Jimi Hendrix the icon is as synonymous with his drug abuse as he is with his soulful voice, signature guitar tone, and that Woodstock performance in 1969. His life is a rich tapestry of vignettes that outline his outlandish behaviour stemming from overindulging with mind-expanding substances. I think it is relatively safe to say that a lot of the infamous Hendrix moments would not have happened sober.
Ironically, these drug-induced capers would culminate in him pursuing music as a career. In 1961, he joined the military. However, this career in the armed forces would not last long and, just a year after joining, he would be kicked out. This snap decision would be made after his commanding officer allegedly caught him holed up in the toilet, smoking a joint and masturbating.
It was this addiction to hedonism that saved Hendrix from what most likely would have looked like the horror of the dense rainforests of Vietnam and, instead, pushed him in the direction of Clarksville, Tennessee. He had been playing the guitar since he was fifteen, and so attempted to carve out a career in music.
He started playing gigs on the famed chitlin’ circuit, and subsequently, he secured himself a place in the Isley Brothers’ backing band. After this significant leg up, Hendrix played with rock ‘n’ roll legend Little Richard, whom he worked with throughout 1965.
Fast forward a period of time and Hendrix was now with Curtis Knight and the Squires as well as his own band Jimmy James and the Blue Flames. It was playing with the latter at Cafe Wha? in Greenwich Village where he would first cross paths with Chas Chandler, the former bassist of the Animals.
Soon after, Chandler would convince Hendrix to accompany him to London in late 1966 and, eventually, to became Hendrix’s manager. Within months, Hendrix had earned three UK top ten hits with the newly established trio the Jimi Hendrix Experience. These were ‘Hey Joe’, ‘Purple Haze’ and ‘The Wind Cries Mary’.
After that fateful move to London and as his star reached dizzying heights, Hendrix would carry to experiment with and abuse narcotics. This would lead him into no end of sticky situations, and unfortunately his tragic death from a barbiturate overdose, aged just 27 in 1970.
One of these situations, however, also led to Hendrix being kidnapped and held to ransom, without the legendary axeman even being aware of it.
In his memoir, Jon Roberts claims that he once saved Hendrix from a kidnapping attempt in New York in the ’60s. This is interesting as Roberts is a former Mafia member and convicted cocaine trafficker who helped to spearhead the Medellin Drug Cartel’s rise in the 1980s, but that is a story for another day.
Co-author of Roberts’ memoir, Evan Wright, has divulged that at first, he didn’t believe Roberts’ outlandish claim. However, the further he dug he discovered that not only was the tale true, it is also one that has baffled Hendrix biographers for decades, owing much to the murky provenance of the source.
Roberts is steadfast in disclaiming that “Jimi and I were never great friends”. Although he does relay stories of him and the guitar great travelling in social circles in close proximity while both were living in New York.
It was in New York that Roberts owned a club called Salvation, which became the starting point of this whacky tale. In an excerpt of the memoir Roberts wrote: “I got involved in Jimi’s so-called kidnapping after he was grabbed by some guys out of Salvation.”
At the time, Jimi had been engulfed by a severe heroin addiction. On this occasion, he visited Salvation in an attempt to score. Roberts explains: “Two Italian kids at our club — not Maﬁa but wiseguy wannabes — saw Jimi in there looking for dope and decided, ‘Hey, that’s Jimi Hendrix. Let’s grab him and see what we can get.’” Apparently, they lured him to a house outside the city with the promise of getting him heroin, and hoped to hold him for a tidy ransom.
Luckily for Hendrix, Roberts had been notified of the abduction by Salvation’s manager: “It took me and (my Mafia partner) Andy (Benfante) two or three phone calls to get the names of the kids who were holding Jimi. We reached out to these kids and made it clear, ‘You let Jimi go, or you are dead. Do not harm a hair of his Afro.’”
It is worth noting that Roberts was a serious mobster, and his father was a member of the infamous La Cosa Nostra. This violent background ended up in a swift end to the debacle.
“They let Jimi go,” Roberts concludes. “The whole thing lasted maybe two days. Jimi was so stoned, he probably didn’t even know he was ever kidnapped. Andy and I waited a week or so and went after these kids. We gave them a beating they would never forget.”
Although Roberts managed to save Hendrix from his drug addiction, unfortunately, the ‘Purple Haze’ writer couldn’t save himself from himself. However, it is good to note that the mob was not all horses heads under the duvet.