Mitch Mitchell had a simple job: back up Jimi Hendrix. The former jazz drummer had a firebrand leader who was going to command all of the spotlight at any given point, leaving precious little for the musicians around him. Some players would be upset about these circumstances, but Mitchell took it as a challenge.
For years, Mitchell matched Hendrix’s ferocious energy, wild creativity, and uncanny adaptability beat for beat. When Hendrix wanted a driving hard rocker, Mitchell had the perfect rhythms. When he wanted a blues shuffle, Mitchell adapted. When it was time for a ballad, Mitchell laid back. Nothing that Hendrix threw at Mitchell ever phased him – he always seemed to have the perfect counter to Hendrix’s theatrics and innovative licks, most of which involved quite a bit of innovation himself.
That’s why Hendrix remained loyal to Mitchell throughout his entire professional life. Only one canonical album in the Hendrix discography, Band of Gypsys, doesn’t feature Mitchell behind the kit. Everything else, from the first hits of Are You Experienced? to the psychedelic freakouts at Woodstock to the very last notes that Hendrix ever played on stage, was made with Mitchell.
In that time, Mitchell even managed to steal a little bit of spotlight for himself. All eyes might have been on Hendrix, but quite a few fans tuned their ears over to Mitchell, including the likes of Stewart Copeland, Roger Taylor, and Chad Smith, just to name a few. The public might have seen the Jimi Hendrix Experience only for its leader, but musicians knew that the Experience were a band through and through, anchored by a drummer with enough skill and variety to keep up with Hendrix.
Narrowing down Mitch Mitchell’s best drum performances to just five songs is an arduous task. The man was as consistently dazzling as drummers came, combining the frantic fury of Keith Moon with the exploration of Elvin Jones. He was a one-of-one kind of figure, but if you can only take in a few songs to prove the legendary status of Mitch Mitchell, these are the five that can’t be ignored.
Mitch Mitchell’s five best drum tracks:
When Mitch Mitchell gets remembered nowadays, the one song that most people point to first to illustrate his genius is ‘Fire’. That’s no surprise, considering how it’s one of the greatest drum performances ever captured on tape, but sometimes Mitchell’s legendary performance can seem quaint based on how frequently it gets cited.
Don’t fall for it – ‘Fire’ is still as electric and exciting of a drum groove as it was when it first landed in the minds of impressionable rock fans back in 1967. Writers and drummers alike might have been honouring Mitchell’s rhythms for 55 years straight, but ‘Fire’ is simply irreplaceable as a foundational pillar in the hall of rock drum performances.
Your favourite drummer loves ‘Manic Depression’. That’s because anybody can bash out a drum pattern in 4/4, but only a truly skilled musician can take the winding triple meter of the song and lay down one of the heaviest grooves in rock music.
Mitchell’s jazz background gets a plenty of mentions when discussing his legacy, but if you want the clearest illustration of it, listen to the demented swing of ‘Manic Depression’. Not many drummers could do what Mitchell did, but when it comes to pure creative expression, ‘Manic Depression’ might be Mitchell’s greatest moment.
‘The Wind Cries Mary’
Jimi Hendrix expected a lot out of Mitch Mitchell – high-octane rock and roll was what he was hired for, but Mitchell also needed to bring it down for some of Hendrix’s softer songs. Control of dynamics is one of the most underrated skills a drummer needs. Anyone can play loud and fast, but it takes a real expert to bring excitement to a ballad.
‘The Wind Cries Mary’ would float off into thin air if it weren’t for Mitchell keeping the song grounded. Whenever the title phrase winds itself back around, Mitchell picks up his hits and drives home the melancholy stinger that Hendrix puts into the song’s chorus. It’s a masterclass in collaboration and arrangement, and it remains one of Mitchell’s most quietly inventive drum patterns.
‘Little Miss Lover’
A drummer’s job is relatively simple: lay down a groove. Whatever genre, tempo, or meter you might be playing in, that’s the one job that can’t be messed with. Mitchell had a flair for the dramatic, including wild fills and busy patterns, but when it was necessary he could strip it all back and focus on a killer groove.
That’s exactly what ‘Little Miss Lover’ is: no frills, no flash, and no bullshit. Just a rocksteady groove that keeps the funky drive of Hendrix’s guitar in place. There’s a reason why ‘Little Miss Lover’ and its opening groove have been sampled to death – it’s simply one of the best drum lines of the entire 1960s.
‘1983… (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)’
Mitchell wasn’t just a basher and a flashy jazzman: he could be restrained and technical when the occasion called for it. ‘1983… (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)’ requires a lot from Mitchell, including marching beats, bolero crescendos, wild sound collages, and gentle rhythms. Complete control was needed to keep the song from falling apart.
For 13 minutes straight, Mitchell gives his all. Intricate and delicate cymbal work throughout the song’s middle section gets bookended by wild psychedelic freakouts, but Mitchell never lets go of the steering wheel even as Hendrix dives headfirst off a sonic cliff. The job of being an anchor is a thankless one, and Mitchell was the only anchor that ever kept Hendrix in place.