September 2, 2022

FTV: The Jimi Invasions

     A while back, we chronicled the life of Jimi Hendrix from his childhood in Seattle, Washington to the first meeting with his future manager and producer, Chas Chandler in New York City in 1966 (FTV:  Johnny Allen Hendrix  5-25-22 and Johnny Allen Hendrix – Part 2  6-1-22).  While musicians in the United States were just beginning to catch up to the so-called wave of British Invasion pop bands coming from across the pond, Jimmy James ended up swimming against the current instead by mounting his own counter-invasion..  

     Chas Chandler, the Animals bassist, was brought to see the then named Jimmy James (and the Blue Flames) at the Cafe Wha? On July 5, 1966.  Keith Richards’ girlfriend, Linda Keith, had arranged the meeting after hearing Chandler mention his desire to move on from touring to managing and producing other artists.  Jimmy knew he would be there so he pulled out his best cover versions of the songs in their repertoire.  One of those tunes, Hey Joe, was written by Tim Rose, another singer/songwriter who also performed at the Wha? from time to time.  In his book Wild Thing – The short, spellbinding life of Jimi Hendrix (2020 Ballantine Books), author Philip Norman describes Jimmy’s transformation of the tune:  “[Jimmy] replaced Rose’s own jangly country picking with an almost somnambulistic rock beat, his voice – so unlike a traditional R&B singer’s in its unruffled mellowness – switching back and forth between interrogation and confession in a conversational, almost offhand way that somehow heightened the brutality of the tale it told.  Then, when the duologue seemed darkest, he raised Keith Richards’ white Stratocaster (note:  the one Linda Keith had ‘borrowed’ from Keef when Jimmy need an ax) horizontally to his face, to produce a lyric rippling solo with fingers he could not possible see and no plectrum but his teeth.”

     Watching this unfold in front of him, Chandler leaned over and in his thick Tuneside accent inquired, “This is ree-dic-lous.  Why hasna’ anyone signed this guy up?”  Jimmy came off stage and was given the offer he had been waiting for.  Chas, who at the time was the second best-known bass guitarist in the world after Paul McCartney, said he wanted Jimmy to be his first-ever management client.  With no roots in the American music industry, Chandler said it would require him to relocate.  Jimmy soon found himself in jolly old England where his meteoric rise to stardom would get its start.  It is no surprise that Hey Joe would end up being the first single he would release, but that was still a bit down the road.  

     Interestingly, when my high school band, The Twig, first began jamming as sophomores in the summer of 1968, Hey Joe was one of the first songs we learned together.  The version we copied came, not from Jimi Hendrix, but from a California band called The Leaves.  Either way, my mother wasn’t especially happy to hear us singing about ‘shooting my old lady down’ in the basement, but she didn’t ban the song from her home like she did Steppenwolf’s The Pusher.  It is too bad the American release of Hendrix’s first album (Are You Experienced – May 12, 1967) did not include Hey Joe like its British counterpart.  We would have realized we had more common ground with The Jimi Hendrix Experience beyond just learning Fire off the album, but let us not get too far ahead of the story.

     Jimmy had been following the reports about the scene in ‘Swinging London’ but he was a little reluctant to move there as Chandler’s proposal did not include The Blue Flames.  The thought of, ‘What happens if this doesn’t work out?’ gave him pause – he might find himself a stranger in a strange land – a land of ‘eccentrically accented strangers’.  His doubts were out-balanced by the thought that he might be able to get closer to the guitarists he had long admired from hearing them on British R&B records.  Jimmy especially wanted to meet Eric Clapton.  James and Chandler sealed the deal with a handshake and just in time as Jimmy’s reputation was beginning to explode.  While Chandler was off finishing his latest Animals tour, New York’s best guitarist, Mike Bloomfield, came to see The Blue Flames at the Cafe Wha?  Bloomfield reported, “[He] knew who I was and on that day, in front of my eyes, he burned me to death.  H-bombs were going off, guided missiles were flying . . . I can’t tell you the sounds he was getting.”  The experience unnerved Bloomfield so much, he had Richie Havens fill in for him at his next gig, 

     Jimmy was so busy getting his passport and travel plans together, he neglected to tell his father and brother he was leaving the country.  On September 24, 1966, Jimmy landed at London-Heathrow airport with Chandler, the Animals’ road manager Terry McVay, a small overnight bag, and $40 he had borrowed from Charles Otis, a drummer friend from the Village.  Having agreed to co-manage Jimmy with the Animals’ manager, Mike Jeffrey (Chandler would handle the recording side, Jeffrey the business end), they were met by the Animal’s publicist, Tony Garland.  Jimmy had no work permit so Garland was there to do the smooth-talking PR man’s job to get him past Immigration and Customs.  Garland told the authorities Jimmy was an established American star visiting England to collect royalties from a British promoter.  It worked. They stamped his seven-day visitor’s visa which, technically, barred him from doing anything resembling employment during his stay.

     So how does one introduce a new musical artist to England when an introductory concert was out of the question?  Chandler and Jeffery decided to circulate Jimmy through the clubs known to be frequented by the country’s leading pop stars and taste-makers.  Sitting in with the house band or playing the occasional solo for free could be written off with Immigration authorities as Jmmy ‘jamming for leisure, not work’.  Legend has it that Hendrix took London town by storm the first night he was there, but in reality, Chandler’s plan didn’t kick into action for another three days, very near the expiration of his visitor’s visa.  With the Strat borrowed from Keith Richards now gone missing, the tapped out Chandler (he had spent his savings getting Jimi to England to begin with) set out to borrow one from George ‘Zoot’ Money.  While visiting the Money house, Jimi would meet Zoot’s Big Roll Band guitarist, Andy Summers (who later gained larger fame as a member of The Police).  Also in residence at the Money house was Kathy Etchingham, and erstwhile discotheque DJ who did not meet Hendrix that night, but would enter the picture a short time later when they met at his ‘debut’ outing at the Scotch of St. James.  Jimmy’s track record for collecting new girlfriends in every port remained unblemished even upon his arrival in England. 

     Now that Chandler had Jimmy in England, he had to figure out what to do with him.  He got him hooked up in a jam with the British Isles premier bluesman, Alexis Korner, after the introductory gig at the Scotch.  Jimmy held his own but he was out of place – he was too young and hip even though he could play with the best of the grizzled old blues masters.  One of Chas’s musical confidants, Keith Altham of the New Musical Express caught Jimmy at the Scotch and said, “Quite honestly, Chas, I can see this stuff going straight over the heads of most rock fans because he’s almost too good.”  In the Village, they called Jimmy ‘the black Dylan’ but London had a different tag for him:  ‘the black Elvis’.  If Elvis was white and could sing like a black man, it seems Jimmy was going to reverse that role.  Altham and Chandler also had the idea that perhaps he could fit in a more jazzy mold with someone like the Brian Auger Trinity, but Auger had no desire to displace his guitarist or his new female vocalist, Julie Driscoll.  Jimmy did sit in with the band and he was welcomed in the friendliest manner by Vic Briggs, the guitarist he would have replaced.  It was Briggs who introduced Jimmy to the thunderous 100 watt guitar amp and speakers that were just being introduced.  The brand name will be familiar to most guitar heads even though they were invented by a former drum-shop owner named Jim Marshall.

     With James Marshall Hendrix plugged into Brigg’s Marshal amp, he spelled out the chord changes for Hey Joe and cranked the volume to ten – five being considered too loud by the loudest players.  Auger said the chord sequence seemed rather elementary, however, he said, “But as soon as he started playing, it was like ‘Oh, my God!’”  Perhaps they expected Jimmy to sound like B.B. King, Freddie King, Albert Collins, or Howlin’ Wolf, but they soon realized they had never heard anyone play like Jimmy.  On October 1, Jimmy hit another milestone when he finally met Eric Clapton.  For Clapton, the meeting would not be his most pleasant memory.

     Having recently left John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers (whom he played with when the CLAPTON IS GOD graffiti was appearing on subway walls), his personality was far from that lofty status.  While he was basking in the wealth and adulation of being a superstar, he wished to be nothing more than someone’s sideman who would just take the occasional solo, albeit, reluctantly.  Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker (the latter two having played together in the Grand Bond Organization), had recently come together as the newest supergroup, a power trio called Cream.  Chas showed up at one of their earliest gigs with Jimmy in tow.  Asked by Chandler if James could sit in with them, Clapton and Bruce overruled Baker’s objection and he joined them for a run at Howlin’ Wolf’s Killing Floor.  Eric had, after much difficulty, had only recently mastered the song only to watch Jimmy plow through it at breakneck speed.  He hoisted his guitar behind his head, picked the strings with his teeth, and never missed a lick.  Chandler later recalled, “Halfway through the song, Eric stopped playing.  Both his hands dropped down to his sides, then he walked offstage.  I ran back to the dressing room and he was standing there, trying to light a cigarette with his hand shaking.  He said, “You never told me he was that (expletive deleted) good.”

     Word quickly spread about the dethroning of ‘God’ and the next featured spot at the tiny Bag O’Nails club was populated by a lot of rock VIPS.  The parade of Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Paul McCartney, and Jeff Beck, to name a few, led Peter Jay and the Jaywalkers vocalist Terry Reid to ask, “What is this?  A bloody convention?”  Reid continues, “Here comes Jimmy, hair all over the place, pulls out this left-handed Statocaster, beaten to death, looks like he’s been chopping wood with it.  And he gets up, all soft-spoken, and all of a sudden, WHOORRAAWWR!  He breaks into Wild Thing and it was all over.  There were guitar players weeping.  They had to mop the floor up,  He keeps piling it on, solo after solo.  I could see everyone’s fillings falling out.  When he finished, it was silence.  Nobody knew what to do.  Everyone was dumbstruck, completely in shock.”  A bit over the top, but in that we were not there but Reid was, we will have to take his word on it.

     Chandler finally got Jimmy a three-month UK work permit so the next step was to find him a band.  He could legally perform and Chas was going to take advantage of the situation.  Jimmy hinted he would like to do a full on Chitlin’ Circuit Revue band with horns but Chas squashed that idea right off.  His suggestion was a power trio ala Cream composed of a) two white sidemen who were b) good but not so brilliant they would outshine Jimi.  And oh yes, Chandler now suggested he get rid of the Jimmy James handle and become Jimi Hendrix.  Noel Redding was a 21-year-old guitarist who had failed an audition with Eric Burdon’s new Animals lineup.  Chandler and Jimi entered the Birdland Club where the auditions were taking place to check him out.  Redding was capable of playing rhythm and lead, as was Jimi, but his natural afro made him, visually, a fit.  Jimi just had to convince him to switch to bass guitar, which Noel had never played.  Jimi offered to teach him.

     The drummer’s slot was down to well known Aynsley Dunbar from Liverpool and twenty-year old John ‘Mitch’ Mitchell, a former child actor who fell in love with drums and had actually worked at Marshall’s drum-shop before Jim got into building his powerful line of amps.  Mitchell was slight of build and had jazzier tendencies than Dunbar, but he could also lay down just as powerful a rock beat as Dunbar.  It came down to a coin flip and Mitchell was in.  When Jimi discovered the ‘Mitchell – Marshall’ connection, he conveniently dropped his 30 Watt Burns amp down the stairs and put in an order for one of Marshall’s monster stacks.  Marshall was thrilled because Jimi didn’t want freebies, he wanted to buy and also get after-the-sale service as well.

     Prior to becoming the bassist in Yes, an 18 year old Chris Squire was in a band called the Syn who happened into an opening gig for the newly christened Jimi Hendrix Experience at the Marquee Club.  As he observed Jimi trying to teach Redding a basic bass lick, he thought, “How can they be headlining.?  They can’t even play five notes together!”  He was in for a surprise, however, when Syn took the stage:  “Then we go on stage, I look down at the first four rows and see all my biggest heros . . . Pete Townshend . . . Keith Richard . . . Stevie Winwood . . .  Eric Clapton looking like, ‘Oh my God, I’m not God anymore.”  Not able to get back to the dressing rooms after their set, Squire watched The Experience while sitting on a grand piano behind Mitchell’s drums.  It turns out, Redding’s still unsteady bass fingerings didn’t matter once Jimi kicked things into gear.  “Jimi just blew me away,” Squire recalled.

     Jimi finally called Al collect because he was not sure what an overseas phone call would do to his phone bill.  Crusty Al refused to believe Jimi was in England until his son put Kathy on the phone.  Once her accent convinced him Jimi was telling the truth, the told Etchingham, “You tell my boy to write me.  I ain’t paying for no collect calls,” and then he hung up.  Kathy said Jimi was hurt by the snub, but he didn’t have time to dwell on it.  A quick tour in France was on tap as well as studio time to knock out their first single (Hey Joe backed by Hendrix’s own composition, Stone Free).  

     The rest of 1966 was spent gigging and recording in England, Jimi’s triumphant return to the United States a few months in the future.  After ringing in 1967 playing a 50 pound show at a club in Noel Redding’s home town of Folkestone, the bass player took Jimi and Kathy over to meet his mother.  It was a cold winter night and Mrs Redding had a crackling fire blazing in her fireplace, something Jimi had never seen except in movies.  The first thing he asked Noel’s mum was, “May I stand in front of your fire?”  When Are You Experienced?, the band’s first full length album, came out a few months later, it would have a lively track called Fire with a simple call and answer chorus:  Let me stand next to your fire. 

      Jimmy Hendrix had indeed invaded England and the one thing he had told Al on the phone was most certainly true:  “Dad, it looks like I am on the way to the big time.”  Only time would tell what kind of reception he would receive when he finally got back to the States that summer, but that again, is a story for another day. 


Top Piece Video:  The Are You Experienced? track that would NOT be on the US release!