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Pour yourself a cup of tea (or perhaps a dash of whiskey) and settle in, because we’re not talking about the Jimi Hendrix you already know—the psychedelic rock God who blazed a trail with his revolutionary guitar skills. No, here we’re delving into the unseen chapters of the early years of Jimi Hendrix’s career, back when he strummed a guitar in the shadows of other musicians and groups, before the world stage and shining limelight was his.

Briefly, to set the scene: Jimi Hendrix, born in 1942, evolved from a poor and troubled childhood in Seattle to become nothing short of a global icon, leaving a remarkable impact on the world of music, all within his tragic death when he was only 27 years old.

Jimi Hendrix wasn’t born with a silver spoon, yet he had a deep-seated reverence for music. As a kid, he would strum an old broomstick until he got a hold of a real deal – a one-stringed ukulele he found amongst the trash.


Jimi Hendrix’s First Bands


Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, our hero didn’t have it easy from the get-go. Jimi Hendrix cut his teeth in the music scene with his first bands – The Rocking Kings and The Tomcats, barely scraping by but fueled by raw passion. Then life happened, and Jimi was whisked away into military service, where he met bassist Billy Cox and discovered one thing they perfectly agreed on—the sweet liberation of music.

During his time in the US Army as a paratrooper with the ‘Screaming Eagles’ in the 101st Airborne Division, Jimi Hendrix and Billy Cox developed a lasting connection. However, it wasn’t until after their military service, later in 1962, that they officially formed The King Kasuals. This band stands as a testament to Jimi Hendrix’s resilience and musical dedication, setting the stage for the adventurous ride that awaited him as he transitioned from an unknown guitarist to a seasoned backup musician for some of the industry’s biggest names.

After the Kasuals, Jimi Hendrix hurled himself into what you may call the chitlin circuit, a network of venues across the US, where many black musicians began their careers during the era of racial segregation. It was here Jimi Hendrix honed his craft, sharpening his innate talent on the rough grindstone of countless performances.


Strumming the Guitar for The Isley Brothers


Jimi Hendrix came into his Isley Brothers audition without a guitar or any way to get to rehearsals—he still blew everyone away. In March 1964, Hendrix recorded the two-part single “Testify” with the Isley Brothers. Released in June, it failed to chart. In May, he provided guitar instrumentation for the Don Covay song, “Mercy Mercy,” reaching number 35 on the Billboard chart in August.

Jimi Hendrix toured with the Isleys throughout much of 1964. Near the end of October, growing tired of the repetitive set, he left the band. The Isley Brothers, riding high on their hit “Shout,” infused their music with a mix of gospel, doo-wop, and R&B, with Hendrix’s guitar skills acting as an engine room. His Isley Brothers tenure, a laborious apprenticeship, lifted the veil of obscurity. The 1964 tour showcased his live performance prowess, offering early glimpses of the showmanship that would define his legendary career.


Riding the R&B Wave with Little Richard

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Soon afterward, Jimi Hendrix joined Little Richard’s touring band, the Upsetters. In 1965, Jimi recorded his first and only single with Richard, “I Don’t Know What You Got (But It’s Got Me).” Later that year, Jimi Hendrix made his debut TV appearance performing with Little Richard’s ensemble band and backing up vocalists Buddy and Stacy on “Shotgun.” This video recording marks the earliest known footage of Hendrix performing.

Cruising with Little Richard was no walk in the park—it was like holding down a wild horse! The flamboyant musician, known for electrifying performances, brought a musical epoch filled with gospel, blues, and signature potent R&B.

Working with Richard was a tumultuous yet enriching learning experience for Jimi Hendrix. While conforming to Richard’s strong musical direction, it also helped him channel his raw skill into something more dramatic and disciplined. Like trying to cage a storm, the collaboration with Little Richard played a significant role in shaping Hendrix’s evolving musical style.


Jimi Hendrix’s Chapter with Curtis Knight and the Squires


In a turn of events, Jimi Hendrix aligned himself with Curtis Knight and the Squires in New York later that year in 1965. Knight, known for blending soulful tunes with hints of pop and blues, provided a unique musical platform for Hendrix’s experimentation and evolution.

During this period, Jimi Hendrix collaborated with King Curtis on various recordings, including the notable “Help Me.” It was with Curtis Knight and the Squires that Hendrix earned his first composer credits for two instrumentals, “Hornets Nest” and “Knock Yourself Out,” released as a single in 1966.

Being a Squire proved to be a mixed bag for Jimi Hendrix. While it allowed him to infuse his guitar prowess into Knight’s melodies, it also entangled him in a thorny contract that later became a pain in the neck. Yet, every cloud has a silver lining, and his stint with Knight served as a stepping stone propelling him into the destined journey of unprecedented success that awaited him.


From Backup Musician to “The Jimi Hendrix Experience”


As he grew and evolved, Jimi Hendrix transcended the limitations of being a side artist. A pivotal moment unfolded when Linda Keith witnessed a concert by Jimi Hendrix, in 1966, then known as ‘Jimmy James and the Blue Flames.’ Impressed, she extended an invitation to Chas Chandler who later attended a performance.

From this point, history was in the making. Jimi, along with Chas Chandler, relocated to the UK, and in less than a week, they formed the iconic power trio ‘Jimi Hendrix Experience.’ This transformative move marked a watershed moment in rock history, forever altering the musical landscape.


Reflecting on Jimi Hendrix’s Journey


Our exploration of Jimi Hendrix’s early career as an unsung backup artist sheds light on the humble origins of this rock legend. Those years spent standing in the shadows, immersed in orchestrating others’ music, undeniably molded his distinctive sound and iconic status.

The early years were far from glamorous—filled with trials and tribulations. The four years in the chitlin circuit as a backup artist were particularly grueling, marked by meager pay, dismissal by Little Richard, the loss of guitars on tours, and continuing adult life in poverty. Yet, the truth remains that without this challenging journey, Hendrix wouldn’t have acquired the skills that propelled him to become a global superstar, first in London and then back in the USA.



Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

  • How did Jimi Hendrix’s early career as a backup artist influence his music? Jimi Hendrix’s early career was seeped in powerful learning experiences. His time with artists like Little Richard and the Isley Brothers honed his guitar skills, introduced him to diverse musical styles, and shaped his electrifying stage presence.
  • Why did Hendrix decide to play as a backup artist before starting his solo career? Like many aspiring musicians, Hendrix started as a backup artist due to the opportunities and learning experiences it offered. His journey of collaborations was instrumental in his remarkable musical maturation, eventually leading to a successful solo career.
  • What noteworthy events took place during Jimi Hendrix’s tenure with these artists? From jamming with The Isley Brothers on their first hit “Shout” to riding the wave of R&B with Little Richard, Hendrix experienced pivotal moments during his tenure with these artists. His problematic contract with Curtis Knight was another noteworthy event, as it became a significant setback in his early career.
  • What impact did these early experiences have on his later music and performance style? Jimi Hendrix’s early experiences were the bedrock of his musical evolution. The variety and depth of styles he explored influenced his later music, helping him achieve a unique synergy of blues, rock, and psychedelia. His phenomenal stage antics—like playing the guitar behind his back or performing the ‘tongue pluck’— were undoubtedly influenced by his early stage experiences.


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