When writer/director John Ridley’s much anticipated film Jimi Hendrix biopic Jimi: All Is by My Side opens September 26, I imagine I’ll be in front of the screen on opening day absorbing the spectacle of André 3000 playing one of my musical heroes. Thankfully, unlike other ambitious feature films that attempt to compact the entire lifetime of an artist into one film, Ridley has wisely chosen to narrow his focus by concentrating on Jimi’s “on the verge” years, when he moved from performing in Greenwich Village coffeehouses to the rock clubs of London.
Under the guidance of his new manager Chas Chandler, it was in the U.K. where Hendrix was befriended by Beatles member Paul McCartney and jealously loathed by Eric Clapton, then recorded (in five months) his solo debut, Are You Experienced. Containing the brilliant songs “Purple Haze,” “Foxy Lady,” and the wonderful title track, the frantic, blues-based, futuristic aural manifesto that is Are You Experienced continues to sell, influence and inspire.
While some folks later tried to say that Hendrix was passive on subjects concerning civil-rights, Are You Experienced was a revolutionary record that didn’t have to chant “Black Power” because it was Black Power electrified, and Hendrix was a psychedelic Malcolm X welding a guitar like a machine gun. The image of this left-handed wildman simply playing his instrument was life changing.
Although Jimi died in 1970 at the age of 27, to many young Black folks coming of age during that period, he was as influential as the Black Panther Party, Blaxploitation flicks and Soul Train. As a kid who was into watching geeky PBS programming, my introduction to Hendrix was a chance viewing of the Monterey Pop concert film one night on channel 13. Dressed in pajamas and lying on sheets covered with Flintstones characters, I stared through 8-year-old eyes as Hendrix played a crazed cover of “Wild Thing,” mixing in an unorthodox version of “Strangers in the Night” in the process.
The man looked like he was possessed by the same devil that lured blues giant Robert Johnson to his infamous crossroads. At the end of the set, Hendrix squirted lighter fluid on his Fender Stratocaster and lit a black fire that still burn, baby, burns in the public’s imagination. This was the beginning of the myth, the start of “a whole new thing,” as Sly Stone declared four months later as the title for his own debut.
Afro-futuristic before his time, the sounds of Jimi Hendrix became a rocket ship trip towards a more beautiful world where feedback radiated from the stars, purple rivers of distortion flowed freely, and everything was simply a rainbow of beautiful. The following day, I begged my mom to sign me up for guitar lessons, thinking that in a few weeks I too might be able to play with the same strange intensity as my boa-wearing homie.
Although I would flunk out of guitar class with nothing to show but calluses, others coming of age a few years before me took their Hendrix fixation to a whole other level: Nile Rogers, Vernon Reid, Jean-Paul Bourelly, “Captain” Kirk Douglas and, of course the purple king, Prince.
Early in his career, Prince was adamant in his denial of Jimi as an influence. Of course, one can understand not wanting to be compared to Jimi, as though he was the only bad mother chopping down on the ax (as though the likes of Ike Turner, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, etc. were never born), but sometimes Prince could take things too far.
Former Time guitarist Jesse Johnson decided himself to become a guitarist after hearing Hendrix playing the blues original “Red House” when he was 13. Raised by a dad who kept a box of 78s and turned baby boy on to Lighting Hopkins and Albert King as a child, Jesse was already a fan of the blues. “But it wasn’t until I heard ‘Red House’ that I knew what I wanted to do,” he once told me.
Living with foster parents in East St. Louis after his own folks divorced, Jesse mowed lawns until he had enough money to go to Grandpa’s music store and pay $39 for a Norma. “It was a really cheap guitar, but to me it was the equivalent of a ’57 original Stratocaster,” he said. “To me, it was amazing.” Relocating to Minneapolis eight years later, he met Morris Day, who invited him to come see Dirty Mind-period Prince perform at the famed First Avenue club.
Marveling at Prince’s performance, Jesse was introduced to him later that evening. “When Prince came downstairs, I said, ‘The show was really cool. You dig Hendrix, huh?’ Prince answered, ‘I never watch him.’ Morris stood behind him gesturing for me to shut up, but instead I said, ‘You lying m*therf*cker.’ Prince stared at me for a few seconds, and then fell on the floor laughing.” Jesse was hired on the spot as the guitarist for The Time.
While Hendrix’s life has been well documented in biographies (‘Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky: The Life of Jimi Hendrix by David Henderson being one of the best), graphic novels (Voodoo Child by Bill Sienkiewicz is brilliant visual interpretation of the music) and countless documentaries, folks sometimes forget that the Rock God began his career playing R&B on the chiltin’ circuit with Little Richard and the Isley Brothers.
“We thought he was one the greatest guitar players in the world,” Ron Isley told me in 2013. “He could play any and everything. And he was a young guy who had it altogether, as far as a guitar player. He stayed at my mother’s house for a couple of years, and at the time he worked out with us like he was one of the brothers. He was very easy to get along with. Jimi was very quiet, like shy, with other people. But he fit in real good.”
Dramatically, separating the man from his myth can be difficult. But personally, I have high hopes for John Ridley’s All Is by My Side rendition of Jimi Hendrix. Decades after his death, the black fire still burns.
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.