Jimi Hendrix: 10 Great Pre-Fame Tracks
Before he was experienced, Jimi Hendrix was a hard-working sideman, playing studio session dates and backing bands across the so-called Chitlin’ Circuit and beyond during the first half of the Sixties. After his discharge from the 101st Airborne Division following his brief spell as a paratrooper, the chance to dive headlong into rhythm & blues behind pros like Little Richard, King Curtis and the Isley Brothers served as a valuable apprenticeship – though a decidedly unglamorous one. In later years he spoke with little fondness of the days when work was slow. “We’d get a gig once every twelfth of never,” he told Rave in 1967. “We even tried eating orange peel and tomato paste. Sleeping outside them tall tenements was hell. Rats running all across your chest, cockroaches stealing your last candy bar out of your pocket …”
Despite the challenges, a letter Hendrix sent to his father during this period reveals his steely resolve to realize his destiny. “I still have my guitar and amp and as long as I have that, no fool can keep me from living,” he writes. “Although I don’t eat every day, everything’s going all right for me. It could be worse than this, but I’m going to keep hustling and scuffling until I get things to happening, like they’re supposed to for me.” This baptism by fire forged the singular style that would make his name cultural shorthand for musical virtuosity. On what would have been his 75th birthday, we look back at some of James Marshall Hendrix’s earliest musical offerings.
The Isley Brothers, “Testify” (Part 1 & 2) (1964)
Towards the end of 1963, Hendrix was based in Nashville playing with a group called the King Kasuals when a talent scout fed him a line about becoming a big star in the Big Apple. The rest of the band opted to stay put, but the ambitious ax man decided to seek his fortune in New York City. Prospects were initially bleak, and with little more than a borrowed winter coat to his name, he was often forced to pawn his guitar to survive. Even after he won a talent competition – and a badly needed $25 – at Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater, he spent most of his days hanging around local clubs, angling for a chance to jam with the house bands. It was at one such venue, the Palm Café, that he met Lithofayne “Faye” Pridgon, a stylish and streetwise woman who had once dated Sam Cooke. Hendrix became her latest conquest, and she provided him with both a place to sleep and an entrée into the Harlem music scene.
In the winter of 1964 he caught the attention of Tony Rice, an associate of high-octane R&B clan` the Isley Brothers. “Tony said this kid – he was about 15 or 16 – was the best and that he played right-handed guitar with his left hand,” Ron Isley says in Becoming Jimi Hendrix. “I said to Tony, ‘Aw, come on, man, he can’t be that good. Is he better than …’ and then I started naming all the guitar players we knew we’d like to have in our band. And Tony said, ‘He’s better than any of them.'” Their interest piqued, the brothers arranged an audition at their rented New Jersey home. Hendrix showed up with all of his worldly possessions contained in a battered, and otherwise empty, guitar case. After borrowing a six-string, he proceeded to play searing versions of their chart toppers, including “Twist and Shout” and “Shout.” By the end of the afternoon, he was the newest member of their backing group, the I.B. Specials. “He had no place to stay, so he stayed at my mother’s house,” Ernie Isley recalled. “They asked him if he wanted a new guitar, what kind … So they got him one, and he said, ‘Wow! I’ve got a new [guitar] and I’m playing with the Isley Brothers: This is everything.'”
Hendrix earned a respectable $30 dollars a night on the touring circuit, but his flamboyant scarves and shiny bracelets put him at odds with the clean-cut Isleys, who began enforcing a dress code. “We weren’t allowed to go onstage looking casual,” he remembered in a 1967 interview with Rave. “If our shoe laces were two different types we’d get fined five dollars. Oh, man, did I get tired of that!” After several months on the road, the band convened in a New York City recording studio that spring to cut a new single. The result, “Testify” (Parts 1 & 2), was unlike anything the Isleys had released before, a sprawling six-minute call-and-response gospel epic running rampant across two side of vinyl. The brothers spew faux fire and brimstone like demented preachers while Hendrix tears off spiky lead riffs that battle with the five-piece horn section. Practically devoid of dynamics, it’s less like a studio production and more like a live revivalist sermon.
The song stiffed when it was released that June, and Hendrix left the band not long after. He returned briefly the following year to record another single, “Move Over and Let Me Dance” coupled with “Have You Ever Been Disappointed,” before going his own way for good. Despite the strict dress code, he left on good terms. “He used to ask us if we had any copies of the records we made together,” Ron recalls in Ultimate Hendrix. “We didn’t because of contracts, but we knew the tapes were coming back to us and when we told him about it he said, ‘If there is any stuff I played that isn’t right, let me know and I’ll come in and do it over.’ I told him not to worry about it. Jimi never played anything wrong.”
Don Covay and the Goodtimers, “Mercy, Mercy” (1964)
The Isley Brothers’ West Coast trek in the spring of 1964 brought Hendrix through his hometown of Seattle, where he reconnected with an old girlfriend. The rendezvous likely played a role in his decision to spend the night in the city, with promises to meet up with his bandmates in the next town on their itinerary. “We said OK because we thought he knew where the next gig was,” remembered Ron Isley in Becoming Hendrix. “He didn’t show up, and we didn’t see him until a week later in New York. His guitar had been stolen.” In the confusion Hendrix returned to his Gotham apartment, where he ran into a nightclub singer named George “King” Clemons. The pair was friendly, and Clemons asked the guitarist if he wanted a job recording a song with R&B titan Don Covay. “Jimi and I used to live in the same apartment building – around 81st,” Clemons later told author Steven Roby. “Don Covay came around shopping for a record deal. He used to go down to the Harlem clubs looking for somebody to use … on songs he was looking to sell to Atlantic [Records]. He’d say, ‘I got this tune I want you to help me with, come on down to the studio.'” On May 18th they entered A-1 Sound Studios to cut a song called “Mercy, Mercy.” The future soul classic would ultimately reach Number 35, giving Hendrix his first appearance in the upper echelons of the Billboard chart.
Although he would later describe “Mercy, Mercy” somewhat dismissively as a “very straight Top-40 R&B rock ‘n’ roll record,” he maintained a fondness for the tune, performing it during his stints with Curtis Knight and the Squires, Jimmy James and the Blue Flames, and even an early tour of France with the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Perhaps more crucially, it earned him an audience with Stax session guitarist Steve Cropper later that autumn. Hendrix made a point of dropping in on him at the Memphis studios – clearly hoping for a chance to record – and ended up flagging him down as he stepped out for lunch. “I found him at the soul restaurant eating all this stuff right across from the studio in Memphis,” Hendrix told Rolling Stone in 1968. “I got into the studio and said, ‘Hey man, dig, I heard you’re all right; that anyone can come down here if they’ve got a song.’ … He showed me how to play certain songs and I showed him how I played ‘Mercy, Mercy.'” The mere mention of the song was enough to break the ice. “That about knocked me to my knees … because that was one of my favorite records at the time,” Cropper says in Becoming Hendrix. “I hadn’t worked with Don yet, but I asked Jimi to show me that great lick he played. So after we finished eating I took him over to Stax. We didn’t have the tape running, but Jimi took my guitar and started playing that sucker upside down. I laughed and told him, ‘I can’t learn that lick by looking at it that way!'” Cropper recorded an instrumental version with Booker T. & the M.G.’s the following year.
Little Richard, “I Don’t Know What You’ve Got But It’s Got Me” (Part 1 & 2) (1965)
By the fall of 1964, Hendrix decided to step out from the back line of the Isley Brothers. “It got very boring,” he admitted in 1967. “Because you get very tired playing behind other people all the time. So I quit them in Nashville somewhere.” To make ends meet, he joined what he later described as a “Top 40 R&B Soul Hit Parade package with the patent leather shoe and hair-dos combined.” Though it initially seemed like more of the same, the production put him in contact with a dazzling array of soul stars. “We were on tour with B.B. King, Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke, and all these people … Chuck Jackson. So I was playing guitar behind a lot of the acts on the tour, then I got stranded in Kansas City because I missed the bus.”
While Hendrix was stuck in Missouri without any money or means to support himself, his friend and fellow musician “Gorgeous” George Odell did his best to set the guitarist up with a new gig by talking him up to members of Little Richard’s backing band. “I told them it’d take about $150 to get Jimi’s guitar and amp out of the pawnshop. So [they] gave me $175 and I put it in my sock, went back, and got Jimi. He didn’t really want to tour with Little Richard at first because the Sam Cooke tour was getting ready to go back on the road in a few weeks.” After some persuading – and Cooke’s tragic murder that December – Hendrix wrapped his guitar in an old potato sack, boarded a bus and set off to meet the Richard in Atlanta.
He began playing with the rock pioneer soon after the New Year, using the name Maurice James. Richard was impressed, but his awe soon turned to resentment as he found himself being upstaged by Hendrix’s flashy style and performance theatrics. “On the stage he would actually take the show,” Richard said during an episode of VH1’s Legends. “People would scream and I thought they were screaming for me. I look over and they’re screaming for Jimi! So I had to darken the lights. … He’d be playing the guitar with his teeth.”
That summer they entered the studio to record several tracks for Vee-Jay Records. In addition to a relentless R&B stomper called “Dance a Go Go” (also known as “Dancing All Around The World”), the strongest song to emerge from the sessions was a ballad written by Don Covay titled “I Don’t Know What You’ve Got but It’s Got Me.” It was released that November but missed the pop charts, only managing to hit Number 12 on the R&B list.
Buddy and Stacey, “Shotgun” (live, 1965)
The Little Richard bandwagon passed through Nashville in July 1965, affording Hendrix the opportunity to make an early television appearance on the local music program Night Train, broadcast on the CBS affiliate WLAC. Richard himself did not appear, remaining back at his hotel, giving the spotlight to Buddy Travis and Stacey Johnson to perform a cover of Junior Walker & the All Stars’ recent hit, “Shotgun.” Hendrix is immediately apparent in the background as one of the “Crown Jewels,” handing his upside-down Fender with the ease and swagger that would soon make him famous.
But relations with his bandleader had soured. “With Little Richard, he was the guy out front and that was it,” Hendrix later told Melody Maker. “The King of Rock and Rhythm: that was him. And he said that he was the only one allowed to be pretty. … That was when I got a fancy shirt because I was dragged at wearing his uniform. ‘Take off those shirts,’ he told me and another guy.'” Not long after the Night Train broadcast, he and Richard parted company, although the precise circumstances remain a mystery. In a letter to his father that July, Hendrix says that Richard “didn’t pay us for five and a half weeks, and you can’t live on promises when you’re on the road. So I had to cut that mess loose.” However, Robert Penniman, Richard’s brother and road manager, insists that he fired Hendrix. “He was always late for the bus and flirting with the girls and stuff like that. It came to a head in New York, where we had been playing the Apollo and Hendrix missed the bus for Washington DC,” he says in The Life and Times of Little Richard. “So when Hendrix called us in Washington, D.C., I gave him word that his services were no longer required. We had some words. I explained why we were doing this. I was running the road for Richard and we didn’t accept that kind of bullshit.” Despite this ignoble ending, Richard was moved in later years to dub Hendrix “the greatest guitar player I ever had. Not one of my men ever came close to him.”
Frank Howard and the Commanders, “I’m Sorry for You” (1965)
While some reports claim this doo-woppy slow burner was actually recorded in 1963, prior to Hendrix’s first trip to New York City, others put the date closer to his split with Little Richard in the summer of 1965, around the same time Frank Howard & the Commanders made the television rounds to promote it. In either case, Hendrix performed at the invitation of his old Army buddy and former King Kasuals band mate Billy Cox, who had written a pair of songs for Howard. The sessions were produced by the influential disc jockey Bill “Hoss” Allen, who was less than impressed with Hendrix’s guitar skills. “All Hoss wanted Jimi to do was play a simple rhythm while Johnny Jones played lead, but Hoss didn’t like what he was hearing from Jimi, so he turned his mic down and cut him in and out,” Howard remembered in Becoming Hendrix. “Hoss didn’t like it when musicians experimented on his session. He told me later that if he knew Jimi was going to be so successful, he’d let him get as wild as he wanted.”
Curtis Knight and the Squires, “Hornet’s Nest” (1966)
Hendrix spent the rest of the summer of 1965 more or less at loose ends. On July 27th he signed a multi-year contract with Sue Records – home of Ike & Tina Turner and Baby Washington – but didn’t record a note. He retreated back to the Isley Brothers that August for some gigs and the recording date that yielded “Move Over and Let Me Dance,” but he knew this was just a temporary solution. His luck changed in October when he was introduced to singer Curtis Knight in the lobby of the Americana Hotel in New York City. The frontman of a group called the Squires, enthusiastic purveyors of Top 40 R&B in the New York metro area, Knight hit it off with Hendrix immediately. By the next day they were jamming at Studio 76, a facility run by a man named Ed Chalpin. With Hendrix’s Fender Jazzmaster at the pawnshop, Knight lent him a Danelectro to record “How Would You Feel,” a track that owes a major debt to Bob Dylan’s recent smash “Like a Rolling Stone.” The similarity was likely not an accident: Chalpin’s production company, PPX Enterprises Inc., specialized in making cheap covers of hit songs for the overseas market.
Chalpin liked what he heard and offered Hendrix a one-page contract to “produce and play and/or sing exclusively for PPX Enterprises Inc. for three years” in exchange for a one percent royalty and one dollar up front. Hendrix, desperate for any opportunity to play, likely didn’t even read it. (“He would sign a contract with anybody who came along that had a dollar and a pencil,” Faye Pridgon later said.) Seemingly unbothered by the fact that he was already contracted to Sue Records, he put pen to paper. The move would have major ramifications in years to come, as Chalpin reissued Hendrix’s PPX-era recordings in a myriad of misleading – and some would say unscrupulous – compilations. But in the short term, Hendrix earned his first label credit as arranger on “How Would You Feel” when the song was released as a single in April 1966, and his first composer credit a short time later with the release of the instrumental “Hornet’s Nest.”
Jayne Mansfield, “Suey” (1966, released 1967)
Easily the most bizarre of all of Hendrix’s pre-Experience activities is this alleged collaboration with the B-movie bombshell. Even stranger is the fact that he never mentioned it in interviews, leading some to question whether it really happened at all. Hendrix could be forgiven for simply being embarrassed by the song, with its cringe-y hep-cat spoken phrases – “It makes my liver quiver,” “it makes my knees freeze” and “it makes my back crack” – from the mind of disc jockey Douglas “Jocko” Henderson. Chalpin insists that Hendrix played guitar and bass on “Suey” and possibly its A side, the lushly orchestrated “As the Clouds Drift By,” though this last point seems unlikely. Since Chalpin had a history of licensing out completed instrumental tracks to other artists for vocal overdubs, it’s certainly possible that the backing is from one of Hendrix’s PPX dates with Curtis Knight, making it equally plausible that Hendrix himself had no idea that Mansfield ultimately sang on it. According to a 1966 report in Billboard, Chalpin planned to release the song as the inaugural single on his new label, Chalco Records, but this was abandoned. “As the Clouds Drift By”/”Suey” wasn’t issued until just after Mansfield’s fatal car accident on June 29th, 1967.
Ray Sharpe with the King Curtis Orchestra, “Help Me” (Part 1 & 2) (1966)
King Curtis and his Kingpins were the support act for the Beatles on their tour of the United States in the summer of 1965, during which time they crossed paths with Hendrix when he briefly returned to the Isley Brothers’ fold. Hendrix bonded with the group, particularly guitarist Cornell Dupree, and together they played basketball and jammed in hotel rooms on the road. By the following January Hendrix was invited to join the band on tour and also at Atlantic Studios in New York City. The first song they recorded together was “Help Me (Get the Feeling),” an ultra-bluesy two-part track reminiscent of Them’s garage-rock anthem “Gloria.” Ray Sharpe sang the lead vocals on the song, but the backing track went on to have a life of its own. Jamaican proto-reggae star Owen Grey recycled the instrumental for his own cover that same year, and in 1967 it was used as the bed for the Aretha Franklin single “Save Me” – although Hendrix’s contributions were mixed out of the final track. King Curtis himself got the final word, rereleasing the song with additional overdubs in 1969 as “Instant Groove.”
Prior to departing the band in the summer of 1966, Hendrix reportedly recorded three more songs with King Curtis during a session in April, but these were apparently lost in a fire at the master-tape library. To date, no safety copies have been found.
The Icemen, “(My Girl) She’s A Fox” (1966)
On the cusp of his explosion with the Experience, Hendrix produced some of the best material of his early musical career during the mid-1966 sessions with the Squires’ saxophone virtuoso Lonnie Youngblood. “Curtis started to lose interest in the band,” Youngblood later explained, “and at the same time, I had a couple of job offers to be a bandleader. I knew I didn’t want to play in his band forever, so I told Jimi and a couple of the guys in the band about it and they said, ‘Let’s go!’ From there, we started playing a few gigs at the Blood Brothers. I was an enterprising guy and wanted to cut me some records.”
Records were indeed cut at New York’s Abtone Studio under the stewardship of local impresario John Brantley, who first cut his teeth in rock & roll alongside legendary disc jockey Alan Freed. Together they made electrifying discs like “Go Go Shoes”/”Go Go Place,” “Soul Food (That’s What I Like)”/”Goodbye Bessie Mae” and another single with vocalist Jimmy Norman, “You’re Only Hurting Yourself”/”That Little Old Groove Maker.” A highlight of their work is “(My Girl) She’s A Fox,” penned by the Poindexter Brothers – Richard and Robert – who later scored a hit with the Persuaders in 1971, “Thin Line Between Love and Hate.” Bearing a title strikingly close to a future Hendrix standout, it was released under the name “The Icemen,” an outfit including Hendrix, Youngblood, and the vocal duo Gino Armstrong and James Stokes.
Lenny Howard, “Keep the Faith, Baby” (1966)
Similar to Hendrix’s experience with King Curtis and Ed Chalpin, John Brantley took the approach of reusing instrumental backings. The track released as “Keep the Faith, Baby” with Lenny Howard singing lead also survives in five other vocal variations, including a version sung by Billy Lamont called “Sweet Thang.” Perhaps the most tantalizing incarnation exists as “Wipe The Sweat,” which features Hendrix and Youngblood swapping seemingly ad-libbed lyrics. The take wouldn’t see the light of day until after Hendrix’s global fame, but it predates his first official lead vocal on “Hey Joe” by nearly six months. But faced with several chart flops, Youngblood noticed Hendrix stepping back from the project. “We ran out of money, and Jimi changed his way of thinking. His concept was changing in the middle of what we were about. I witnessed the transformation. I saw him as R&B and other blues kind of things. He loved that music, but after a while he didn’t feel it anymore.”
Hendrix could feel the shift too. As he toured with Joey Dee & the Starliters that year, he felt strangled by the role of a professional sideman “I couldn’t imagine myself for the rest of my life in a shiny Mohair suit with the patent leather shoes and a patent leather hairdo to match,” he reflected. “I didn’t hear any guitar players doing anything new. I was bored out of my mind. I wanted my own scene. I wanted my own music. I was starting to see you could create a whole new world with an electric guitar because there isn’t a sound like it.”