Across the creative realm, there exist numerous instances where an artist has decided to adopt a stage name, pseudonym or nom de guerre as a means of augmenting their artistry, adding the flavour of mystery to the work, or for the simple means of privacy.
If we look at some of the most instantaneous examples, you quickly note that adopting a stage name or relinquishing your true self can be a very potent means of achieving an artistic zenith. David Bowie, Prince, Slipknot, and even Beyoncé, have all at different points, and to varying degrees, forgone their human selves in favour of a more pronounced, exaggerated form, one that has helped to cultivate their artistic value.
This is a modus operandi that has its roots firmly in history. For instance, the music hall performers of the Victorian age would also adopt stage names, such as the iconic Dan Leno, whose real name was George Wild Galvin. He used the stage name as a means of separating his artistry from his normal self, a concept that has been understood since ancient times.
Long been tried and tested, we still see the concept very much alive and well today, across all of the creative realms, with Banksy and Yungblud, being two examples that quickly spring to mind. However, there was another performer who was so pioneering and iconic that it remains surprising that most people are unaware that the name we all know him by, was in fact, not his real name.
This was, of course, guitar-hero extraordinaire Jimi Hendrix. Born in Seattle, Washington, on November 27, 1942, the icon we know as Jimi Hendrix wasn’t born as so. His birth name was actually John Allen Hendrix. He was raised by his mother while his father, James ‘Al’ Hendrix, was drafted into the US army as the Second World War raged in Europe.
However, it seems as if the man who became known as Jimi Hendrix was always accustomed to name changes. His father returned to Seattle in 1945, and soon after, in 1946, Hendrix’s parents decided to rename him James Marshall Hendrix.
The child would then progress through his complicated life as James Hendrix until he found himself playing on the New York City R&B circuit some 24 years later. Performing under the name ‘Jimmy James’, Hendrix was somewhat of an outlier on the scene. Whilst playing a set with Curtis Knight and the Squires at the Cheetah Club in May 1966, Hendrix encountered Linda Keith in the audience. She was the then-girlfriend of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, and she was “mesmerised” by his playing. After the set, Hendrix joined Keith for a drink, and the two became friends. This was to be a pivotal moment in his life and career. Afterwards, Keith recommended Hendrix to Chas Chandler, the former bassist of The Animals, who was looking to forge a career in management and artist production.
Chandler first witnessed Hendrix playing at the Cafe Wha? venue in Greenwich Village that Summer. The roadie James ‘Tappy’ Wright, who was there at that momentous convergence, recalled: “This guy didn’t seem anything special, then all of a sudden he started playing with his teeth.” He told the BBC in 2016: “People were saying, ‘What the hell?’ and Chas thought, ‘I could do something with this kid.'”
This meeting was to transform both Hendrix and Chandler’s lives, and by the end of that Summer, Chandler had brought Hendrix across to London to live there full time. When forming Hendrix’s backing band in London, Chandler suggested that Hendrix stop going by the nickname ‘Jimmy James’ and instead go by the more exotic-sounding ‘Jimi’. Fast forward to mid-October 1966, and The Jimi Hendrix Experience was starting to make waves in the English capital. The man formerly known as Jimmy James, now going under the superfly moniker of Jimi Hendrix, was re-writing the rulebook of what a guitarist could and should be.
He had blown over from across the Atlantic like a cloud of ice-cool air, and under the guidance of Chandler, he quickly began showing the biggest acts of the time, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones et al., just how far you could truly push the guitar as rock’s weapon of choice.
In casting off the name ‘Jimmy James’, Jimi Hendrix would allow himself the room to truly flourish as an iconic artist.
Watch Linda Keith talk about discovering Jimi Hendrix below.