How two rock and roll legends helped give Jimi Hendrix his big break

The best guitarist problem has long plagued the consciousness of rock music lovers across the world. But one name that persistently crops up is the late, great Jimi Hendrix. Sure, many guitarists can play what Jimi played, but they sure as hell can’t play it like Jimi could. The man was an utter genius on the six-string; he was so good that he inadvertently started a rivalry with the ‘other’ guitar pioneer of the 1960s, Eric Clapton, for the gong of best of all time.

Hendrix was full of impressive stage tricks, from playing the guitar with his teeth (he learned this technique after watching Seattle-based guitarist Butch Snipes perform the trick) to actually playing a guitar that had burst into flames. To find his way, Hendrix began playing the live circuits in Tennessee and Nashville with his band, the King Kasuals, before moving to New York and sitting in with several bands in the Harlem club circuit.

However, these early shows, following Hendrix’s discharge from the United States Army (allegedly, he had broken his ankle during a parachute jump, though records of this fact have never actually shown up) were not his first. In a fascinating interview with Jimi’s younger brother, Leon, we discover that Hendrix’s first actual live performance was, in fact, with the soul, jazz and blues pioneering genius Ray Charles.

Leon explains: “Jimi and I had a lot of fun when we were kids. He was in charge of me. He had to babysit me while our Dad worked. My Dad said, ‘Don’t let nuthin’ happen to him,’ to Jimi, and so I had to go everywhere with Jimi. I remember every moment. I remember when he first got started on the guitar, and I remember his band practices and I remember his first gigs. I used to go backstage.”

He added: “I went backstage when I was 12 and Jimi was playing for Ray Charles, when Ray Charles lived in Seattle. That was Jimi’s first real gig. Well, I was 12 or somethin’ and so I didn’t realise at that age that when you met a famous musician you were supposed to be excited about it. I met Little Richard, I met… just about everybody. To me they were just regular people – and I think they liked to be treated as regular people anyway… I just had fun hangin’ with Jimi and it was, like, the music was a natural thing. And so ‘cos of Jimi I thought music was what it is. What it’s all about. I still do. I had a ball and I’m still havin’ a ball…”

So, amazingly, Hendrix first found his feet by playing for one of the most highly regarded musicians of all time. It’s no wonder, then, that he had the confidence to go on to play using his teeth, to play a flaming guitar and rip into a solo that could seem to go on for hours. Jimi’s band, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, drew attention from all over the world, especially in the UK, where Hendrix found an affinity and would call London his home until his untimely death at just 27. But that ability, that confidence, was surely inspired by playing with Charles.

However, Hendrix’s playing on stage with a legend of rock and roll did not end there. Another of rock’s greatest stars, Little Richard, also gave Hendrix a hand in climbing the ladder to fame and success. The ‘Architect of Rock and Roll’ once offered a young Hendrix a place in his touring band.

Little Richard once told biographer Charles White: “My bus was parked on Auburn Avenue and Jimi was staying in this small hotel. And so he came by to see us. He had watched me work and just loved the way I wore these headbands around my hair and how wild I dressed.”

However, Hendrix’s tardiness led to him being fired from the band, with Richard’s brother Robert Penniman claiming: “I fired Hendrix, who was using the name Maurice James all the time I knew him. He was a damn good guitar player, but the guy was never on time. He was always late for the bus and flirting with the girls and stuff like that. It came to a head in New York, where we had been playing the Apollo and Hendrix missed the bus for Washington, DC. I finally got Richard to cut him loose. It’s a fair demand and likely something Hendrix needed to learn before becoming a star in his own right.”

It is undeniable though, that playing with the likes of Charles and Little Richard greatly affected the young Hendrix, from adopting the flamboyance of Little Richard’s on-stage persona to (we hope) learning to keep his time in check to improve the likelihood of success. Looking back at Hendrix’s short but opulent career, we can only assume that he sorted his timekeeping.

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