By Oscar Jordan III
It still astonishes me when I meet people I consider knowledgeable who have no clue about Jimi Hendrix and his role in American music history. When you mention the name to them, “Acid Rock” is about all that comes to their mind. That, and the sound of screaming guitars, headbands, Woodstock, and the Star Spangled Banner. Others who are a bit more knowledgeable can name a few songs they like, an album, or perpetuate the myth that he died of a drug overdose. To them he is at best a best a Trivial Pursuit question. Someone who may be worthy of a tiny footnote somewhere in the dusty volumes of the Encyclopedia Brittanica for playing loud. Even among Hendrix fans, there are those who don’t know that before he became famous he played with some of the top R&B; and Blues acts in the world, bumped elbows with Rock and Roll legends, and witnessed as well as participated in the birth of an international musical evolution. The lessons he learned were firsthand. While most musicians like Eric Clapton and a host of other guitarists got their education from hours of copying licks and voraciously listening to records of their heroes, Jimi Hendrix walked among these heroes and was one of them. He was a very gifted guitarist and songwriter, but worked hard for it. He didn’t come out of nowhere or pop out of the ground with his first album “Are You Experienced”. It was a long hard road before he got there. Let me tell you about the Chitlin’ Circuit.
Chitlins’ or Chitterlings, depending where you were brought up, are pig intestines. A delicacy with it’s origins in the America South that branched out as African Americans moved to other parts of the United States and abroad. What was once the cheapest food available that slave masters threw away as kitchen scraps to their slaves, is now a staple part of the Black community’s soul food menu. Cooked for many hours and spiced to taste, some people can’t live without it. Especially during the holiday season.
The Chitlin Circuit was a string of music venues in the South that sold chitlins’ and other soul food dishes. In the late 50’s and early 60’s these tours were crucial to Black artists like B.B. King, Solomon Burke, James Brown, and Jackie Wilson to name a few. Because there was no media coverage for these artists, the Chitlin’ Circuit was the only way to perform for their fans.
On July 2, 1962 an eighteen year old Jimi Hendrix was discharged from the United States Army and stood outside the gates of Fort Campbell at the Tennessee-Kentucky border with a duffel bag and three hundred dollars in his pocket. He went into a Jazz bar and came out with only sixteen dollars to his name. He was supposed to go back to his home town of Seattle, but no longer had the money to get there. He had to find work, and the only thing he could do was play guitar. He had recently sold his guitar to an Army buddy and decided to go back on base to find the man he sold it to. He begged the man until he gave it back to him as a loan.
Jimi took up residence in Clarksdale and looked for work while he waited for his Army buddy and bassist Billy Cox to get discharged. They were in a band together and played various venues performing pop and R&B; on base and in Clarksville as The Casuals. The name of the band later changed to The King Casuals. When Billy Cox was discharged after a few months they took the band to Nashville to play at the Del Morocco in Nashville. This was only the beginning. Jimi played where he could and he and Billy eventually joined another band called W&W; Man. Like musicians today they were taken advantage of and cheated out of their hard earned money. It was then that Jimi felt cocky and decided to take a stab at New York City. He entered, competed, and won $25.00 at the Apollo amateur contest. After starving there for a few weeks, he returned to Clarksville to reform The King Casuals.
In December of 1962 Jimi moved to Vancouver to stay with his grandmother and joined a popular R&B; band in the area called Bobbie Taylor and the Vancouvers. One of the singers in the band was Tommy Chong of Cheech and Chong fame. In the Spring of 1963 Jimi returned to the South to Mississippi and was hired to play dates with Slim Harpo and Tommy Tucker who wrote “High Heel Sneakers”. Jimi was part of their backing band and got his first taste of the Chitlin’ Circuit.
Most guitarists do all sorts of other jobs to keep mind and body together just to get that one gig or that one recording session. Then they go back to doing whatever put food on the table waiting for the next opportunity. Jimi was so employable. He simply hopped from one band to the next having already assimilated all the pop and R&B; hits at the time. He wasn’t just good. He was really really good. He had to be or he wouldn’t be working. And if you don’t work, you don’t eat.
In April of 1963 he returned to Nashville and joined another R&B; band called The Imperials. Later The King Casuals reformed, and yet even later, Jimi returned to the Chitlin’ Circuit to do a tour backing up Slim Harpo, Carla Lewis, Ironing Board Sam, and Nappy Brown. After the tour, Jimi joined Bob Fisher and the Barnesvilles. It was in this band that he played co-guitar with guitarist Larry Lee. They became long time friends and Larry eventually wound up playing with Jimi as the second guitarist at Woodstock. It was this band that later backed up The Marvelettes, Motown’s first girl group and became a support group for a tour with Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions in Kentucky. People wonder where Jimi got his light touch for songs like “Little Wing”. Well we can thank Curtis Mayfield for his influence.
In the Winter of 63′ Jimi got his share of broken promises and shattered dreams. A man saw him perform in a club and told him that if he came to New York he could get him a record deal. The man had some pull in New York and guaranteed Jimi that if he could only make it out there it would be the beginning of his fabulous recording career. It was winter time and Jimi didn’t even own a coat. He borrowed Larry Lee’s winter coat and headed out to the big apple. Well it was a pipe dream needless to say and Jimi was stuck in New York to starve a second time. On the way there he ended up playing and recording with Lonnie “Young Blood” Thomas in Philadelphia.
While still in New York in early 1964, Jimi met future girl friend Fayne Pridgon who was Sam Cooke’s ex-girl friend. She got him back stage at the Apollo to meet Sam with the hopes of getting him a job with the band. He didn’t get it, but the word spread that Jimi could play some mean guitar. It was perfect timing because The Isley Brothers were looking for a new guitarist. They bought him new strings for his guitar (He only had four of the six strings left), and began touring with them in the South, East, and Midwest. Later they recorded “Move Over And Let Me Dance”, “Have You Ever Been Disappointed”, “Looking for a Love” and “The Last Girl” with Dionne Warwick on backup vocals.
By November/December of 1964 after touring countless cities with The Isley Brothers they had a falling out and Jimi decided to move on. Fortunately he met up with Gorgeous George Odell who was on the same tour with Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, and BB King. Wouldn’t you just love to be a fly on the wall during that tour? Moving from state to state with all your belongings in a big bus throughout the South, with the greats of R&B; and Blues. Don’t get me started about the after hours jams! The mind reels!
Also on the tour were The Valentinos with Harry and Bobby Womack. As the story goes, Harry Womack threw Jimi’s guitar out of the tour bus window because he thought Jimi stole his money. Jimi was asleep and awoke to find his guitar gone. It brought him to tears. Jimi pleaded innocent to the charges.
When he arrived in Memphis with the Sarm Cooke tour Jimi met up with Steve Cropper Guitarist for Booker T and the MGs. Steve was a clean soulful guitarist and had written the hits “Green Onions”, “Dock of the Bay”, and “Knock on Wood”. They had mutual admiration for each other and went into the studio to record, jam, and learn from each other.
“Steve Cropper turned me on millions of years ago, and I turned him on millions of years ago too, but because of different songs. He turned me on to a lot of things. He showed me how to play certain songs and I showed him how I played “Mercy, Mercy”, or something like that…”
There are tapes of this somewhere and from what I’ve heard it’s awesome. This is where Jimi got a lot of his Soul/country ideas from. As he traveled he soaked up guitar styles like a sponge. Listen to the guitar solo on “The Wind Cries Mary” and you’ll hear what I’m talking about. Jimi was more than just Blues or Rock. He was American Music all rolled into one guitar, a melting pot of styles.
That same month Jimi missed the bus for the Sam Cooke tour in Kansas City. Stranded, he got help from Gorgeous George Odell to get him to Atlanta where he met up with Little Richard and his band The Upsetters. At this time Jimi was going under the name Maurice James and becomes Little Richard’s valet for the tour. Later Jimi got promoted to become his guitarist. This was a tough time for Jimi because like in all the other bands he was in he was told to stay in the background and just play the music. Being as open and flamboyant as he was he couldn’t hold back and would sometimes steal the spot light from Little Richard. Tempers flared and the members of the band were told to dress alike and stay in the background. They couldn’t wear anything that brought attention to themselves. These kind of episodes would be the catalyst for Jimi’s hip and over the top stage wear in later years. It must have been a pain in the ass, but on the upside he got to tour and jam with B.B. King who was one of the acts on the tour.
While on tour in January of 65′, Jimi met up with Texas guitarist and Blues man Albert Collins in Houston. They became good friends and Albert even took over for Jimi in Little Richard’s band when he left to go to Los Angeles. All the while Jimi had his sites on moving to the next level. He had dreams and premonitions but where they true? Did they mean anything? Or were they just silly dreams and fantasies that everyone gets about making it in the big time.
“I had these dreams that something was gonna happen seeing the number 1966 in my sleep, so I was just passing time til then. I wanted my own scene, making my music, not playing the same riffs. Like once with Little Richard, me and another guy got fancy shirts cause we were tired of wearing the same uniform. Richard called a meeting. “I am Little Richard, I am Little Richard, he said, the King, the King of Rock and Rhythm, I am the only one allowed to be pretty! Take off those shirts!” Man, it was all like that. Bad pay, lousy living, and getting burned.”
In February of 65′ while Jimi was in LA he met up with Arthur Lee, a Black musician/songwriter who had an interracial band in LA that was getting a lot of local attention. The band, Arthur Lee and Love, was looking for a guitar player to record a song that he had written for female singer Rosa Lee Brooks. He wanted to find a guitar player who could give him a mellow Curtis Mayfield vibe like on the song “People Get Ready”. A friend of Arthur’s had heard Jimi play and recommended him for the session. They became fast friends and recorded “My Diary” and “Utee”.
In March Jimi got back together with Little Richard, played some dates in LA and recorded “I Don’t Know What You Got But It’s Got Me”. He later quit Little Richard again and auditioned for The Ike and Tina Turner Review. After a few shows he joined the Drifters for a short time only to return to Little Richard in April. Talk about a resume! Jimi played with everybody who was anybody on the R&B; circuit. Albert Collins must have been going nuts! Every time Jimi decided to come back to Little Richard, Collins was out of a job! Jimi must have been something else back then to be able to come and go the way he did. I don’t think they would have put up with someone with less talent. Eventually this too would come to an end. In June of 65′ Jimi missed the tour bus in Washington DC and they fired him. Apparently Jimi was always late and a basic pain in the ass for one reason or another. A tour managers nightmare.
In October while in New York Jimi met Curtis Knight who had a band called Curtis Knight and the Squires. Jimi joined the band. Curtis in turn introduces him to producer Ed Chalpin who signs him to a three year contract with PPX Inc. This signing would haunt Jimi years later with legal battles and force him to put together The Band of Gypsies and record the concert simply to honor this contract. Good for us. Bad for him. Jimi was a squirrel looking for a nut. He had nothing but his personality, his guitar, and his way with women to get him through the next day. He was constantly broke, had no place of his own most of the time, and resorted to the kindness of women he could sweet talk and who felt sorry for him. He also signed a lot of other contracts too. He never looked down the road at the possible legal hassels that would effect him later. He was hoping something would pan out. The bait was that when he did sign they usually gave him a cash advance up front which was better than being broke.
“People would say If you don’t get a job you’ll just starve to death. But I didn’t want to take a job outside music. I tried a few jobs, including car delivery, but I always quit after a week or so…”
During this time in New York Jimi recorded a song called “Suey” with Jane Mansfield and in November joined Joey Dee and The Starlighters. It was with them that he met guitar legend and inventor Les Paul in a night club in Lodi, New Jersey. He jumped bands a lot and was back with Curtis Knight and the Squires only to leave them again and join The King Curtis Band with Cornell Dupree on guitar and Chuck Rainey on bass. This lasted for six months, the highlight being recording sessions and playing a party at Atlantic records backing up Percy Sledge and Wilson Picket in May. Jimi made quite an impression on Wilson Picket and he still remembers him playing behind him at that party to this very day.
Jimi was tired being everybody’s backup guitar player. He knew he had to go it alone and perform his own material. He quit the band and joined Carl Holmes and the Commanders for a short time playing in Gettysburg Pennsylvania. His last gig with them was at the Cheetah in New York.
Greenwich village was the place where Jimi would find other like-minded creative individuals who would help him to find himself and push his music to the forefront. He jammed and sat in with everyone, including guitarist Roy Buchanan, Bob Dylan, Richie Havens, and John Hammond Jr . He got himself a solo gig at Cafe Wah?, and later formed a group at the Night Owl Café. First called The Rainflowers, he changed the name to Jimmy James and the Blue Flames. Two of the members were Randy California on guitar, who would later find success with the band Spirit, and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter on bass, who would later join Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers.
Keith Richard’s girl friend Linda Keith saw Jimi at The Club Cheetah one night with his band. There was something about him that impressed her. Later she brought Chas Chandler to see him. Chas Chandler was the bassist for The Animals and was looking to begin managing and producing. Jimi was finally discovered. The rest is history.
This is a heavily summarized version of Jimi’s Chitlin’ Circuit years. Many details and juicy tid-bits are missing: The womanizing, the violence, illegitimate children, racism, and all the in-between stuff that gives you the full scope of a persons life. Then there’s the meetings he had with Albert King, James Brown, Chuck Berry, and everyone at Chess records in Chicago including Muddy Waters. To sum up a portion of a persons life in detail in a series of highlights is impossible. It’s those in between moments that make us who we are. Those things are missing here. If you want detail go to your book store and find “Electric Gypsy” by Harry Shapiro and Caesar Glebbeek. What I wanted to do was shed some light on the past of a great man and to look at some of the events in his life that led up to his fame and worldwide recognition. Jimi Hendrix’s success was no fluke. He was there at the right time at the right place rubbing elbows with the music greats, while working diligently to find his own voice. Never stooping to merely copy, but to expand and build on the gifts of his predecessors.