Not for nothing was the band called The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Certainly, Hendrix did—and does—go by his own name; he effectively created his own brand the second lighter fluid soaked that Stratocaster at Monterey.
So, while it wouldn’t have made that much difference who he chose to keep time behind him, he was fortunate that his manager, Chas Chandler, found Mitch Mitchell. Hendrix went in so many amazing directions, in order for his vision to be consistently realized, he needed a drummer with the chops and versatility to keep up with (and, at times, complement) him. Enter Mitchell. No rock drummers sounded like this, then. Keith Moon certainly hit the ground running and, throughout the mid-‘60s, showed the signs of a controlled frenzy that would reach its full flowering on Tommy. Ginger Baker kept time with Cream, the first super group, holding his own with Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton. But Mitchell never needed to evolve—he came into the equation fully formed and ready to contribute.
Mitchell named jazz drummer icons Elvin Jones and Max Roach as two of his primary influences. Normally, name dropping like this (certainly from a rock musician) sounds too clever by half, and more than a little presumptuous. Mitchell, however, provided ample evidence that he had absorbed not only the complexity, but the unique approaches that Jones and Roach brought to bear. Roach’s supple dexterity and Jones’s jackhammer pyrotechnics are in abundant display on all of the Jimi Hendrix Experience recordings.
A few obvious examples: songs like “Hey Joe” and “Manic Depression” would be pretty complete regardless of Hendrix’s accompaniment, but there is no question that Mitchell’s passive-aggressive assault renders what is already whole and fully formed something a bit above and beyond. On the indelible “Third Stone from the Sun”, Mitchell is not just keeping time, he’s making time: inventive fills, and propulsive but never busy embellishment. On the other hand, “The Wind Cries Mary” is a clinic in doing more with less.
While Ginger Baker, for instance, could occasionally run the risk of tripping over himself, Mitchell was able to bring the blitzkrieg without exploding, or (worse), encroaching on the considerable space Hendrix needed to clear for himself in order to lift off. Not to pick on Baker (who is usually considered amongst the better and more influential drummers from the ‘60s), but Ginger sometimes sounded like a bricklayer. Occasionally, he seemed too preoccupied with how many balls he had in the air; on Cream’s mellower songs, it almost seems like he had to slip on a coat and tie just to calm himself down. Mitchell, on the other hand, maneuvered effortlessly between the wasp’s nest flurry (“Fire”, “She’s So Fine”) and in-the-pocket precision (“One Rainy Wish”, “Castles Made of Sand”).
Mitchell was fast, he was clever, he was edgy and he was original. He was the perfect engine for Hendrix’s inimitable machine.