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Musicians Recall ‘The First Time I Heard Jimi Hendrix’
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame calls Jimi Hendrix “arguably the greatest instrumentalist in the history of rock music.” Hendrix was an unparalleled guitarist and showman who helped launch the psychedelic rock era.
In recent months we’ve asked musicians to recall their experiences with Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin. In the third of the series, Rock Cellar asked some of the most respected artists in rock, blues and jazz – including “Godfather of Fusion” Larry Coryell shortly before his untimely death – to share their recollections of the first time they heard Hendrix perform. Interviews have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Carmine Appice (Vanilla Fudge): I knew him before he was Jimi Hendrix. He had his own band, Jimmy James and the Blue Flames. It was more of a soul band. I hung out with him and played gigs with him. When we were doing the gigs with Hendrix, he played all the same stuff, he played with his teeth.
Roger McGuinn (the Byrds): I first saw Jimi at Ciro’s when he was the guitarist for Little Richard. Little Richard and his band played Ciro’s the same time as the Byrds. He was Little Richard’s lead guitar player. He wasn’t the guy with the Afro that put the guitar on fire at that point. He was a sideman, he was a band member. He was great. He was a great player but he hadn’t developed into that personality. I guess he went to England and kind of became Jimi Hendrix.
Carmine Appice: When I saw the first picture of him as Jimi Hendrix, this new sensation coming out of England, I saw a picture of him playing the guitar with his teeth. I said, “that’s gotta be Jimmy James.” And it was. And when I ran into him in England, it was like a whole different guy, really colorful and it was amazing.
Nick Mason (Pink Floyd): I first saw Hendrix when Cream were playing at the Regent Street Polytechnic in London, which was where we went to school. This would be ’66. He had just come over. I think it was probably in the next few weeks he ended up with Mitch [Mitchell] and Noel [Redding] but he was there on his own.
At some point in the evening Eric [Clapton] brought Jimi on to play. I love Eric and I think he’s still great but Jimi was something to behold. I mean, Cream was so influential anyway. I’m here because when I saw Ginger Baker for the first time I thought, “now that’s what I’ve got to do.” I went out the next day, bought a second bass drum set just to be a bit like that.
But Jimi came up and probably played a couple of numbers. It was absolutely awe-inspiring. Just so good. It was the guitar playing. And the look of the man. Everyone at the time was dressing down because everyone wanted to be an R&B band.
John Mayall (John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers): Through Eric Clapton’s fabulous blues chops on my so-called Beano album, Jimi wanted to meet everyone associated with the British blues bands and we were to meet and hang out many times during those early days. He tore us all up when he played the Flamingo Club and he quickly became one of us. I think he was quite surprised to find such a blues-appreciative audience with us compared to his almost anonymous visibility in the States. I also recorded with him on an album released by Paul McCartney’s brother Mike McGear back then. Great days!
David Crosby (the Byrds, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young): Jimi – Monterey. I had his album and I brought it back, his first record, I brought it back with me from England when I was in the Byrds. And people just simply couldn’t believe it.
But the first time we saw him, he was so flamboyant, he was so outrageous, and he was on two tabs of acid [laughs]. How do I know that? ‘Cause I saw him take them.
I saw Owsley [Stanley] take them out of his pocket, they were Blue Cheer, that batch. He just dropped them, went up there and did that. It didn’t slow him up one inch [laughs]. And we were … stunned. We didn’t know how you did that. It was amazing.
Roger McGuinn: He was on acid and he lit the guitar on fire, just brought the house down. He really developed a great deal from the time I first saw him. He was kind of wild and carefree. He obviously wasn’t afraid of making a mistake and he took Dylan songs and made them his own. He just really kind of brought it over the top. It was incredible, there was no holding back. It was incredible stuff.
Larry Coryell (Gary Burton Quartet, the Eleventh House): I first heard Jimi Hendrix when I was in the Gary Burton Quartet in 1967. We were in the band van crossing over the Golden Gate Bridge and there came on the radio a blues called “Red House” – I thought it was Harvey Mandel on a good day, but I found out later it was Hendrix. He was back over from England for Monterey Pop. What impressed me most was the jazz-like ability to utilize the pentatonic scale and string-bending reminiscent of Ravi Shankar on a level that had never been achieved.
John Kay (Steppenwolf): Prior to the creation of Steppenwolf, I was a member of the Canadian band the Sparrow. We had played on the Sunset Strip at the Whisky. Mario, who was the manager of the Whisky, knew us and when the Sparrow broke up, out of the ashes rose Steppenwolf, and we played the Whisky as well.
This was ’67. One night my wife Jutta and I decided, Sam & Dave and the Memphis Horns are gonna be playing at the Whisky. So we went there and Mario got us a nice booth, we had a great vantage point. Here comes Sam & Dave, doing “Soul Man,” “Hold On I’m Comin'” and all the rest and they were wonderful.
They do their first set and they say, “Stick around, we’ll be back in awhile.” All of a sudden they started setting up equipment – a whole set of drums, a Marshall stack and some other stuff. And then I hear Mario get on the PA saying, “And now ladies and gentlemen, direct from the Monterey Pop Festival, doing a guest set for us, the Jimi Hendrix Experience.”
And they came out. We had all heard about what had happened in Monterey within the music scuttlebutt and rumor mill. The Who did this and Janis kicked ass and this guy Jimi Hendrix came along and burned his guitar. We heard all that.
So we were totally intrigued. He got up there and he did “Wild Thing” and “Hey Joe” and two or three other things and people were almost stunned, they were like “wow, did I enter the Twilight Zone for a while?”
And then they walked off. So that was my first time of really seeing Jimi. The Are You Experienced? album may have been already out, but I know that we bought it as soon as we were able to get our hands on it.
Larry Coryell: The next time I saw him was at somebody’s apartment on the West Side in New York and he had stuck pins in his trousers. Somehow it didn’t seem to hurt him … but it was strange. We struck up a conversation about our mutual association with Seattle and I suggested he record “Come On” by Earl King. One or two albums later, it was on there.
When I saw Hendrix at The Scene a short time later I was blown away by his musicality – it was still rock and roll and blues, but he played with more command of his instrument than anyone else. He was loud, but the volume he concocted didn’t hurt for some reason. Plus he put on a show, playing with his teeth, at the same time. And the underlying element in the music was sex – quite appropriate for the sixties.
During one particularly explosive section – it might have been “Foxy Lady” – Jimi broke a string and he went to work changing that string on stage. Meanwhile, Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding soldiered on and they sounded so good, bass and drums together, you didn’t really miss the guitar. It reminded me of what Miles [Davis] had said about Hendrix: “He could make two white guys play their asses off!” A great memory of a great player, and a great admirer in Miles.
Mark Farner (Grand Funk Railroad): The first time we were playing in New York City, I think it was the Fillmore East. We rocked the house, it was a wonderful reception and after the show our manager at the time, Terry Knight, was leading us up the stairs. I’m thinkin’ to myself, “He never leads us any place. What is he doin’ up there?”
So we walk up. He opens the door and Jimi is standing inside our dressing room. And I freak out. I flipped. And I can’t think of anything to say. You know what, the most intelligent thing I could come up with was, “Man, you’re a good guitar player” [laughs]. I was star-struck like a son of a bitch.
Oh my God. He’s got the hat, the conchos, the scarves. And the boots. He’s lookin’ Jimi. Very Jimi [laughs].
Larry Coryell: My experience “playing” with Jimi was nothing to write home about. We were, again, at The Scene and he grabbed a right-handed bass and played it left-handed. I had my Super-4 and we had a drummer – can’t recall who – and we just jammed on a blues. More importantly at that session, before we started I warmed up with a rather rapid major-seventh arpeggio that covers three octaves that I learned from Johnny Smith; Jimi liked that – he said, “Yeah.”
Hendrix was nothing short of phenomenal and he remains the absolute master of that virtuoso-rock-blues style. But I have to add that Clapton, who is ever humble, came right up to Hendrix’s level in his own way when the Gary Burton Quartet played opposite Cream at the Fillmore West – long collective improvisations with Jack [Bruce] and Ginger – louder than all get out but musically innovative in terms of working with the blues. This was a seminal time in music. These innovative approaches set the bar for many years to come.
John Kay: In June ’68 we played the Fillmore East in New York. We were the opening act, followed by Quicksilver Messenger Service, followed by the Electric Flag, which happened to be the last shows that Michael Bloomfield was with the band.
They said “since you’re already in New York for this Fillmore East weekend, we’ve booked you the following week into a showcase club because we want more media people to see you.” And that club was The Scene, which was a basement club owned by Steve Paul, who was the manager of Edgar and Johnny Winter.
Two or three days into our week-long engagement, Jimi shows up. He comes over and says, “Look, I’ve got Buddy Miles with me and a keyboard player, we want to jam. Can we use your gear?”
I said, “Hey, I just play harmonica, guitar on some songs. Let’s talk to the other guys.” Jerry, our drummer, said, “Jesus, Buddy is a big guy. When he kicks a bass drum, it moves three feet across the dance floor.” He really wasn’t that keen on it but said what the hell, it’s Jimi.
So they jammed. It was between our sets. When the whole night was over, which was 2 or 2:30 in the morning, we came up the steps, we were going to take a cab back to the hotel and there was Jimi sitting in a Corvette. He asked me to come over, we talked a little bit. He had heard our set. He said something, I can’t tell you what the words were but it was positive. I thought, “that’s fine.”
Leslie West (Mountain): We were recording at the Record Plant. And we were in Studio A. We were doing Mountain Climbing. And we just finished. And Jimi was in Studio B, doing Band of Gypsys with Buddy Miles and Billy Cox. So Felix [Pappalardi] says to me, “Why don’t you go next door and ask Jimi to come in and listen to the album?” I said, “What? I don’t know him.” He said, “Well, so what? Just go invite him in.”
And it was really funny, every night, around 6 o’clock, Jimi would order out dinner. Well, he had more hangers-on show up at this time for a free fuckin’ meal. I felt so sorry for this poor guy.
I said, “I’ll give it a shot.” I walk in there and I walked up to him, I said, “Mr. Hendrix,” I called him, I said, “I’m Leslie West, I’m a guitar player in Mountain but Felix Pappalardi’s in the next room. He just finished producing our album and he wanted me to come in and invite you in to listen.”
And sure enough, Jimi comes in. The first track he heard was “Never in My Life.” And he looks at me, he says, “Nice riff, man.” After he said that, man, you couldn’t talk to me for a year, man, I said, “Hey, get the fuck away from me, Hendrix told me he liked what I did.”
Mark Farner: We did some top festivals together. We did Randall’s Island together. And at Randall’s Island, Jimi’s right-hand man, nicknamed Rabbit, came over to my dressing room and I was the only one in there. We had just got offstage and Rabbit says to me, “Jimi wants you to come over to his dressing room, come on over when you get some clothes on.”
So I go there and Rabbit’s standing there waiting for me and we go in and I’m just bullshittin’ with Jimi and I look over and these guys – I didn’t know what this stuff was but I knew I didn’t want any. It looked like snowdrifts. I’d never done this shit. I said, “I can’t do that, man.” He says, “Well, all right, you ain’t never done it before, just do the end of my knife blade.”
He flicks his switchblade open, sticks it into the snowdrift and I do one tip of that blade in one nostril and holy shit, I ’bout came apart. Oh man. Jimi had to go onstage so I had to book. I didn’t realize what it was but it was cocaine and heroin mixed. And that’s what he did just before he went on stage. And he sucked. He couldn’t find the neck of his guitar.
John Kay: So more time goes by, maybe three to six months. By now we’ve had two gold albums and two huge hit singles. We were now headlining rather large venues and I’m back at home in between touring segments and my wife and I get an invitation to attend a special party being thrown by Kirk Douglas and Mama Cass.
And the party is for Donovan, who is just releasing a new album and is about to kick off a nationwide tour. Hollywood’s rock and roll people are there and some actors and actresses. And Jutta and I say “OK, we’ve been here a while, let’s go.” As we’re leaving we pass a table behind us and it’s Jimi. And he asks us to join his table.
So we sat down and I got into a conversation with Jimi. Jutta and I were both high on THC, and I said the way the technology is going I can imagine a future where we can literally think music. You attach some electrodes to your brain and whatever floats around in your head musically, you can hear it coming out of the speakers.
So we kicked that idea around a little bit and he finally says, “You want to come over to this house I’m staying at?” He had rented this place in Benedict Canyon. So Jutta and I drove over there. It was a very nice place and the cool thing was, it was just him and two or three other people that were part of the house. It was very relaxed.
In this room that looked out over the back patio garden where the swimming pool was, there were comfortable couch-type chairs, and there were three, four, five albums lying there and one of them was the Steppenwolf Second album.
And he puts it on and he played “Don’t Step on the Grass, Sam.” He saw that I wrote the song and as it starts he says, “Did you play that riff?” I said yeah. And he said, “Well, I like that.” I know that he was a lifelong student of paying attention to who was doing what and learning things that he would incorporate into his own styles. But for him to mention this simple arpeggio kind of thing that’s based on a standard E chord, which is really the underpinning of the entire song, that just struck me as – he’s still in the “I’m far too accomplished to even bother to listen to this entry-level stuff.”
And that’s another thing about him. That was the only time when it was just two guys and a couple of other people, Jutta was swimming in the pool, just talking man to man and there was not the slightest amount of ego. He was soft spoken, I wouldn’t say shy, but he wasn’t boisterous by any stretch of the imagination. And as short as the exchange between us was, that’s the most lasting one for me because that is when I really became very fond of the man.
Leslie West: I go to this club in town called Ungano’s. Steve Miller was playing there. And so it’s really late, Steve Miller finishes up, in walks Jimi. He says, “You wanna jam, man?” I said, “Yeah. Well, wait, we have a loft.” The club was up in the ’70s. The loft was on 36th St. I knew we had amps there.
He says, “Let’s go in my limo and get some amps.” So we went down there, on 36th St., and then the roadies were living there, in the loft where all the equipment was. Bangin’ on the door. It was one in the morning, deserted down there at nighttime. All of a sudden, my road manager, Mick Brigden, who now manages Joe Satriani, he says, “What do you want?” I said “Mick, open the fuckin’ door.”
And he opens the door and who’s standing there, it was me and Hendrix. Jimi had the hat on, the fringe, the whole thing. He grabs one of Felix’s basses, played it upside down, and got a couple of Marshall cabinets, put them in the limo and we went back and jammed. It was something I’ll never forget.
Larry Coryell: Those were the days, I guess. I will never forget, around 1968, being in Hendrix’s limo in heavy, really heavy New York City traffic, listening to “Hey Jude” on the radio. Jimi took out his pencil and scribbled something on a piece of paper and “Crosstown Traffic” was born.
Jimi was very humble with his success. He told me he was very surprised that he became so popular, so famous. My reply was, “You earned it, Jimi, with your music.”
David Crosby: He could play dinosaurs fighting. He could play a war. He could play children crying. He was the guy. He’s still … the guy.