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The Birth of Jimi Hendrix

Today would have been Jimi Hendrix’s 70th birthday. The following is an excerpt of Jimi Hendrix: Musician by Keith Shadwick from his chapter titled “The Birth of Jimi Hendrix: June to October 1966.” This book will be released next week, but it is already available from Backbeat Books here.

During early 1966 Jimmy Hendrix had been living in hotel rooms close to New York’s downtown districts and Greenwich Village. He was looking for a more congenial climate than Harlem had been providing for him. “I couldn’t stand it there,” he said later, “because they talk about you worse than any place else.”

In early June 1966 he went down to the Café Wha?, going as directed by Richie Havens on an evening early in the week when things would not be too busy or crowded. He introduced himself to the owner, Manny Roth. Calling himself Jimmy James at the time, Hendrix had arrived with his new guitar but without any backing musicians: he was intent on keeping this new initiative separate from any other current affiliation. Roth suggested that when the house band took a break he get up on stage and play solo. Hendrix did just that, starting a slow blues suited to solo performance.

The house bassist, Tommy ‘Regi’ Butler, came back from his break and, interested in what he heard, joined the guitarist on the platform. According to Butler’s wife, “At the end of the song Jimmy turned to Regi and said, ‘Hey man, can you play this?’ and proceeded to let loose with one of his infamous riffs.”4 They played, she claims, for around an hour. She doesn’t mention a drummer, but it seems that the house drummer also came into the jam, for he also joined up to create Hendrix’s first trio, a group that later became the house band at the Wha? and also started touting for work in other venues in New York City.

Hendrix thus arrived at the personnel for his first band as a leader through happenstance and instinct rather than design. Jimmy played guitar and delivered the vocals, Butler played bass and Danny Casey drums. Hendrix chose the name Jimmy James & The Blue Flames while they worked at the Wha?, but they often used different names – including The Rainflowers – for other venues so that Roth wouldn’t be easily alerted to them working outside their residency. Jimmy and the Flames debuted at the Wha? probably in the second week of June 1966. The previous week had seen Joni Mitchell make her US debut at the same club.

The Café Wha? had dropped in status from its early 1960s peak as the most fashionable Village hangout for those interested in folk and the attendant post-beat scene, but it was still a popular destination for people from the suburbs and further afield who came to the area at night and on weekends looking for something a little exotic. Being squarely among all the Village nightspots, it was also a regular on the tour of the Village habitually undertaken by visiting UK pop acts. But it was still trading largely on its past reputation. The club’s small-ads in local papers rarely if ever named the current attraction, relying instead on its credentials as a left-of-centre cellar featuring performers of a different stripe. Hendrix certainly fitted that description. He was earning peanuts, had no name to make him an attraction, and had to start by working as the leader of a house-band rather than as a featured artist at different venues. Hendrix soon discovered that he was on another treadmill of sorts, and that he would again have to manoeuvre some kind of escape.

One route was to find work for the group away from the two nights a week at the Wha?. Butler remembered organising one gig for the band at Connie’s Ballroom in Harlem, an upstairs club where they managed one set of their music before the owner, flanked by his bouncer, asked that they play dance music – like every other band that played there. After getting the inevitable reply that the band didn’t know any, the owner told them, “You all just pack this noise on up, and take it back downtown.” That was the end of Hendrix’s involvement with professional music-making in Harlem until after his ascent to stardom.

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Many books about Hendrix concentrate on showmanship and rock-and-roll excess, but Keith Shadwick’s Jimi Hendrix: Musician brings to Hendrix’s musical legacy as a guitarist, singer, and composer a depth of analysis missing from other accounts of his career, placing Hendrix’s work in the broadest possible musical context, encompassing rock, pop, soul, funk, jazz, blues, fusion, and a range of classical disciplines. The book was first published in 2003; sadly, Shadwick died from cancer in 2008 at the age of 57. This new edition in a compact format is published as a tribute to Shadwick, who was described in his obituary in the UK newspaperThe Independent as “an authority on classical music who also wrote in-depth biographies of Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix. He was a jazzer who rocked and championed Górecki.”

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