Happy 50th Anniversary to the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s debut album Are You Experienced, originally released May 12, 1967.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience burst onto the scene with the release of their debut album Are You Experienced in May 1967, just a little less than a month before The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band arrived. Commonly considered one of the greatest debut albums in the history of rock music, Are You Experienced was also a huge part of the soundtrack to the Summer of Love. The 11-track masterpiece was a result of the symphony constantly playing in Hendrix’s head and the years he spent on the road backing up acts such as Wilson Pickett, Little Richard and the Isley Brothers just to name a few. By the way, if you play an Isley Brothers record from the 1970s (particularly “Summer Breeze” and “That Lady”), pay close attention to Ernie Isley’s style of playing. It definitely has all the hallmarks of Hendrix’s influence.
Hendrix was widely regarded as the best R&B guitar player on the chitlin’ circuit, but his style of playing wasn’t always the best fit for his more famous employers. He grew tired of playing other people’s music. After leaving Little Richard’s band in 1965, he formed his own band, Jimmy James and The Blue Flames. From the fall of ’65 through mid ’66, Hendrix played gigs in Greenwich Village at many venues, most notably the infamous Cafe Wha? During a performance there in July of 1966, Hendrix caught the eye of Animals bassist Chas Chandler. At the time, Chandler was in the process of leaving the Animals to become a manager and record producer. He had gone to this performance on the recommendation of Linda Keith, who at the time was Keith Richards’ girlfriend. He was mesmerized by Hendrix’s performance and eventually introduced himself. The two conversed and Chandler was convinced that Hendrix could change the face of music in England. He saw Hendrix perform again in September of the same year and became his manager by offering the promise that he could get him an introduction to his hero, Eric Clapton.
Upon Hendrix’s arrival in London, the plan was to find him a band and change the spelling of his name to “Jimi.” After several auditions, Hendrix and Chandler finally settled on bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell. Hendrix also had his promise from Chandler fulfilled. He got to meet Clapton. After a few performances, word had traveled around about Hendrix. At a Cream performance, he asked Clapton if he could join him onstage. Clapton agreed. Hendrix proceeded to burst into a life-changing version of Howlin’ Wolf’s ”Killing Floor.” After a few minutes, Clapton realized he couldn’t hang with Hendrix and promptly stormed off the stage. "You didn't tell me he was this fucking good,” Clapton told Chandler.
Hendrix and his new bandmates began to record Are You Experienced on October 23, 1966. Operating on a very limited budget, Hendrix and Chandler did much of the album’s pre-production out of the apartment they shared. This setup was intentional on Chandler’s part. He once stated the reasons for his position, explaining, “I wasn't concerned that Mitch or Noel might feel that they weren't having enough—or any—say…I had been touring and recording in a band for years, and I'd seen everything end as a compromise. Nobody ended up doing what they really wanted to do. I was not going to let that happen with Jimi."
Mitchell and Redding’s appreciation and knowledge of jazz and blues made this hastily assembled trio work. From the opening chords of “Purple Haze,” you knew The Jimi Hendrix Experience was something special. At the time, no other rock trio, besides Cream, was this locked in.
“Purple haze, all in my brain / Lately things they don't seem the same / Actin’ funny, but I don't know why / Excuse me while I kiss the sky.” Okay, I have no clue what the hell Hendrix was talking about here. Then again, I think I actually do. Etched in my brain forever is the 1992 movie White Men Can’t Jump. Woody Harrelson’s character Billy Hoyle starts playing his Are You Experienced cassette on his car stereo. Wesley Snipes’ character Sidney Dean quickly asks Hoyle why he’s playing Hendrix. He replies, “I like listening to it.” Outraged, Dean admonishes Hoyle and states “That’s the problem. You’re supposed to hear Jimi.” He later concludes “You…cannot hear Jimi.”
As humorous as this exchange was, it made me think. For years, I was not really hearing Jimi. The more I learned about Hendrix’s backstory leading up to recording Are You Experienced, the more I wanted to hear Jimi, not just merely listen. The years he spent on the chitlin’ circuit with several iconic R&B artists helped him shape the kind of artist he wanted to be. The unfair choice he was given as a teenager between jail or the army gave him an early introduction into how the rules were different for young black men, not just in his native Seattle, but all over. By all accounts, Hendrix was always a different cat who marched to the beat of the music in his head, as he alluded to on “Stone Free,” the B-side to “Hey Joe,” the band’s debut single: “Everyday in the week I'm in a different city / If I stay too long people try to pull me down / They talk about me like a dog / Talkin' about the clothes I wear / But they don't realize they're the ones who's square.”
Are You Experienced is a combination of diverse life experiences and a chance to set his genius free. It’s hard to fathom how “The Wind Cries Mary,” “Foxy Lady” and “Purple Haze” came from the same mind, let alone the same album. Less than one year elapsed from the time Hendrix arrived in London to the release of the album. Eight months to be exact. Hendrix emerged on the music scene at just the right time.
While Are You Experienced is one of the definitive albums of the psychedelic era, it also introduced the heavy use of feedback, distortion and improvisational jazz into one rock LP. The album went where no other had gone previously. Musician and journalist Greg Tate once wrote, "The electric guitar is an instrument whose history can be divided up into two eras: before and after Jimi Hendrix.” Give Are You Experienced another spin, but this time try to hear Jimi instead of just listening.