How Jimi Hendrix’s race became his ‘invisible legacy’
The following piece is from CNN. It was written by John Blake.
By: John Blake
Two weeks after closing Woodstock with his reinvention of “The Star Spangled Banner,” Jimi Hendrix decided to offer a free concert for a group he called “my people.”
He held a concert for an African-American audience in Harlem, a place he once called home. Hendrix’s homecoming, though, was almost ruined as soon as he stepped onstage. Someone threw a bottle at him that shattered against a speaker; eggs splattered on the stage. Hendrix gamely played on while much of the crowd melted away.
“They didn’t like him,” says Charles R. Cross, who recounts the episode in his biography of Hendrix, “Room Full of Mirrors.” “He was jeered. People heckled him.”
A new film focusing on a more triumphant period in Hendrix’s life is rekindling interest in the guitar icon. “Jimi: All Is by My Side” shows how Hendrix left New York for London to become a star. Yet no film has explored another twist in Hendrix’s journey: How black and white audiences misunderstood the importance of Hendrix’s race, both to the man and to his music.
Hendrix traveled to Harlem because he was trying to connect with blacks who had dismissed him as a musical Uncle Tom: a black man playing white man’s music. Music critics and biographers say Hendrix also was frustrated by legions of white fans who only saw him as a racial stereotype — a hypersexual black man who was high all the time — instead of a serious musician.
There are signs today that more fans are starting to appreciate how Hendrix’s race shaped his life and sound. Yet he’s still seen by many as a musical genius who just happened to be black instead of a man whose genius was inseparable from his race, says Jeremy Wells, author of “Blackness Scuzed: Jimi Hendrix’s Invisible Legacy in Heavy Metal.”
Wells first noticed this pattern when he examined how white heavy metal musicians and fans described Hendrix. They rarely mentioned his race, or even said that his music transcended race. Wells said he found that odd given Hendrix’s sound was steeped in the blues tradition of black guitarists such as B.B. King and Muddy Waters.
“Nobody would say that race doesn’t matter for Muddy Waters,” says Wells, an English professor at Indiana University Southeast. “But there’s a whole industry devoted to saying it doesn’t matter for Hendrix.”
Race mattered more to Hendrix than most people realize, critics and biographers say: He was hurt by black radio’s refusal to play his music; he experienced stinging racism during his time as an R&B sideman and star; and some of his most famous songs were profoundly shaped by his experiences as a black man in America.
Are they reading too much race into Hendrix’s music? Here are three reasons why they say Hendrix’s race mattered.
He took black music to Mars
Hendrix was post-racial before the term was even invented. Check out the photos from his four years as a star, and he seemed to live in a virtually all-white world. His two bandmates in the Jimi Hendrix Experience were white, his audience was virtually all-white, and most of his girlfriends were white. Hendrix even talked and dressed like a hippie, with his spacey verbal references, crushed velvet pants and bandannas.
Now close your eyes and listen to the growling guitar and wolf howls that Hendrix unleashes on songs like “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),”“Red House” and “Machine Gun.” YouTube is filled with Hendrix’s songs. He sounds like a black guitarist who one music critic said took “the blues out of the Mississippi Delta and sent it to Mars.”
What Hendrix described as his “funky freaky” sound is drenched in blues. Hendrix spent his formative years listening to black blues guitarists such as T-Bone Walker and Curtis Mayfield. He honed his chops playing back-up to R&B artists such as Little Richard and The Isley Brothers on the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” a string of clubs in the segregated South that hosted black performers.
“He was widely understood to be the best R&B player of his time on the Chitlin’ Circuit,” says Greg Tate, a musician and a journalist who has written about Hendrix.
Hendrix expanded the range of the electric guitar when he became a star. He coaxed sounds from the instrument that no one had thought possible: “jet engines, oceans, exploding suns, and planets, wounded wildebeests, weeping seagulls,” Tate wrote in an essay,“The 12 Best Jimi Hendrix solos.”
“The electric guitar is an instrument whose history can be divided up into two eras: before and after Jimi Hendrix,” Tate wrote.
Yet no matter how far out Hendrix’s guitar sounded, the foundation of his music was always black music, musicians and critics say.
Eric Gales, a guitarist featured in Experience Hendrix, an all-star band touring the country playing Hendrix’s music, says even on Hendrix’s ballads, the blues seep through.
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