Jimi Hendrix rocketed to popularity in 1967 with one of the most remarkable debut albums in rock history. The string of hits on "Are You Experienced?" — a groovy and explosive combination of Bob Dylan-esque lyrics, blues, hard rock, R&B and guitar freak-out — sounded unlike anything that came before.
Almost more impressive was Hendrix himself, a gorgeous and outrageous character who intimidated established rock stars and worried the FBI. He became a symbol of personal and cultural liberation for members of a new generation attempting to remake themselves and the world they lived in.
When he died in a London hotel room at the age of 27 — after taking sleeping pills and choking on his own vomit — he'd earned acclaim as the star attraction at rock festivals from New York's Woodstock to England's Isle of Wight.
Following his drug overdose death, Hendrix gradually devolved into a head-shop icon, the symbol of a few turbulent years and the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll that went with them.
In his 2005 biography "Room Full of Mirrors: A Biography of Jimi Hendrix," author Charles R. Cross shows us in heartbreaking detail a dreamy, sensitive kid buffeted by poverty, abuse and loss in his childhood in Seattle. Stories of Hendrix being beaten by his father and carrying cardboard to cover the holes in his shoes underscore how far he eventually traveled.
The guitar was Hendrix's escape. He never put it down; he wore it on his back to school and slept with it at night. By the time he was 17, he was playing regularly with local bands and dreaming of fame. But when he was arrested twice for riding in stolen cars, a judge drastically narrowed his options — jail or the Army.
The military took him from Seattle and his alcoholic father. Hendrix was stationed in Kentucky, where he met other musicians and formed a group that played in nearby Nashville. Before long, the Army was the only impediment to his music career and Cross for the first time explains the ruse Hendrix used to get discharged.
Hendrix claimed he was released from service because he'd broken an ankle in a parachute jump. Cross says Army medical records reveal that Hendrix, who would become infamous for his womanizing, met often in 1962 with a base psychiatrist at Fort Campbell, saying he was addicted to masturbation and in love with a squad mate.
Discharged from the Army, Hendrix worked the Chitlin Circuit, eventually backing big names like Ike and Tina Turner, Little Richard and the Isley Brothers. Often, he was fired for playing or dressing with too much flare and upstaging the stars. By the time he arrived in New York in 1964, the 21-year-old guitarist was growing tired of wearing band uniforms and playing other people's music.
Chas Chandler, the former bass player of the Animals, saw Hendrix in a Greenwich Village club, brought him to England and formed the Jimi Hendrix Experience — a touring rock show.
Although he found fame in Britain, Hendrix lived like a man trying to outrun his demons, along the way helping to create the cliches of rock star self-destruction — drug busts, car crashes, hotel room rampages, onstage collapse and premonitions of death.