Jimi Hendrix had once informed a friend that in the event of his death he didn’t want to be buried in his home city of Seattle, Washington, but in London; the city where his musical career had taken off and which he once described as a “giant candy store”. Although his wish wasn’t granted, he’ll always be associated with London and the musical explosion of the 60s.
In his excellent book on Hendrix, “Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix and Postwar Pop”, Charles Shaar Murray recounts how the artist didn’t just arrive from nowhere as a fully-formed guitar hero. Instead, he had worked for years criss-crossing the United States supporting artists such as Little Richard and Ike and Tina Turner, and was very much a disciple of the blues tradition.
As is well known, Chas Chandler, former bassist with the Animals, while in New York looking for acts to manage had the good fortune to snap up Hendrix and bring him to London in September 1966. On the way in from Heathrow, they stopped off at the flat of a seminal 60s musician, Zoot Money, at 11 Gunterstone Road. Future Police guitarist Andy Summers was living downstairs, but more importantly for Hendrix, a young woman named Kathy Etchingham occupied the flat upstairs. Later that day Etchingham was to enter into a three year relationship with Hendrix after meeting him at the Scotch of St James, a trendy club located at 13 Masons Yard. He played a solo gig there that night, his very first one in Britain, before Chandler hauled him offstage because he didn’t have a work permit. Kathy has written her own very readable and down-to-earth account of her life during this period in her book “Through Gypsy Eyes”.
When you’re a kid, you know that something special is happening when your dad tears himself away from the evening paper to gaze in horror at Top of the Pops and mutter: “What the hell is this rubbish?” Thus it was in December 1966 that my dad confirmed Hendrix’s arrival on the British scene at large. As soon as he got here, he entered into a whirlwind of activity, firstly recruiting two musicians to form the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Noel Redding was a lead guitarist but quickly adapted to bass, and Mitch Mitchell’s wild drumming was a perfect complement to Hendrix, just as their contemporaries, Keith Moon and Pete Townshend played off each other. Word went round like wildfire, and soon other established stars, including John Lennon and Paul McCartney, took every opportunity to promote Hendrix in their own interviews.
In this early period, the Experience played many gigs around London, including at the Speakeasy in Margaret Street, the Roundhouse in Kentish Town, the fabled Marquee Club in Wardour Street, Soho and even at Chislehurst Caves on the south-east outskirts.
On 1st October, Hendrix got up to jam with Cream at the Regent Street Polytechnic’s (now University of Westminster) Portland Hall in Little Titchfield Street. At the time, Eric Clapton was very much considered the ultimate guitar god. However, after Hendrix had stunned the audience playing ‘Killing Floor’ while going through his full repertoire of tricks, Clapton had to sit down and have a good cup of tea. One of the students in the audience that night was Roger Waters.
Some of his early work was recorded at Olympic Studios at 117 Church Road, Barnes, including ‘Are You Experienced?’, ‘If Six Was Nine’, and, a year later, part of his epic version of ‘All Along the Watchtower’. His first single was his cover of ‘Hey Joe’, which became a hit around Christmas time and was the song which aroused my dad’s ire. I recall the performance well: Hendrix was doing his full routine of playing the guitar behind his head and with his teeth. Sadly, this very gimmickry that had helped create such a stunning initial reaction in the United Kingdom would become a millstone around his neck and detract from his serious musical concerns.
In those days many bands would be packaged together and sent out on huge national tours, no matter how disparate their styles might have been. I’ve heard that the fledgling Pink Floyd managed a 10 minute set on such a tour. Anyway, in early 1967 Hendrix found himself out on the road with the Walker Brothers and none other than crooner Engelbert Humperdinck. Perhaps surprisingly, Hendrix was a fan of the latter’s vocal style and was often seen watching his set admiringly from the wings. One evening he even deputized for Humperdinck’s guitarist, who was ill. Since Hendrix was not at all confident about his own vocals, he must have been keen to learn from whoever he could.
After moving to London, Hendrix initially lived at the Hyde Park Towers Hotel in Inverness Terrace, Bayswater. In those days it wasn’t the impressive establishment it is now, and was in a distinctly ramshackle condition. In early 1967, he and Kathy moved into Ringo Starr’s flat at 34 Montagu Square; they occupied the basement while Chandler and his girlfriend were on the ground floor. Apparently the neighbours didn’t take too kindly to them, and Hendrix and Chandler had a terminal bust up while on tour, so sharing a kitchen was not an option in the future. After they had all left, John Lennon and Yoko Ono moved in, which must have delighted the neighbours. The flat was the location of Lennon and Ono’s infamous nude photoshoot for the cover of ‘Two Virgins’, as well as the scene of their arrest for the possession of marijuana in October 1968.
After a brief stay in nearby Upper Berkeley Street, Hendrix and Etchingham found themselves a more permanent place at 23 Brook Street. A previous resident next door at number 25 had been none other than the 18th century German composer George Frederick Handel. If you go there today, you’ll see blue plaques for both of these musical geniuses, and the building is now home to the Handel and Hendrix Museum. Hendrix once claimed to have seen the ghost of a man in an ancient garb when he was there. But between you and me, I think he probably saw quite a few things that weren’t really there.
Since Hendrix had had a very disrupted childhood, followed by a stint in the army and extensive travels around the United States, his time at Brook Street was one of comparative domestic calm. However, he was to spend more and more time on tour, and he soon set up his own Electric Ladyland studios in Manhattan.
Hendrix recorded extensively for BBC Radio, and many of these tracks are available on BBC Records. During one session at Broadcasting House in Portland Place, he was playing so loudly that the producer of a live classical broadcast in the studio below had to come upstairs and ask him to turn it down a little bit. I’ve heard a tape of him jamming Stevie Wonder’s ‘I Was Made to Love Her’ with Wonder on drums at the Playhouse Theatre in Northumberland Avenue, where the BBC used to do many of their live recordings.
As already mentioned, his career caused Hendrix to spend more and more time away from London, and his relationship with Etchingham ended by late 1969. When he returned for concerts, such as his famous Isle of Wight Festival appearance in August 1970, he stayed in large hotels on or around Park Lane.
His last public performance was a jam with his old friend Eric Burdon’s band War at Ronnie Scott’s Club in Soho two days before he passed away at the age of 27. At the time of his death on 18th September 1970, he was booked in at the Cumberland Hotel in Great Cumberland Place, although he actually died in the basement of the Samarkand Hotel at 22 Lansdowne Crescent of an accidental overdose of barbiturates. He was pronounced dead at St Mary Abbots Hospital in Kensington.
Ian Mole is a teacher of English to overseas students and a walking tour guide in London, specializing in music-related tours.