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Friday, November 8, 2013

Celebrating Hendrix

Written by Jon Williams

Earlier this week, PBS aired a new documentary on Jimi Hendrix as part of its American Masters series. Hear My Train a Comin’ explores the legendary guitar wizard’s life and career in his own words, intermixed with previously unseen concert footage and conversations with friends, family, and contemporaries. Its showing winds down a year-long celebration of Hendrix that commenced on what would have been his 70th birthday, 27 November 2012. The documentary is already available on both DVD for classic rock-loving patrons who may have missed its original airing, or who just want to see it again.

Although Hendrix’s life and career were brief (he died at age 27 after only 4 years of musical success), both are worth exploring. The incandescent performer’s confident and flamboyant stage persona was a front for a quiet, shy personality away from it. After working early on as a sideman to such entertainers as Little Richard and the Isley Brothers, his career began in earnest in 1966 when his manager began recruiting musicians to join a band designed to highlight Hendrix’s talent, and thus the Jimi Hendrix Experience was born. Their first album, Are You Experienced? (currently out of print), contained such staples as “Purple Haze,” “Hey Joe,” and “Foxy Lady.”

Despite such a powerhouse track listing and a strong start in Great Britain (where it was kept from #1 only by the seminal Beatles album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band), Hendrix’s career got off to a lukewarm start in North America. The Experience’s first single, “Hey Joe,” failed to chart upon its release. While the music fell short, Hendrix finally managed to capture everyone’s attention with his stage antics. On the recommendation of Paul McCartney, who saw Hendrix perform a blistering version of “Sgt. Pepper” just three days after its release, the Experience was invited to perform at the Monterey Pop Festival in California in June of 1967. At the end of their performance, Hendrix famously lit his guitar on fire, making a name for himself and cementing his place in rock n’ roll lore. This performance (and more from the festival) can be seen on The Complete Monterey Pop Festival DVD and Blu-ray available from the Criterion Collection.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience followed up Are You Experienced? with just two more studio albums during Jimi’s lifetime. Axis: Bold as Love was released later in 1967 to capitalize on the success of the first album, and the first side of the original album had to be hurriedly remixed after Hendrix left the master tapes in a taxi. The double album Electric Ladyland (also out of print), released late in 1968, featured two songs greater than 13 minutes in length, plus a cover of the Bob Dylan song “All Along the Watchtower,” which has become one of Hendrix’s signature songs.

Hendrix’s tragic death in September of 1970 at the age of 27 was a major blow to the music world, which earlier that year had already experienced the breakup of the Beatles. However, he left behind a treasure trove of unreleased materials, resulting in a number of posthumous releases that continue to this day. Valleys of Neptune, released in 2010, contained a number of previously unreleased tracks Hendrix had been working on in preparation for a fourth album; another such album, People, Hell and Angels, was released earlier this year. Audio engineer Eddie Kramer, who worked extensively with Hendrix during his lifetime, says this 2013 album has exhausted the supply of unreleased Hendrix studio tracks, but that other live albums may eventually be made available.

Although Hendrix’s career was cut short, his influence on rock music was undeniable, and interest in his music remains very strong. SmartBrowse his name on our website to see the wide range of CDs, concert and documentary DVDs, and other materials we have available from and about this amazingly talented and transcendent musician.

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