A few moments in rock and roll history can pinpoint the moment that music, arts and society at large changed forever. Though it may not have felt like a groundbreaking moment at the time, the butterfly effect of Chas Chandler, the bassist for British invasion group The Animals, witnessing Jimi Hendrix perform a set at the Cafe Wha? in New York’s Greenwich Village was a singular point in time that would change the world forever.
Yes, that is a big claim, but when you think about the huge shockwaves an artist like Hendrix sent out into the music world and, consequently, society as a whole, it’s not such a giant leap. Looking back at Chandler and Hendrix’s first meeting some 55 years later provides us with a rich sliding doors moment that we will always be on the right side of. While it would be unfair to say that without Chandler, Jimi Hendrix would never have been a star, it’s clear that the guitarist’s career was not moving as swiftly ahead as he had hoped.
Hendrix had been making his way along the music industry road for some time. He had worked alongside artists such as The Isley Brothers and Little Richard, providing backup guitar to keep the coffers full and his name up in lights, at least in some form or another. However, things would change for Hendrix when he met Chandler at the Cafe Wha? on July 5th, 1966. It was this moment that would send both men into the stratosphere.
In truth, the world has Linda Keith, a fashion model, to thank for the introduction. It was Keith who managed to convince the Animals bassist to head on down to Greenwich Village to catch a glimpse of the new guitarist everyone was talking about. Keith was dating another Keith at the time, The Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards and had seen Hendrix perform as Jimmy James and the Blue Fames at a show at New York’s Cheetah discotheque.
“It was so clear to me,” Keith told The Guardian about her first experience of Jimi Hendrix. “I couldn’t believe nobody had picked up on him before because he’d obviously been around. He was astonishing – the moods he could bring to music, his charisma, his skill and stage presence. Yet nobody was leaping about with excitement. I couldn’t believe it.”
With her connections to the rock and roll world, Keith became determined to give Hendrix the platform he deserved. She called in a favour with Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham who came down to watch Hendrix play at Cafe au Go Go — he left the venue unimpressed and with his roster free of one of the greatest guitarists of all time. It would pave the way for Chandler to not only sign a hot new prospect but begins his career behind the music scene.
Chandler’s Animals were close to breaking up when they arrived in New York in early July. Ready to make the leap into production he saw the potential of Hendrix right away. “The night before we were to play in Central Park, someone played me Tim Rose’s version of ‘Hey Joe,’ which had been out for about nine months in America,” Chandler told Ultimate Hendrix: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Live Concerts and Sessions. “I was so taken by it that I vowed, ‘As soon as I get back to England, I’m going to find an artist to record this song.’
“Later that evening, we went out to a club called Ondine’s. As we walked in, Linda Keith came walking out and we stopped to talk. She told me she was going out with this guy in the Village that I had to see. … I went down to the Village again and saw Jimmy James and the Blue Flames perform at the Café Wha? It just so happened the first song Hendrix played that afternoon was ‘Hey Joe.'”
It’s a moment in music history that has been mulled over multiple times. Producer Bob Gulick was in attendance that evening and recalled for Guitar Player the connection Chandler and Hendrix shared and just how enamoured Chandler was with the star: “I look over at Chandler, and his mouth is hanging open. And when Jimi started playing with his teeth on ‘Hey Joe,’ Chandler’s drink fell from his hand and spilled all over his lap. I saw it happen. I’m sure Chandler knew what we did at that moment – that Jimi had mopped the floor with every guitar player the guy had ever seen before. There wasn’t a person who saw him play who didn’t think he was a god.”
It was enough to convince Chandler that he had found his star for the future. He discussed his plan with Hendrix: he would travel to London and assemble a band around his talent, using British musicians and cashing in on the explosion of the swinging sub-culture that was engulfing the British capital. “That afternoon at the Café Wha? Jimi was just an explosive kid whose potential struck me,” Chandler recalled.
“As much as his version of ‘Hey Joe’ impressed me, what convinced me of his talent was another song that he did that first day, ‘Like a Rolling Stone,'” the bassist continued. “I knew [Bob] Dylan well and loved his material, but ‘Like a Rolling Stone‘ was the first of his songs that I didn’t quite get. It was something about the way Dylan had sung the song. I never felt he expressed it properly. When Jimi sang the song, he did it with tremendous conviction and the lyrics came right through to me. My initial impression, having heard him play ‘Hey Joe’ and ‘Like a Rolling Stone,’ was that I couldn’t see his career going in any other way but the place between those two songs. That was where I had to go.”
It would be the beginning of a beautiful and fruitful partnership, one which tragically ended too soon. Chandler and Hendrix provided each other with the vehicle to get to the top of the musical pile. Without one another, they would never have made it and, without them together, the world would have lost one of its most vital pop culture contributors. Some moments in rock history are negligible to the public but a select few, this meeting was a moment that changed everything for everyone.