The Life of Jimi Hendrix
James Marshall “Jimi” Hendrix (born Johnny Allen Hendrix; November 27, 1942 – September 18, 1970) was an American rock guitarist, singer, and songwriter. With a short career but huge impact on rock and blues music, he is regarded as one of the most, if not the best, influential electric guitarists in history. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame describes him as “arguably the greatest instrumentalist in the history of rock music.”
Jimi Hendrix did not have an easy childhood, both of his parents struggled with alcohol, and often fought when intoxicated. The violence sometimes drove Hendrix to withdraw and hide in a closet in their home. His relationship with his brother Leon (born 1948) was close but precarious; with Leon in and out of foster care, they lived with an almost constant threat of fraternal separation. In addition to Leon, Hendrix had three younger siblings: Joseph, born in 1949, Kathy in 1950, and Pamela, 1951, all of whom Al and Lucille gave up to foster care and adoption. The family frequently moved, staying in cheap hotels and apartments around Seattle. On occasion, family members would take Hendrix to Vancouver to stay at his grandmother’s. A shy and sensitive boy, he was deeply affected by his life experiences. In later years, he confided to a girlfriend that he had been the victim of sexual abuse by a man in uniform. On December 17, 1951, when Hendrix was nine years old, his parents divorced; the court granted Al (Jimi’s father) custody of him and Leon.
At Horace Mann Elementary School in Seattle during the mid-1950s, Hendrix’s habit of carrying a broom with him to emulate a guitar gained the attention of the school’s social worker. After more than a year of his clinging to a broom like a security blanket, she wrote a letter requesting school funding intended for underprivileged children, insisting that leaving him without a guitar might result in psychological damage. Her efforts failed, and Al refused to buy him a guitar.
In 1957, while helping his father with a side-job, Hendrix found a ukulele amongst the garbage they were removing from an older woman’s home. She told him that he could keep the instrument, which had only one string. Learning by ear, he played single notes, following along to Elvis Presley songs, particularly “Hound Dog”. By the age of thirty-three, Hendrix’s mother Lucille had developed cirrhosis of the liver, and on February 2, 1958, she died when her spleen ruptured. Al refused to take James and Leon to attend their mother’s funeral; he instead gave them shots of whiskey and instructed them that was how men should deal with loss. In 1958, Hendrix completed his studies at Washington Junior High School and began attending, but did not graduate from, Garfield High School.
In mid-1958, at age 15, Hendrix acquired his first acoustic guitar, for $5. He played for hours daily, watching others and learning from more experienced guitarists, and listening to blues artists such as Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, and Robert Johnson. The first tune Hendrix learned to play was the television theme “Peter Gunn”. Around that time, Hendrix jammed with boyhood friend Sammy Drain and his keyboard-playing brother. In 1959, attending a concert by Hank Ballard & the Midnighters in Seattle, Hendrix met the group’s guitarist Billy Davis. Davis showed him some guitar licks and later got him a short gig with the Midnighters.