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The strange case of Chas Chandler, Jimi Hendrix and the Newcastle suburb of Heaton that made him a star

@TomTaylorFO

In the annals of rock ‘n’ roll history, you expect the name Jimi Hendrix to crop up throughout, you don’t expect a music manager (albeit one who was previously in The Animals) to be quite as ubiquitous, and you certainly don’t expect the small working-class suburb of Newcastle to be at the heart of a strange case of kismet that made Hendrix a megastar. This is the woven tale of how Chas Chandler, a young shipyard turner from Heaton, changed the course of cultural history and gave the world its greatest ever instrumentalist. 

Things happened very quickly in the 1960s. In 1962, The Animals were just about starting up. By 1964, they were spearheading the British invasion alongside The Beatles. A few months later they delivered such a definitive version of the old American standard ‘House of the Rising Sun’ that their new adrenalised page in the long-mythologised story of the song encouraged Bob Dylan to go electric. As The Animals’ frontman Eric Burdon opined: “I’ve been told by lots of people who know, and were around at the time, that that’s what stimulated Bob into going electric and becoming a rock star as opposed to a folk star. You might say we’re all exposed — when I say ‘all of us,’ I mean the same age group on both sides of the Atlantic — we were exposed to the root of true black music at the same time, and realised that that was the road that we wanted to take.”

However, just two years later The Animals were no more. Yet with ‘House of the Rising Sun’ they had not only set something in motion, but Chas Chandler was still gazing at what they had unearthed when they rolled the stone of folk-rock over. He saw a connection to the newly budding flowers of rock ‘n’ roll pop culture and followed the stem down to the folk roots. In a very literal sense, this led him to peruse the underground scenes of the day once The Animals were over and he was looking to shape music in a different way. 

Chandler would descend down into the dive bars of Greenwich Village, New York, and beyond to see what talents he could spot and yet again the seeming ever-present collision of rock and folk in his life, would fatefully smash together once more. One evening in a folk club he witnessed a hard-luck troubadour by the name of Tim Rose, sing the old murderous tale of ‘Hey Joe’ and made a mental note to himself, ‘That’ll be a hit for somebody someday’. When the weary Chandler would later be persuaded to get back on the gig scene once more, after bumping into his future girlfriend Linda Keith, and take in a hip new guitarist at the Café Wha, ‘Hey Joe’ almost instantly found that somebody to make it a hit: enter the wailing fuzz-machine, Mr Jimi Hendrix. 

“It was so clear to me,” Keith told The Guardian about her first experience of Jimi Hendrix. “I couldn’t believe nobody had picked up on him before because he’d obviously been around. He was astonishing – the moods he could bring to music, his charisma, his skill and stage presence. Yet nobody was leaping about with excitement. I couldn’t believe it.” Presumably, she told Chandler something similar. So, off the happy troupe went to witness the birth of histories next chapter. 

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Producer Bob Gulick tells the best tale of what happened next. “I look over at Chandler,” he told Guitar Player, “And his mouth is hanging open. And when Jimi started playing with his teeth on ‘Hey Joe,’ Chandler’s drink fell from his hand and spilled all over his lap. I saw it happen. I’m sure Chandler knew what we did at that moment – that Jimi had mopped the floor with every guitar player the guy had ever seen before. There wasn’t a person who saw him play who didn’t think he was a god.”

As a manager looking to sign musical talents, happening upon a ‘god’ is as good as it gets. Naturally, he approached Hendrix signed him up in an instant and sheltered him from the prying eyes of Manhattan by bringing him home to England. More specifically, he brought him to the small rough and tumble working-class suburb of Heaton, but it proved to be the ideal place for the six-string master to flourish under the stewardship of Chandler who had already been at the top himself.

Hendrix once said: “All those people who don’t like Bob Dylan’s songs should read his lyrics. They are filled with the joys and sadness of life.” Now, he suddenly had a manager encouraging to meld the humanity of Dylan’s introspection with the visceral edge of his guitar riffs that were threatening to pluck Sputnik out of orbit. To hone this new style, shortly before recording The Jimi Hendrix experience debut, he reportedly practised like a man possessed for a while on the workaday streets around Chillingham Road. 

And it was there, in the Chillingham Arms, where an old fellow once told me that he saw Hendrix busk a blitzing rendition of Bob Dylan’s ‘All Along the Watchtower’ that could’ve knocked the socks off of Gandhi. While Dylan’s original version hadn’t even been released during the timeframe that Hendrix was reportedly in Heaton in a tale as twisted as this who knows, who really knows? All that is for sure, is that he left the cobbled roads of a frosty Heaton behind with a few well-worked tracks ready for the studio. And the rest, as they say, is ancient history.

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