It’s tempting to think of Jimi Hendrix as having sprung fully formed into pop culture, complete with giant afro and world-changing acid rock guitar theatrics. But the truth is that, if you were paying attention to live performances or album credits, you could have caught a young clean-cut Hendrix performing with The Isley Brothers or Little Richard both on the road and in the studio.
Hendrix’s life would need a few lucky breaks for him to make it big. Although the Isley’s and Richard are legendary now, their popularity in the mid-1960s was on the decline. They would only resurrect their careers after Hendrix would flee the nest. Hendrix himself was a bit lost in the mid-1960s, hopping from band to band while feeling confined in his limited capacity. He was aching to be bolder and more bombastic, and it was only when he left for England in 1966 that he would truly emerge as the Jimi Hendrix we all know today.
Still, before he crossed the Atlantic, Hendrix contributed to a fair number of recordings. Most are obscure and lost to history, but a few survive, especially those with his most prominent employers. Hendrix was a talented and versatile guitarist even if he wasn’t using heaps of distortion and playing killer psychedelic riffs.
To call these songs ‘classics’ is a bit of a stretch. They’re more like ‘hidden gems’, songs that certainly had hit potential but for one reason or another failed to make a strong impression on the charts or the minds of the general public. Die-hard fans – both of Hendrix and the selected artists – might know the songs listed here, but the chances of a random listener recognising the tunes, much less Hendrix’s guitar, is slim.
Here are five songs that you probably didn’t know featured Jimi Hendrix.
Five classic songs featuring Jimi Hendrix:
The Isley Brothers – ‘Testify’
The Isley Brothers loved making multi-part singles back in the ’60s. Because they were a soul review act, and because their songs featured quite a bit of interplay, the Isley’s tended to record tunes that extended past the traditional length of singles at the time. The solution was simple: cut the song in half, put the front half on the A-side, and the back half on the B-side.
‘Testify’ finds the Isley’s retaining the roots in the southern church, integrating some rock and roll energy to merge the two worlds together. The Isley’s were better than perhaps anyone else at the time at translating their electricity and excitement on record, and for any Hendrix fanatics, the young guitarist gets some impressive licks into the densely packed tune.
Little Richard – ‘I Don’t Know What You Got (But It’s Got Me)’
Hendrix’s brief membership in Little Richards’ band was tenuous. Richard was suspicious of anyone diverting any attention away from him, and these were the days when Hendrix was beginning to figure out how he wanted to look and act on stage. The pairing wouldn’t be sustainable, and Hendrix lasted less than a year in the group before being fired.
In that time, Hendrix managed to record one single with Richard, ‘I Don’t Know What You Got (But It’s Got Me)’. Richard’s popularity was at a low ebb, and the single barely scraped the Hot 100. Still, Hendrix’s bluesy intro is unmistakable, and it’s one of Richard’s more soulful vocal performances, mostly forgoing the frantic shouting and throat shredding of his most popular works.
Don Covay – ‘Mercy Mercy’
Don Covay’s ‘Mercy, Mercy’ is perhaps the single song most responsible for Jimi Hendrix’s career. Another song that came from Hendrix’s days as a session player for hire, the song would be referenced by Stax guitarist Steve Cropper and future Hendrix bandmates Neil Redding and Mitch Mitchell as being the songs they first heard Hendrix on.
‘Mercy Mercy’ hasn’t quite survived in the public consciousness, but the song would be Hendrix’s first brush with mainstream success, as the song hit number 35 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1964. The tune would also get a boost after The Rolling Stones included a cover of it on their album Out of Our Heads.
The Icemen – ‘(My Girl) She’s a Fox’
Richard and Bobby Poindexter were lifers around the ’60s soul circuit, singing with and writing songs for a variety of acts throughout the decade while later finding success by writing The Persuaders’ track ‘Thin Line Between Love and Hate’. In one of their many guises, here known as The Icemen, the brothers employed a couple of young musicians to record ‘(My Girl) She’s a Fox), including a young Hendrix.
It is possible to hear some of Hendrix’s early forays into the wild six strings fireworks of his main career, but the most noticeable element of the track is how familiar it sounds. That’s because the vocal intro and melody lines were later interpolated by Amy Winehouse for the song ‘He Can Only Hold Her’, the penultimate track on Back to Black.
Jayne Mansfield – ‘Suey’
By far the most bizarre entry on this list, the existence of a collaboration between film starlet Jayne Mansfield and rock ‘n’ roll wild man Jimi Hendrix was just a rumour at one point. Mansfield, known for publicity stunts, was present on a single cover proclaiming ‘Suey featuring Jimi Hendrix’, so most people took it as just that: a publicity stunt.
Except it wasn’t. Hendrix did in fact contribute to the recording of ‘Suey’ and its A-side ‘As The Clouds Drift By’, playing bass and overdubbed lead guitar on the two tracks. It would have been a perfectly indelible stunt for Mansfield to pull, but she had no hand in it and never actually met Hendrix – she died in an automobile accident in 1967.