Hendrix’s development to global superstardom was the result of time spent in NYC
It was like that crossroads in a Robert Johnson song for me: The first time I had a chance to compare notes and record collections with the guitarist who then went by Jimmy Hendrix – the Jimi came later – was after a gig at the Gaslight Cafe in Greenwich Village that he played with John Hammond Jr. at the end of the summer of 1966. I didn’t know it then, but there on the steps leading down to that cave of a club was my first brush with a genius whose music became a central part of my life, and today, over 46 years after his passing on September 18, 1970, Jimi Hendrix continues to mesmerize millions worldwide.
It was a heady if not utterly magical time in music as well as an underground culture that would soon erupt into the mainstream. And nowhere was that more evident than in the longtime lower Manhattan bohemian enclave of Greenwich Village. It was already known as the Ground Zero of a folk music revival that was yielding not just stars but soon-to-be legends like Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul & Mary and Simon & Garfunkel.
But that was just a part of the music, literature and art that could be found in the small clubs, cafes and coffee houses of what we all simply referred to as “The Village.” Creativity, cultural change and a sense of boundless possibility crackled through the air in that Manhattan neighborhood like ozone after a lightning strike.
The popular myth is largely that Hendrix became the groundbreaking artist we now know after he decamped for England later that year. However, I can attest from having been there and known Jimi during his brief but critical time in The Village that it’s where he just as much and maybe more so evolved into the artist and personality that would become a musical and cultural icon.
Mystical Artist in a Magical Place
I’d been frequenting Greenwich Village since my time at Rabbi Jacob Joseph High School on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, both after school and cutting school in 1963 to spend time in a far more educational milieu, given my interest in blues music.
By 1965 I was worshipping every Tuesday night at the Gaslight, where Dave Van Ronk held court in a weekly residency. Known as “The Mayor of Macdougal Street” for his dominion over the epicenter of the Village music scene, Van Ronk had a breadth musical knowledge that went far beyond the sometimes narrow “folk” confines of that scene into a breadth of American styles.
The dark and intimate basement club looked and felt a good bit like the one shown in Inside Llewyn Davis (loosely based on aspects of Van Ronk’s life). It was certainly not your usual folk gig when I first saw Hendrix sitting in with Hammond at the Gaslight.
It was across the street from his customary perch at the Café Wha? – a “basket house” where Jimi played for spare change, riffing on all the Otis Rush and Albert King songs he’d studied off records – the same records that I had in my collection. The set by Hammond and “Jimmy James” – the moniker he adopted for his first group the Blue Flames with Randy Wolfe aka California, later of Spirit – was a nasty, amped-up performance of rural country-blues and deep Chicago blues songs from the repertoire of Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson and Howlin Wolf, most of them off of Hammond’s seminal 1965 So Many Roads album, which Hendrix knew intimately, having studied it intensely. On it Hammond was backed by Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm and Garth Hudson – later to become The Band – along with Mike Bloomfield on piano (not guitar) and “Memphis Charlie” Musselwhite on harp.
It was truly a privilege to be among the 30 or so people that night who were digging these two urban bluesmen playing the shit out of these songs on electric guitars. They worked out on a version of Muddy’s “Long Distance Call” that was so rockin’ yet fun at the same time. Hammond provided the rock-steady rhythm and the authentic vocals, and Jimi just wailed and wailed on his Stratocaster. What I remember most about that one was Jimi’s characteristic guitar talking technique. The song (about adultery – what else?) has a refrain where on Muddy’s version he repeats almost yodel-like the phrase “sounds like you got another mu-u-ule, kickin’ in your stall” a few times before the finish. The way Jimi handled it, the mule part was done on the D string of the guitar, repeated with a lot of sustain and a bona fide working mojo. It was the kind of thing Jimi was known for offstage as well. He was rarely without a guitar in his hands, and if you were having a conversation with him, he was just as likely to “talk” with the guitar as with his lips. “Howyadoin?” “Wha-wow.”
They rocked the tiny house and got up a major sweat on the Johnny Shines version of “Ramblin Blues,” with no drum kit but a steady toe-tap from John providing the beat and Jimi, again, wailing on those distinctive 12-bar lead lines that punctuate the song. And they both got excited when they lit into Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man,” with its “Can’t you hear me when I call” refrain.
They were killin’ it that night. I’d seen Hammond with his acoustic guitar playing these tunes on that tiny stage, but this electrified version was… yes… cosmic. My soul was instantly psychedelicized. I had to know what it must have been like for these guys to learn this music – much of which I knew from wearing down the grooves of records on the Chess label but also on platters put out by Vanguard, notably, a three-record set called Chicago/The Blues/Today!
After they set their guitars down for a break, I got up the gumption to have a conversation with Hendrix about the records we had in common. As gritty and fierce as he appeared on stage, the man I sat with that night was a study in contrasts. He had a mystical, soft-spoken air about him, and an intense gaze that kind of misted over when he was apparently reliving the epiphanies he’d gained from these pieces of vinyl. We were like two kids from opposite sides of the universe hovering over a stack of comic books.
Jimi was into some of the same guys from the three-record Chicago/The Blues… set that I was, notably Johnny Shines, Otis Rush and J.B. Hutto & His Hawks. I was a budding blues harmonica player from the Bronx who used these same records to learn my licks and fills, and was partial to The Junior Wells Chicago Blues Band, featuring Buddy Guy on guitar, which was on Volume 1. Wells’ rendition of “Help Me (A Tribute to Sonny Boy Williamson)” was a constant on my record player, and Sonny Boy II was my master in much the same way as Muddy, Albert King, Elmore James and The Wolf were Jimi’s.
We also talked about our mutual love for John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Muddy’s The Real Folk Blues and More Real Folk Blues. He told me he loved the “real” folk blues of the title and inspired me to play from the heart so that I became my instrument.
“Sure, man, you know,” he said in that syrupy, not-quite stoned but beautiful voice, “‘Killin’ Floor’ is a revelation. It’s not about a slaughterhouse at all, you know. It really is about one of [Howlin’] Wolf’s wives who shot him full of buckshot. She had him down on the Killin’ Floor and he should have quit her a long time ago.”
Another bit of etymology he divulged was the origin of the term “freak.” It’s West Coast slang for doing the nasty in the back seat of a car. He later adapted the term to denote his hippyish appearance, as in “letting my freak flag fly.” Hendrix had arrived in New York in late 1965, having played with King Curtis & The King Pins, The Isley Brothers and Little Richard.
The evolution of his flamboyant style was happening then, and it flowered in The Village. Photos of Jimi as a sideman with these groups show him wearing the mohair suit and skinny-tie uniform, but Little Richard was his crucible. He dared to show up onstage with a fancy frilly shirt and got fined for it. “I am Little Richard. I am the King of Rock’n’Rhythm and I’m the only one who’s going to look pretty on stage… you will please turn in those shirts or else you will have to suffer the consequences.”
Then there was another meeting about Jimi’s hairstyle. Jimi wasn’t going to let anybody cut his hair, so after five months with Richard, he was gone. When he landed in Harlem, his unique style was already developed, and his hair was really long. He suffered mightily from the taunts of the locals – “Oooh what is this, Black Jesus?” “Is the circus in town?”– to the extent that he had to flee, stung by the disrespect from his own people. He fled to The Village where he felt at home, soaking up everything like a sponge and hanging with the groovy people.
Hendrix confesses in the excellent autobiography Jimi Hendrix Starting At Zero: His Own Story, compiled by Alan Douglas, that while Harlem was cold and mean to the nascent freakazoid with the long hair, people in Greenwich Village were more friendly. “The Village was groovy. I always had the feeling that, if my mind was right, I’d get a break someday. It took a long time, knocking around and playing a lot of dates that didn’t pay very well, but I figure it was worth it. Oh man! I don’t think I could have stood another year of playing behind people.”
They talk about me like a dog
Talkin’ about the clothes I wear
But they don’t realize they’re the ones who’s square
And that’s why
You can’t hold me down
I don’t want to be tied down, I gotta move
Stone free to do what I please
Stone free to ride the breeze
Stone free, baby I can’t stay
I got to got to got to get away
– “Stone Free”
And The Village was where his luck changed. John Hammond booked himself and Jimmy James and the Blue Flames into a two-week stint at The Cafe au Go Go in September of ’66. That was the next time I got to experience Hendrix in all his showman’s glory. I haunted that place, and on more than one night I got to witness the once and future king playing all his tricks coming from the heart, as he had told me to do. Hammond, Jimmy James and the Blue Flames were augmented by a revolving roster of keyboard players like Barry Goldberg and Al Kooper.
“We were playing the stuff I played – some Bo Diddley tunes, some Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf stuff, pretty much straight blues,” Hammond said in the landmark September 1985 Guitar World “ “Special Tribute to the World’s Greatest Guitar Player Ever!” issue that I edited, “Jimi just took off on guitar – this was without wah-wah pedals and without electronic stuff, no feedback or anything. He was just a real dynamo, an electrifying performer: his stage presence was just on fire. He strutted all his stuff. He played with his teeth, and he played behind his back, played it upside down, in his pants [laughs], the whole bit.”
I was in a prime spot just five feet away from Hendrix on one of those nights. What I remember is, yes, all this energy and pyrotechnics, but without the all-over-the-stage movement that came later and which we know from the proliferation of all the YouTube videos we have today. It was all concentrated in this vertical presence, tap-dancing and vibrating up-and-down rather than laterally and spherically.
Listen to Jimmy James and the Blue Flames perform “I’m a Man” in 1966
The place had a low ceiling, and sometimes it seemed the neck of his Stratocaster was aimed like a rocket poised to go through the roof. I remember thinking – and telling my pals later – that he was some kind of amped-up incarnation of Muddy Waters in a slim, six-foot frame, somehow making all this beautiful noise and playing it straight from the heart. He was at that moment what he was on every stage until the day that he died: a genuine musician who was one with his instrument to the point that it spoke through him and all his ideas and spirit were laid bare for anyone to see. Alan Douglas, producer of a number of posthumous Hendrix albums, put it this way: “Jimi’s appeal is his mystical, metaphysical presence.”
The Cafe au Go Go gig proved to be historic – that was where members of The Beatles, Stones and Animals as well as Bob Dylan came down to check him out. And his all-too-brief life entered its next historical chapter.
The Village As Cultural Incubator
Within but a few blocks of narrow streets lined with brownstones and tenement apartment buildings, underground movements were simmering, soon to bubble up into the mainstream. Hendrix and I wound up in this same vibrant place at the same time – he from the rainy steppes of Seattle by way of public transportation, the U.S. Army and the Chitlin’ Circuit, and me from the sad streets of the Bronx via the D Train to the West Fourth Street station on the IND line – both of us young sponges absorbing all the vibrant musical and cultural currents coursing through Greenwich Village (not unlike another eager young sponge, Bob Dylan, had done there a few years earlier).
We both rubbed elbows with a youth counterculture shifting from the Beats of the 1950s into the hippies of the mid-to-late ’60s. The finger-snapping beatnik poets in the clubs were being supplanted by the folk music movement, which in turn was feeling the effects of rock music.
In 1965 and ’66 along Macdougal Street and onto Bleecker Street the entertainment could be Lenny Bruce and Allen Ginsburg or Van Ronk, Tim Hardin and Richie Havens. At the Cafe Wha?, acts like those above as well as Richard Pryor, Woody Allen and even Bob Dylan passed the hat before Hendrix did. Bands like The Blues Project, Lovin’ Spoonful and Youngbloods were starting out. Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention would soon set up residency in the Garrick Theatre above the Cafe au Go Go. The Fugs were uniting the Beat consciousness with the new rock elements and more. Jazz could be heard at The Village Gate, Blue Note and Village Vanguard. Then there was the Kettle of Fish, a small bar on Macdougal that served as the local pub for members of all the various scenes and movements.
Other than the hidebound folkies and narrowly-focused obsessives within the aspects of this bohemian haven, most of us were voraciously taking in the full smorgasbord that also included books we would hip each other to and pass around, art (especially the Abstract Expressionists who preceded us in The Village), cinema,… all of it, really. The times they were indeed a-changin’, and the energy was palpable. Something new and compelling was coming into play, maybe best expressed as simply modernity.
The Once & Future Scene
I also came to know Hendrix vicariously in 1965 through some of my friends in the rock band scene who came home with stories about this jam at The Scene or The Peppermint Lounge or one of the studios around town that Hendrix showed up at, wowing most everyone not only with his astonishing guitar work but also his near-boundless enthusiasm and appetite for music and playing it. Most notably my buddies in The Druids: Carl Hauser, Billy Cross and David Budge. Their band may have largely receded into the the mists of history, but at the time they were an integral part of the local music community,
As Hauser recalls, “Jimi was a friend before he went off to England. We met him when he played a gig with a cover band fronted by Curtis Knight at Ondine’s, where The Druids were the ‘house band’ for a lot of ’66 to ’67. When Curtis ran afoul of the police he had to leave town in a hurry (reportedly related to the girls with blond beehives who worked out of his Coupe de Ville with Connecticut plates that was parked outside the club). So Curtis’ band was out and the Druids went back in for the next couple of weeks. During that time Jimi was sleeping on our singer David’s couch reading books of poetry that B.T. Tracy, the other guitar in the Druids, fed him.
David Budge, son of the tennis star Don Budge who later became a music journalist and record company executive, was “the luckiest of the Druid gang because I got to spend the most time with him,” he enthuses. “I first met him when he was Little Richard’s lead guitarist at a huge fraternity mixer at Syracuse University in ’65. After the gig, I bumped into him at the Orange Tavern and he invited me to sit down and share some beer and pizza with him after I’d gushed praise for five minutes. Two months later I ran into him in Times Square where he was exiting a theatre with his date, Mary Wells. He told me he was putting a band together, and I lied, telling him I was a drummer, ’cause I wanted to play with him so much. ‘Come on up to room 762 at the Hilton. We’re rehearsing,’ he suggested with a laugh. I never showed.
“My next encounter was at Ondine’s where Carl and I showed up to catch the Curtis Knight & The Squires soundcheck. Club manager Brad Pierce had informed us we’d be sharing the bill, so we were obviously curious. When Jimi walked in he spotted me and said, ‘Hey man, how come you never showed up at the Hilton?’ That was a year earlier, but he remembered. I replied, “Because I never could and still can’t play drums.” We both laughed and they finished soundcheck.
“During their stint with us at Ondine’s, Curtis Knight was ‘unable’ to pay the band, and Jimi got tossed from the Belleclaire Hotel on West 77th Street. My parents’ apartment on East 57th Street, two blocks from Ondine’s, was the obvious solution to Jimi’s problem. My Dad was away in Jamaica running his tennis camp. My brother was with him. Mom was on assignment for Look magazine interviewing Roger Maris. The pad was in my hands and Jimi was soon crashing on the couch. At the end of an Ondine’s night, we’d grab a half-pound of cheap weed and roll up a few joints. He’d then commence to play, seemingly random stuff, but ultimately he was laying some of the groundwork for the Experience’s debut album. I took the opportunity to beg him to teach me guitar and he went to considerable trouble to make that happen. Finally, he told me the awful truth: ‘Listen, man. Do me a favor and stick to singing.'”
“We all knew Jimi,” explains guitarist Billy Cross, who now lives in Denmark, where he is a superstar, kind of the Scandinavian Bob Dylan, as it were (and later played guitar with Dylan on the Rolling Thunder and Street Legal tours as well as recordings at the time). “I first met him at Harlequin Sound, a rehearsal studio on 46th and Broadway, in the summer of 1965 when a booker for whom The Walkers were auditioning brought us downstairs to hear “how it should be done,” namely Curtis Knight with Jimi. Jimi was very sweet and gave me some pointers until he was whisked away in the back seat of a Cadillac convertible sitting between two whores with big bouffant hair styles. He was playing a Fender Duo-Sonic and stylistically sounding like what ‘The Wind Cries Mary’ would become in two years.”
“So we got to know him well,” says Carl, who in those days had a ponytail down to his ass but today is a visiting professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School. “Jimi was a sweet man, and had a real thirst for culture that wasn’t apparent to the world, like the poetry of Rimbaud that B.T. gave him from which ‘Purple Haze’ is taken – read Le Bateau Ivre…. We lost track of him when Chas Chandler took him to England, and I next ran into him in L.A. where we were recording, just before his breakout gig at the Whiskey. We spent some time together there, but after that, we saw him less and less, mostly late nights at the Scene when he was recording in NYC.
Grad School in the College of Musical Knowledge
The notion of The Village as Jimi’s graduate school where he not only perfected his craft and jammed with everybody on the scene is taken to yet another level by the influence of Bob Dylan on his music. He only met him once, just up the stairs from the Gaslight at the Kettle of Fish around the same time that I first met Hendrix. But, like Dylan in his early Village years, Jimi was a sponge, absorbing everything he heard, devouring anything he could read and picking up techniques like the practice of always having a pad or piece of paper to write things down that would become the germs of songs. He was also inspired by Dylan to sing.
“When I was down in the Village, Bob Dylan was also starving down there,” Hendrix later recalled. “I saw him one time, but both of us were stoned out of our minds thanks to demon ale. It was at this place called the Kettle of Fish. We were both stoned and hung around laughing. Yeah, we just laughed.
“When I first heard Dylan I thought, you must admire the guy for having that much nerve to sing so out of key. But then I started listening to the words. That sold me,” he noted.
“I used to get bored so quickly by anybody and everything. That’s why I went towards Dylan, because he offered me something completely new. He used to have a pad with him all the time to put down what he saw around him. I could never write the kinds of words he does, but he’s helped me out in trying to write. Now I have a little more confidence in finishing these songs.”
Coming Full Circle
In September of 1966, The Animals were playing their last gig as a group in Central Park. Bassist Chas Chandler had already decided to give up playing and make use of his hard-won experience during the band’s run and become an artist manager and record producer. Hendrix’s friend Linda Keith suggested he head down to the Cafe au Go Go and check out Jimi during his stand there backing Hammond.
Here’s how Jimi describes that key moment: “Chas came down and heard me in the Village and asked would I like to come over to England and start a group there. He seemed like a pretty sincere guy, and I’d never been to England before. I said, I might as well go, because that’s the way I live my life.”
The gig ended on September 22, 1966, and the next day he was on a plane to London. He immediately galvanized the London scene, wowing its leading guitar lights Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page along with The Beatles, Stones and all the rest of the English rock scene, really,
In May the following year Hendrix released Are You Experienced and shot his way into superstardom. I’m convinced that his rapid rise was powered by all that he learned and the creative growth that happened in The Village and New York City.
When he returned to the Village in 1968, there was a swagger to Hendrix that he didn’t have before, and he was now treated like rock royalty. But his deep spirituality and humility was still equally present. He got an apartment downtown and eventually bought a basement nightclub on West Eighth Street where he could continue to indulge his taste for frequent jamming, now on his own home turf. He even played the Gaslight again with John Hammond Jr., but this time alongside Eric Clapton.
Since Jimi was by now going full throttle creatively and spending a small fortune on recording studio fees, he eventually decided to convert the club space into his own state-of-the-art recording facility, sparing no expense, where he could create music whenever he wished to his heart’s content – Electric Lady Studios (see our On This Day item on it here).
Hendrix spent only four weeks recording at Electric Lady while the final phases of construction were still ongoing. It officially opened on August 26, 1970, when he attended the opening party. The following day Hendrix created his last-ever studio recording, an instrumental known only as “Slow Blues.”
Soon thereafter he departed for Europe to perform at the Isle of Wight Festival and what would be his final festival performance at the Isle of Fehmarn in Germany. On September 16, he sat in with Eric Burdon and his newly-formed band War at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, playing on “Tobacco Road” and “Mother Earth.” This was the last time Hendrix played guitar in public. Two days later he was dead at age 27.
Hendrix left such a rich legacy of music that in some ways it’s almost as if he is still alive today. I am believe that he came back to The Village to make it his home base because it had been where he finally felt like he could be himself, both as a musical entity and a person. It’s hard to resist speculating all that might have followed had Jimi lived. And I feel incredibly blessed to have met the man and witnessed his mind-blowing talent that transformed Hendrix into what remains a musical and cultural icon, coming into its own 50 years ago.
Adapted from the first chapter of Hendrix Now! Backstory of a Legend, a Jimi Hendrix Foundation project by Noe Gold, soon to come from a major publisher. Quotes from Starting At Zero © 2013, Gravity Limited, used by permission.
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