The friendship of Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix was a short but intense one. The two guitarists were well aware of the other’s power with the instrument and, before Hendrix’s tragic death, it was clear they had found kindred spirits—but their first meeting wasn’t quite so simple. It was, however, a moment that changed music forever. The moment when counter-culture saviour, Jimi Hendrix arrived on the grey shores of little old England in 1966.
The nation was not ready to experience the wild brand of spiralling, kaleidoscopic musical wonder which this young American was about to unleash on the British public. His first appearance on English shores saw him shake up the system and immediately win over the country’s current guitar royalty Eric Clapton, who watched on as he was dethroned. The fact that Clapton, a known competitive player, was happy to allow Hendrix to rule the roost shows the immense respect he held for him and the friendship they would share. It all began in a dingy London polytechnic.
On September 24th, 1966, Hendrix took up an offer from The Animals’ bassist, Chas Chandler, and set sail for an exciting new life in London. Chandler immediately began recruiting members for a band that would get the best out of Hendrix’s insane ability and the Jimi Hendrix Experience was born. Nobody knew who Hendrix was when he arrived in London, but that would quickly change within a matter of days of him getting off the plane and even before he’d even got round to playing a headline show. Clapton’s band Cream was sitting at their deserved place at the mountain top of the London scene prior to the arrival of Hendrix and quite frankly, nobody else was on the same level as Clapton.
Exactly a week after he agreed to move to London, he was already on a stage — his official live debut wouldn’t be for another few days but Hendrix was ready to put the scene on alert. Chandler brought Hendrix to the London Polytechnic at Regent Street where Cream was due to take to the stage but, more importantly, it was the night that Hendrix and guitarist Eric Clapton first met. Clapton later recalled how Hendrix wasn’t shy upon their first meeting: “He asked if he could play a couple of numbers. I said, ‘Of course’, but I had a funny feeling about him.”
Halfway through Cream’s set, Hendrix took the stage and performed a manic version of the Howlin’ Wolf song ‘Killing Floor’. In 1989, Clapton described the performance: “He played just about every style you could think of, and not in a flashy way. I mean he did a few of his tricks, like playing with his teeth and behind his back, but it wasn’t in an upstaging sense at all, and that was it… He walked off, and my life was never the same again.
“It was funny, in those days anybody could get up with anybody if you were convincing enough that you could play. He got up and blew everyone’s mind. I just thought ‘ahh, someone that plays the stuff I love in the flesh, on stage with me. ’I was actually privileged to be (on stage with him)… it’s something that no one is ever going to beat; that incident, that night, it’s historic in my mind but only a few people are alive that would remember it,” he later told Planet Rock.
This night started a special friendship between the two pillars of rock, who would share an incredible bond right up until Hendrix’s tragic death on September 18th, 1970. The whole world of rock ‘n’ roll was united in mourning following the death of their poster boy. It left everybody in a state of disbelief that he was gone, that there was now an enormous Hendrix shaped hole in people’s hearts that would never be filled. But it arguably hit Eric Clapton the hardest.
Clapton later reflected on the immense pain he felt when losing his friend and how they had plans to hang out together on that devastating night that Hendrix passed. Clapton said, “After Jimi died, I was angry. I was incredibly angry. I thought it was, not selfish on his part but just erm, a lonely feeling—to be left alone. And after that, I kept running into people who kept shoving him down my throat ‘Have you heard this one he did, this one’s never been on record before’.
“To see these young kids playing the guitar coming up and saying ‘Have you heard this one’ or ‘I can do all this’. Forget it, mate. It’s been done,” concludes the grief-stricken guitarist.
“It’s the same with Robert Johnson. I won’t listen to Robert Johnson in mixed company. I won’t put him on, I won’t listen to him if there’s anyone there who don’t feel it. And that’s how I feel about Jimi,” Clapton added before painfully noting, “I knew him, I knew him and I played with him and I loved his music. But I don’t ever wanna hear anything said about him again.”
For the rest of days Clapton has been left with the question about what would have happened to Jimi if he had managed to meet him like planned on the night of his death and whether things would have turned out differently. “The night that he died I was supposed to meet him at the Lyceum to see Sly Stone play, and I brought with me a left-handed Stratocaster. I just found it, I think I bought it at Orange Music. I’d never seen one before and I was gonna give it to him.”
Adding: “He was in a box over there and I was in a box over here. I could see him but I couldn’t… we never got together. The next day, whack! He was gone. And I was left with that left-handed Stratocaster.”
The tale of Jimi Hendrix is one that is soaked in sadness and the grief has stalked Clapton over the last 50 years. It’s been hard for music fans to come to terms with Hendrix’s death let alone someone like Clapton who played such a key part in the story of Jimi Hendrix. He helped him become the talk of London, he helped him assimilate in a new country and he happily relinquished his platform so that Hendrix could play. It’s hard to know how impactful Hendrix would have been without Clapton and equally as hard to gauge just how big an impact Jimi’s loss was on Eric. Just like Hendrix’s music, the friendship they shared cannot be tainted by time.