James Marshall "Jimi" Hendrix (born Johnny Allen Hendrix; November 27, 1942 – September 18, 1970) was an American rock guitarist, singer, and songwriter. His mainstream career lasted only four years, but he is widely regarded as one of the most influential guitarists in history and one of the most celebrated musicians of the 20th century. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame describes him as "the greatest instrumentalist in the history of rock music."
Jimi Hendrix was born Johnny Allen Hendrix (later changed by his father to James Marshall) on November 27, 1942, in Seattle, Washington. He had a difficult childhood, sometimes living in the care of relatives or acquaintances.
His mother, Lucille, was only 17 years old when Hendrix was born. She had a stormy relationship with his father, Al, and eventually left the family after the couple had two more children together, sons Leon and Joseph. Hendrix would only see his mother sporadically before her death in 1958.
In many ways, music became a sanctuary for Hendrix. He was a fan of blues and rock and roll, and with his father's encouragement taught himself to play guitar.
At Horace Mann Elementary School in Seattle during the mid-1950s, Hendrix's habit of carrying a broom with him to emulate a guitar gained the attention of the school's social worker. After more than a year of his clinging to a broom like a security blanket, she wrote a letter requesting school funding intended for underprivileged children, insisting that leaving him without a guitar might result in psychological damage. Her efforts failed, and Al refused to buy him a guitar.
In 1957, while helping his father with a side-job, Hendrix found a ukulele amongst the garbage they were removing from an older woman's home. She told him that he could keep the instrument, which had only one string. Learning by ear, he played single notes, following along to Elvis Presley songs, particularly "Hound Dog". By the age of 33, Hendrix's mother Lucille had developed cirrhosis of the liver, and on February 2, 1958, she died when her spleen ruptured. Al refused to take James and Leon to attend their mother's funeral; he instead gave them shots of whiskey and instructed them that was how men should deal with loss. In 1958, Hendrix completed his studies at Washington Junior High School and began attending, but did not graduate from, Garfield High School.
In mid-1958, at age 15, Hendrix acquired his first acoustic guitar, for $5 (equivalent to $43.40 in 2018). He played for hours daily, watching others and learning from more experienced guitarists, and listening to blues artists such as Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf, and Robert Johnson. The first tune Hendrix learned to play was the television theme "Peter Gunn". Around that time, Hendrix jammed with boyhood friend Sammy Drain and his keyboard-playing brother. In 1959, attending a concert by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters in Seattle, Hendrix met the group's guitarist Billy Davis. Davis showed him some guitar licks and got him a short gig with the Midnighters. The two remained friends until Hendrix's death in 1970.
Soon after he acquired the acoustic guitar, Hendrix formed his first band, the Velvetones. Without an electric guitar, he could barely be heard over the sound of the group. After about three months, he realized that he needed an electric guitar. In mid-1959, his father relented and bought him a white Supro Ozark. Hendrix's first gig was with an unnamed band in the Jaffe Room of Seattle's Temple De Hirsch Sinai, but they fired him between sets for showing off. He joined the Rocking Kings, which played professionally at venues such as the Birdland club. When his guitar was stolen after he left it backstage overnight, Al bought him a red Silvertone Danelectro.
Before Hendrix was 19 years old, law authorities had twice caught him riding in stolen cars. Given a choice between prison or joining the Army, he chose the latter and enlisted on May 31, 1961. After completing eight weeks of basic training at Fort Ord, California, he was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division and stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. He arrived on November 8, and soon afterward he wrote to his father: "There's nothing but physical training and harassment here for two weeks, then when you go to jump school ... you get hell. They work you to death, fussing and fighting." In his next letter home, Hendrix, who had left his guitar at his girlfriend Betty Jean Morgan's house in Seattle, asked his father to send it to him as soon as possible, stating: "I really need it now." His father obliged and sent the red Silvertone Danelectro on which Hendrix had hand-painted the words "Betty Jean" to Fort Campbell. His apparent obsession with the instrument contributed to his neglect of his duties, which led to taunting and physical abuse from his peers, who at least once hid the guitar from him until he had begged for its return.
In November 1961, fellow serviceman Billy Cox walked past an army club and heard Hendrix playing. Impressed by Hendrix's technique, which Cox described as a combination of "John Lee Hooker and Beethoven", Cox borrowed a bass guitar and the two jammed. Within weeks, they began performing at base clubs on the weekends with other musicians in a loosely organized band, the Casuals.
Hendrix completed his paratrooper training in just over eight months, and Major General C. W. G. Rich awarded him the prestigious Screaming Eagles patch on January 11, 1962. By February, his personal conduct had begun to draw criticism from his superiors. They labeled him an unqualified marksman and often caught him napping while on duty and failing to report for bed checks. On May 24, Hendrix's platoon sergeant, James C. Spears, filed a report in which he stated: "He has no interest whatsoever in the Army ... It is my opinion that Private Hendrix will never come up to the standards required of a soldier. I feel that the military service will benefit if he is discharged as soon as possible." On June 29, 1962, Hendrix was granted a discharge under honorable conditions. Hendrix later spoke of his dislike of the army and lied that he had received a medical discharge after breaking his ankle during his 26th parachute jump.