Happy Birthday, Jimi Hendrix!

Happy Birthday, Jimi Hendrix!

Arguably the greatest rock guitarist of all time, James Marshall "Jimi" Hendrix (born Johnny Allen Hendrix on November 27, 1942) achieved a reputation that lingered well past the accidental overdose that took his life on September 18, 1970.

Known for his flamboyant stage performances, his singular form of psychedelia, and a wild and reckless lifestyle that all but defined rock-star mores, Hendrix's career was short-lived (his band, the Experience, produced only three studio albums during its short stint of activity), but his legacy remains more vital than ever, thanks to a consistent procession of live recordings, issues of unfinished efforts, and the ongoing efforts of his family's enterprise, Experience Hendrix LLC, which, in conjunction with Sony Records, has made reissues of his work a nonstop endeavor. 

Thanks to this steady succession of posthumous offerings and the

obvious influence he's had on other musicians who followed in his wake

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(Prince, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robin Trower, Kirk Hammett, and Billy

Gibbons, among them), it's likely that Hendrix will always maintain a

vital presence as long as rock remains relevant. He's been credited with

helping to introduce both heavy metal and funk into the rock 'n' roll

lexicon, even as his later recordings suggested he was steering toward

the avant-garde.

Likewise, his core devotion to the blues -- nurtured by his admiration

for B.B. King, Muddy Walters, Howlin' Wolf, Elmore James, and Albert King

-- helped popularize that idiom among the masses and bring with it

appreciation for its role in rock's evolution. Some of his most

prestigious honors came long after his passing -- a star on the Hollywood

Walk of Fame, membership in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, an

induction into the United States National Recording Registry (for the

album Are You Experienced), and universal recognition as one of the most important rock artists of all time. 


bears noting that when Hendrix himself was asked in a Rolling Stone

interview, "How does it feel to be the greatest guitarist in the

world?" he suggested the writer direct that question to Irish

guitarist Rory Gallagher instead.)

Still, despite the giant shadow he continues to cast, it's worth noting that when he died at the tragically young age of 27, he was in the midst of launching a new phase in his career, one he hoped would greatly expand his possibilities and allow him to explore new musical horizons. He left behind some 300 unreleased recordings, which, while indicative of his prolific drive, also leave tantalizing hints as to where he might have been headed. At the time of his death, he was working on an album he planned to title

First Rays of the New Rising Sun

(tracks from those sessions were originally released in the early '70s as

Cry of Love

and later reissued under their true title). He had also voiced his intention to incorporate a "blacker" sound into his music; it's said that part of his motivation might have been to reaffirm his connection with that segment of the African-American community that had earlier tried to enlist his moral and financial support for its separatist causes. 

Had he lived, Hendrix would have turned 69 today, an age impossible to imagine for a man with such vitality and irrepressible instincts. Perhaps he would have settled into the role of being a venerable bluesman, veering from the gentlemanly domain of, say, B.B. King and Eric Clapton to the rowdier realms of an elder statesman like Buddy Guy, who, at age 75, emulates Hendrix by playing with his teeth and manipulating his guitar behind his back. Or maybe his penchant for experimentation would have brought him further into cosmic realms, sort of like Sun Ra, whose spacy soirées kept him at the cutting edge of imagination well into his 70s. Given the fact that he apparently loved associating with other musicians -- Cream, Traffic, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer were among the acts he interfaced with -- it's altogether likely he would have continued to collaborate with both his peers and the younger bands that would certainly shower him with adulation. Would a collaboration with Pearl Jam have been a possibility? Or supersessions with the Stepkids or the Black Keys? Doubtless, Hendrix would have been right at home, either behind the boards or out on stage drawing from that same energy and enthusiasm. 

Hopefully, the fact that he was given to drug taking and other vices wouldn't have gotten the better of him later on or turned him into a recluse or eccentric who would surface only on occasion, only to reaffirm his weirdness. (Think Sly Stone.) On the other hand, it's even harder to imagine him out on the oldies circuit, rehashing hits like "Purple Haze" or "Foxy Lady" for the geriatric crowd. ("Here's an oldie some of you might remember. That is, if you can recall anything at all... Keep time with your canes and rock on your rockers, but don't let your pacemakers do all the work... Foxy granny, coming to getcha...") And we can only hope that he wouldn't follow the lead of Elton John or Billy Joel and opt for the showbiz circuit that might take him from Atlantic City to Las Vegas, conforming to well-trod formulas along the way. Likewise, what would become of that magnificent Afro and the dazzling stage garb? One can only hope that he'd keep his cred and even make occasional cameos with a fellow senior like Bob Dylan for a rocking replay of "All Along the Watchtower." 

Of course, that's one of the unknowns we're left with when our heroes die young and leave behind a beautiful corpse. Like Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Brian Jones, Amy Winehouse, and the other ill-fated members of that "27 Club" (so named because of the age they all died), we still retain the images of individuals at the peak of their prowess. And the need to wonder "What if...?"

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