Behind The Beat
5:00 am
Tue May 6, 2014

The Road To Fame: How Jimi Hendrix Rose From The 'Chitlin' Circuit' To Become An Icon

When Jimi Hendrix released the song “Foxy Lady” as part of the “Are You Experienced” album in 1967, it was like this whole package of psychedelia had dropped from the sky.

It came out of nowhere. Many had never heard music that sounded like this, or even of Hendrix, for that matter.

But within a year of releasing this album, Hendrix became the world’s largest grossing concert performer. And he was also revolutionizing guitar playing.

Hendrix's Roots

So who is Hendrix? We know that he was a Seattle native, but there’s much more to him than that.

Hendrix got serious about music after he got out of the Army in the early ’60s and went on what was then called the “chitlin’ circuit”  — we’d call it the R & B circuit — playing with people like Little Richard and The Isley Brothers. Here’s a track from 1965 when he was out with Curtis Knight, called “California Night.”

This is pretty interesting. You can hear that Hendrix is a wonderful guitar player, but here, he’s a wonderful blues guitar player. You don’t hear his signature sound just yet.  

And here’s a tune from about the same time when Hendrix was playing with the Isley Brothers. He’s really starting to get some unusual sounds out of the guitar.

As Hendrix developed as a guitar player, getting better and better and sounding more like the Hendrix that we would come to know, he began upstaging the people he was hired to back up.

If you’re upstaging people like The Isley Brothers and Little Richard, it’s not really a good career move for a sideman. So Hendrix stopped getting hired after a while, and he was scuffling around for work, living in Harlem. And in what seems today like a genius move, he relocated himself to Greenwich Village where he really started to get support and recognition for his talent.

Here’s Where The Story Gets Good

And this is where the story really gets good. One night at one of his gigs, he met a woman named Linda Keith. She was a British fashion model, and, coincidentally, the girlfriend of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. So you’d think she’d know a great rock guitar player when she saw one, and she did.

After the gig, they went out on the town and wound up dropping acid. It was the first time Hendrix had ever taken LSD. They spent the night tripping and listening, over and over, to a brand-new album called “Blonde On Blonde” by Bob Dylan.

The next morning, Hendrix basically woke up with a rewired head and a patron. Linda Keith was determined to help make him a star.

A Jumpstart To His Career

And this is where the real transformation happens, really quite quickly. Linda Keith hooks Jimi up with a manager, the manager takes him to London, puts a band together, and within a year, Jimi Hendrix becomes the world’s most famous rock guitar player.

But it’s not just about fame; with his guitar-playing, his style, his technique, his use of technology, he completely redefined what a guitar could do and the sound it could make.