When the guitar impresario Jimi Hendrix arrived on the grey shores of little old England in 1966 the nation was not ready for the kind of spiralling, kaleidoscopic musical wonder that emanated from his guitar and his mind. His first gig at Bag O’ Nails would send shockwaves through Britain’s rock royalty but at one special jam session, he would dethrone the king of Britain’s bubbling R&B scene, the bonafide Guitar God, Eric Clapton. He simply blew him away.
Hendrix was always desperate to get over to the new mecca of music, London, and all its alluring delights. But even he, with all his parcelled talent, could not have expected the reception he would receive when he did eventually touch down. As soon as he got up on stage and plugged in, the guitar hero was capable of turning the audience to dust and he did so when he was given the opportunity by Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker.
Brought over to the centre of the swinging sixties by his then-manager and The Animals bassist Chas Chandler, Hendrix was quickly scheduled to play the famous Bag O’ Nails club and begin his domination of the rock world and beyond. That said, just a few days before that event would go down, Jimi took himself to Regent Street Polytechnic to take part in a jam session with the legendary rock band Cream. It would be a moment in history that everyone in attendance would remember for their entire life.
One particular member of Cream was eager to see Hendrix perform, but perhaps the confirmed Guitar God himself, Eric Clapton, would later regret giving the guitar maestro the spotlight he craved. As the glittering crowd of London’s swinging set were lost in the kind of sonic mischief Cream could create, Hendrix was biding his time.
Hendrix sat nervously in the crowd waiting for an opportune moment to make his move and jump on stage with the band. Back in the sixties, it was perfectly acceptable, in fact, it was expected, that gigs would see several musicians take their turn on stage and show off their stuff. When the band asked Hendrix to get up and show them what he could do, it was a sincere invitation.
Hendrix, buoyed by said sincerity, took to the stage and grabbed a guitar to cover Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘Killing Floor’, Eric Clapton told Planet Rock: “We got up on stage and Chas Chandler says ‘I’ve got this friend who would love to jam with you.’
“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.”
Keith Altham of The Guardian and famed rock journalist of the time, notes of the meeting between Clapton and Hendrix, saying he remembers “Chandler going backstage after Clapton left in the middle of the song ‘which he had yet to master himself’; Clapton was furiously puffing on a cigarette and telling Chas: ‘You never told me he was that fucking good.’” Clearly, Chandler had not only found a gem of an artist but a legitimate contender for the throne.
Hendrix would take the power of performing with Cream and blowing away Eric Clapton as comprehensively as he did into his first scheduled gig at the Bag O’ Nails and, in turn, scare the shit out of a whole host of incredible musicians who saddled up to see him in the flesh. Previously untouchable acts like Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Brian Jones, Jeff Beck, Paul McCartney, The Who, Eric Burdon, and John Mayall would all watch agog as Hendrix completely changed what it meant to be a rock guitarist.
Open Culture reports that Mayall also offered some words on the tremendous moment: “The buzz was out before Jimi had even been seen here, so people were anticipating his performance, and he more than lived up to what we were expecting.” While the gig at the Bag O’ Nails will go down in history, the real reverberations of Hendrix’s arrival on British soil were felt from Regent Street Polytechnic. If you needed proof, you just have to revisit the aforementioned guestlist for a club gig on an October night in London, not your usual quote of stars.
It clearly left a mark on the Cream impresario as Classic Rock’s Johnny black notes: “Two weeks after The Bag O’Nails, when Cream appeared at The Marquee Club, Clapton was sporting a frizzy perm and he left his guitar feeding back against the amp, just as he’d seen Jimi do.” The teacher had quickly become the student and he was gathering up every piece of Jimi he could.
Later in Clapton’s biography, he would say: “I remember thinking that here was a force to be reckoned with. It scared me, because he was clearly going to be a huge star, and just as we are finding our own speed, here was the real thing.” Clapton was obviously right and his worries validated as, until his death, and for many years after, Hendrix was and is considered the greatest guitarist to ever live.