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Music

Why Jimi Hendrix couldn’t succeed in the US

It’s difficult to think of a more archetypal guitar hero than Jimi Hendrix. The eminent virtuoso took the raw threads of the electric blues music of the 1950s and early ’60s and transformed them into his own heavier, overdriven and psychedelic style that few could replicate and even fewer could rival.

Hendrix’s path to success wasn’t an easy one, nor was his life a piece of cake once he reached the sands of success. Born when his mother was just 17 years old, Hendrix found himself in a poor household and was plagued by a strained relationship between his parents. 

After his parents split up, Hendrix spent more time with his father, Al, and rarely visited his mother before her untimely death in 1958. While clearing out an older woman’s house with his father in 1957, Hendrix spotted an old ukelele. After showing interest, the woman let the intrigued youngster keep it. Despite the miniature guitar only having one left intact, he began learning one-string melodies. 

Over the years, Hendrix became increasingly interested in rock ‘n’ roll courtesy of his father’s collection. Excited about his son’s aspirations, Al bought Hendrix his first electric guitar, a right-handed Supro Ozark that the natural lefty had to flip upside down to play. With that, Hendrix began teaching himself to play by listening to his father’s music and feeling out the notes. 

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By his late teens, the Seattle-born musician began performing in his first band, the Rocking Kings. In 1959, Hendrix dropped out of high school and worked odd jobs while continuing to follow his musical aspirations. After being caught twice riding in stolen cars in his late teens, Hendrix was given the choice of prison or joining the US Army. 

Choosing the Army as the lesser of the two punishments, Hendrix was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Not long after his assignment, Hendrix wrote to his father: “There’s nothing but physical training and harassment here for two weeks, then when you go to jump school … you get hell. They work you to death, fussing and fighting.”

After basic training, Hendrix was permitted a medical discharge after allegedly breaking his ankle during his 26th parachute jump. However, his medical discharge has never been confirmed by the Army, and his superior officers are known to have been critical of Hendrix’s passion for the Army. 

Throughout the early and mid-’60s, Hendrix became a session musician and even managed to secure a few gigs playing alongside Little Richard in his touring band, The Upsetters. While in Los Angeles in February 1965, he even joined Richard in the studio to record ‘I Don’t Know What You Got (But It’s Got Me)’, the only single of Richard’s to which he would ever contribute. 

Despite this early exposure, Richard’s career prospects were already waning since his heyday of the ’50s; Hendrix’s career had yet to kick off significantly. 

Finding very little in the way of favourable work or inspiration in the US, Hendrix’s ticket to the top came when The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards referred him to Chris Chandler, who, at the time, was wrapping things up with The Animals, now aspiring to manage and produce for artists. 

Impressed with Hendrix’s early reworking of Billy Roberts’s ‘Hey Joe’, Chandler brought Hendrix to London in 1966, where he would go on to form his band, The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Having fallen in love with London, Hendrix spent much of his remaining life in the UK before his death in London’s Samarkand Hotel in 1970.

In 2018, Hendrix’s brother Leon explained to Mouth Magazine why he had enjoyed living in the UK so much. “He loved England ‘cos it was like Seattle,” Leon opined. “It was like home. It was the same climate, y’know? And this is where all the music was. This is where all of his friends were – Eric Clapton, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Brian Jones, everybody…”

“After people played, they all went and jammed together,” he continued. “Like, when Jimi played a concert that was only the warm-up… After the concert, he was out and about lookin’ for somebody to play with and somebody’s studio to jam at. They’d just be jammin’ all night ’til, like, seven or eight in the morning. It was awesome.”

While coming to the UK and catching the wave of the British invasion alongside like-minded musicians was crucial to Hendrix’s success and happiness, it also appears that issues with racism were another driving factor. According to a Charles R. Cross penned biography called Room Full of Mirrors, Hendrix was subject to significant institutional and direct racism while living in Seattle. 

It has been reported that the arrests of Hendrix’s youth were mostly placed upon dubious charges. Therefore, he found a level of sanctuary in the UK where he could surround himself with a more concentrated network of musicians with progressive, “hippie” ideologies. 

“What happened to Jimi would have never happened to a white male in that era,” Cross wrote. “Jimi was run out of Seattle for being black.”

Watch Jimi Hendrix’s famous rendition of the US national anthem during Woodstock 1969. His performance was as a protest against the US war in Vietnam, ostensibly another factor contributing to Hendrix’s disillusionment with his home nation.