Jimi Hendrix: A Classic Unicorn

Phil Rossi

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Jimi HendrixJerome Lyndon

A lesson and reminder to remain authentic and true to ourselves

In 1966, at a rock club in New Jersey, a 23-year-old guitarist auditioned for a spot in the venue’s lineup. Like most who had listened to Jimi Hendrix for the first time, management was floored.

Mind-blowing riffs no one had heard before — coming from a left-handed guitarist playing his right-handed guitar upside down. The outfits, the instrument, the stage aura. From the sounds to the optics, Hendrix brought it all and was one-of-a-kind. Unlike any other musician, before or since.

Guitar icon Les Paul lived in the area. On days like this, Les and his son would travel to the offices of their record business in Manhattan. Along the way, they’d stop at the local clubs to pick up demos performers had left behind.

One afternoon, Les Paul waited for his son to return from this particular club. When he did, he suggested his father park the car and check out Jimi’s live audition. Les told his son they were running late and would have to return another time.

In 1966, no one played guitar like this. Radical and original, taking the instrument beyond the sonic limits ever imagined. Les Paul’s son knew the moment he heard Hendrix, Jimi was destined for stardom.

Impossible to fathom today, this venue passed on Hendrix. In fact, the club owners believed Jimi was gifted and full of promise. They just felt his style was too fanatical for their crowd, despite being a rock audience.

During this time, Hendrix couldn’t buy any traction nor window into the business as a solo artist. Despite this resistance, Hendrix never lost faith in himself, his style, and his music.

In the mid-60s, Jimi toured with the Isley Brothers, Curtis Knight, and Little Richard. It was Little Richard’s team who decided to fire Jimi. The real reason — they felt threatened. Jimi’s wild flair and outlandish outfits upstaged the star and management wouldn’t have it.

After Little Richard, Jimi joined other groups on stage and in the recording studio. Inside, Hendrix was burning up. The real him wasn’t Jimmy James, his stage persona at the time. It was Jimi Hendrix, and he had to find a way to set this phoenix free.

That’s when Jimi chose to stop performing as a backup player and focus on the enterprise: Jimi Hendrix and his solo career. He would no longer adapt to the scene, industry, and norms set by others. Jimi felt he was made for bigger and better things, even if he were among the few who believed it at the time.

After kicking around the circuit, Jimi felt stagnant and forced to make a move. To break out, he’d have to give himself the best shot. Besides his talent, he needed to be himself. If anything, Jimi Hendrix was not only original but authentic.

That’s when Chas Chandler coaxed Jimi to join him in London. In Britain, Chas would handle Jimi’s management and produce his first records. Chas also introduced Jimi to Noel Redding, a bass guitarist, and drummer, Mitch Mitchell. The trio that would become The Jimi Hendrix Experience.

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The Jimi Hendrix ExperienceReprise Records/Circa 1967

Released in 1967, Are You Experienced is considered one of the greatest debut albums in rock and roll history. Over fifty years later, it remains a classic and bestseller.

Rolling Stone Magazine ranked Are You Experienced 30th on its 2020 list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. The magazine also placed four songs from the album on their list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time: Purple Haze (17), Foxy Lady (153), Hey Joe (201), and The Wind Cries Mary (379).

When Les Paul’s son handled the album, he showed it to Les.

“This is the guy I was telling you about. That guitarist from the club.”

“I’ll be darned,” Les Paul told his son while shaking his head.

Throughout his meteoric rise, Jimi kept pushing the boundaries and reaching new limits. Outside The Beatles, Jimi became the biggest and most recognizable rock star in the world.

In 1969, Jimi accepted an invitation to perform at the Woodstock Music Festival. It was also agreed that Hendrix would be the headliner and closing act. The timing was perfect, almost cosmic.

Jimi was scheduled to take the stage before midnight on Sunday, the final performance of the three-day festival. However, rainstorms and other glitches forced Sunday’s lineup to be pushed back.

These events put the organizers in a dilemma. The festival would now have to end Monday morning. At midnight, Yasgur’s Farm still had a solid crowd, but everyone knew most people would be leaving sooner than later.

The Woodstock team offered Jimi the midnight slot as originally scheduled. Jimi balked at their idea, stating he was hired to close the show and that’s what he planned to do.

When the organizers protested that a morning crowd would be sparse and embarrassing for rock’s biggest icon, Hendrix refused to budge.

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Jimi Hendrix at WoodstockUPI

At 9 AM, Jimi Hendrix took the stage. The actual attendance is often disputed. Film footage provides a nominal crowd, but history could care less. Jimi’s Woodstock performance remains one of classic rock’s greatest moments and even supernatural to this day.

The rock god jamming away in the dawn sun as the festival for the ages comes to a close. Everything aligned that morning in Upstate New York. The festival’s historic impact, performance, and Jimi’s epic legacy.

It’s hard to imagine thirteen months later to the day, Jimi would be gone. Despite his passing, no one has influenced generations of guitar players more than Jimi Hendrix. In the fifty years since his death (September 18, 1970), Hendrix remains a demigod and the greatest guitarist in rock and roll history.

Looking back at Jimi’s rapid rise and legend, it’s easy to accept it as destiny. Something pre-ordained and in the cards. But there’s much more to this.

How many of us, in Jimi’s shoes, would have scrubbed the fantasy of Jimi Hendrix and settled for Jimmy James? The risk alone was off the charts. No one at the time, even Hendrix, foresaw this level of reward. Who among us would move overseas to chase our dreams and face our moments of truth?

It’s inviting to be content in any competitive industry. Would we accept that foot-in-the-door up-and-coming session guitarist? Not a bad gig and living. There are many wonderful musicians who do just that. And it’s nothing to sneeze at.

Jimi Hendrix spawned Jimi Hendrix. Jimmy James might have had a bright future, but Jimmy James remained uncertain, unreal, and not right. More to the point: Jimmy James was inauthentic. Maybe not to us, but where it counted most: In the heart, soul, and spirit of Jimi Hendrix.

Thank you for reading. Stay Experienced.

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Phil is a blogger interested in sports, culture, politics, and the art scene.

Hackensack, NJ
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