Unbelievably, 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of the death of guitar virtuoso Jimi Hendrix. On September 18, 1970, Hendrix died of asphyxia while intoxicated with the barbiturate Vesparax. Allegedly, he mistakenly took 9 pills – 18 times the recommended dose of half a pill.
A member of the “27 Club” with Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, Robert Johnson and now Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse, Hendrix accomplished an incredible amount in the less than four years he was in the spotlight. From 1966-1970, he played over 600 shows, many of them as the headliner of a festival.
Here are 10 things you might not know about the music icon:
01 Hendrix and the Army
You may have heard that Jimi was in the U.S. Army, but you might not know some of the particulars. After Hendrix was caught joyriding twice by the police, he had two options — go to prison or join the army. At the age of 18, he chose the army and went through eight weeks of training for the 101st Airborne Division in Fort Campbell, KY, and then went on to complete eight months of paratrooper training, receiving the prestigious Screaming Eagles patch. Hendrix lied for years that he had received a medical discharge after breaking his ankle in a parachute landing, but in actuality he was honorably discharged after his platoon sergeant wrote a report saying, “He has no interest whatsoever in the Army … It is my opinion that Private Hendrix will never come up to the standards required of a soldier. I feel that the military service will benefit if he is discharged as soon as possible.”
One plus of serving in the military was that he met bassist Billy Cox, who would eventually join the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and be on stage with Hendrix for his last concerts.
Another fun fact: Jimi allegedly continued to always make his bed neatly every day, in true military style.
02 Hendrix Family Dynamics and Name Changes
Hendrix was born in Seattle on November 27, 1942 and was named Johnny Allen Hendrix. He was first raised by his mother, Lucille, as his father, James “Al” Hendrix was fighting in World War II. When Al returned from the war in 1945, he renamed his son James Marshall Hendrix and later divorced Jimi’s mom, and took custody of Jimi and his brother, Leon. Leon had been in and out of foster care due to his parent’s constant state of poverty and struggles with alcohol. They also had three other younger siblings – Joseph, Cathy and Pamela – all of whom were given up for adoption. Jimi was not particularly close to his mother, and she passed away when he was 15.
When Jimi was first playing live, he used the name “Jimmy James.” It was not until 1966 in London that he changed his stage name to “Jimi Hendrix” as suggested by his manager.
The Hendrix estate is currently controlled by Janie Hendrix, Al’s adopted step-daughter, as he wrote Leon out of his will before he passed away in 2002. Leon continues to contest the will and has licensed various Hendrix products.
In addition, Swedish singer James Sundquist, claims he is the illegitimate son of Hendrix, and sued the estate for a portion of the inheritance in 1994, after being declared legally to be Hendrix’s son in 1975 by Swedish courts. In addition to Sundquist, Tamika Hendrix is also allegedly an illegitimate child of Hendrix’s, but her claims have so far been denied.
03 Hendrix Was Connected to The Animals
In 1966, Hendrix caught a lucky break when Keith Richards’ girlfriend, Linda Keith, convinced The Animals’ bassist, Chas Chandler, to watch the then-named Jimmy James play at Café Wha? in New York City. Chandler immediately saw Hendrix’s talent and potential. “This guy didn’t seem anything special, then all of a sudden he started playing with his teeth. People were saying, ‘What the hell?’ and I thought, ‘I could do something with this kid.’”
Chandler signed on as Hendrix’s manager and suggested he use the name “Jimi” and it stuck. He also convinced Jimi to come to London, where he promised to introduce him to his idol Eric Clapton. In fact, 48 hours after Hendrix landed at Heathrow, he was onstage jamming with Cream – Clapton, Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce. Chandler was instrumental in creating the Jimi Hendrix Experience, gaining financing, and mentoring Hendrix through his first two albums.
In another Animals connection, when Hendrix died in 1970, his friend, Eric Burdon of The Animals and War, raced to Hendrix’s apartment to remove any traces of drugs or drug paraphernalia prior to the arrival of the police. During his search, he discovered a poem Hendrix had written just mere hours before his death, titled “The Story of Life.” Burdon incorrectly assumed that the poem was a suicide note and later appeared on the BBC to confirm that Hendrix had committed suicide. He would later recant his statement, saying “I made false statements…I simply didn’t understand what the situation was. I misread the note…I thought it was a goodbye.”
04 Hendrix Played His Guitar Upside-Down, Kind Of
Hendrix was left-handed, but most of his guitars were right-handed and many assumed he just flipped the guitar and played it upside-down. However, while the guitars may have looked like they were upside-down, Jimi still strung them like left handed-guitars, with the low E string on the top and the high E at the bottom. This very unique setup is part of what gave Hendrix his signature sound. For the record, his father, Al, tried to get Jimi to play the guitar right-handed, as he considered left-handed playing a sign of the devil.
Jimi also had other legendary guitar tricks up his sleeve. While opening for Cat Stevens and Engelbert Humperdinck(!), all the road crews were thinking of ways to one-up each other when a British journalist suggested to Hendrix that, “It’s a pity you can’t set fire to your guitar.” That trick later became a trademark. Hendrix also famously played guitar with his teeth, a technique he stole from obscure blues players he’d seen and heard while touring as a sideman on the Chitlin Ciruit. He could also play guitar behind his back, and by not touching the strings. He was a showman!
05 Hendrix Was Once Kidnapped After A Show
The details surrounding Hendrix’s kidnapping are very murky, but in Room Full of Mirrors: A Biography of Jimi Hendrix, writer Charles R. Cross retold the story about how Hendrix was kidnapped following a gig at the Greenwich Village club, The Salvation:
“He left with a stranger to score cocaine, but was instead held hostage at an apartment in Manhattan. The kidnappers demanded that [Hendrix’s manager] Michael Jeffery turn over Jimi’s contract in exchange for his release. Rather than agree to the ransom demand, Jeffery hired his own goons to search out the extorters. Mysteriously, Jeffery’s thugs found Jimi two days later … unharmed.
“It was such a strange incident that Noel Redding (bassist in the Jimi Hendrix Experience) suspected that Jeffery had arranged the kidnapping to discourage Hendrix from seeking other managers; others … argued the kidnapping was authentic.”
What we do know is that Jeffery was quite an unsavory character. He allegedly stole much of Hendrix’s money and hid it in off-shore accounts. Eric Clapton said Hendrix had an “innocence” and that dishonest people could easily “take him in.”
06 Hendrix Could Not Read Music
As a self-taught musician, Jimi Hendrix learned to play by ear and could not read music. In fact, he would use words or even colors to express himself. “Some feelings make you think of different colors,” he said in an interview with Crawdaddy! magazine. “Jealousy is purple—‘I’m purple with rage’ or purple with anger—and green is envy, and all this.”
07 Hendrix Sometimes Sang The Wrong Lyrics To “Purple Haze” On Purpose
A mondegreen is “a misunderstood or misinterpreted word or phrase resulting from a mishearing of the lyrics of a song” – and the lyrics to “Purple Haze” may be the most misinterpreted words of all time. “‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky” has often been sung by fans as “‘Scuse me, while I kiss this guy”. In fact, it was such a common mistake that Hendrix was known to often sing the incorrect lyrics on stage— and then sometimes even participate in a mock kissing session. There’s now a website [www.kissthisguy.com] which calls itself “The archive of misheard lyrics.”
08 Hendrix Almost Became A Member of HELP
When Greg Lake and Keith Emerson were forming what would become ELP, they initially considered Mitch Mitchell for their drummer, with the understanding that he would bring in Jimi Hendrix. Keyboardist Keith Emerson’s pre-ELP band, The Nice, had toured with the Jimi Hendrix Experience in 1967. Greg Lake said, “Jimi used to come and watch King Crimson. When Keith and I got together we went looking for a drummer. The first person I talked to was Mitch Mitchell because the Experience had just broken up and Jimi was off doing this Band of Gypsies thing. Mitch was available at the time, and he said maybe we should get Jimi together. He’ll be finished with this band of Gypsies thing in a few weeks, and we can get together and maybe the four of us should play. I said, ‘fair enough,’ and that’s how we left it.”
After choosing Carl Palmer as their drummer, British tabloids started circulating rumors that ELP would become HELP with the addition of Hendrix. Sadly, Jimi passed away before talks could go further.
09 Hendrix Was The Highest Paid Performer At Woodstock
On August 18, 1969, Jimi Hendrix took the stage at the Woodstock Music Festival at 9 a.m., and played an uninterrupted set lasting nearly two hours – one of the longest performances of his career, and one of his only performances ever in the daytime. Amazingly, this performance was with a temporary band, as The Jimi Hendrix Experience had broken up. Technical and weather delays had caused the festival to run extremely late – into Monday morning, and the crowd had dwindled from 500,000 to less than 200,000. Hendrix had been given the opportunity to go on at midnight, but he opted to be the closer. For his efforts, he made more than any other performer at Woodstock, a whopping $18,000, which in today’s money is a little over $125,000.
10 Hendrix Is Celebrated Around The World
In 2016, the London flat where Hendrix lived from 1968-1969 was restored to what it would have looked like when Jimi lived there and reopened as a museum. In a strange twist, the same apartment building in Mayfair was also the home of famed composer George Handel from 1723 until his death in 1759. The museum has a vibrant website with tons of additional information. [https://handelhendrix.org]
In 2018, Congressman Adam Smith of Washington was instrumental in passing a bill to name a post office after Jimi Hendrix – the “James Marshall ‘Jimi’ Hendrix Post Office”. The post office, located in the Seattle suburb of Renton, is less than a mile from the Jimi Hendrix Memorial in the Greenwood Memorial Park cemetery, where the rock legend is buried. Over 14,000 fans visit the Hendrix memorial each year.
Microsoft co-founder and fellow Seattle native Paul Allen was one of Hendrix’s biggest fans. In 1992, he started working with Jimi’s father, Al Hendrix, to open a museum in Seattle dedicated to Jimi. At first, the two worked closely together, but they later had a falling out as the museum evolved into the much grander and more innovative Experience Music Project, designed by Frank O. Gehry, and opened in 2000. Now called The Museum of Pop Culture, or MoPOP, it has dedicated more space to Hendrix than any other artist.