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The Story Behind The Song: Jimi Hendrix's game-changer, 'Purple Haze'

“When I die, I want people to just play my music, go wild and freak out, do anything they want to do.” – Jimi Hendrix

If one would ever accredit an artist with being ‘ahead of their time’, then it is an accreditation that should be reserved solely for Jimi Hendrix. Raised in Seattle, Washington in the United States, Hendrix never had a single day of formal guitar lessons. Instead, he soaked all the popular blues and R&B music he could at the time with Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Chuck Berry acting as his favourites. As a black artist himself, he was probably very savvy to the kind of treatment black musicians would endure, and his mistreatment may be completely unavoidable. When The Rolling Stones came to prominence in the London scene in Britain, the aforementioned blues players were re-awakened within the consciousness of the American public, bringing Muddy Waters and company out of their early retirement and back on to stages. 

Hendrix started as a side musician supporting acts such as Little Richard, The Isley Brothers, and King Curtis. Hendrix was always much more than just a rhythm and blues guitar player even at a young age. His foundational start was embedded in the archetypes of blues music, which was good training. But Hendrix, very early on, decided he would drop that gig and move to New York to make an attempt at his own career. 

The ‘Purple Haze’ summoner, the wizard on the guitar, Jimi Hendrix would eventually be discovered by another musician who played for a time in The Animals. Original bass player for the group, Chas Chandler left the band and went onto bigger and better things himself — he wanted to try his hand at producing. It was in New York where Chandler heard Hendrix playing in a club for the first time and the former bassit convinced Hendrix to come back to London with him, where blues and R&B were not only alive and well, but in fact, thriving. Not only this, but, overall, the British treated black musicians better. 

Recruiting other amateurs, Mitch Mitchell on drums and Noel Redding, who was initially a guitar player would be asked to try out on bass. With The Jimi Hendrix Experience formed, the band recorded a version of ‘Hey Joe’, which entered the charts. Hendrix biographer, John McDermott commented on the relationship and team effort between Hendrix and Chas Chandler: “It’s all about facilitating Hendrix’s talent. I think what Chandler realised is that with some parameters, this man is a tremendous artist, and I think he was smart enough to recognise ‘I need to get this rhythm section around him, we need to be in a good studio,’ and it’ll all take care of itself.”

Hendrix would proceed to play at various clubs around London, experimenting and finding his sound. This was when blues bands like The Rolling Stones were around, but guitar playing as an art form was becoming highly revered, as popularised by impressive players such as Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. The magic moment came when Chas heard the beginnings of ‘Purple Haze’.

Writer, John McDermott continues his story about the fateful day in 1966: “Jimi was playing a small club date in London and was backstage toying with the riff of ‘Purple Haze,’ and Chas, you know, being there, heard it immediately and said, ‘Write the rest of that. That’s the next single.’ Because I think he had heard enough of Jimi, even in the two or three months that they were together, to know that that is something very special, work on that.”

With enough funds gathered from the chart success of ‘Hey Joe’, Chandler was determined to bring the Jimi Hendrix Experience into a better studio where a young and promising studio engineer worked, namely, Eddie Kramer. Kramer worked in Olympic studios and he himself was also very experimental. Kramer remembers the story: “The studio manager said to me one day, ‘You know, Eddie, there’s this American chappie with big hair called Jimi Hendrix. You do all that weird stuff so why don’t you do this, you know?’ It was very English and very proper, and we hit it off.”

The necessary pieces were all in place for the creation of the brilliant classic hit that is ‘Purple Haze’. Kramer continued, “I mean, it was just a good feeling. He was very shy. When he stepped out on the studio floor and, you know, plugged in — oh, my God, it was just a revelation for me. You know, I’d never heard anything quite like it.”

Just as it happened to Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, and The Beatles, the same happened to Jimi Hendrix. He was placed on a pedestal and heralded as the new king of the counterculture and the drugs that came with it. Many people associate the song, ‘Purple Haze’, with taking acid, but Hendrix said otherwise. In fact, the song was written about the time he had been reading a science-fiction novel and fell asleep. Hendrix dreamt that he was underwater, surrounded by an impenetrable purple haze. He believes that the purple haze was a spiritual and religious awakening and was perhaps protected by God. Initially, the refrain to the song was, “Purple Haze, Jesus saves.”

The song came out in March of 1967 and was a huge hit. The younger generations loved and adored him. Some critics, in their usual curmudgeonly fashion, opted to wage war. One critic called him ‘the psychedelic Uncle Tom’. To which Hendrix responded, “I don’t care, man. I don’t care anymore what they say anymore. It’s up to them then if they want to mess up the evening by looking at one thing. You know, because all that is included, man. When I feel like playing with my teeth, I do it, because I feel like it, you know? All that is complete when I’m on stage, I’m a complete natural, more so than, you know, talking to a group of people or something.”

Regardless of whether Hendrix truly is the psychedelic saviour of the time or not, Hendrix was truly an innovative guitar player who forever revolutionized rock n’ roll and popular music as we know it. ‘Purple haze’ will always be the anthem for the outcasts and the misunderstood.