In 2007 Jimi Hendrix was voted the number 1 guitarist of all time by Rolling Stone. Without question such polls are silly enough anyway, but at a minimum this should have been The Top 100 Blues/Rock Guitarists of all Time.
Wes Montgomery and Django Reinhardt didn’t make the list, but, no disrespect intended, Joan Jett did! Still, when we consider blues/rock guitarists the top five is a defensible list:
2 Duane Allman
3 B.B. King
4 Eric Clapton
5 Robert Johnson
The next five on their list are not as easy to defend in my humble opinion.
6 Chuck Berry
7 Stevie Ray Vaughan
8 Ry Cooder
9 Jimmy Page
10 Keith Richards
I would have a very difficult time coming up with a ranking order, but my top ten blues / rock guitarists would have included these names in alphabetical order:
Allman Duane, Bloomfield Mike, Clapton Eric, Hendrix Jimi, Johnson Robert, King BB, King Albert, Santana Carlos, Trucks Derek, and Vaughan Stevie Ray
It is very difficult to leave someone like Sumlin Hubert (Howlin’ Wolf’s great guitarist), or Ronnie Earl off, but that would be my list. I was lucky enough to have seen the top four on Rolling Stone’s list up close and live on stage: Jimi Hendrix, Duane Allman, Eric Clapton, and B.B. King. This post of course is about seeing Jimi.
It was here at the Hilton Hotel Ballroom in Washington, D.C. on March 10th, 1968 and I was 17 years old at the time. I’m not in this, but on the web I came across a photo of Jimi at the Hilton with fans (click on the image to find a larger version on the website.) For younger fans of Hendrix, it is useful to paint a picture of what was going on at the time.
I lived in the Maryland suburbs of Washington. There were no long-hairs in my high school, without a “proper haircut” you were expelled from school. In 1968 we had a culture war of sorts going on in our school. I found this post in a forum:
“For those of you fairly new to the area, before anyone puts Suitland down, remember that is has been a, “bad area”, for a long time. I grew up in Marlow Heights during the 60s and 70s, which is a couple miles from Suitland, and back then Suitland was considered, “rough”. At that time, the tough guys/trouble-makers were Blocks aka Greasers. Now it’s another group of bad guys.”
Our school had a large proportion of Blocks/greasers who were cultural hold-outs from the 50’s – kind of like the hoodlums in an old James Dean movie. We basically had them and the non-greasers who collectively were called collegians. The collegians included jocks, study nerds, regular college track kinds, and a smaller group of kids who were “freaks” on the inside. In our area, only college kids and runaways had the freedom to be long-haired hippies. We were suburban hippy-wannabes – girls of course had an easier time of it.
In February of ’68 the Beatles were in India with the Maharishi, and just as Jimi was to come to DC, Bill Graham opened the Fillmore East in New York City with Tim Buckley, Big Brother & The Holding Company and Albert King sharing the bill on the first night. The Viet Nam war was raging on, Bobby Kennedy became a candidate for president in early ’68, but both he and Martin Luther King, Jr. would be assassinated by mid year. I’ll never forget learning of Dr. Kings assassination, about a month after seeing Jimi Hendrix. We were stopped at a toll booth in Virginia and a fat grinning attendant said, “Did you all hear the good news, someone shot that n-word King.” Washington exploded into a war zone for days. I even remember seeing James Brown on local TV appealing for calm.
In that atmosphere school was like being trapped in nightmare if you were caught up in the spirit of the times. On the one hand I envied the kids who were in college and free to be part of the growing counter culture, but they were also the ones being drafted and killed in a senseless war.
The freaks were the ones buying psychedelic music. Musicians like Hendrix, the Doors, and Jefferson Airplane were our lifeline to the hope for a different future. It was ironic that the unabashedly racists greasers limited themselves essentially to soul music and Elvis. The blacks that I knew, there were few in our schools, and none in our neighborhoods, didn’t like Hendrix. In fact, I distinctly remember the first time I heard Jimi Hendrix. I was riding in a car with friends when Purple Haze came on the radio, it was the best psychedelic music and guitar playing I had ever heard, and then all the sudden this black voice is singing – now that doesn’t seem strange, but back then it was as strange as if an opera singer had been singing.
Jimi Hendrix was absolutely the coolest thing we had ever heard, and his first LP took us to a whole new dimension of sound. You can imagine how excited we were to see him live. By chance a friend of mine who lived across the river in Virginia, had left home and was part of the hippy scene in DC. He was crashing in a group apartment just off of DuPont Circle and on weekends I would sometimes hangout with him there. One of the girls there worked in the DC equivalent of the Fillmore and “knew” many of the groups who played there in a Biblical sense. In any case, when we got to the Hilton Ballroom my suburban buddies were very surprised that I knew so many of the hippies waiting at the doors to be let in.
This is a ticket stub from an interesting site – e-rockworld. I had a fairly good spot, I was on the right hand side of the stage perhaps ten or twelve rows back. The first thing I remember about it was that it was the loudest concert I had ever been to. The Hilton Ballroom was teaming with uniformed off-duty police working as security guards.
I was sure Hendrix was going to be arrested. He was grinding his guitar in an overtly sexual manner when he first came out, getting all this feedback and it was so loud and suggestive, I absolutely expected that the police were going to take him down – it was beyond the bounds of anyone’s experience at that point in time. Then he goes to the microphone and says, “This one is for the boys in the penguin suits.”
I don’t remember the setlist, but there are actually bootlegs of this concert and here’s what he played:
01. Intro (Hilton)
02. Killing Floor (Burnett)
03. Foxy Lady
04. The Wind Cries Mary
06. Red House
07. I Don’t Live Today
08. Purple Haze
09. Wild Thing (C. Taylor)
10. Outro (Hilton)
This isn’t from the concert, but another 68 show and it captures pretty much how I remember it.
Another thing I remember very well, during Purple Haze Jimi pointed to his drummer when he actually said, “Scuse me while I kiss this guy.” I saw this over on Wikipedia:
Hendrix sometimes had a camp sense of humor, specifically with the song “Purple Haze”. A mondegreen had appeared, in which the line “‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky” was misheard as “‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy.” In a few performances, Hendrix humorously used this, deliberately singing “kiss this guy” while pointing to Mitch or Noel, as he did at Monterey. In the Woodstock DVD he deliberately points to the sky at this point, to make it clear. In one live recording, Hendrix can easily be heard saying “Excuse me while I kiss that police officer”; he quickens his pace for the last few words so he remains in time with the music. A volume of misheard lyrics has been published, using this mondegreen itself as the title, with Hendrix on the cover.”
Now I must be honest and admit that this wasn’t a moving musical experience for me (see for example my post on Duane Allman), this was more of a happening or spectacle. If you check out Jimi’s tour schedule it’s clear that touring had become a literal circus by this time. Kids wanted to see a new fad, along with the songs they knew. What I will say, however, is that he was the greatest showman I ever saw on stage – but I would have rather seen Jimi the musician (I suspect I was in a minority in those days.)
Moreover, in the studio, in terms of innovative playing, ingenious recording techniques, tastefulness and fineness, I don’t think anyone has ever equaled him – but live, when I saw him, it was more of a show than a musical event (at least that’s how I experienced it.) Nonetheless, I’m thankful I had the chance to see Jimi play, it’s something I will never forget, I only wonder what if he…
POST SCRIPT – The original post was written on April 1, 2008. Today, Jan. 10th, 2009 I got a chance to listen to a recording of the show LINK. Often this kind of thing is a disappointment, like going back to someplace from your childhood and discovering that isn’t nearly as big a you remembered it. Given how loud I remembered this concert being, I was surprised by how good the analog recording was, and I am happy to report that Jimi was great – he did a killer version of Red House and his playing all the way through was very impressive. The extremely loud feedback I described as taking place at the beginning, actually might have been at the intro to Purple Haze. Thanks to the folks at Flaming Phoenix Forum for sharing this!