Synonymous to the term “guitar god,” Jimi Hendrix is an utter enigma, shaped by his iconic appearance, innovative guitar skills, and premature passing at age 27. An interesting dichotomy of a soft-spoken gentle soul, mixed with the ferocity of a wild stage man, leaves fans and music lovers alike questioning from what mystical realm Hendrix came from and how he acquired his initial start. Though only a blip in time, Jimi Hendrix spent nearly three years within the southern United States, learning from the best blues and R&B guitarists the nation had to offer. During this developmental time, Hendrix began constructing his distinct sound, adapting his grand stage presence, and transitioning into the preeminent guitarist the world would celebrate for generations to come.
Hendrix’s initial introduction to Tennessee came about from his unexpected time in the military. Starting with his upbringing by his erratic and alcoholic parents, within one of Seattle’s impoverished neighborhoods, Hendrix’s childhood easily explains the poor decision making that led to his arrest and eventual sentence into the military. From having to steal food to feed his hungry little brother, the unprecedented death of his twenty-three-year-old mother, and his father’s seemingly cruel decision to keep Hendrix and his brother from going to her funeral, an instant and grim portrait of Hendrix’s childhood is visible to even the coldest of hearts.
Due to this glum upbringing, it is less shocking to learn that, though Hendrix’s relationship with his father began to improve, and despite the fact that he had also begun to discover joy through his guitar playing, he was arrested in May of 1961 after having been caught riding within a stolen car. Presented with the firm ultimatum of prison sentence or military duty, Hendrix set off for basic training only a few short weeks following the verdict, eventually being dispatched to Fort Campbell, home of the Screaming Eagles Air Assault Division.
Fort Campbell was located on the boarder of Hopkinsville, Kentucky and Clarksville, Tennessee, officially marking the start Hendrix’s short, yet incredibly impressionable relationship with the south. During his free time in-between intense training sessions with the Screaming Eagles, Hendrix continued to religiously practice his Danelectro guitar. Though often irritating his fellow comrades with the constant noise emanating from his most prized possession, Hendrix chose to confide in them that his musical desire was to capture the distinct sounds they each experienced when jumping from a plane and plummeting thousands of feet towards the earth. This meant that, through his fingertips, down his Danelectro, and out the speaker of his amp, Hendrix hoped to recreate the intense roar of the plane’s powerful engines, entangled within the forceful whizzing of wind rushing past their bodies as they made their inevitable descent back to solid ground. This inspiration of sound would go on to permanently alter and influence Hendrix’s tone and style, eventually warping into the iconic wall of noise he would go on to legendarily produce.
Oddly enough, beyond the influence over his sound, Fort Campbell would continue to contribute to Hendrix’s musical growth in a variety of fashions. “While serving, Jimi met several people who would have a great deal of impact on his later life; probably the most important was Billy Cox” (Moskowitz 4). On one particularly rainy evening throughout this time period, a young aspiring bassist stood outside an open window of the Service Club 1, when an unknowing Jimi Hendrix plugged in his guitar and began to practice. The loud, outstandingly unique music bled through the opened window, stopping the young bassist, aka Billy Cox, dead in his tracks. It was a sound Cox had yet to experience. The guitar had a distorted cry about it, much different than the rhythm and blues he had grown accustom to hearing. That brief moment in time led Cox inside the club, beginning what would evolve into a loyal and important musical companionship.
Kindred spirits may be the ideal interpretation of Cox and Hendrix’s relationship. Both men enlisted into the military to avoid lawful complications, both had an intense passion for playing music that intentionally pushed traditional limits, and both seemed inevitably pulled towards a rebellious sort of lifestyle. In fact, Cox had been shunned from his local symphony due to his refusal to play the upright Bass in the usual fashion; with a bow. Now gravitating towards the electric bass, Cox and Hendrix quickly discovered their mutual tastes in music, including bands such as, King Curtis and Booker T. & the MGs. They soon began playing along with one another, something that would become a trend for years to come. This relationship would go on to provide Hendrix with a friend who not only watched him grow as a musician, but one that would unwaveringly believe in the uniqueness of Jimi’s sound, even during a time when his individuality was widely consider by many southern audiences as weird and unappealing.
As well as at the majority of military base related functions, Cox and Hendrix began gigging around Clarksville, Tennessee, showcasing that Tennessee is where Hendrix began to develop into life as a professional musician. Starting off performing at places such as, the Disabled American Veterans Hall and the Elks Club, the boys eventually landed a regular appearance at the Pink Poodle. Resurrecting their rebellious ways, the duo devised detailed plans to ditch work, practice hard, and sneakily return before the director of the USO could catch them. This scheming fed into the impression Hendrix’s superiors would have of him, eventually contributing to his discharged from the Screaming Eagles, and leading him to a life he desired most, that of a full-time musician.
Interestingly, prior to his time in the military, Cox had formed a relationship with WLAC-AM’s disc jockey, Bill “Hoss” Allen, through his routine jam sessions at King Studios in Nashville, Tennessee. Allen had created a big name for himself throughout the south due to his smooth jive-talking and expansive rhythm and blues playlists. It was Cox who introduced Allen to his innovative guitarist friend, in hopes the DJ may see in Hendrix what Cox had on that first, magical, open windowed rainy night. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Allen quickly became frustrated with the shy, experimental Hendrix. While demanding Hendrix play a simple New Orleans rhythm guitar melody, the young guitarist seemed only capable of playing how he felt, not how he was told. This encounter ended Hendrix’s first potentially vital working relationship. His inability to conform would go on to play a massive roll in Hendrix’s career, beginning as a nuisance, but eventually transitioning into a trait that would catapult him into international fame.
As time went on, Hendrix and Cox formed their band, the Casuals, occasionally spelling it, the Kasuals. With Hendrix on Guitar and Cox on Bass, the Casuals hired on Gary Ferguson as their drummer. Now that the Casuals were a regular act at the Pink Poodle in Clarksville, Hendrix was able to begin meeting other, more seasoned, musicians who also performed at the nearby clubs. As well as with meeting his first fellow left handed guitarist, George Yates, Hendrix was introduced to an outstanding musician named, Johnny Jones.
Jones was a bit older than Hendrix, had experienced blues’ greatest musicians first hand in Memphis and Chicago, regularly played around Nashville with his popular group, the Imperials, and was a working studio guitarist. “Jones played a cherry red Gibson ES 335, and this was the first time Jimi had a chance to hold and play a decent guitar, let alone have a front-row seat in front of a player who spun off authentic blues licks learned from watching the masters” (Roby, Schreiber 20). The relationship between Hendrix and Jones would go on to greatly impact Jimi’s technique, challenge his abilities, and push the young musician to continue improving his skills.
As 1962 came to a head, and the Kasuals began to flourish, performing at Nashville’s Club Del Morocco, Hendrix’s constant antics began to weaken his relationships with his superiors within the military. There is much debate on the true reasoning behind what led to Hendrix’s discharge, “Jimi himself muddies the waters by later claiming in the press that in the army he had a bad back and had broken an ankle during an earlier jump,” while others report that Hendrix’s constant late nights of breaking curfew, sleeping on the job, and overall lack of interest led to his honorable discharge (Roby, Schreiber 26). Regardless of all hearsay, the discharge officially stated “unsuitability.”
After his departure from Fort Campbell, Jimi was faced with the heavy decision of what to do next. Returning to Seattle would likely halt, if not end, his dream of becoming a professional musician, but by not returning home, Hendrix would have to start completely from scratch. His passion inevitably took precedent, and Hendrix decided to remain in Clarksville to wait for his dear friend, Billy Cox’s discharge. Within a few months, the two men were reunited, and had altered the lineup of their band, now named, the King Kasuals. After auditioning for a reoccurring slot at the Club Del Morocco in Nashville, the group packed up what little they had, and made their way to Music City.
Part II coming soon…
Cusic, Don. “Nashville Recording Industry.” Tennessee Encyclopedia, Tennessee Historical Society, 1 Mar. 2018, tennesseeencyclopedia.net/entries/nashville-recording-industry/. Accessed 3 August 2018.
Hendrix Exhibit. The Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum, Nashville, TN.
“Jimi Hendrix.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 22 Feb. 2016, http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/jimi-hendrix-jimi-hendrix-biography/2743/. Accessed 3 August 2018.
Roby, Steven and Brad Schreiber. Becoming Jimi Hendrix: From Southern Crossroads toPsychedelic London, the Untold Story of a Musical Genius. vol. 1st Da Capo Press ed, Da Capo Press, 2010. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.mtsu.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=e0 0xna&AN=590963&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
Sisk, Chas. “Curious Nashville: Why Did Jimi Hendrix Play Jefferson Street?” Nashville Public Radio, 4 Jan. 2017, http://www.nashvillepublicradio.org/post/curious-nashville-why-did-jimi hendrix-play-jefferson-street. Accessed 3 August 2018.
Ward, Ed. “Jimi Hendrix, Before He Was Famous.” NPR, NPR, 21 Dec 2010,www.npr.org/2010/12/21/132231192/jimi-hendrix-before-he-was-famous. Accessed 3 August 2018.