behind R&B chestnuts night after night sharpened his rhythm playing. Listen to how tight and propulsive his riffs are on the 1967 Monterey Pop performance of “Rock Me Baby”, for example, to get some sense of what his R&B dues-paying bought him.
Hendrix would leave Nashville for New York City in early 1964, and much of his career would revolve around New York until he left for London two years later (for his part, Cox would cycle back through Hendrix’s life, and by 1969 became the bass player in his various ensembles). Roby and Schreiber document a remarkably busy and pivotal stretch in Hendrix’s career and life. Their digging through files, interviews and news clippings puts meat on the bones of his pre-fame chronology: the sessions and tours with the Isley Brothers; his sojourn out to Los Angeles and brief collaboration with aspiring singer Rosa Lee Brooks; his combustible tenure in Little Richard’s band; then back east for a stretch with Joey Dee and the Starlighters and recording sessions with Curtis Knight before landing in Greenwich Village and the fateful gig at Café Wha? It was in the Village where Hendrix finally had the freedom to bring all his ideas to the fore, and where he was welcomed into a culturally friendly milieu for the first time in his professional life. Chas Chandler, who first met Hendrix outside a riotous Little Richard gig in 1965, looked him up in the Village in 1966, and gave him the break he’d been hoping for since scuffling around Nashville. The two decamped for London, and the rest is history. Becoming Jimi Hendrix is, in essence, the history before that.
Roby and Schreiber are great with names and dates, and make a compelling narrative of the events of Hendrix’s early career. But they don’t quite get us to how his thinking developed, or how the rock-solid foundation beneath the wild, extreme persona took shape. Aside from works like the aforementioned Crosstown Traffic that focus on Hendrix the musician, we’re left to try to piece that out through the stray examples of his early work.
On the Isleys’ rave-up “Testify, Parts 1 and 2” (1964), we hear Hendrix beneath an amazing horn section and the three brothers doing their takes on everyone from Ray Charles to the Beatles. We can hear him helping drive the rhythm, then stepping out the maelstrom for a brief, fleet-fingered solo. While the Isleys do their schtick, we can hear Hendrix riffing away in the background, filling in space and keeping things moving. On the strutting “Move over and Let Me Dance” (1965), his sound is even more distinctive even though it’s buried in the mix. It’s clear from these examples that years before the world had heard of him, a shy young guitar player from Seattle had, to a large extent, already become Jimi Hendrix.
Like any work of music history worth its effort, Becoming Jimi Hendrix drives the reader to reconsider the music being discussed. The trick in this instance is that Hendrix’s early work exists all over the place. Those two tracks I just discussed came from The Isley Brothers Story Volume 1: Rockin’ Soul (1959-69) (Rhino). The sessions he did with Little Richard is on another comp, the Curtis Knight sessions have been bootlegged to death, and good luck with the Rosa Lee Brooks tracks.
But closure on this point is at hand. All of Hendrix’s major recordings from these years will be collected on disc one of the upcoming box set West Coast Seattle Boy (Sony Legacy), a five-cd box of rare and unreleased material due out in November (along with a re-release of the aforementioned Blues cd). This should make clear the sense that, like many a so-called overnight sensation, Jimi Hendrix was years in the making. And virtually all of those years happened where most people least suspected a man who became famous in England before taking America and the world by storm could come from – the uniquely cutthroat, demanding and character-forging world of the touring black musician.
Raise Our Freak Flags High
Roby and Schreiber recount a story from Brooks about one of Hendrix’s run-ins with Little Richard. Just before a gig, Brooks outfitted the future guitar hero in “a white, puffy, Errol Flynn type of blouse to wear, with the big sleeves and pointed collar. I also gave him a bolero, like a vest.” The bandleader informed Hendrix after the show:
“I am Little Richard, and I am the King of Rock and Rhythm, and I am the only one who’s going to look pretty on stage… will you please turn in those shirts or else you will have to suffer the consequences of a fine.”
One reason Hendrix found such favor in the Village was because he got no love whatsoever for his emerging artistic vision in Harlem, where he’d lived upon arriving in New York (no, you didn’t know that he once won an Apollo Theater amateur night competition). The authors serve up this quote:
“In the Village, people were more friendly than in Harlem, where it’s all cold and mean. Your own people hurt you more. I always wanted a more open and integrated sound.”
Thus was the world of black pop culture in the mid-‘60s. It was an insular, nurturing cocoon, where one could count on its support as long as one stayed comfortably within its confines. But to imagine a world beyond that cocoon, to incorporate influences not previously known to it, would court the cocoon’s scorn and disapproval.
Jimi Hendrix changed all that. He integrated black pop culture from the outside, prodding R&B to expand upon its age-old tropes and three-minute song limits (Sly Stone, working concurrently in Oakland and having had his own chitlin’ circuit adventures, also expanded black pop’s boundaries, but he was savvy enough to do it without totally leaving the terra firma of the black pop mainstream, which is why black radio played him and not Hendrix). As Hendrix became a global star, and as the politics and culture of the era moved leftward, black pop got the hints and moved leftward too, if only enough to keep pace with young audiences.
Producer Norman Whitfield reinvented the Temptations from supper club crooners to erstwhile street preachers, arming them with trippy album tracks like “Take a Stroll through Your Mind”. George Clinton switched the emphasis of his operation from the Motown-esque lead singers, the Parliaments, to their backing band led by guitarist Eddie Hazel, and rechristened the unit Funkadelic. In an era of extreme afros, Isaac Hayes flipped the script by going bald on the cover of Hot Buttered Soul (1969), an album with three songs stretching out for 10 minutes or more. The Isleys themselves declared their liberation from the black pop plantation with their self-produced hit “It’s Your Thing” (1969).
Black pop music, in short, was finally given permission to do what pre-fame Hendrix wasn’t allowed to do: rock out. By the height of the funk era, bands routinely eschewed the matching outfits and choreography of days gone by and let loose with it. Musicians, long relegated to the shadows, took center stage. Bands jammed on the funk, bringing in African and Afro-Cuban percussion, jazz-like horn and keyboard solos, and plenty of lead guitar. No doubt Hendrix would have loved the stuff had he lived to hear it.
The black pop universe expanded, but didn’t quite explode. Artists had unprecedented creative freedom within the cocoon, but the sense of the cocoon was still there. Black pop incorporated rock, but black pop audiences were still a little leery of the idea of black pop actually being rock. Funkadelic, the hardest-rocking of all the funk bands, is Exhibit A on that. They had their share of underground jams (“Maggot Brain,” “Cosmic Slop”) and the occasional chart hit (“Can You Get to That,” “I Bet You”), but by the mid-‘70s they were something of an acquired taste in the ‘hood. It wasn’t until Clinton, with the crucial help of Bootsy Collins, Fred Wesley and other James Brown ex-pats, made the funk crystal-clear on Parliament’s Mothership Connection (1976) that the P-Funk enterprise got completely over the hump and became a mega-selling juggernaut. Even then, they still had to fight for the right to rock, as on Funkadelic’s “Who Says a Funk Band Can’t Play Rock?!” (1978). A decade later, Prince still had to argue the case, on tracks like “I Rock, Therefore I Am”.
Hendrix looms as a guiding spirit over the very notion of black rock (or rock music as played by black people, since no two black rock bands ever did sound alike). It would become its own mini-genre, acknowledged by some white rock fans and some black pop fans, but never fully embraced by either. The people who did embrace those bands, like the musicians themselves, sought forms of expression and validation that simply weren’t going to be available through mainstream black pop. The Black Rock Coalition created a space for that community in the ‘80s, as does the more recent Afro-Punk scene. Tate’s American Legacy essay name-checks the bands Living Colour, Fishbone and Bad Brains, each of whom has fans in both those communities, as the leading followers in Hendrix’s wake. But they are just the usual suspects in this discussion; the actual tree extends from groups like Mother’s Finest and Death back in the ‘70s, to modern outfits like Game Rebellion and Earl Greyhound. Indeed, Stew’s semi-autobiographical musical Passing Strange is simply a new version of the quest to resolve long-simmering cultural identity issues through song and rockin’ beat.
Hendrix’s cultural influence ultimately branches out past rock. Every black pop artist that dares stretch out from the established paradigms of his/her genre – and that includes hip-hop (think Janelle Monae, not Nikki Monaj) – owes a debt to Hendrix, for making it possible to dream up and realize a vision that makes a little more room within that black pop cocoon – or, if necessary, to leave the cocoon behind and go for self. Even hip-hop itself owes Hendrix, who used the cutting-edge technology of his day (the studio and the electric guitar) to revolutionize the way pop music sounds just as hip-hop did with the cutting-edge technology of its day (turntables, drum machines and sampling).
All the fans and followers of those acts owe Jimi Hendrix, a debt too. Those who came along in the post-civil rights years and took advantage of the cross-cultural opportunities made possible by integration, or who just couldn’t be the way the grown folk in the church wanted them to be, draw strength from Hendrix’s example. They can point to him as someone who was authentically black, even as he embraced influences from Delta blues to science fiction. Where once his music and life were thought to be alien from the black experience, we now know that they were both fully rooted within it. Beyond the majesty of his music, the very example of his all-too-brief life says that those weird-looking black kids with the puffy sleeves and wild hair are just as much a part of this grand and glorious tribe as the politicians and the preachers and the brothas on the corner and the sistas in the beauty shop. They’re not necessarily rejecting blackness – they know good and damned well they’re black, thank you very much - they’re just carving out a space to be simply who they are in this world, not beholden to any preconceived notions of how blackness is supposed to be done.
So before Basquiat or Charles Burnett or Sapphire or Betty Davis or David Hammonds or any other quote-unquote outlier from the prevailing black cultural paradigm, there exists Jimi Hendrix, the patron saint of alt-blackness. Besides his music, this is his other contribution to the living, elastic definition of blackness, his other claim to the pantheon of our cultural icons. He made it possible for people who don’t and/or don’t want to be like the black mainstream to make real a world where they can dream their dreams, bring to life their ideas, and still embrace their blackness. He made it safe for one and all to raise our freak flags high.