Johnny Allen Hendrix lived anything but a charmed life in his early years. He was born on November 27, 1942 at Seattle’s Harborview Hospital while his father, Al, was stationed at Fort Rucker, Alabama. The Army feared he would go AWOL to see his new son so they locked Al in the stockade just before his unit was deployed to the Pacific. Al was in Fiji when he finally got a photo of his son, but the boy’s mother, Lucille, had only labeled the picture ‘baby Hendrix’ for fear of enraging her husband. With Al away on duty, Lucille turned to other men for support, one of whom she had been involved with before she and Al were married may or may not have been Johnny’s father. His name was John Page. If she wanted to get a rise out of jealous Al, she certainly picked a name for their son with the potential to do just that.
Lucille’s ill fortunes during Al’s absence found their son living, not with his mother, but in Berkeley, California with a woman named Mrs. Champ. She was in the process of adopting him when Al returned from the Pacific. At three years of age, it surely was a shock to Johnny when Al collected him from Berkeley, gave him his first spanking on the train ride back to Seattle, and re-registered the boy as James Marshall Hendrix (combining the middle names of his deceased older brother, Leon and his own). It did not seem to matter to the boy because he insisted on being called ‘Buster’ after actor Buster Crabbe, the movie star known for his portrayals of Tarzan and Flash Gordon.
Johnny Allan-James Marshall-Buster Hendrix would change his name several times before landing on the one he is most associated with: Jimi Hendrix. In a Netflix documentary called Voodoo Child (2010), he described his early life (with bass player Bootsy Collins providing Jimi’s voice): “Dad was very strict and level-headed, but my mother liked dressing up and having a good time. She used to drink a lot and didn’t take care of herself but she was a groovy mother . . . Mostly my dad took care of me. He taught me that I must respect my elders always. I couldn’t speak unless I was spoken to first by grown-ups. So I’ve always been quiet, but I saw a lot of things. A fish wouldn’t get in trouble if he kept his mouth shut.” Perhaps that is why the adult Jimi would normally be quiet and soft spoken.
When his younger brother, Leon, was born, Lucille’s frequent disappearances and Al’s need to work to support his family put Buster in the role of Leon’s caregiver and protector. When their parents would fight, they often hid in a kitchen cabinet until things blew over. Three more children would be born into the family (two after they had divorced in 1951) with Al denying paternity. Al was awarded custody of Leon and Buster after the divorce. All of the other children had serious birth defects requiring institutional care. Lucille continued to drift in and out of their lives until she was married again, this time to a retired longshoreman (William Mitchell), thirty years her senior. She was in and out of the hospital in 1957 and 1958 with the boys visiting her at Harborview Hospital just days before she died of a ruptured spleen at age 32. Al got drunk on the way to the funeral and arrived six hours too late. He could only offer his grieving sons a sip of whisky each before he finished the bottle himself. Leon later recalled, “[Jimi] was always sore at our dad for not taking better care of Mama,” but there was no mention of Lucille taking better care of herself or her kids.
Writer Phil Norman has an affinity for Hendrix’s hometown of Seattle. His Grandma Norman’s husband was killed in the last year of WWI (his ship was torpedoed by a German sub in the Irish Sea), so she emigrated to Seattle to join her sister, Gwen, who already lived there. Though Norman’s father, Clive, was but four years-old at the time, his Grandmother’s description of 1918 Seattle fascinated him. It sounded to him like it was a ‘wild-frontier’ kind of place. A city with hills so steep that Model T Fords (Tin Lizzies) had to use their most powerful gear (reverse) to negotiate them. In his years as a correspondent for the Sunday Times, his cross country travels only brought him to Seattle once in 1973 as he traveled with and wrote about singer Roberta Flack. Norman notes that Seattle’s reputation as a ‘music town’ seems to be relatively ‘white’ having produced nationally known artists like Bing Crosby (from nearby Tacoma), the Ventures, Judy Collins, and the band Heart. As Norman states in his book Jimi Hendrix – The Short Spellbinding Life of Jimi Hendrix (Liveright Publishing, 2020), “It’s generally thought that Seattle played little part in the history of black American music; that this incalculable gift to humankind was a product only of New Orleans or Memphis or Chicago or the cruel cottonfields of the Mississippi Delta. But they are forgetting Jimi.”
Al Hendrix worked hard to keep a roof over his boy’s heads, but they moved around a lot for financial reasons. This made their life, according to Leon, “Like a constant camping trip.” The boys were frequently left on their own and often cared for by their neighbors. Again, Leon recalled, “The black ladies and Jewish ladies in the Central District kind of adopted us. Mrs Weinstein made us matzo ball soup, Mrs Jackson fried us chicken with mashed potatoes, and Mrs Wilson, who had a little store there, washed our clothes for us and made us take a bath.” Dodging the child welfare authorities was a constant in their life with Leon most often being carted off to a foster facility somewhere. He would always escape and make it back to wherever Al and James were living. Schooling was difficult when the boys were being uprooted all the time. They found stays with their grandmother (Zenora who lived across the border in Vancouver) could be difficult (she was much more strict with them than Al). Still, they loved hearing Zenora’s stories about her days in a minstel show and also learning about their slave great-grandmother and Cherokee great-great-grandmother.
Al was a hard working man and had little tolerance for frivolity (other than his own indulgences). When twelve year-old Buster found a beat up Ukulele with one loose string attached in a garbage pile (Al had the boys help sort rubbish for things they could sell), Al’s first thought was it might bring in a few bucks. Buster begged his father to let him keep it and so began his obsession with coaxing sound from a taut instrument string. The next year, they were displaced when Al could not keep up the payments on the small house they were living in and it was repossessed. Living at Mrs McKay’s boarding house, Buster discovered an old Kay acoustic guitar in her back room. His father could not be convinced to spend $5 on such an ‘irrelevance’, but his Aunt Ernestine had noticed the effect the one-string ukulele had on the boy and she put up the money. Leon noticed the change in Buster immediately: “He forgot all about sports and lived only for the guitar. He wasn’t ever apart from it. He’d play it in bed, fall asleep with it on his chest, then start playing it again as soon as he woke up.”
Buster soon realized he could come closer to the sounds he heard on the radio by attaching a metal pickup under the base of the fretboard. With Leon absorbing the occasional electric shock while holding the connection between the cord and pickup together, he would run it through the only amplifier available – Al’s record player. Al was known to cuff Buster’s ears when he found him doing anything left-handed, so one can only suspect how he would have reacted if he found the boys tampering with his beloved record player. When it became apparent that Buster would need to upgrade to a real electric guitar, it was again his Aunt Ernestine who came to the rescue telling her brother-in-law Al, “You have to get that boy an electric guitar.” Even as opportunities to join bands came knocking at his door, Hendrix would return to this familiar pattern of having the women in his life obtain guitars for him. Whether it was getting his guitar out of the pawn shop, borrowing one from another musician (like Keith Richards’ white Fender Strat the Keef’s one time girl friend loaned Hendrix), or even buying a new ax, it seems 90 percent of these dealings happened because one of his female acquaintances made it happen.
Buster’s first electric guitar was a fifteen-dollar Supro Ozark from Myers Music. Al surprised his son by not only supplying the down payment on the guitar, but by also picking up a saxophone for himself. Al did not have his son’s knack for music and Leon recalls, “He could only ever play one note.” The left-handed Buster had to make do by restringing the right-hand Supro which left the volume and tone controls at the top of the instrument, not below the strings. With no money to spare, Buster did Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode one up by using a dry-cleaning-bag, not a ‘gunny sack’ as a carrying-case. Armed with his new guitar and a new name, Jimmy, he began looking for a band to play in. His first audition (in the basement of the Temple De Hirsch Sinai) lasted one set as the band he tried out for thought his playing was too wild. His second attempt with an old-fashioned ‘revue’ band with horns, saxes, and dance routines landed him a spot with the Velvetones. Another lifelong pattern soon emerged when Jimmy left the Velvetones and joined another local band, the Rocking Kings: Jimmy would hop from band to band – a lot.
The Rocking Kings gig almost evaporated when Jimmy made the classic mistake of leaving his Supro Ozark backstage at the Birdland Club and someone made off with it. Squeezing pennies from part time jobs and leaning on his new bandmates, he was able to get the down payment on a Danelectro Silvertone from the Sears Roebuck catalog for the princely sum of $49.95 with a small amplifier included. He christened his new guitar Betty-Jean for his then girlfriend. His mother’s name, Lucille, had already been used for B.B. King’s legendary guitar. The Rocking Kings traveled in a beat-up Mercury sedan playing military bases or ballrooms (like the 2,000 – capacity Spanish Castle in Kent) to predominantly white audiences. None of the venues on either side of the U.S./Canadian border discriminated against blacks attending the same shows which would make Jimmy’s first experiences on the Chitlin Circuit down south an eye opening experience for Hendrix.
The seventeen year old Jimmy found ways to sit in with other bands whenever he could. He also began decorating his guitar (with a pigeon feather here, a Seagram’s Seven whiskey bottle tassel there) and himself with unconventional wardrobe choices. As Leon said, “People would ask me, ‘Where does Jimmy get his clothes from?’ and I’d say, ‘From his girlfriend.’ That was out with the other guys in the band, who were only about conformity. He was a hippy before anyone knew what a hippy was.” When their Mercury gave up the will to live in Vancouver, the band barely had bus fare to get home before the band fell apart. Jimmy was included in their manager’s next project, Tom and the Tomcats, where he had background vocals added to his duties.
Georgia-born Ray Charles had first been discovered in Seattle playing at the Rocking Chair Club so he made frequent visits to the city after he became famous. On a return trip in search of a new guitarist in 1960, Jimmy’s name came up and he got the job. He played with Charles in Seattle but apparently did not leave town with him as evidenced by the line in the biopic about Ray starring Jamie Foxx. In the film, Ray’s manager says, “You should never have left that kid back in Seattle,” in one scene. Jimmy soon dropped out of school (or was asked to leave – accounts vary so take your pick), and defied everybody else’s expectations. Most figured he would become a professional musician but he joined the US Army instead where he trained as a parachutist in the 101st Airborne Division.
Though Hendrix was never a gang member or delinquent, it was his one encounter with law enforcement that put him in the army. He and a friend were picked up for joy riding in a stolen car and performing petty larceny. They were caught snagging clothes from a broken back window at a store by means of an unbent clothes hanger. The judge gave him a choice: two years of detention or joining the army. On May 31, 1961, Jimmy set out for basic training at Fort Ord in California leaving his guitar in the care of the real Betty-Jean. He signed all his correspondence home ‘Love, James’. In his letters. there was an undertone of him wanting to make his father proud of him: “I’ll try my very best to make the AIRBORNE for the sake of our name.” While parachute training from a 34-foot tall tower scared some (the three soldiers ahead of him wouldn’t take the leap), Jimmy didn’t hesitate and was carried to the ground dangling from a parachute harness. In all, he recorded 25 jumps from aircraft which he later described: “It’s so personal because once you get there, it’s so quiet, All you hear is the breeze – sssshhh – like that . . . and you look up and there’s that big, beautiful white mushroom above you.” With Korea behind and Vietnam in the future, Hendrix was posted to Fort Campbell on the Kentucky – Tennessee border. He would not be deployed overseas and the environment there would prove to be much less tolerant than it had been in progressive Seattle.
Nine months after landing at Fort Campbell, Jimmy seemed to be on the way to becoming a good soldier. He asked his father to get Betty-Jean back from Betty-Jean and send it to him. With his beloved guitar back in hand, soldering took a back seat to playing guitar. Hearing music coming from the Number 1 Service Club one evening, fellow soldier Billy Cox walked in and introduced himself. Cox recalled, “I thought I was listening to a combination of John Lee Hooker and Beethoven. I told him I played upright bass in the school symphony, but I wasn’t that good. He said, ‘They have electric basses now, go check them out. By the way, my name is Jimmy Hendrix.” Cox proved to be a natural on bass guitar and they soon recruited more service buddies and began playing out as the Kasuals.
Their first regular gig was at a club called The Pink Poodle where they backed up a singer named Crying Shame. Cox says, “And he had a sister named D*** Shame. We almost had to be hauled away because we laughed so much. But when he started, we stopped laughing, because this cat could sing his butt off. He was a great blues singer – one of many we learned from.”
The late hours spent at gigs with the Kasuals helped end Jimmy’s career as a soldier. He was written up for sleeping on duty enough that when coupled with his ‘health complaints’ (dizziness, pain and pressure in the left chest, loss of weight, frequent trouble sleeping) finally led to his honorable discharge in July 1962. Having served two years of his three year hitch, he hung around playing Kasual gigs waiting for Cox to muster out a month later. Hendrix had blown his $400 severance pay giving him little choice but to stick around Clarksville. He supplemented his meager gig pay by sneaking back on base for meals or to borrow a bunk to sleep in. Calling an SOS to Al for help would be an admission of failure he decided he could do without.
In Part 2 of Johnny Allen Hendrix, we will pick up the story as Jimmy’s post Army life bounces him around like he was living inside a pinball machine.
Top Piece Video: Jimi in the backline jiving with the Buddy and Stacy band in 1965 – taken from Night Train show.