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Before he was a headliner, Jimi Hendrix was a hired hand

Long before he kissed the sky or asked us if we were experienced, Jimi Hendrix was a sideman in service to others.

By Lee Zimmerman

Given Jimi Hendrix's reputation as one of popular music's most celebrated innovators, it’s almost hard to imagine him in the role as a sideman in service to others.

During his brief reign as rock’s most dazzling guitarist and incendiary showman, he made very few appearances beyond his own musical domain. But before he hit it big, Hendrix paid his dues as a hired hand — until he was “discovered” by Animals bassist Chas Chandler, who whisked him off to London, where the rest, as they say, is history.
Hendrix’s early days found him involved with any number of obscure outfits that never made any impact. His first gig — with an unnamed band that performed in the basement of a Seattle synagogue — was short lived; Hendrix was fired between sets due to his antics. The first real band he was involved in was called The Velvetones, a local outfit that performed without pay. He then graduated to The Rocking Kings, a professional gig that finally allowed him to earn a paycheck.

 Long before Jimi Hendrix wowed Monterey Pop Festivalgoers with his incredible guitar work, he was working in backing bands and even had a stint in the U.S. Army. This limited-edition signed photo (No. 3 of 100) by Karl Ferris sold for $717 at auction in July 2011. Photo courtesy Heritage Auction Galleries.

Long before Jimi Hendrix wowed Monterey Pop Festivalgoers with his incredible guitar work, he was working in backing bands and even had a stint in the U.S. Army. This limited-edition signed photo (No. 3 of 100) by Karl Ferris sold for $717 at auction in July 2011. Photo courtesy Heritage Auction Galleries.

During a brief stint in the U.S. Army — a judge gave youthful offender Hendrix the choice between a prison sentence and military service — Hendrix met friend, bassist and future collaborator Billy Cox. The pair were in a loose ensemble called The Casuals. Army documents posted at indicate that Hendrix was far more interested in making music and sleeping than he was in being a soldier.

After being discharged from the Army, Cox and Hendrix relocated to Clarksville, Tenn. They began looking for work, keeping the name The Casuals until learning there was another outfit with the same name, which precipitated the group’s name change to the King Kasuals.

Hendrix played all over the South during the next couple of years, often backing various R&B and blues bands on The Chitlin Circuit. He appeared with artists who later gained distinguished pedigrees of their own — Chuck Jackson, Slim Harpo, Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson.

Jimi Hendrix Nicknames

In 1964, Hendrix decided to try his luck in New York City, playing the local club scene and winning first prize at the Apollo Theater in an amateur contest. He was then offered a position with The Isley Brothers, which provided him the opportunity to contribute to his first studio session, cutting the guitar tracks for the Isleys’ single “Testify,” released the following June.

Wanderlust took control again, and Hendrix left the Isleys for an offer to join Little Richard’s band, a gig he kept through the first part of 1965. During one of the band’s stopovers in L.A., he took part in a session for Rosa Lee Brooks’ single, “My Diary,” introducing him to the song’s writer and his future confidant, Arthur Lee, in the process.
Hendrix’s stint with Little Richard proved tumultuous, given that the two performers were often at odds about overshadowing each other. Some accounts have Hendrix joining Ike & Tina Turner, a claim Ike supported and Tina denies. Regardless, by the summer of 1965, Hendrix was back in the employ of the Isley Brothers and helping to record another single: “Move Over and Let Me Dance” backed with “Have You Ever Been Disappointed.”

Jimi Hendrix with Curtis Knight And The Squires RSVP 1124

One of Jimi Hendrix's many sideman gigs was with Curtis Knight and The Squires, including this credited outing for "Hornet's Nest" on the RSVP label.

By late 1965, Hendrix was moving on again, this time playing with Curtis Knight and The Squires, where he remained on and off for the next eight months. He participated in the recording of the single “How Would You Feel”/“Welcome Home” (RSVP 1120), as well as various demos that eventually made their way to the marketplace as bootlegs or unauthorized releases.

Hendrix earned his first composer credits during his tenure with Knight for the single “Hornets Nest”/“Knock Yourself Out” (RSVP 1124).

In addition to his work with Knight and The Squires, Hendrix kept busy, both on tour (behind Joey Dee and the Starliters) and in the studio. He worked with Ray Sharpe and the King Curtis Orchestra on “Help Me (Get The Feeling)” Parts 1 and 2 (Atco 6402); The Icemen for “(My Girl) She’s a Fox”/“(I Wonder) What It Takes” (Samar S-111); and Jimmy Norman on “You’re Only Hurting Yourself”/“That Little Old Groovemaker” (Samar S-112). He also made various demos with saxophonist Lonnie Youngblood — “Go Go Shoes”/ “Go Go Place” (Fairmount 1002) and “Soul Food (That’s What I Like)”/“Goodbye Bessie Mae” (Fairmount 1022), which resurfaced after Hendrix gained fame.

In June 1966, Hendrix — now going under the monikers Jimmy James, and, on occasion, Maurice James — ventured out on his own. He formed a band called The Blue Flames (or The Blue Flame, depending on what source you read) with three other musicians. Among them was teenage guitarist Randy Wolfe, whom Hendrix rechristened Randy California to differentiate him from the band’s bassist, Randy Palmer (whom Hendrix dubbed Randy Texas). Guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (later of Steely Dan fame) also was believed to have worked with the band during this time.


During The Blue Flames’ residency at New York’s Café Wha?, the band worked up several covers that became part of the Experience’s early repertoire, among them, “Hey Joe,” “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Wild Thing.” The Blue Flames also backed John Hammond Jr. and singer-guitarist Ellen McIllwaine.

The Blue Flames lasted only three months. Chandler took Hendrix to the U.K., where the Experience was conceived, and California returned home, later forming the band Spirit with his stepfather, drummer Ed Cassidy. Once Hendrix re-emerged in England at the helm of the Experience, his outside activity was limited to occasional jam sessions and a handful of guest appearances. Nevertheless, these scattered sessions offer an intriguing insight into his methods when collaborating with others. The most notable jam took place in March 1968 at New York’s Scene club, where an impromptu session with Doors singer Jim Morrison transpired.

Hendrix himself recorded the set on a portable tape recorder, and music was later released under titles including “Woke Up This Morning and Found Myself Dead,” “High, Live and Dirty” and “Bleeding Heart.” While Morrison’s contributions are more or less limited to some drunken rants, the track list is intriguing for its inclusion of “Bleeding Heart,” The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” and covers of the Cream songs, “Outside Woman Blues” and “Sunshine of Your Love,” the latter a staple of early Experience sets. Morrison’s ridiculous ramble, “Morrison’s Lament,” may have proved intriguing for Doors’ completists, but it’s otherwise expendable.

Jimi Hendrix Experience

This rare Jimi Hendrix Experience limited-edition portrait (No. 3 of 100 prints) signed by photographer Karl Ferris sold for $776.75 via Heritage Auction Galleries in July 2011.

Hendrix’s appearances on albums by others were relatively infrequent from 1967 on, but he did contribute guitar to the tracks “So Much” and “Ex Art Student” from the self-titled 1968 album by Roger McGough and Mike McGear (the younger brother of Beatle Paul McCartney).

According to the liner notes from the album’s recent reissue on Real Gone Music, Hendrix played a stirring solo on “So Much,” only to be informed he came in at the wrong time. McGear says that Hendrix then sat on the floor and tapped him on the knee to tell him when to come in. Inevitably, McGear preferred the first of the two solos, only to be told by the tape operator that it had been erased. Brother Paul, who was producing the session, asked McGear if he wanted Jimi to do another take, but ultimately it was decided to go with what they had.

Hendrix made two notable guest turns in 1970. In March, he contributed to the song “The Everlasting Love” from the album “False Start” by Arthur Lee and a revamped version of “Love.” A few months later, Hendrix appeared on Stephen Still’s eponymous solo debut, playing guitar on the track “Old Times Good Times.”

Given the fact that Eric Clapton appeared elsewhere on the record, Stills gained the distinction of having the only album to boast two of the greatest guitarists in rock history. Both albums were released late in 1970, after Hendrix’s death. Fittingly, Stills dedicated his LP to “James Marshall Hendrix.”

Hendrix’s last public performance took place at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in London, where he jammed with Eric Burdon and his new band War a mere 24 hours prior to his death. Two of the songs — “Mother Earth” and “Tobacco Road” — later appeared on the bootlegged title “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window.” Although the quality is lacking, it holds the distinction of being the final recording Hendrix ever made.

More intriguing, however, are the rumors that surfaced in the months just prior to Hendrix’s death, when the guitarist allegedly revealed his intent to join Emerson Lake and Palmer in a group that would presumably be re-dubbed Hendrix Emerson Lake and Palmer, or HELP. One can only imagine the incredible music that might have come from that ensemble.

Hendrix also ventured outside his own environs for production purposes. The band Eire Apparent (another one of Chandler’s discoveries) was briefly signed to Track Records, which was home to Hendrix. After leaving Track and reshuffling its lineup, Eire Apparent toured America, opening for the Experience and the Soft Machine.

Eire Apparent

During a break in that tour in May 1968, Eire Apparent entered New York’s Record Plant studio with Hendrix at the helm to cut a new single for Buddha Records, “Let Me Stay”/“Yes I Need Someone” (BDA 67). A follow-up album, “Sunrise,” was recorded four months later in Los Angeles, with Hendrix producing and playing on a number of tracks, including “Yes I Need Someone” and “The Clown.” Noel Redding, Mitch Mitchell and Robert Wyatt also appeared on the album, which was released on Buddah Records the following May. Hendrix recorded a final single with Eire Apparent, “Rock ’N’ Roll Band,” in London in January 1969.

Another band that garnered Hendrix’s involvement was Cat Mother and the All Night Newsboys. The New York-based band was co-founded by Roy Michaels, who had previously played with Stephen Stills and Richie Furay in the Au Go Go Singers.

Hendrix’s manager, Michael Jeffrey, also managed Cat Mother and introduced the two parties in New York, after which the group opened for Hendrix on several occasions. Hendrix produced the group’s first single, “Good Old Rock ’n’ Roll,” a medley of classic rock hits (“Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Chantilly Lace,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” and “Party Doll”). The single was a moderate success, eventually reaching No. 21 on the Billboard pop charts during the summer of 1969.

Hendrix sat behind the boards for their subsequent album, “The Street Giveth and the Street Taketh Away,” although his input was limited to a few suggestions, and the album overall was fairly mediocre as a result. While tapes of Hendrix jamming with an unknown guitarist are rumored to have been recorded at the same time, the ultimate outcome suggests this was one of rock’s most wasted opportunities.