Mitch Mitchell is one of the most influential drummers of all time. Providing The Jimi Hendrix Experience with their dynamic edge, his dexterity as a drummer set the precedent for everyone moving forward who were hoping to emulate the raw power of both Hendrix’s early records, and The Experience’s raucous live shows.
Born in Ealing in 1946, Mitchell’s life was always a little different. As a teenager, he starred in the children’s TV serial, Jennings at School, and then starred in a leading role in the 1960 comedy film, Bottoms Up, alongside Jimmy Edwards.
He learnt his trade as a drummer working at the founder of Marshall Amps, Jim Marshall’s drum shop every Saturday whilst still in school. Greatly influenced by the likes of Elvin Jones and Tony Williams, two of the premium post-bop American jazz drummers, this instilled Mitchell with a keen understanding of what a drummer could and should be. He even played alongside Marshall’s son, Terry, in The Soul Messengers early on in his career.
After finding his feet as a musician, he gained valuable experience as a touring and session musician. He worked with Pete Nelson and the Travellers, Frankie Reid and the Casuals and The Riot Squad. Most notably, however, he had a brief stint with The Who as a session drummer, whilst the band were in the transitional phase between Doug Sandom and Keith Moon.
Between late 1965 and October 1966, Mitchell lent his talent to Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames, and appeared on their third album, 1966’s Sweet Things. Fame would go on to make his name working with the likes of Van Morrison and Bill Wyman.
Of Mitchell’s style, Fame said in 2015: “His main hero was jazz drummer Ronnie Stephenson and if you look at early film clips of Mitch, he had that Ronnie Stephenson look, the way he set his jaw. And he loved crashing around on the cymbals like Ronnie, but in my band I liked the arrangements pretty tight. When he started splashing around I’d say ‘just play the hi-hat!'”.
Mitchell’s life would change after he auditioned for the newfound Jimi Hendrix Experience on 6 October 1966. Ironically, we wouldn’t be discussing him now, if the coin toss that chose him over Aynsley Dunbar went the other way.
Mitchell’s quick and jazz-inspired style proved a brilliant ballast to Jimi Hendrix’s revolutionary and free-flowing style. His rudiments accentuated Hendrix’s licks, and helped to give the songs a gargantuan sound. Mitchell played on the first three, and arguably most important Experience records, 1967’s Are You Experienced, and 1968’s Axis: Bold As Love and Electric Ladyland.
Mitchell stayed with Hendrix after the dissolution of The Experience when bassist Noel Redding quit in June 1969. He also provided the rhythmic brilliance at Hendrix’s mythological Woodstock set in August that year, but was replaced with Buddy Miles for 1970’s Band of Gypsys album.
He did rejoin the iconic axeman for 1970’s ‘The Cry of Love Tour’, and appeared on most of the material for Hendrix’s unfinished fourth studio album which was eventually released in parts through 1971’s The Cry of Love and Rainbow Bridge and 1972’s War Heroes.
Famously, in 1968, Mitchell also played the drums in The Dirty Mac, the era’s premier supergroup featuring John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Eric Clapton and Keith Richards. If his talent is not reflected by this stellar company, we don’t know what will. Between 1969 and 1970, Mitchell also collaborated with ex-Cream frontman Jack Bruce in Jack Bruce and Friends. After Hendrix’s death in September 1970, Mitchell helped Eddie Kramer to complete the material that Hendrix had left, including The Cry of Love and Rainbow Bridge.
In 1972, he joined guitarists Mike Pinera and April Lawton to form short-lived rock band Ramtam. During his brief stint with Ramtam, he appeared on the band’s first two albums and also opened for prog legends Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Amazingly, both Hendrix and Mitchell had been offered spots in the band that Keith Emerson and Greg Lake were forming, but the role of a drummer would eventually go to Carl Palmer. If only Hendrix would have lived, that could have been one hell of a band.
Outside of Ramtam, he performed with Terry Reid, Jeff Beck and Jack Bruce again. In 1974, he auditioned for Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles troupe Wings, but lost the part to Geoff Britton in another coin toss. What goes around comes around they say, but the prospect of Mitchell in Wings is dizzying. He would have given them the energy it feels that they were always lacking.
Some of the best modern drummers hail Mitchell as a key influence. Queen drummer, Roger Taylor, is one of his most notable disciples. He opined: “I still think listening to Mitch Mitchell, especially the early stuff with Hendrix, is just fantastic.”
Matt Sorum, the hard-rocking drummer of The Cult, Guns N’ Roses and supergroup Velvet Revolver, hailed Mitchell’s “pure musicianship” and called him “one of the greatest drummers of all time”. Another legendary drummer who took a lot from Mitchell was Stewart Copeland of The Police. He’s called Are You Experienced his favourite drum album of all time, and at many points has explained how this was the album that truly galvanised him and pushed him to study the drums closely.
In 2015 he told Classic Rock: “Mitch Mitchell blew me away, of course. Just recently, I was on a plane and I watched the Hendrix documentary about the Isle of Wight. It’s one of the only live recordings on which you can hear the drums; on all the bootlegs the guitar is so loud. And you can see Mitch playing – the shit he did was remarkable. All of this stuff I did that I was rather proud of, I thought I came up with it. But no, I got it from Mitch.”
The drummer’s drummer, with a style so effortless, Mitchell’s influence on modern drumming was momentous. Without his vital input, the realm of drumming would look considerably different today. He straddled both flair and precision, and his energy continues to be unmatched. A rhythmic stalwart, he, like Hendrix, lives on through the game-changing albums they made.
Listen to a Mitch Mitchell drum solo below.