It was 40 years ago that the greatest electric guitarist to ever live, Jimi Hendrix, passed away. When Hendrix archivist-author Steven Roby offered me the chance to co-write a biography of Jimi’s developmental years, 1962-66, I was surprised what I learned. Becoming Jimi Hendrix
, published by Da Capo/Perseus, gave me the opportunity to discover how Jimi actually changed the perception of race in popular music, although he lived through the humiliation of institutional racism in the 1960s.
Most people are generally unfamiliar with the crushing poverty and despair of Jimi’s life when he grew up in Seattle. His mother Lucille was sexually promiscuous, alcoholic, and died at age 32. Jimi’s father Al barely made a living and Jimi was responsible for taking care of his younger brother, Leon.
Anti-black experiences awaited him when he got out of the Army’s 101st Airborne at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Jimi and his Army buddy Billy Cox, a bass player who saw Jimi’s raw but profound talent, formed their band, the King Kasuals. And — unknown to other Hendrix biographers — they purposely got arrested at an early civil rights demonstration in 1962 Nashville, in protest against a segregated lunch counter downtown.
After he left Nashville in a last, desperate attempt to attain success, he was kept alive in New York City by two very different women, both of whom fell in love with him and his music.
Lithofayne Pridgon, the black devotee of the Apollo Theater, pushed Jimi to continue playing Harlem clubs with his scorching versions of R&B hits. White British teenage model Linda Keith left The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards for Jimi. She simultaneously urged Jimi to begin singing and merge his blues roots with the wildly theatrical guitar that became his trademark.
Jimi found his breakthrough in Greenwich Village, bridging R&B and a new form of rock, financially and emotionally aided by Keith and Pridgon. And when he took London by storm in early 1967, it was with two white band members. The Jimi Hendrix Experience included Noel Redding, a lead guitarist who took over bass, and Mitch Mitchell, who was really a jazz drummer. Utilizing the quality of his art and the composition of his first group, he soared above the limitations that racial prejudice in 1960s America tried to place upon him.