Credit: Bent Rej/Billboard

How Little Richard helped Jimi Hendrix become a star

Little Richard played a pivotal role in shaping the career of the one and only Jimi Hendrix, with the guitar hero getting his first taste of stardom when he was thrust into the limelight as part of the architecht of rock ‘n’ roll’s backing band.

Hendrix and Richard, on paper, could have been a partnership for the ages. It had the potential to be up there with the best of them but, alas, it was not meant to be. It was Jimi Hendrix’s desire to be in the spotlight which would eventually lead to his dismissal from the band but he learnt it all from Little Richard.

Even if it wasn’t the most long-lasting partnership in rock ‘n’ roll, Hendrix had earned Richard’s respect not only because of his technical ability but also his audacity to try and overshadow him—which is exactly the sort of thing he’d have done if he was in Hendrix’s shoes. That respect still didn’t stop him being fired in 1965 less than a year from when he began playing with him.

Charles White’s The Life and Times of Little Richard: The Authorised Biography says that the two crossed paths when a young Hendrix was playing for Gorgeous George, a soul singer and a renowned tailor known for his beautiful suits.

Little Richard told White that Hendrix was caught without any cash and nowhere to go. “My bus was parked on Auburn Avenue and Jimi was staying in this small hotel. And so he came by to see us,” he said. “He had watched me work and just loved the way I wore these headbands around my hair and how wild I dressed.”

Little Richard’s brother, Robert Penniman, who acted as the flamboyant rocker’s tour manager, noted that Jimi Hendrix had a habit of being late and upstaging the main act, two things that no session guitarist should ever do.

Penniman remembers: “I fired Hendrix, who was using the name Maurice James all the time I knew him. He was a damn good guitar player, but the guy was never on time. He was always late for the bus and flirting with the girls and stuff like that. It came to a head in New York, where we had been playing the Apollo and Hendrix missed the bus for Washington, DC. I finally got Richard to cut him loose.”

Penniman stated that Hendrix called them when the group arrived at DC and Penniman was not afraid to tell the young guitarist why he was being fired: “I was running the road for Richard and I didn’t accept that kind of bullshit.” It’s a fair demand and likely something Hendrix needed to learn before becoming a star in his own right.

In a 1973 documentary about the life of the late Jimi Hendrix, Little Richard gushed about his talents and opened up about their relationship. “When I got him he was a star, just like I told you everybody is a star. The only problem is some men haven’t been put in the dipper then poured back into the world. You’ve got to be placed into the dipper and poured back down on the world then men will see your good work,” the ever eccentric Richard said in a manner as only he could.

“He had that thing, he’d be pumping and thumping all up under my toes. At times, he used to make my big toe shoot up in my boot. He did it so good, he gave it all to you and that’s what you want, you want it all or none. Jimi Hendrix had this perseverance to go on, he didn’t mind looking freaky like I don’t mind it and I was doing it before he was. I knew when he saw me, it gave him confidence and great recompense,” Richard then added.

There was one regret Richard had about their relationship which was that he never had the opportunity to reunite with Hendrix after he became the global sensation that he was always destined to be. “He always wanted to be this big star but you know I never got a chance to see him after he made it.”

“They would never let me come back, I would say ‘Why? What did I do?’ I had something to tell him and I never did so now I have to talk about it and let him know that I knew he was going to make it,” Richard said straight from the heart.

Seeing Little Richard and Jimi Hendrix play together must have been an experience like no other as these two great forces of rock ‘n’ roll vied for the attention of the crowd by constantly trying to outdo each other as they tried to squeeze their ego’s on the stage at the same time, which was always destined to not last forever.

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