Jimi Hendrix is considered one of the most creative and influential musicians who has ever lived. His lasting impact on anything from psychedelic rock to heavy metal, grunge, and even hip hop is hard to overstate. But like anyone who has pushed boundaries, Hendrix’s legacy is clouded by hearsay, rumors, lies, and legends.
And while everyone still adores the musicians for his hits like Purple Haze and Voodoo Child, the reality is that Jimi Hendrix was overworked, exhausted, and hated being famous. Everyone wanted something from the guitarist, pushing him closer and closer to the edge. From his troubled upbringing and taking the world by storm, to the unanswered questions surrounding his mysterious death, we’re taking a look at the life of Jimi Hendrix.
James Marshall Hendrix was born on November 27, 1942. His childhood was troubled to say the least. Hendrix’s father, Al, was a military veteran who had trouble finding and keeping a job. He was an angry drunk, which meant that Hendrix spent most nights hiding in his closet to escape the violence in the living room.
His brother Leon was in and out of foster care, and the Hendrix family moved around a lot, spending most of their time in cheap hotels or various apartments around Seattle. This unstable environment deeply affected Hendrix, who was shy and sensitive. Hendrix’s parents divorced in 1951, and by the mid-’50s, his behavior in school caught the eye of a social worker.
No matter where he went, Hendrix always had a broom in his hand. He pretended that it was a guitar and clung to it like a security blanket. The social worker suggested that either Al or the elementary school get Hendrix a guitar, but neither could afford it. It wasn’t until he was 15 years old that Hendrix finally got his first guitar, well, sort of.
It was a ukulele he found in the trash, and it only had one string. The future guitar legend didn’t care. Learning by ear, he played single notes following along to Elvis Presley songs. About a year later, Hendrix finally bought an acoustic guitar, and he played that thing from night until dawn.
By the time Hendrix was 19 years old, he had been caught riding in stolen cars twice. The court gave him an ultimatum: Go to jail or join the Army. Hendrix, of course, chose the latter. A few days later, he was shipped off to basic training in California. He was eventually assigned to the 101st Airborne Division.
Al told Rolling Stone magazine that for some reason or another, Hendrix left his guitar at home. He was surprised. By now, Hendrix’s guitar was an extension of his arm. But sure enough, Al got a call from Hendrix just a few days later. He said that the Army was driving him crazy and that he needed his guitar “right away.”
Al sent him his red Silvertone Danelectro straight to his base in Kentucky. Hendrix and a few other guys soon began playing at spots around base. But then, in 1962, Hendrix was honorably discharged from the military. His superiors said he was a bad marksman, always sleeping, and failed to report to bed checks.
“It is my opinion that Private Hendrix will never come up to the standards required of a soldier,” his platoon sergeant, James C. Spears, wrote in his report. Hendrix would later claim that he left the army after breaking his ankle during a parachute jump. Regardless of the circumstances surrounding his discharge, Hendrix was finally free to focus on the one thing he loved: music.
He spent the next 14 months crisscrossing the U.S. playing with more than 40 rhythm and blues groups. Under the name Jimmy James, he played with the Blue Flames before going on to back stars like Little Richard, Jackie Wilson, the Isley Brothers, and Wilson Pickett.
“I got tired of feeding back In the Midnight Hour,” he said of playing with Wilson Pickett. “I was a backing musician playing guitar.” Then, in 1966, Hendrix’s life changed. He was playing a gig at the legendary Café Wha? when the Animals’ bass player, Chas Chandler, walked in.
Chandler had been tipped off by Linda Keith, the then-girlfriend of Rolling Stone guitarist Keith Richards. During a concert at the Cheetah Club in New York, she had noticed Hendrix and was “memorized” by his performance.
But when Rolling Stones manager Andrew Oldham failed to see Hendrix’s potential, she put in a call to the bassist to see if he could help. Just a few seconds into Hendrix’s version of Hey Joe, Chandler was already blown away. The bassist, who was interested in leaving the Animals to manage new artists, convinced Hendrix to fly back to London with him.
A few days later, Al received a phone call in the middle of the night. “It’s me, Jimi. I’m in England, Dad,” Hendrix told his father. “I met some people and they’re going to make me a big star. We changed my name to J-i-m-i.”
Al remembers telling Hendrix that if he was really calling from London, the call was going to be very expensive. Overwhelmed with emotion, they both began to cry and laugh at the same time. “We were both so excited. I forgot to even tell him I’d remarried,” Al told Rolling Stone in October 1970, just a month after his tragic death.
Once he arrived in England, the rising star began forming a new band. Noel Redding, a guitarist who had auditioned with the Animals met Hendrix through Chandler. “Can you play bass?” was the first thing Hendrix asked Redding.
He never had before, but he immediately became the bassist with the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Mitch Mitchell, another Brit, was picked as drummer. Just four days after forming his trio, Hendrix opened at the Olympia in Paris for French pop star Johnny Halliday.
The reception was great, even though the guys had barely played together. A few days later, the Jimi Hendrix Experience launched their tour of Europe. Little did they know their lives would change overnight. Just eight days after the Beach Boys broke an attendance record of 7,000 people, the Experience drew an audience of 14,500.
Then, they became the second group, after the Rolling Stones, to sell out the Sports Arena in Copenhagen. In London, the Experience was the first act ever to sell out both shows. When another concert was announced a month later, tickets sold out in just a few hours.
Now it was time for the Jimi Hendrix Experience to return to America. The trio made their debut at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. No one knew that until nine months before, Hendrix had spent his whole life in the U.S.
In fact, the press called him a “freaky black English bluesman,” making his American debut. The festival’s co-founders, Lou Adler and John Phillips, said they first heard of Hendrix from Paul McCartney. “He told me about some guy in England playing guitar with his teeth,” Adler told Rolling Stone magazine in 1970.
After some discussion, they decided on the Jimi Hendrix Experience and the Who as “new” acts to be introduced to the Monterey audience. “Their appearance at the festival was magical; the way they looked, the way they performed, and the way they sounded were light years away from anything anyone had seen before,” Warner Brother’s Pete Johnson wrote.
“The Jimi Hendrix Experience owned the future, and the audience knew it in an instant.” Stories like this were enough to shoot Hendrix straight up to the top, just like in Europe.
Within days of its release, Purple Haze became a hit single, and Are You Experienced? became a hit album. It was clear that the Jimi Hendrix Experience was taking America by storm. The group was then booked as the opening act for the Monkees’ first U.S. tour.
But when promotors complained that their act was “too sexy,” the Experience refused to modify it and dropped out of the tour after just six shows. Chandler later confessed that it was a publicity stunt intended to create more buzz around Hendrix.
By 1968, Hendrix was a bonafide star. His first three albums were not only certified gold, but he was named Performer of the Year by Rolling Stone magazine. When the guitarist made his triumphant return to his home city of Seattle that same year, he was given the key to the city and an honorary diploma from his high school.
Al, however, was floored when he saw his son in a purple velvet cape and rainbow shirt. Not only did he not realize how big of a star Hendrix had become, but he remembered him as a conservative dresser with a reserved personality.
If Hendrix’s clothing choices were considered outlandish, then his stage act was pure mayhem. He was what every parent feared about rock n’ roll’s effect on their daughters. Offstage, the guitarist was a completely different person. He was still that same quiet, boyish, and vulnerable guy that he had always been.
Those close to him knew that he struggled with his fame and disliked being one of the most famous musicians on the planet. Sadly, his struggle became more noticeable in 1969. He became withdrawn, the Experience broke up, and he was arrested for dope.
In May 1969, Hendrix was crossing the border into Canada when the authorities found drugs inside his bag. The guitarist claimed that a fan had given him the bag a few days before, and he had no idea that it was filled with dope.
Mitchell and Redding, the other members of the Experience, both revealed that everyone had been warned of the planned drug bust the day before heading to Toronto. They also believed that drugs had been planted in Hendrix’s bag without his knowledge. Luckily, the guitarist was cleared of all charges in December. However, those seven months of waiting wreaked havoc on Hendrix’s mental state.
For most of the summer of ’69, Hendrix kept himself out of the public eye. He spent his time with an “electric family” of musicians—everyone from old bluesmen to avant-garde composers—in upstate New York. They rented a hilltop compound, complete with acres of land and two horses. Hendrix needed this time off to preserve his sanity, and this time was peaceful, well, for the most part.
The local police were gung-ho about catching “long-haired hippies” on anything from drugs to speeding. The house was always bustling with newcomers, and Hendrix’s management had their demands about the direction of his new sound.
But, even still, Hendrix made appearances at Woodstock, the Apollo Theater, and the Salvation Club in Greenwich Village. He also invited writers from Rolling Stone magazine to write a piece about him. “I don’t want to be a clown anymore. I don’t want to be a rock and roll star,” Hendrix told reporter Sheila Weller.
“I want to write songs about tranquility, about beautiful things.” But it seemed like everywhere he went, someone wanted something from Hendrix. “Even the highway patrol exploits him. They know his car,” one of his friends said.
“They stop him on the road between New York and Woodstock and harass him. Then they have something to gloat about for the rest of the day,” the friend continued to explain. “Once a cop stopped me on the highway and started bragging, ‘Hey, I just stopped Jimi Hendrix for the second time today.’”
The electric musical family ended up not working out. By the time Hendrix was found not guilty of his drug charges, he resurfaced with another new band, which he called A Band of Gypsies.
His old Army buddy Billy Cox was on bass, and his other friend Buddy Miles was on drums. Hendrix still owed Capitol records one album, so he gave them the live recordings of the group’s performance at the Fillmore East on New Year’s. However, in later interviews, Hendrix confessed that he was unhappy with his performance that night because his guitar was out of tune.
The sound was similar to his Purple Haze days, but his performance took a complete one-eighty. Instead of grooving around stage, Hendrix stood still, casually playing his guitar. In hindsight, this was a sign that something was wrong.
Then, a few weeks later, the guitarist abruptly stopped his performance at Madison Square Garden in the middle of his second song. “We’re not quite getting it together,” he said to the crowd before walking off stage. “I was very tired.”
“You know, sometimes there’s a lot of things that add up in your head about this and that and they might hit you at a very peculiar time, which happened to be at a peace rally,” the guitarist said of that night. “And here I’d been fighting the biggest war I ever fought. In my life. Inside, you know?”
It was clear that Hendrix was depressed with the Gypsys; before long, he was back with the original Experience. The guitarist thought that everything would be better now, but that was far from the case. During the summer of 1970, Hendrix was in a dangerous state of instability.
He had several girlfriends, groupies who claimed he impregnated him, and his moods were so unpredictable and violent that no one knew what to expect from him. Trouble seemed to follow him wherever he went. The previous year, Hendrix had been kidnapped by low-level Mafia members while trying to buy drugs at a nightclub in New York City.
Luckily, the guitarist was released unharmed. And then there was his manager, Michael Jeffery: a controlling, mob-connected man who worked Hendrix to the point of exhaustion. On top of everything, Hendrix truly believed he was going to die before he turned 30.
See, during a trip to Morocco, a tarot card reader turned up the death card, which, given the state his life was in, the guitarist took literally. During his final year, Hendrix began counting down his months, telling friends like journalist Sharon Lawrence that he was “almost gone.”
In August 1970, Hendrix kicked off his European tour, but it was a horrendous mess. His drug use and drinking got so out of control that he forgot songs and had to be helped on stage by whomever he was dating that week.
Billy Cox eventually suffered a nervous breakdown after his drink was spiked with LSD, and he was flown back to the states. “If Billy Cox had been around it wouldn’t have happened at all,” says biographer Philip Norman, said of Hendrix’s death. “He’d exhausted himself, completely worn out by this awful tour that he’d been on through Europe.”
Hendrix spent his last day with Monika Dannemann, a 25-year-old German ex-figure skater who occasionally met up with the guitarist for some late-night fun. She would later tell the press that the two had fallen madly in love and were planning on getting married.
Keep in mind that Hendrix already had a fiancée at the time, Danish model and actress Kirsten Nefer. “She seemed to be an obsessive fan who could actually harm the object of their adoration,” Norman argues. “Her claim that she was engaged to him and was the love of his life seemed very questionable.”
When Hendrix arrived in London, he called up Dannemann, who decided to rent a room at the Samarkand Hotel in Notting Hill. She made them dinner at around 11 p.m. before driving him to a party. Dannemann, however, was not invited because Hendrix’s other girlfriend, Devon Wilson, was going to be there.
Even still, the ex-figure skater not only drove Hendrix to the party but picked him up at around 3 a.m. Fifty years later, the following hours remain a complete mystery. Account witnesses have changed over time, and the truth of what really happened that night has fallen through the cracks.
Dannemann originally told police that after picking Hendrix up from the party, the two spent the entire night talking (in other statements, arguing), until 7:15 a.m. After taking some drugs at the party, Hendrix reportedly asked Dannemann if she had any sleeping pills he could take.
She offered him a strong German pill called Vesparax. It’s believed that he took up to nine. Danneman’s timeline of events has changed at least a dozen times and it is riddled with inconsistencies. In some statements, she claimed to have woken up at 9 a.m. In others, 10:20 a.m. or closer to 11 a.m.
In her most generally accepted story, Danneman says that she found Hendrix asleep while going out for a pack of cigarettes. When she came back home, she noticed he had thrown up and couldn’t wake up. Danneman immediately called her friend, Alvenia Bridges, who had spent the night with singer Eric Burdon.
Burdon told Danneman to turn Hendrix over and spent several minutes trying to convince her to call an ambulance. The ex-figure skater was apparently scared that she would get in trouble and that Hendrix would wake up in the hospital, handcuffed to his bed.
An ambulance was finally called at 11:18 a.m. and arrived just nine minutes later. Burdon got out of bed and made his way to the scene, but his accounts have also changed over the years. In some stories, he arrived while Hendrix was still lying on the bed, and in others, Hendrix was already in the ambulance.
“I didn’t want to look at the mess. We had to be there before,” Burdon reportedly told Hendrix’s long-term girlfriend, Kathy Etchingham. “We got the guitars out; we got the drugs out of the place.”
At some point that morning, a cleanup had taken place. Musician Terry Slater was even filmed by the police burying drugs in a communal garden, which were missing when police when to dig them up, according to The Independent.
According to biographer Philip Norman, everyone cleaned up the apartment before the ambulance was called, meaning that Hendrix could have still been saved. “Several hours passed when it seems quite clear he could’ve been resuscitated and saved,” the biographer wrote. “Instead, there were people there getting rid of drugs and panicking around him without doing anything to help him.”
And there were even discrepancies in Hendrix’s medical report. The paramedics who arrived at the scene said that Hendrix was unresponsive. “We tried to revive him, but we couldn’t,” paramedic Reginald Jones told Etchingham. “The vomit was all dried. He’d been lying there for a long time. There was no heartbeat.”
But in an unofficial investigation performed by former police superintendent Dennis Care, Hendrix was still alive when he arrived at the hospital. But then came another strange twist in the story. Dr John Bannister, who was on call when Hendrix came in, said that the guitarist was covered head-to-toe in red wine.
“The amount of wine that was over him was just extraordinary,” Bannister told The Times in 2009. “Not only was it saturated right through his hair and shirt, but his lungs and stomach were absolutely full of wine.” So, according to this doctor, Hendrix had, in fact, drowned in red wine.
The guitarist’s autopsy reported 400 ml of “free fluid” in his lungs, but it had no mention of wine in his stomach or his bloodstream. Was it possible that Hendrix was murdered? Several people seem to believe so. If that’s the case, then who did it?
The early ‘70s were a time of extreme paranoia. The famed biographer believes that the U.S. was scared that Hendrix held too much power over his fans. But this isn’t the only far-fetched theory. Stories of a hitman have also surfaced over the years. In 1975, Danneman claimed that Hendrix had been taken out by mobsters.
“I do believe that he got poisoned, that he actually got murdered,” the ex-skater told biographer Caesar Glebbeek. “There is something really behind the whole thing, and there’s quite a powerful group behind all that.” Is that true? Or did Danneman want to cover her own mistakes from that night?
Well, Danneman isn’t the only one who pushed the mob theory. In 2009, James Wright, a one-time roadie for The Animals, released a memoir alleging that Hendrix’s manager, Michael Jeffery, drunkenly confessed to putting a hit on the guitarist. Supposedly Jeffery owed the mob $45,000.
Fearing Hendrix was preparing to fire him, he decided to cash in on the guitarist’s $2 million life insurance policy. However, this theory has some major holes. With or without Hendrix, Jeffery was still going to make a significant amount of money from Hendrix’s album sales. He also never received a penny from the insurance claim.
Others believe that he took his own life, but Norman says that it was a simple case of confusion that spun into tragedy. “I think it really was that more mundane [explanation] of accidentally taking too much, and not being helped when he could have been helped,” the biographer told The Independent in 2020.
“I think it’s that he was befuddled, not high and not particularly drunk, but just slightly confused and took double the dose that he thought he was taking.” He also believes that Hendrix was in such a bad state emotionally and physically that even a single dose of those sleeping pills could have killed him.
Danneman took her own life in 1996, so the truth of Hendrix’s final hours followed her to the grave. Much like his career, Hendrix’s passing remains a mystery. The rock star’s life and death remain clouded by hearsay, rumors, lies, and legends. But his passion and influence live on.
“Jimi Hendrix was arguably the greatest instrumentalist in the history of rock music,” his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame biography reads. “His boundless drive, technical ability and creative application of such effects as wah-wah and distortion forever transformed the sound of rock and roll.”