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Jimi Hendrix: The British Experience

by David Soulsby 

 

Jimi Hendrix: The British ExperienceTake a slow stroll away from the American Embassy in London’s plush Grosvenor Square, make your way along Brook Street towards Oxford Street, and you’ll pass a row of fashionable Mayfair town houses where a blue plaque above a shop front might catch your eye.

Study the English Heritage plaque and the name of the man being honoured as a past resident might surprise you: it’s none other than Jimi Hendrix, regarded by many – myself included – as the greatest rock guitarist ever.

The Seattle-born Hendrix lived in the top-floor flat at number 23 Brook Street between 1968/69, and would have been seen regularly on the streets in around the capital city’s Mayfair, Soho and West End areas, wild-haired and dressed in his trademark colourful clothes. Many of London’s leading clubs and rock venues were situated here and Hendrix played at most of them, often trying out one his latest compositions for audiences that regularly boasted fellow rock stars such as Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend and Paul McCartney.

Hendrix certainly cut a dashing figure when out and about, but always seemed unfazed by the attention of passers-by. He was just going about his business — and that was the business of producing some of the best music that came out of the Sixties. And more than 40 years on, his influence and legacy live on.

So to celebrate and pay a fitting tribute to the left-handed guitar maestro who died in September 1970, the Handel House Museum, which occupies the Brook Street site where the great German composer George Fridric Handel lived in the 1700s, has held a Hendrix In Britain exhibition and tour of his flat. How fitting, I think, that Hendrix should have lived where another creative giant — albeit from a far different era and genre — produced such a legacy of important music. Indeed, Hendrix was so taken with the Handel connection that he visited a local record store and bought several Handel albums, played them, and became a fan.

Items on show included the guitar Hendrix used on the brilliant Red House, several extravagant stage costumes, the famous Westerner hat, a copy of his death certificate, concert memorabilia and a revealing selection of photos, including one that particularly caught my eye.

The photo in question was taken backstage at a concert in England when Hendrix shared the bill with headliners The Walker Brothers, plus Cat Stevens and special guest star Engelbert Humperdinck. The image says a lot — Hendrix is seated with his guitar laid across his legs, his eyes not looking directly at the cameraman but slightly down as if just a little timid, not wanting to steal the limelight, while singer Cat Stevens and Gary Leeds of The Walker Brothers are looking intently at him, one could say almost in awe. Humperdinck is the only one of the quartet with eyes for the camera, apparently unaware of the three men by his side.

The exhibition, which opened in August and ends this November, has drawn Hendrix devotees from not only Britain but from all over the world, not least from America, where a glance through the visitors book reveals poignant comments and heart-felt tributes from visitors from all parts of the States.

My own contribution says simply: ‘A fitting tribute to a great guitar genius.’ Not particularly original I know, but often the simple, direct words are the best. The word genius is a much over-used accolade but Hendrix fully deserves it — he indeed had, as the dictionary defines it, ‘an exceptional natural ability’.

But there was much more to Hendrix than just being a superb musician and musical innovator. To me, he was a complex human being. He was full of contradictions. He was flamboyant, yet surprisingly shy. Much of his music was raw and loud, yet at the same time melodic and uplifting.

On stage he did things that often shocked and even offended some people, yet away from the razzmatazz and frenzy of performing he was polite, charming and softly spoken. He appeared in control of what he was doing, but there was always in the background a feeling that he was continually searching for something new and different. He broke down musical and race barriers, and if he’d survived you can only guess at what he would have gone on to achieve. He would be 68 this November 27 — if only!

Hendrix himself said "I have plans that are unbelievable but then wanting to be a guitar player seemed unbelievable at one time.’ I think he would have gone to even greater heights. His standing among his guitar contemporaries was immense, and still stands the test of time, and his fans appear to be as loyal and respectful today as they were in the Sixties. And new young fans joining the ranks all the time add to his magnetic appeal.

To me, it doesn’t seem like 44 years ago that Hendrix arrived in England (thanks to the astute Chas Chandler of The Animals) but one, alas, can’t deny the passage of time. Hendrix emerged like an exciting, invigorating breath of fresh air. And along with fellow Experience band-mates Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell set the music scene alight — literally, as Hendrix often burnt his guitars on stage. It was pure showmanship, yes, but it was just an addition to the brilliance of his musical talent.

British musicians had been invading America in droves in the Sixties and taking it by storm. It seemed a little unfair of us Brits to have such a monopoly, so it was perhaps only right that the balance should be redressed by a then-unknown America performer who came, saw and quickly conquered the UK. Hendrix did that, and then returned to his homeland to stamp his mark for ever, his appearances at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and Woodstock in 1969 among the most breathtaking in the history of live music.

Surprisingly, it took many years for Hendrix to earn the music industry praise due to him — it was 1992 before the Jimi Hendrix Experience were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and another 13 years before gaining recognition in the UK Music Hall of Fame. Still, better late then never.

I remember when I first heard Hendrix play. It was like hearing a conversation and wanting to be part of it. That might sound odd, but that’s how I felt. I’m glad to say that I have continued to listen to the conversation and still want to be part of it.

Carry on kissing the sky, Jimi.

 

 

David Soulsby

About the Author:

David Soulsby lives in Romford, Essex, England, and is now retired after 46 years as a journalist. During his career, he worked on local and national newspapers and magazines, and in the Sixties met many of his musical heroes, including Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Sonny Boy Williamson, James Brown and Mel Torme. He’s now freelancing as a writer and proof-reader, working from home. He’s the author of Somewhere In The Distance, a novel about four friends growing up in the Sixties.

 

 

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