Before Jimi Hendrix became one of the most era-defining musicians of the 1970s, he was a struggling session musician called Johnny Allen. He’d already honed a unique style, having demonstrated a natural talent for the guitar as a teenager. After leaving his hometown of Seattle to join the military at 18, Hendrix was discharged due to a medical injury and soon found himself in Tenessee with a meagre handful of change in his pocket.
As the legendary guitarist once recalled: “It took me some time to get better from the injuries I had, and then I went down South. I played cafes, clubs and on the streets. It was pretty tough at the first period. I lived in very miserable circumstances. I slept where I could, and when I needed to eat I had to steal it. I earned some money, but I didn’t like it at all.”
Over the next few year’s, Hendrix survived off of his talent, honing his skills as a session and backing guitarist with a number of artists, including the legendary Motown group, The Isley Brothers. What a legacy. Not only did The Isley Brothers record some of the most musically complex and euphoric songs of the 1960s and ’70s – such as ‘This Old Heart Of Mine’ and ‘Footsteps In The Dark’ – but they also set Hendrix on the road to greatness. Without them, the history of popular music would be very different.
It all started when Hendrix moved to Buffalo, New York. He was making a living playing the city’s various clubs, moving from place to place without any clear sense of direction or a place to sleep. At this time, and in the midst of a bitter New York winter, Hendrix was frequently forced to sleep on the street after gigs. It was during one of his many shows in Harlem that Hendrix bumped into The Isley Brothers for the first time.
After moving to New York in the 1950s, the group had already had a number of hit records, and, when Hendrix met them in 1964, were just about to record their new single ‘Tesitfy’, on which Hendrix played the guitar. “One of the Isley Brothers heard me playing in a club and said he had a job open,” he remembered. “So I played with the Isley Brothers for a while, and they used to make me do my thing (play with my teeth, etc.), because it made them more bucks or something. Most groups I was with didn’t let me do my own thing.”
But despite his early enthusiasm, Hendrix peripatetic spirit soon caught up with him and he started to feel restricted by The Isley brother’s smooth soul-infused sound. He decided to leave the group and return to New York’s sidewalks: “I quit The Isley Brothers in Nashville. I got tired of playing in the key of F all the time, so I turned in my white mohair silk suit and patent leather shoes and began playing on street corners again.” But The Isley Brothers didn’t forget Hendrix in a hurry. His guitar on ‘Testify’ went on to inspire Ernie Isley’s guitar playing on one of their biggest hits, ‘Footsteps In The Dark.’ Indeed, even after Hendrix left the group, the brothers let him live in their mother’s house for two years.
After joining Little Richard’s band, Hendrix continued to move around New York, playing in dusky bars until finally going solo. The rest, as they say, is history.