Today marks the 70th anniversary of the birth of one of the greatest and most influential popular musicians of the 20th century, James Marshall Hendrix. Reflecting on this fact makes one wonder what is harder to believe: that he would have been so old, or that the incredible music he created and performed in his youth could ever have been "popular" with a wide audience.
The story of Hendrix's short life and drug- and alcohol-related death from asphyxiation on 18 September 1970 is as well-known as it is tragic. What endures, however, is his musical legacy, established by his three studio albums with his English band, The Jimi Hendrix Experience — all of which Rolling Stone Magazine ranked among the top 100 of all time (I myself ranked his debut, Are You Experienced?, number 27) — and single live album, Band of Gypsies, recorded with Buddy Miles and Billy Cox. Simply put, for any young, real music-appreciating lad growing up in the late '60s and early '70s, there were many guitar heroes, but two stood head and shoulders above the rest: Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. Clapton was known and revered as a blues purist through his work with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, The Yardbirds, and — despite its psychedelic excursions — Cream. Hendrix, on the other hand, while reared in the blues and R&B (even having backed Ike and Tina Turner and Little Richard), was more experimental, ultimately expanding beyond the blues and psychedelic rock to funk and fusion. To me, it was this visionary quality that is his real legacy. Younger readers might remember the late Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Dallas-reared guitarist who was the last artist to take the blues into the mainstream of popular music. Well, without Jimi Hendrix there would never have been Stevie Ray Vaughan, at least the Stevie Ray as we remember him. And Stevie was all too willing to acknowledge it.
Experimentation aside, Jimi could still play the straight blues with the best of them. I leave you with a clip of his classic slow blues, "Red House," recorded live in Stockholm on 9 January 1969 (for the studio version, see here):