Becoming Jimi Hendrix: From Southern Crossroads to Psychedelic London
Private Billy Cox stood near an open window of Service Club 1, where he heard a solo guitar playing in a wildly unique manner, as if Beethoven and John Lee Hooker had merged. The guitarist: Private Jimi Hendrix.
Excerpted from Becoming Jimi Hendrix: From Southern Crossroads to Psychedelic London, the Untold Story of a Musical Genius by Steven Roby and Brad Schreiber. Excerpted by arrangement with Da Capo Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2010.
The Case Against Private Hendrix
(January – June 1962)
In June 1961, Jimi began his army basic training at Fort Ord, California. It seemed very likely that Jimi would eventually see military action when he completed his training as a paratrooper and member of the 101st Airborne.
His choice to join the military rather than go to jail came at a time when the United States was committed to stopping the spread of communism in the world and strongly reacting to perceived threats to itself and its allies in numerous global hotspots.
The House Armed Services Committee voted in 1961 to increase production of Boeing B-52 bombers, in response to growing tensions between Cuba and the United States after the Bay of Pigs invasion. (President John F. Kennedy had been intimidated by the Pentagon into undertaking that failed mission.) There were still 50,000 Amer¬ican troops in South Korea after that war. The Berlin Wall was being built. Both the Soviet Union and the United States resumed nuclear weapons testing despite talks in Geneva. And the United States tripled its military advisers in a Southeast Asian country most Americans were still unfamiliar with: Vietnam.
Once he completed the eight weeks of training, Jimi was dispatched to Fort Campbell, home of the Screaming Eagles Air Assault Division. Fort Campbell, Kentucky, borders Hopkinsville, Kentucky, and Clarksville, Tennessee. Its more than 100,000 acres, including a large airﬁeld and transportation infrastructure, made it a prime location in the early 1960s for a top-secret nuclear weapons storage and modiﬁ¬cation facility. Four electriﬁed fences separated 5,000 acres in the southeast corner of the camp, and underground tunnels leading to storage areas were burrowed into the limestone.
Jimi’s arrival at Fort Campbell on November 8 was followed by a letter to his father detailing how physically challenging the army proved to the new recruit: “There’s nothing but physical training and harrasement [sic] here for two weeks, then when you go to jump school, that’s when you get hell. They work you to DEATH, fussing and ﬁghting.”
On January 11, 1962, Major General C. W. G. Rich awarded Jimi the famed 101st Division Screaming Eagles patch he desired.“I made it in eight months and eight days,” Jimi handwrote his father. But Jimi was quickly developing a sense of homesickness. He later wrote to Al: “You know, I’ve been having dreams of coming home and seeing you and everybody. It seems kind of funny. I must really want to come home for a while.”
Jimi, who had dropped out of Garfield High, was required to take General Education Development (GED) tests, and by the end of the month he was promoted to private ﬁrst class (PFC). What still mattered most to PFC Hendrix were his music and the guitar that was over 2,400 miles away at Betty Jean Morgan’s house in Seattle. The beat-up instruments he could check out from the music room on the base couldn’t satisfy his restless, talented, self-taught hands.
“Send my guitar as soon as you can,” Jimi pleaded in his next letter home. “I really need it now.” The red, electric Danelectro Silvertone guitar arrived safely at the base, with its rosewood neck that ﬁt so comfortingly between his long ﬁngers and “Betty Jean” written on the body.
Jimi could not keep up with Morgan’s letters, and she became jealous and concerned when he did not reply fast enough for her. He wrote to Al that Morgan expressed her fury in a letter, saying: “You’re fooling with someone else down there. California girls are tuff [sic]. . . . You better write and leave those ‘saphires’ [sic] alone or you better not come up here to see me.” Morgan’s reference to Sapphire, one of the black characters on the long-running Amos ’n’ Andy radio and TV series, suggested her insecurity about Jimi gravitating toward more aggressive women.
Morgan was prescient in that Jimi’s ﬁrst love was music, and he would later use his status as a musician and his natural shyness to at¬tract women to him. But while he was at Fort Campbell, Jimi scraped together the money to buy Morgan a double wedding band and mail it to her. Presumably, the additional ﬁfty-ﬁve dollars he earned per month for parachuting jumps helped pay for it. But Betty Jean even¬tually returned the wedding ring. In moments of vulnerability and desperation, near the end of his life, Jimi would propose to other women. But after Morgan refused his marital pledge, he set out on a path of sexual voraciousness that would become unparalleled in the liberated world of rock music sexual mores. At the apex of his career, various eyewitnesses entered hotel rooms where three or four women were in his bed, recuperating from the previous night’s activities.
Private Hendrix’s army duties became obligatory interruptions taking him away from practicing on the Danelectro. He told his army pals that he wanted to capture “air sounds” on his guitar like the ones he heard in jump school training: the droning roar and rumble of the plane’s engines, the rush of wind cascading past the ears on the journey back to solid ground.
Jimi annoyed his fellow soldiers with his constant strumming and, at times, the eerily bent notes emanating from his guitar. The calluses on his ﬁngers were not from his assigned duties but from his nonstop practicing. The recruits snubbed him and made snide comments about his sleeping with and talking to the instrument. It was, in essence, a replay of his experience at Garﬁeld High: His withdrawn personality and obsession with his guitar made him a source of ridicule. As in Seattle, the scorn sometimes turned physical, and some of his fellow paratroopers, as a prank, hid his guitar. He was forced to beg before they returned it to him.
In Seattle, Jimi had found many musicians to jam with, although most rejected his sonic experimentations. But at Fort Camp¬bell, one soldier in particular discovered Jimi. His staggering inven¬tiveness brought them together for life.
One rainy night, Private Billy Cox and a friend, after seeing a John Wayne movie, waited for the downpour to ebb. Through an open win¬dow of Service Club 1, Cox heard a solo guitar played in a wildly unique manner. He later claimed it was as if Beethoven and John Lee Hooker had merged.
“It was something the human ear hadn’t heard,” Cox reported. “I said, ‘That’s incredible!’ And the guy I was with said, ‘Sounds like shit to me.’ I went in and introduced myself to him and said I played a little upright bass, and I checked out the Danelectro he was playing.”
Billy Cox, one year older than Jimi, was educated in Pittsburgh, and his mother was a classically trained pianist. At an early age, Cox decided to pursue a musical career. He attempted the violin, piano, and various horns, but became ﬁxated with the electric bass sound he heard in Lloyd Price’s R&B band. Cox possessed Jimi’s rebellious streak. He was kicked out of a symphony for the unorthodox way he played the bass. “They wanted me to play with a bow,” he stated in a 2009 radio interview.
Cox, like Jimi, enlisted in the army to avoid complications.
“At that time, they would draft you,” Cox remembered bitterly. “It was incarceration. If they did that, they could send you wherever they wanted. And I have claustrophobia. I went in and got it over with.”
Their special association began with songs they both knew, by King Curtis, Booker T. & the MGs, and others. “We were gigging on base at all the functions. We practiced all day, every day. We would play all over Clarksville, Tennessee: the Elks Club, the D.A.V. [Disabled American Veterans] hall, until we got a regular job at the Pink Poodle…We did steps and everything. We had a lot of energy."
© Steve Roby and Brad Schreiber