He was born in Seattle, Washington when his father was in the Army and stationed in Alabama. His mother had alcohol problems so he and his four younger siblings were in a constant state of flux being passed around to family members and friends to be taken care of because his mom couldn’t hold it together.
When his father was honorably discharged from the Army things became even worse because he ended up with an alcohol problem as well so horrific fights between his parents were added to the mix. Because of both parents were struggling with alcohol and couldn’t hold jobs, they had to move around a lot to various apartments and hotel rooms because they couldn’t pay their bills. Eventually, Jimi and his siblings ended up in Foster Care with family members pulling them out from time to time.
Jimi had a fascination with guitars when he was just a boy, but no one could afford to buy one for him. He started carrying a broom around like a security blanket and mimicked playing guitar. When he was 15, he found a Ukulele with one string on it in someone’s trash and not being able to afford strings, he played songs on it anyway through improvising. He was hooked on playing so he went around doing odd jobs and when he had saved $5 (around $45 in today’s cash), he bought his first acoustic guitar.
About a year later he formed a band that would play anywhere that would let them, but Jimi got in trouble several times by the way he played; it was considered showboaty at the time. He wasn’t too concerned since they weren’t being paid anyhow. One thing that did bother him is that his guitar wasn’t loud enough and was limited in what he could do with it; quite frankly, he wanted to be noticed on stage and not just someone in the background.
Jimi was playing in small bands across the Seattle area and found himself in trouble a lot with the authorities. He wasn’t making much money, so he’d get mostly involved in petty crimes to get quick cash to pay his rent. The second time he was caught in a stolen car, the judge told him he could join the Army or serve jail time, so he decided to enlist. He ended up pretty much in the last place you’d want to be if you weren’t exactly Army material and that is the 101st Airborne Division located in Kentucky.
The discipline that was required and the immense physical requirements weren’t up Jimi’s ally. He just wanted to play guitar and there were a couple of other musicians on base, so they’d get together and entertain some of the troops. His constant dereliction of duty and complete lack of desire for being in the military led to his commanding officer letting him go and he did Jimi a great service by allowing him a honorable discharge after only serving one year.
There was a bit of a scandal during Hendrix’ music career as he lied about his service and said he received a medical discharge after breaking his ankles during a parachute jump. It didn’t negatively impact his career since the demographics of his audience didn’t care about his military service.
After leaving the Army, Jimi travelled to Los Angeles in hopes of launching a music career. His desire was to be the front man for a band but the only offers coming in were to be a guitarist. He knew that he had a huge obstacle to overcome because he wasn’t a great singer. Even when he made it, he’d hide behind the patrician in the music studio so no one would watch him sing. He had no problem having them watch him play guitar.
He played for the Isley Brothers and Little Richard. Little Richard was a good mentor in that Hendrix saw how to entertain an audience. He also did studio work for various record labels, basically playing guitar for someone else’s album. This is one of the areas that Hendrix got in huge trouble for because he didn’t care about contracts. He’d sign anything and didn’t really worry about following through as he’d just move on to the next offer. He’d collect the upfront money, blow it, then go after another contract. He was burning a lot of bridges in an industry that didn’t have that many to burn.
Hendrix wasn’t at all happy with where his career was going because whether he was working in a recording studio or performing with a band, no one was allowing him to release his potential. It’s difficult finding a band that allows the guitarist to be the star. Jimi wanted to show off his electric guitar playing skills which included playing it with his teeth, playing it behind his head, playing it upside down, and playing it with one hand, but he was told to step back and let the lead singer be the star. He even smashed his guitar on stage and lit it on fire, decades before other artists did it. The more Jimi was being held back the worse he became psychologically so alcohol and drugs were what he used to cope. For two years he went from one band to the next usually in Los Angeles or New York City. The entire time he was being hit with lawsuits from his previous employers, but he didn’t care, he had no money for them to take.
One night a band member from the London musical group Cream, heard Jimi play at a small venue. He told other people about it like Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger so Hendrix was invited to London so they could hear him play. He became a huge hit over there, unlike in the U.S., so his manager put together a band that starred Jimi and it was called: The Jimi Hendrix Experience and his first album was recorded. His first two songs, “Hey Joe,” and “Purple Haze,” were huge hits. He was just 24 years-old at the time.
After two years of success in touring around Europe, Jimi made his way home because he was missing his friends and family and he had to know if he could be successful in the U.S.. Keep in mind that it wasn’t that Hendrix’ records were all that successful, it’s that he was filling up concerts because everyone wanted to see him play, not exactly hear him sing. He was a phenomenal performer.
What he needed was a great opportunity to relaunch in the U.S. market and the event to perform at was the “Monterey Music Festival,” which included pretty much all the top groups. Since Jimi wasn’t popular in the U.S., it took Paul McCartney telling the event organizers that they needed Hendrix to make it a successful event, so they obliged.
The crowd went crazy for Hendrix during the festival and his band got the opportunity to be the opening act for Jefferson Airplane when something amazing happened. At each of the concerts the audiences didn’t want Hendrix to leave the stage so during the fifth concert they changed the billing and had Jefferson Airplane open for Hendrix. I don't think this has happened since in the music industry.
Jimi was getting burned out, so he moved back to London where he got the call to perform at Woodstock. In 1969, he was the highest earning rock musician, but he didn’t have much to show for it as people had taken advantage of him. Many people borrowed money they never paid back, he was constantly paying attorneys to address lawsuits regarding recording contracts, and he was given bad investment advice.
After a short trip to the U.S., Hendrix flew back to London to live with his girlfriend. He put on a few shows but just dabbled in performing when he felt motivated. He said that the music business wasn’t what he’d hoped. He wanted to grow as an artist and try out new things, but everyone wanted him to stay where he was musically because it was bringing in the crowds. He stated that he glossed over the word “business,” when it came to the "music," business and had just dreamed of performing without giving much thought to the junk that came with it. Having money wasn’t what he’d hoped and he felt less stress when he was just getting by and no one wanted a piece of him..
It was when he lived in London that at the age of 27, he died from an accidental drug overdose. A few weeks later another superstar who performed at Woodstock, Janis Joplin, also died at the age of 27 from a drug overdose. Neither case was determined to be suicide, just accidental overdoses.
It’s been around 50 years since Jimi’s death, and it would be difficult to find anyone who didn’t think that watching him perform wasn’t one of the greatest experiences of their lives. This post on Hendrix just scratches the surface so if you’re interested in learning more, Netflix has a documentary of his life including a lot of his live performances which is truly the only way to know just how tragic it was that he died at such a young age.