While Jimi Hendrix may not have been the greatest guitar player of all time – although that’s not a bet I would take – he is certainly the most legendary. Partly for his stage presence and antics (you seen anyone else set a guitar on fire on stage lately?), partly because he died so tragically young, and but mostly because, DAMN, that man could play.
He was born Johnny Allen Hendrix (which was shortly thereafter changed to James Marshall Hendrix) but the world knows him best as Jimi. Of mixed descent – the man had African-American, Cherokee and Irish genes – he was not merely a great musician but also a great experimentalist, pioneering many of the sounds, effects and techniques that created the modern rock vocabulary of the electric guitar. The debt owed to him by practically ever guitar player who lived after him is immeasurable.
Not bad for a guy who played guitar for only a little over 12 years.
Widely hailed as one of the greatest rock songs of all time, and probably the greatest psychedelic rock song, “Purple Haze” is not actually about drugs, psychedelic or otherwise. According to Hendrix (who wrote the lyrics and music), it’s mostly about falling in love – although it’s possible that the whole song is happening on Neptune (Hendrix was a big science fiction fan, and frequently used elements of it in his songs). In fact, Hendrix gave different explanations at different times – although he always strenuously denied that it was about drug use.
According to the track’s producer, Chas Chandler (no, not that Chas Chandler), Hendrix began writing it on Boxing Day, 1966. “Purple Haze” was recorded in a four hour session on January 11, 1967 at De Lane Lea Studios in London, and released in the UK a little over two months later. (It would not be released in the US until June 19.) It would become a Top Ten hit in the UK and other European nations, but fare less well in the US, where strong sales of the album it featured on as track one (“Are You Experienced?”) harmed sales of the single despite heavy radio play.
It remains one of the most well known and popular Hendrix songs.
Widely acclaimed as the greatest guitar player of all time, Jimi Hendrix was only 27 years old when he died. He had released only 4 albums before his death, but he was already one of the iconic figures of the Sixties. He popularised the use of the Fender Stratocaster, the guitar on which he played, and he played some of the greatest live sets of all time at Woodstock and Monterey.
Although occasional allegations of murder or suicide have been made, it seems most probably that Hendrix’ death was a tragic accident. He asphyxiated on his own vomit after taking a combination of an overdose of sleeping pills (Hendrix was unfamiliar with the brand and it was stronger than he likely realised) and red wine. He died in London, but his body was returned to his native Seattle for burial.