Despite being regarded as different members of the same species by most ardent guitar fans, a kindred spirit is shared between Keith Richards and Jimi Hendrix. Richards is the hit-making icon for the naughty boys of rock and roll, The Rolling Stones — a riff machine that rarely misstepped when in the studio but often mistimed his notes when on stage. On the other hand, Hendrix can be most easily assessed as a virtuoso guitar-playing genius. An artist that refused to be confined to any genre, style or programme and, instead, played directly from the heart. No matter their intents, one thing connected the two men, their desire to be heard.
Despite rolling around in the swinging circles of 1960s London, there is little material to suggest that Richards and Hendrix were the closest friends. By the time Hendrix came to London and blew away some of the stalwarts of the blues scene in the British capital, Richards was already a global megastar, selling out stadiums and sending hoards of fans wild with hysteria. Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and David Gilmour would be most affected by Hendrix’s playing, fawning at his style and later citing him as one of the best ever to do it. Meanwhile, Richards always preferred his icons a little more firmly rooted in the past.
In recent years, The Rolling Stones man would much rather speak to you about the highs and lows of Scotty Moore, Elvis’ guitarist, than the spiralling brilliance of Hendrix. However, that doesn’t mean the ‘Satisfaction’ writer was completely blind to Hendrix’s imposing figure on the world of rock and, in fact, he had caught the guitarist way before he broke through as an artist in his own right. Speaking with Rolling Stone in 1981, Richards revealed that he saw Hendrix perform while he was still working with Curtis Knight.
“I first heard him on the road with Curtis Knight, and then I used to see him play at a club called Ondine’s in New York. I thought I was watching someone just about to break.” However, for Richards, things only got worse from this moment on. There can be no doubt that Richards’ first and last love is the purity of rock and roll, and this meant he was left disappointed by Hendrix’s career. “But as far as his being a guitar player, I mean, I was disappointed when the records started comin’ out.”
In fact, Richards goes as far as to suggest that Hendrix was struggling with his identity as an artist during his final days. “Although, given the time and that period, and given the fact that he was forced into an ‘English psychedelic bag’ and then had to live with it because that’s what made him — one of the reasons that he was so down at the period when he died was because he couldn’t find a way out of that.” But the Stones man claimed Hendrix attempted to rid himself of the image he had created. “He wanted to just go back and start playing some funky music, and when he did, nobody wanted to know.”
“Everybody got sort of carried on this tidal wave of success for doing outlandish things until what they were really known for was the outlandishness of what they were doing, and not really what they were doing. I mean, even with Satanic Majesties, I was never hot on psychedelic music.”
Richards elucidated on Hendrix’s tragic downfall and confirmed they were friends by the time he passed away. Richards suggested that “by the period of his demise — to put it politely — he was at the point of totally putting down and negating everything that had made him what he was. I mean all the psychedelic stuff. He felt like he’d been forced to do it over and over again so many times, just because that’s what he was known for. When I first heard him, he was playing straight-ahead R&B.”
In a later interview with the publication, Richards recalled one of the first performances he saw Hendrix give, “At the Ondines. He was fantastic. Doing Dylan songs and ‘Wild Thing’ in a club with a pickup band. Fantastic. One of those cats you just knew you were going to see again. He was like Brian (Jones) too. We were on the European tour when both Jimmi and Janis died. So I didn’t really get into it till I got back, a few months later.”
Sadly, Hendrix would never have the opportunity to keep on performing like Richards and, instead, we are left with candid moments of connection like the one below, as Richards and Hendrix bond over the guitar.