Credit: Hannu Lindroos

The birth of the greatest: Inside Jimi Hendrix’s first-ever gig

When Jimi Hendrix was just a young whippersnapper in the US Army, Sgt Louis Hoekstra recommended that he was discharged by writing: “Pvt Hendrix plays a musical instrument during his off duty hours, or so he says. This is one of his faults, because his mind apparently cannot function while performing duties and thinking about his guitar.” 

This fascinating insight surely forecasted the inevitable brilliance about shine over the horizon. While it might seem like saying someone was destined to become the world’s undisputed heavyweight champion of the electric guitar is as bombastic as retrospectively declaring that you knew Peri-Peri was about to go big, there are more than a few corroborated reports that suggest for Pvt Hendrix; it was the six-string or bust.

Today, we’re focussing on his first-ever gig way back on the 20th of February 1959, when the prodigy was only 17-years-old… and he still somehow managed to swagger with such virtuosity that he got canned mid-show. 

In the basement of a synagogue, Seattle’s Temple De Hirsch to be precise, Hendrix took to the stage with an unnamed band and started as he intended to go on. Far from being a tentative recital of simple chord progressions, Hendrix expressed himself with the liquid bravura and unrivalled skill for which he would later become known. Naturally, for a young band just trying their best not to mess up, this proved very intimidating. 

“I was fired between sets,” Hendrix once revealed told Lily Brett. “I was trying to play from my soul and the other band members thought I was showing off.” Interestingly, this soul-bearing persona was one that only ever came to the fore when he was on stage. Paul McCartney once said, “He was very self-effacing about his music but when he picked up that guitar he was just a monster.” It would seem the same was true in his younger years as his old childhood friend Sammy Drain recalled in conversation with Classic Rock, “Butch was his nickname for a while, because he was so shy. But he wasn’t shy about learning licks from other guys.”

This passion and natural charisma still only blossomed under the sun of a spotlight. Even before that very first show, his then-girlfriend Carmen Goudy recalled him charmingly asking, “Do you really think I’ll have fans?” while simultaneously looking like he was about to throw up. “During his set, Jimi did his thing,” Goudy goes on to say, “He did all this wild playing. And when they introduced the band members and the spotlight was on him he became even wilder.”

The pleasant pop music that the band were reciting had no cause for flashy solos in an era whereby a song had to be three minutes or less to be in with a hope of being played on the radio, thus the band objected. “That’s not my style,” Hendrix protested and never has a truer word been spoken. 

He may have been fired, but from that moment he had discovered upon his natural niche and it forecasted the future. As he said himself, “You never know what shape clouds are going to be before you see them.” The niche he forged on that day was one that would soon change the sound of the world and influence anyone who would pick up an electric guitar thereafter. Befittingly, this birth of a demigod was in a religious temple, as the punk poet John Cooper Clarke humorously remarked, “All the best musicians started out in church; Jesus invented rock ‘n’ roll.”

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