When Jimi Hendrix was just a young whippersnapper in the US Army, Sgt Louis Hoekstra recommended that he was discharged. Sgt Hoekstra formally wrote: “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 to burst over the horizon and enshrine the world of rock ‘n’ roll in a kaleidoscopic hue. 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 sauce 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.
All that being said, there was still a long way to go when he took to the stage for his first-ever gig way back on the 20th of February 1959, when the prodigy was only 17-years-old. 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… with so much virtuosity that he ended up fired mid-show for blazing a trail that the rest of his humble bandmates simply couldn’t follow.
Flash forward seven years and various vagabond jaunts later, and Hendrix had been scouted by Chas Chandler as a promising counterculture talent. The first song he recorded with The Experience was ‘Hey Joe’, a cover of a classic blues number. For the B-side, an original track was required, and after a life of wayfaring with a Fender in tow, Hendrix decided to pen an anthem that would define the footloose revolution of counterculture freedom.
His first lyrics for his new hopeful venture began: “Every day in the week I’m in a different city, If I stay too long, the people try to pull me down.” However, ‘Stone Free’, would represent more than just geographical freedoms, as the first original song he wrote for the band. It would also be a celebration of individualism. As he remarked with frustration: “I used to go to the [Harlem] clubs, and my hair was really long then. Sometimes I’d tie it up or do something with it and the cats would say, ‘Ah, look at that: Black Jesus.’ Even in your own section. I had friends with me in Harlem, 125th Street, and all of a sudden, cats, old ladies, girls, anybody would say, ‘Ooh, look at that. What is this, a circus or something?’.”
With that, the triumphantly defiant track took shape, but for three years, it lingered in obscurity, having only been released as a mere B-side in the UK and not his native USA where the subject seemed more befitting. However, in 1969, the track took on new meaning and was re-released. “With Jimi, it was all context,” co-producer John McDermott told Music Radar.
Adding: “[With] ‘Stone Free’, he felt, it was recorded too quickly, and it was never released in the States; it was only issued as a B-side to ‘Hey Joe’ outside the US. As an American, it was an important song to him – it was the first song he wrote for the Experience. So, his attitude in 1969 was, ‘OK, we’ve played this live a bunch of times. Now I can record this and really get it right.’ What happened then, of course, was that Reprise included the original version on Smash Hits in the US, so the ’69 recording sat there; the label thought it was unnecessary.” However, this rarefied version has subsequently surfaced (and can be heard below).
Not only did this debut Experience original define the mantra of the band in a meta sense, but it also pulled away from the blues orientated A-side and with the help of Mitch Mithcell’s jazz orientated drumming approach, it poured rock into a new sonic cocktail shaker. As Matt Helders said of Mitchell’s groovy influence on the sound: “When you get into drumming, Mitch Mitchell is one of those guys you start to look at,” he explained.
“He’s so much fun to listen to and to watch on video. He was very loose, very free-form. I get the feeling that songs like ‘Purple Haze’ and ‘Fire’ were one-time-only performances in the studio; he probably never played the songs the same way twice.” The same could possibly say for Hendrix’s untethered, or rather ‘Stone Free’ wizardry.