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Unforgettable Jimi Hendrix Stories from Musicians Lucky Enough to Watch Him Play
Jimi Hendrix is a near-mythical figure … but he was very much a human being, just like the rest of us. The difference, of course, lies in his otherworldly guitar skills, which some were fortunate enough to experience in-person and up close, rather than on screens or through archival footage.
What follows is a collection of memories and stories about Hendrix from some who were among those lucky enough to tour with him, catch a gig or just be in the same room. The conversations, culled from years of interviews with writer Ken Sharp, include some dearly departed figures including guitarist Bob Kulick, filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker, and beyond.
For a similar look at the incredible presence of Jimi Hendrix, click here for our Musicians Recall Their First Impressions piece from 2017.
In 1966, I was sixteen and my band, the Random Blues Band, played at the Café Wha club in Greenwich Village — two guitars, bass, drums and a front man. It was a blues-based band ala The Rolling Stones. One day we were told this guy was coming down to audition and the name of his band was Jimmy James & the Blue Flames. So we watched as this guy came in and started to set up his gear. He was inquiring about using two amp bottoms together and we all looked at each other like, “What? How do you do that?” On stage he had all these pedals and I thought, this should be interesting. He had a very interesting look.
He looked like a star. So he started playing and we saw that he was a left-handed guitar player! The band started playing what sounded like a prototype of a “Third Stone From the Sun” kind of song and within one minute you knew that the guy wiped the floor with everybody we’d ever seen play. By the end of his set when he played solos with his teeth that nobody could play with their hands, we knew this guy was a sensation.
My band played on the same bill with him at the Café Wha at least ten times. There were several times we were the last band on in the late afternoon, early evening and he was the first band on after us. I remember he played both “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Hey Joe” in his set. And on “Hey Joe,” he played the solo with his teeth! Jimi was a god as a guitar player but not so much with his live singing as it was hard for him to do both at the same time. But he was a phenomenal singer in the studio. Listen to the layers he put on songs like “Rainy Day, Dream Away.” Listen to how soulful he sings on “All Along the Watchtower.” Bob Dylan may have written the song, but Jimi Hendrix did the best rendition of it.
I first met Jimi in the dressing room of the Café Wha. He was tuning up his guitar and we were chatting. I told him how great he was and he said, (humbly) “Thank you.” He was very gracious. So he was putting his game face on and tuning up and then all of a sudden he popped a string. He said, “Man, I don’t think I have any more strings.” I went into my guitar case and gave him either an E or B string. He kind of looked at me and we connected there. I did the guy a solid and he appreciated it. That’s how the relationship started.
He saw me perform at the club, which as you can imagine was very intimidating. He was early for his slot in the evening and we were the last band on in the afternoon. He came in and instead of hanging in the dressing room, he came down and sat right upfront. So we’re playing and after we finished the song I leaned over and said, (pleadingly) “Jimi, please. It’s totally intimidating having you here, I can’t play in front of you!” He was just like, “Bob, I learn something from every band I see.” We played “Hey Joe,” his own fucking song, and he sat there and got a kick out of it and just laughed. (laughs)
The night the Jimi Hendrix Experience was fired from The Monkees tour he had a party at the Warwick Hotel in New York City and invited a bunch of us, about four or five guys, to hang out with him. Here was the conquering hero returning from England, where he’d gone from Jimmy James & the Blue Flames and turned into the Jimi Hendrix Experience. It was a holy shit, oh my God moment! So we went up there and met Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell. These guys were lit up.
I hadn’t seen the Jimi Hendrix Experience play yet but I knew their record. They were incredibly pale-faced guys, totally obliterated and stoned out of their brains. Jimi too. He was a total stoner; the guy drank and what he smoked was lots of different stuff. I would say personally, having shared a joint with the guy, part of the buzz he felt when he played was helped by the fact that he was high enough to just go for it. I remember he had a stack of 45s and a turntable to play them on. He wheeled us through all of the newest English music. The only artist that mattered to me that he played was “Tales of Brave Ulysses” by Cream.
We heard that song and saw the look on his face. He immediately made the comment, “This guy is a better guitar player than me.” That’s what he thought of Eric Clapton and Eric Clapton thought that way about Jimi Hendrix.
When Jimi would play blues, it was ridiculous. It was totally humiliating. He played the guitar between his legs, played with the guitar behind his back, played the guitar with his teeth. He did all the tricks. How many other guys could do that and play well? Answer: nobody! Nothing he played was throwaway. Everything was heartfelt. As he said in an interview once and it really stuck with me, “When you play you show a part of your soul,” and that guy had so much soul that he was able to share with everybody.
D.A. Pennebaker (director/filmmaker, Monterey Pop)
John Phillips of the Mamas & Papas knew about Hendrix beforehand. At that time he was not known in America. John had told me about him and said, “This is a guy who plays blues and sets himself on fire.” (laughs) I said, “That’s the kind of blues I guess I’ve never heard.” I didn’t know what to expect but I would soon find out at Monterey Pop Festival. So John was very big on him, said he was terrific and that in England everyone was blown away by him. In America, some underground radio stations were playing “Hey Joe.” But a lot of radio stations refused to play it because it had to do with either suicide or murder. In those days people were very cautious about what kind of rock music they played on the radio.
I’d never seen a film about a rock music festival. Most of the cameramen I had were people that worked for me and they were just starting out. Many of them had never shot before but they knew the music and that was what was important. I was shooting onstage. The cameras we were using were all homemade cameras so there was a great anxiety that they would all work. (laughs) Hanging out with Lou (Adler) and John (Phillips) and Michelle (Phillips) and Cass (Elliott), the whole event seemed like a party. It didn’t seem like a big event that we had to be worried about capturing properly. Anything we did was cool. It became legendary after the fact because the music was so fantastic. I made sure we filmed everything. We had an eight-track recorder that was borrowed from the Beach Boys.
On the night that The Who and the Jimi Hendrix Experience both played at Monterey, John (Phillips) told me in the dressing room there was a big fight between The Who and Jimi Hendrix over who was gonna go on first. Jimi won out and they followed The Who. I remember Jimi came out and talked a little bit in that funny, loungey voice that he had. Everyone seemed to know a little about him; there was a certain sense of expectancy. I certainly had a sense of expectancy because John told me he set himself on fire and I was standing back waiting for the guy to explode or something. (laughs) I didn’t quite know what to expect.
Jimi came out and played a really fast number. It was so fast and so right that everyone was absolutely riveted. It was like he was saying, “Just watch this!” It caught everybody’s attention. In terms of his performance at Monterey, I wasn’t just impressed with Jimi but the whole Jimi Hendrix Experience trio. They were just terrific. The sound they made was like The Who in that it had a real power and bigness. You really felt you were a part of something bigger.
We filmed his whole set. I shot some people in the crowd who looked exasperated by the weirdness of it. It wasn’t California style rock like the Mamas & Papas or Jefferson Airplane, it was something else. Jimi was loud but The Who were even louder! They had these huge amplifiers that broke your ear drums, you didn’t want to get near those amps. (laughs) In terms of the look of Jimi, he didn’t stand out form a lot of the other performers at Monterey. Everybody looked weird. (laughs) He didn’t stand out because he had some strange clothes.
It was his attitude and the way he talked that got everybody interested in him. He had that fantastic assurance that true genius always has. It captures your attention and you can’t deny it.
At Monterey, the guy who produced Frank Sinatra and worked at his label (Reprise) was there. Suddenly this weird guy appears onstage and he must have been thinking, “I’m gonna distribute records by this guy, I can’t believe it!” (laughs) In one song, Jimi played a little bit of Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night” and think he did that because that guy was in the audience.
When Jimi began to smash his guitar and light it on fire, I realized he wasn’t gonna be setting himself on fire so that was relief. (laughs) I knew by then he was a fantastic guitar player so I was really happy we were able to film him. When he smashed his guitar and lit it on fire I wasn’t really taken aback. I just thought that this was theater.
It was interesting because he did it with such style; it wasn’t mercilessly beating the guitar. It was like saying, now I’m finished and I’m gonna sacrifice this guitar. It definitely worked in terms of the theatre of the performance. The crowd reacted in different ways. Some of them thought it was the stupidest thing they’d ever seen (laughs) while others were just wild with excitement. That’s when the fan club for Jimi Hendrix first started in America, when he broke up the guitar and lit it on fire at Monterey. I talked a little with Jimi at the event but mostly hellos and goodbyes. He was really interested in all the music, even some of the music that I thought was square. He was always out there in the audience watching the performers and seemed to be having a lot of fun.
I didn’t recognize at the time that Monterey Pop Festival was an historic event until later in the festival when Ravi Shankar performed. In my innocence I thought nobody was gonna be into this Indian music. I was wrong. Ravi played this half an hour raga and everybody was into it. We saw the entire audience come together, those from San Francisco and Los Angeles. Before that they were sizing each other up in terms of bands and in terms of looks.
That wasn’t my only encounter with Jimi. I met Jimi later at a club in 8th street in New York City where there was a wake being held for Martin Luther King, Jr., who’d just been tragically killed. All hell was breaking loose in the city; they were tearing Jersey apart and Harlem was blowing up. We set up an Ampex tape recorder in a booth in the back and were going to record everything and I was gonna film it. Jimi was there because he was one of the performers.
It may be hard to believe but he did the sound recordings on my Nagra recorder while I shot the event. Jimi did my sound! We have a picture of him holding the slate in the film, which we’ve never released. It was a really grim day. Jimi did speak to me about the Monterey Pop film that night and told me he really liked it. But what he liked better was my film Don’t Look Back because he was such a fan of Bob Dylan. He asked me, “Why didn’t you play complete versions of the songs in the film?” I told him, “Because I didn’t want it to become a music film.” He said, “Well, you should have played all of the songs.” Years later, when we put out an expanded edition of the film we included some of the songs in full.
Ironically, the last song they played that night at the Martin Luther King wake was Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” and it was dawn. Everybody got up onstage to perform it — Janis Joplin, Hendrix. It was a very powerful moment.
What makes Jimi such a special player to me is that he was always reaching and experimenting. That was the feeling you got from listening to him. There was nothing he would not try. He gave people a sense of the art of popular music as opposed to just the use of it. He could really do anything on guitar. Seeing him play left-handed was interesting, it was like, “Am I looking at him in the mirror? “(laughs) Everything was backwards. I thought this guy had invented a new way to play guitar but actually I came to find out later was that he was left-handed. (laughs)
What made Jimi so unique was the way he treated sound. There was no sound that he couldn’t incorporate that was imaginative and musical. This went against everyone’s lessons at music school. The idea of bangs and crashes and breaks and sirens, that’s not music. For him the real world was just as musical as what was in his head.
Danny Seraphine (Chicago)
A big break for Chicago came when Jimi Hendrix saw us play at The Whisky-A-Go-Go. We’d already started making noise at The Whisky as a house band. This was all before we got a record deal. We’d heard that Hendrix might be out in the audience but weren’t sure. Then we walked offstage and there he was in our dressing room. He said, “You guys are the best band I’ve ever heard in my life!” I mean, talk about a compliment!
We’d be getting high and listening to Hendrix’s records. He was there with Mitch Mitchell and both of them were just raving about us and couldn’t say enough good things. It was like, “Wow!” We were pinching ourselves after they left saying, “did that really happen?” A few months after he saw us play in every interview he did he talked about us. He said, “You gotta hear CTA.” It was an incredible validation. He’d also talk about Terry (Kath) as a player.
I heard he was asked in one interview, “How does it feel to be the best guitar player in the world?” And he said, “I’m not, Terry Kath is.” Terry’s mind was blown hearing about this because Jimi was his guitar hero. It’s like when Buddy Rich talked about me as a drummer; he was my drum hero. Buddy never said many good things about rock and roll and rock drummers but he said that Steve Gadd and I were the best drummers that he’d heard in rock. Chicago later opened shows for Hendrix. It was great, he took us on the road. We’d watch him play all the time. I remember we opened for him in Charlotte, North Carolina, some shows down south and we did The Forum in L.A. with him. That was a big show for us. He’s watch us play our shows. He loved the band. He liked the concept of the band too. At that time a lot of our songs were really long with a lot of twists and turns in them and he liked that. We never jammed with Jimi but Mitch (Mitchell) sat in with us once. Hendrix was shy about playing with Terry. There was never any jamming which was a shame.
I remember one flight had some really bad turbulence and I was barfing and he had his head on my head calming me down. See, he was an ex-paratrooper, so it didn’t even faze him.
Yusuf (Cat Stevens)
In the ’60s I toured with Jimi Hendrix, The Walker Brothers and Engelbert Humpedinck. I remember that I’d done my particular spot in the show and had gone back to the dressing room and suddenly someone was shouting, “He’s started a fire on stage.’ So we all came dashing down (laughs) and we saw Jimi Hendrix and his guitar on fire. I’ve never seen anything like that before, I couldn’t imagine what was going to happen next. Jimi was a human being you could relate to, especially offstage. He was a quiet man offstage. In some respects he was pushed by different people I suppose in different ways. And he was shaped by the public that loved him.
Henry Diltz (photographer)
Backstage at Monterey was actually a basement under the stage. It was very crowded, Hendrix was on one side of the room and The Mamas & Papas were on the other side. I shot photos of Jimi backstage. He was sitting there eating fried chicken and drinking Colt 45 sitting by himself in a chair. Some of other guys in his band were standing behind him and John Entwistle of The Who was also there.
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When Jimi came out to play I was right in front of the stage. It was amazing music. His hands were very big, the way he played chords and the way it sounded was warm and all encompassing. And the way he looked was so colorful, like a gypsy. The crowd was all blown away. They’d seen many acts that day but Jimi was the best of all. At one point when he sat down on his guitar I was thinkin’ he was gonna make love to his guitar. He pulled out a can of lighter fluid, squirted it on the guitar and lit it on fire and it was like “WOW!” It almost seemed he was having own private campfire. When he was done I felt I’d seen something historic, he was that electrifying.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see Jimi perform on The Monkees tour, as I showed up on the last date he played with them in Forest Hills, New York (July 19, 1967). Ironically, I showed up just as he was coming off the stage. It was an afternoon show and later we all hung out at the hotel. Everybody was out in the hallway and I remember someone handing out little white pills, which I found out were psilocybin. We all took them and got very high.
Later that evening I was down in Greenwich Village and I was in a hamburger joint. I’m sitting there kind of watching people and I’m very high. In the door walks Jimi Hendrix, also very high, and he sees me across the room. He recognizes me from the hotel hallway and he comes over and sits next to me. We were very high, eyes as big as saucers in a psychedelic way. (laughs) We didn’t speak very much because we were tripping except at one point we were watching people eat and shoving food in their mouth in a very bizarre way. I remember Jimi saying, “What’s that guy doing?” And I said, “I think he’s eating a hamburger.”(laughs) You had to be there. We were both in a very psychedelic place where everything was awesome.
My next encounter with Jimi after that was shooting him opening for The Mamas & Papas at the Hollywood Bowl (August 18, 1967). He was sitting in the dressing room with The Mamas & Papas and I was in there because I was their photographer. I took a few photos of him sitting on the couch. At one point he was talking to Mama Cass and Michelle Phillips. He was a very quiet and laid back guy but boy did he change when he appeared onstage. There are a number of great guitar players who are very shy like Eric Clapton, very quiet and introspective but they come alive onstage. I saw him from the side of the stage with the rest of The Mamas & Papas. At one point he turned to face us and saw us all standing there. I got one picture of him looking right at us. His music was so amazing and it filled the whole place.
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I photographed him a year later when he headlined the Hollywood Bowl. He was wearing all white and seemed more like the headliner. They had a large wading pool right in front of the stage and then the front row was behind it. They’d have colored lights in the water with water squirting up at times so it was kind of a fountain pool. I was crouched at the edge of the pool looking across at Jimi taking photos and suddenly I was aware of someone jumping up on the concrete edge of the pool next to me. That person jumped into the pool and I thought, wow, that’s strange. Then suddenly a whole bunch of people jumped into the pool. It was like those animal documentaries on wildebeests jumping into the river.
At some point there were 20-30 people in the water wading up to the front of the stage with their arms waving and flailing. Jimi bent over at one point to say something to them. I think he was concerned. Very quickly they stopped the concert because if a microphone or an amp fell into the pool those people would have been electrocuted. A bunch of stagehands ran out to the front of the stage and got all those people out of the pool. Then they resumed the show after all the people got out.
The last time I photographed Jimi was at Woodstock. He was supposed to play on Sunday night but the show was so backed up that he actually went onstage Monday morning at dawn. And by that time the crowd has really dissipated. The 400,000 people were down to maybe 10,000 people. The hillside, which had been filled with hundreds of thousands of people, was now just a big field of mud and soggy sleeping bags and mountains of litter. The dawn was just breaking and these colorful guys came out onstage. It was very eye-opening because we’d been up all night and had been watching music for three days. Jimi had that white fringe jacket. They played and it was amazing.
The high point was the moment he launched into “The Star Spangled Banner” solo on electric guitar. That was the best moment of Woodstock for me. They had these huge speakers and since the 400,000 strong audience wasn’t there to absorb the sound it went out and bounced back from the hillside and there was an echo effect. So in that early morning it was awe inspiring to hear this beautiful and piercing rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” with sound effects — airplanes dive bombing, explosions and machine guns. He put all of that in the sound of that as if “The Star Spangled Banner” was the soundtrack for a real battle, which is when it was written. He recreated that amazing moment.
This was the late ‘60s and there was a feeling of us against them. There was the Vietnam War, which we were all morally against, and here he was playing this patriotic song. You stopped and felt, “It’s our song too, it doesn’t belong to the government or the establishment, it belongs to all of us.” There was a very tribal feeling there because it was the biggest assemblage of hippies and anti-war peace loving people. I happened to be standing about ten feet away from Jimi when he was playing that song. I was speechless.
It was so magnificent and moving and it’s a memory I will never forget.
Rick Springfield (musician/songwriter)
What Jimi Hendrix means to me is innovation and bravery. When I heard the first Jimi Hendrix Experience album I couldn’t believe how heavy it was. This was still a time of mainly pretty pop all over the charts and Hendrix comes out of the gate with “Fire”! And then Axis: Bold as Love, where he demonstrated what you could do if you turned the guitar down and used tone. He turned the world onto Strats and showed what a melodic solo truly was. Hendrix changed music and guitar playing in particular forever. Not bad for the first two albums.
I still don’t know where those first two albums came from. They were magic. And he had the authenticity to make phrases like “comin’ to gitcha” sound so real, you never questioned that he was posturing or faking it. Just the “Fire” riff still sounds modern and has no precedent. He seemed to be able to write anything, and make it unique. Even when it was someone else’s song he made it completely his own. “All Along the Watchtower” is one of my favorite Dylan songs because of the way Hendrix played and sang it. I can’t even listen to Dylan’s version now.
I play some of Hendrix’s songs in my live show. They’re fun to play, still sound great and everyone knows them.
I think Jeff Beck is his equal in innovation and going places no one has gone before, but Hendrix did it in the first few years of his public life plus he wrote and sang. He was most certainly the fire that burned brightest. Beck, (Eric) Clapton and (Jimmy) Page are have very different approaches. Page and Clapton’s blues based style was similar to Hendrix’s but Hendrix tweaked it in a different direction than Page, who definitely tweaked it too. Certainly his early death has added to the mystique but his technique and the sounds he created are still trying to be recreated by guitar players all over the world. Guitarists still build careers on how much they play and sound like Hendrix. His music sounds current. He had a line into something very primal, universal and lasting.
Tommy (Erdélyi ) Ramone (assistant engineer Record Plant studio, Ramones drummer)
Tommy Ramone: I worked from 1969 to 1970 as an assistant engineer at the Record Plant in New York City. I knew somebody at another studio who got me connected with the Record Plant. That period was a very interesting period for Hendrix. He had changed musicians; out were Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding and in on bass was his friend Billy Cox and Buddy Miles on drums. It was a whole different atmosphere. The producers were also different. He brought in Alan Douglas and his assistant Stefan Bright. All this to me seemed very strange. I think Jimi was going through all kinds of changes and turmoil at the time. I think he was having trouble with management. It was a strange atmosphere.
Jimi was a perfectionist in the studio. He was very much into doing the best that he could. It was obvious. He would never settle for second best. He was very hard working and serious about his music. He would do all kinds of things to make a song happen. Some of the sessions I worked on were songs like “Izabella,” “Freedom,” “Dolly Dagger,” “Stepping Stone,” EZ Rider” and “Machine Gun.”
Depending upon the song, he change how loud he’d play in the studio For “Machine Gun” he wanted it really loud and he set up every one of his amps. There were three double stacks of Marshalls and Billy Cox was using Fender Showman bass amps and we set up three of those. It was a huge set up. Everything was shaking. If you closed all the doors in the studio everything was still shaking. (laughs) But he was getting some amazing sustain and playing some really interesting things.
What really impressed me working in the studio with Jimi was how he would keep doing overdub after overdub to get it right. He tried all kinds of things. He was hearing things in his head that he wanted to put on tape and at times he was very frustrated. He would try anything. He’d bring in slides, play things at low volume, high volume, all kinds of things. That’s what it impressed me the most, how serious he was about what he was doing.
It was exciting to meet him but what was even more interesting was how charming he was. At times in between songs he could be very playful and easy going. He always wanted to please you. He wanted to please me and I was just the assistant engineer! (laughs) He was very grateful and delicate in a way, a very interesting person.
I was a huge Hendrix fan. I saw the Jimi Hendrix Experience play a great show at Hunter College, which was a small theater, about 1,500-2,000 seats. It was just an amazing show. He was always moving. Since it was a three-piece he was always filling the holes with something, making it seem like there were two guitars playing at the same time. And especially during this time this was very unusual seeing a three-piece play and sound like that. At one point in the show he broke a string and he changed the string while he was playing music on the guitar. He was playing it and changing the string at the same time it was just amazing!
He did all the cool songs off of the first two albums. He was doing a lot of tricks and stunts — playing with his teeth, playing the guitar behind his back and between his legs. At the time he was getting a lot of flack from critics and other players who felt he should be playing music seriously. What they didn’t understand and what I might not have realized at the time but I certainly realize now is he needed is that he needed to do that stuff. It was part of his style, part of his expression, part of the music. He was doing it for himself. Those tricks and stunts, those movements he did onstage were all part of him getting his emotions out. I don’t think people got that then but hopefully they have it now.
That band he had with Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding was a real breakthrough for the time because it was a multi-racial band. They really came up with something unique and original. Jimi was very eclectic and playing all kinds of music — jazz, rock, blues. By the time I started working with him he was getting a lot of pressure from the Black community about why he as playing with white people. I mentioned one of the pressures he was going through at the time and that was one of them. I think that was one of the reasons that the Band of Gypsies were all Black was because he was getting this pressure. He was just caught up in all of that and I think it was very destructive on him, unfortunately.
June 9, 2021
June 9, 2021