May 20, 2022

FTV: Johnny Allen Hendrix – Part 2

  We left Part 1 with Jimmy Hendrix newly discharged from the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army.  As soon as his bass playing buddy, Billy Cox, was turned loose, they changed the name of their band from the Kasuals to the King Kasuals.  As Jimmy’s hair returned, he styled it into a ‘conk’ (see early 1960s Little Richard and James Brown photos for reference) and they gigged as much as they could in a radius that included Tennessee, Indiana, and North Carolina.  While they tried to subsist on a $10 nightly fee between them (sometimes they got paid, sometimes not), the King Kasuals played everything from standard R&B, blues, and even the new ‘surfing sound’ coming from California’s Beach Boys.  Jimmy practiced so much between gigs, his bandmates called him ‘Marbles’ as in ‘he must be losing them’.  While the other guys in the band found it necessary to take day jobs, Jimmy did not.  Billy Cox says, “He put twenty-five years on the guitar into about five years.”

     The King Kasuals were struggling to make a living on their meager gig pay until Billy Cox got them a residency at a club in Nashville’s Printer’s Alley.  The Club Del Morocco was owned by a well known Nashville character named ‘Uncle’ Teddy Acklen.  The Club’s clientele included baseball heroes Jackie Robinson and Roy Campenella among other notable Nashville cats.  Acklen paid the band $11 each per week to perform on their own and to back up visiting artists like Carla Thomas, Nappy Brown, and Ironing Board Sam.  Brown-bagging liquor to the club (Tennessee was still a prohibition state), the customers were never hassled by the police who chose to overlook the ban.  It would seem Jimmy would have been out of place in the capital of country and western music, but he was too keen a student of guitar music to let any racial boundaries get in his way.  In his Seattle days, he never missed the weekly broadcasts of the Grand Ol’ Opry coming from Nashville’s fabled Ryman Auditorium.  Not only was Jimmy a big Chet Atkins fan, he was what author Philip Nornam describes as,  “A genre-busting player equally at ease playing rockabilly, the fusion of rock and ‘hillbilly that Elvis Presley had first unloosed at the Opry and elsewhere.”

     The other Printer’s Alley hotspot was the more impressive Club Baron, an R&B venue whose house band was known as the Imperials.  The Imperials’ own virtuoso guitar player, Johnny Jones, took Jimmy under his wing as a friend and offered him much encouragement.  Jones went out of his way to introduce Jimmy to the likes of Albert King and B.B.King when they passed through town to perform at Club Baron.  Billy Cox and Jimmy were denied entry to the club when they asked if they could watch Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland rehearse, but they got in anyway.  They raided a broom closet and with mop and bucket in hand, took it all in while pretending to be janitors.  Jimmy was still feeling his way along and learning some tough lessons like when he challenged the Imperial’s Jones to a ‘guitar duel’.  Think of Fast Eddie (played by Paul Newman) taking on Minnesota Fats in a ‘pool duel’ in The Hustler and getting waxed in the processJones mopped the floor with Jimmy that night (remember, he only pretended to be a janitor) and as another of Hendrix’s friends (Larry Lee) would recall, “He came looking for a shoot-out but he was the one who got himself shot.”

     At the end of 1962, Jimmy took a break from the King Kasuals and returned to the northwest, but not to visit with his father Al or girlfriend Betty-Jean.  Jimmy’s aim was to visit his grandmother, Zenora, and while there, he hooked up with a local band called Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers.  Playing their regular gigs at a club called Dante’s Inferno, Jimmy joined in as they covered everything from the new Motown sounds coming out of Detroit to surf music.  In the Vancouvers, Hendrix ended up playing rhythm guitar behind the band’s hotshot lead guitar player, a part-Chinese kid named Tommy Chong (who would later find wider fame as part of the Cheech and Chong comedy duo).  Upon returning to the King Kasuals in early 1963, they added two horn players and an emcee to try their hand at being more of a ‘revue’ band (replete with jokes and impressions from the emcee).  Things didn’t go well for the band when they lost their spot at the Club Del Morocco.

     Five of the six King Kasuals were again forced to take part time employment to make ends meet, but as before, not Jimmy.  Larry Lee, who had joined the band when their other guitarist, Alphonso Young left, said, “[Jimmy] always used to say that when he was famous one day, he would have a thousand guitars.  He didn’t say ‘if’, he said, ‘when’.  At that time I figured that if he made it, he would do it on the guitar alone.  I had not idea he would ever sing.”  Jimmy’s hand-to-mouth existence in Nashville wasn’t so much different than his childhood in Seattle.  He even spent some weeks sleeping in a building under construction, making sure to slip out each morning before work resumed.  The King Kasuals finally folded up for good, but Cox, Lee, and Hendrix stuck together and hired themselves out to other bands touring the Chitlin’ Circuit.

     The Chitlin’ Circuit had been around since the 1920’s.  The name was a “humorous self-depreciation taken from ‘chitterlings’ (pig’s intestines) that were part of the soul food dishes sold at such establishments,” Norman explained in his book Wild Thing – The Short, Spellbinding Life of Jimi Hendrix, 2020, Ballantine Books).  Some of the higher-rent establishments became famous (like the Apollo in NYC’s Harlem district), but the common thread in this string of venues was the opportunity for black musicians to perform regularly, especially in the still segregated south.  One of their first post King Kasuals gigs was with Bob Fisher and the Bonnevilles backing up The Marvelettes (one of Motown’s first successful female vocal groups), and the Impressions.  The soon-to-go-solo leader of the Impressions, Curtis Mayfield, influenced Jimmy in a big way.  Billy Cox says, “You can hear Curtis in Little Wing and in Castles Made of Sand.”  Cox is referencing Mayfield’s `creamy-sweet guitar style’ that is featured prominently in these Hendrix compositions (both found on Axis Bold as Love released December 1, 1967).

     When Cox and Lee returned to Nashville for session work and a less nomadic life, Jimmy soldiered on alone.  Leon recalled, “[Jimmy] always had good jobs because when he joined one band, a better one would always come along and steal him.”  Indeed, the year before he turned 21, Jimmy played with Circuit vets like Chuck Jackson, Carla Thomas, Slim Harpo, Tommy Tucker, Jerry Butler, and Marion James.  Leon added, “Jimmy really didn’t care if he was in a good band or not – he just wanted to play.  All he’d asked them was ‘Where are we on, how do I get there, and can you please get my guitar out of the pawnshop?’”

     No matter if a band he was in at the bottom of the bill was good, bad, or otherwise, Jimmy studied the stagecraft and showmanship of the headliners.  Like a sponge, he absorbed his stage lessons from artists like Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, and Otis Redding.  He learned a lot from the first true star Jimmy backed up, the 250 pound Solomon Burke.  Burke would perform  seated on a throne wearing an ermine-trimmed robe and a crown.  Between sets, he would hock his own pork sandwiches and ‘Solomon Burke Majic Popcorn’ out in the lobby.  Many of the headliners ran their band’s like the army, levying fines for infractions like dirty shoes, ($5), being late ($10), or any number of things.  Jimmy was routinely fired and at times left behind when he didn’t make the bus departure time.  Sometimes he was let go for an even bigger sin:  stealing his employer’s limelight on stage.

     Here is a brief peek at a small slice of Jimmy’s life on the Circuit:  “Curtis Mayfield expelled him for accidentally damaging an amplifier,  On a tour with Bobby Womack, his behavior was so exasperating that Womanck’s road manager brother threw his guitar out of the the bus window  while JImmy was asleep.  After a few days with the Solomon Burke revue, Burke bartered him on to Otis Redding in exchange for two horn players as if he was little more than a mondern-day slave.  A couple of weeks later, there were more problems about his too-flashy playing and Redding literally ditched him, driving off and leaving him at the side of the road.  Generally, there would be another gig for him to step into and if ever he did find himself without work and broke, he knew he could return to the inexhaustible kind-hearted, supportive Billy Cox in Nashville.  Cox’s wife Brenda recalled, “Bill would always take him in, give him money, and find him a job.’”

     Jimmy tired of life on the Chitlin’ Circuit, describing the treadmill-like existence as, “Bad pay, lousy living, and gettin’ burned,” yet none of it dimmed his optimistic self-belief.  He wrote to Al, “I still have my guitar and amp and as long as I have that, no fool can stop me living.  I’m going to keep hustling and scuffling until I get things to happening like they’re supposed to for me.”  A booking agent approached him one night after an unmemorable show with a vague offer of work in New York.  He arrived there in January 1964 to find no work, brutal winter weather (he had to borrow a coat) and no Billy Cox to bail him out.  He was temporarily saved from destitution by winning the $25 prize in a contest for young musicians at the Apollo.  

     A chance meeting with Lithofayne ‘Fayne’ Pridgon as they milled about outside the Apollo changed his fortunes again.  On a night when his former employer Sam Cooke was performing (Jimmy did not have the money or cred with Cooke to get into the theater), it was Fayne (who was reportedly one of Cooke’s many girlfriends) who opened doors for Jimmy.  She did have the VIP status to get Jimmy backstage to see Cooke before she took him home to meet her mother who fed him.  The next day, he moved into the small room she shared with a friend at the Hotel Seifer with all his worldly possessions stashed in his guitar case.  It wasn’t much, but at least he had a roof over his head and a place to play his guitar while looking for a place to play it for pay.

     Jimmy bounced around various groups and gigs before grabbing what could have been the golden ring – the guitar slot with the Isley Brothers.  His audition lasted for part of their hit song Twist and Shout after which, they gave him a place to live and bought him a white Stratocaster guitar.  He had only been with the Isley Brothers for a couple of days before The Beatles first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show.  The pop musical universe began to change but the Isley’s said, “Okay, they have two guitar players, but we’ve got Jimmy.”  Though he did record with the Isleys, the matching white leather suits, shoes, and fines for departing from the group’s routine lead to Jimmy departing New York to tour the south (again).  This time, it was with Gorgeous George, a black artist who patterned himself after the white professional wrestler of the same name.  On a stop in Memphis, Hendrix waited all day in the Stax Records lobby so he could meet Steve Cropper, the funky guitarist with the label’s house band, Booker T and the MGs.  Cropper didn’t end up being the ‘soul brother’ Jimmy pictured listening to their music, but the two bonded over their mutual love, guitar.  Cropper took him out to dinner and then they made their way back to the studio where they spent the night trading guitar licks and tricks.

     The tour was back in Atlanta when Hendrix missed the bus but was fortuitously picked up by none other than Little Richard, who by chance, was looking for a guitar player.  Richard let Jimmy shine some in his show and Hendrix picked up a lot of stage persona watching him front The Upsetters.  The $200 monthly wage was the best thing about the Little Richard gig.  When the band encamped in Los Angeles, Jimmy wrote his father that he would now be going by ‘Mo-reece’ as in ‘Maurice James’.  On the West Coast, he got to know a pre-fame Glen Campbell and they spent a lot of time talking guitar – Jimmy recognized how talented Campbell was long before he went on to grace American TV and Top 40 radio.  The next dust up he had with Little Richard led Hendrix to walk out the door and right into the Ike and Tina (Turner) Revue.  Working with control freak Ike was difficult and a couple of weeks later, Jimmy (Maurice?) was back in the Upsetters who went back East to tour in the Southern states during some of the worst moments of the Civil Rights movement.  The inevitable final parting of ways with Little Richard landed Jimmy working again with the Isleys at a resort in New Jersey before he finally returned to New York.

     Jimmy took up with his old girlfriend Fayne as he looked for session work.  By October, he had joined Curis Knight and the Squires, another R&B band playing low-level gigs in the NY/NJ area.

It was with Curtis Knight that Jimmy first got to record Bob Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone.  As the year came to an end, Jimmy was poached (again) by another band, Joey Dee and the Starliters, one of the first bi-racial pop bands.  They had made the charts during the Twist craze as the house band at the Peppermint Lounge (remember The Peppermint Twist?).  The Joey Dee gig lasted until Christmas which (again) landed Jimmy back in New York, broke and unemployed.  He would spend the next few months hanging around Fayne’s apartment playing guitar, working on his hairdo, and taking whatever gigs he could find.  In May of 1966, his fortunes would finally take a turn for the better.

     With the Rolling Stones touring the states for a fifth time, Keith Richard’s girlfriend Linda and her American friend Roberta caught Jimmy’s act at the Cheetah Club.  They invited him to their table which lead to them keeping company with Hendrix for much of the summer of 1966.  When he decided to take Richie Haven’s advice to try performing solo in Greenwich Village, he landed a solo gig at the Cafe Wha?  Preferring to work with others,  he put together a band called Jimmy James and the Blue Flames (which included a 15 year-old Randy Wolfe who would go on to greater fame as ‘Randy California’ with the band Spirit and future Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan guitarist Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter).  After making the classic mistake (again) of leaving his guitar at the club where someone else took ownership, keeping company with Linda payed off when she ‘borrowed’ a white Stratocaster from Keith’s collection for Jimmy to use while the Stones were off touring.  Early in his Cafe Wha? days, Jimmy also met up with The Fugs’ guitarist Pete Kearney who built him the first crude version of a distortion device called a ‘fuzzbox’.  It was the first of the electronic gadgets Jimmy would employ to coax otherworldly sounds from his guitar across his recording career.

     Besides borrowing Keith’s Stratocaster for Jimmy, Linda (whose last name was Keith) did a couple of other career-defining things for Hendrix.  First, she got him to stop his laborious hair slicking treatments and to go with a more natural Afro ala Bob Dylan.  Having failed to get the Stones producer Andrew Loog Oldham interested in working with Hendrix, she put him in touch with his future.  During a social gathering of the Stones and the Animals, she heard the Animals’ bass player Chas Chandler mention he wanted to get into managing and producing.  Linda recalls, “So I piped up and said, I’ve got just the person for you.”

     The Jimi Hendrix Experience story began with Linda Keith’s comment and Jimi Hendrix’s rocket-ride to stardom was ready to blast off.  He didn’t make a ripple in the States, however, until Chandler brought him to England where he set the British rock and roll royalty on their ear.  Jimi Hendrix’s invasion of England will be a story for another day.

Top Piece Video:  Sorry, hard to find actual film of Jimmy in the Chitlin’ Circuit days, but here is a track of him performing with the Isley Brothers