Over 47 years ago, Jimi Hendrix passed away unexpectedly at the tragically young age of 27. In the nearly five decades since his untimely death, the reverence for his music, the stories of his virtuosity and the estimations of his influence have grown to a point where his mythology has nearly fully eclipsed his humanity. For many, Hendrix is an inimitable powerhouse of guitar playing who seemingly came out of nowhere, took the world by storm, and died so suddenly that it seemed he’d vanished almost as quickly as he arrived. For those willing to dig a little deeper though, the story of Jimi Hendrix’s rise adds a richness and context to his playing and the music he created that might take away some of the mystique, but none of the value.
From instinctively setting his guitar on fire at the Monterey International Pop Festival to performing his unforgettable rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock, Hendrix is undeniably an icon in rock ‘n’ roll history.
Recently, CULTURE Magazine had the privilege of talking with Jimi’s younger brother and one of his best friends, Leon Hendrix, to hear all about his and Jimi’s childhoods, his perspectives on the Jimi Hendrix legacy, and the roots and revelations of a true music icon.
To get started, so much has been written (and will continue to be written) about your brother’s skills as a musician and songwriter. But we feel like people might not know your brother as a person quite as well. What do you wish more people knew about who Jimi was?
Well, people haven’t dug deep, because his image and music were so great; it’s been the only thing people could really concentrate on. But what I wish people would know? That he was a gentle person who never spoke harshly, he treated me very well, he was very humble, and also very artistic; he was like Michelangelo when he was a kid. Before he ever picked up a guitar, he used to draw these fantastic pictures; it’s how I learned to draw. When he started playing guitar, I used to bug him when he practiced, so he’d find some paper and tie a pencil around my wrist. It was better than going to college, because I ended up working for Boeing as a draftsman because of it.
It’s incredible that is how your passion for graphic arts started out!
Like I said, Jimi as a kid was such an artist. He was a sculptor too. He’d get clay and mold it up into beautiful things. He even crafted some cars and submitted them to Ford. So you might be driving around in a Hendrix original today and not even know it!
When you close your eyes and think of Jimi, what are the things about him that come to your mind? How do you picture him? Is it just his gentle spirit and nature?
No, because his spirit is not gentle anymore, it’s omnipresent now, and I feel him all the time. I even have confidence that we live again now because of my experiences with Jimi.
One thing that comes up time and time again with your brother’s work is his creativity and inventiveness. He had incredible talent for bringing fantastic, far out ideas to life with his music. Where do you think that aspect of his nature came from? Was it something you noticed in him when you were little kids?
Well, look at music. You can’t physically touch music. Music is a spirit. It has no body, it just flows. That’s how inspiration comes, and Jimi had this ability to capture that. He didn’t have a guitar early on, but he would go to our grandma and say, “Grandma, I hear stuff!” And our grandma would just swab his ears out with baby oil. Then a week would go by, and he’d be back yelling, “Grandma! Grandma!” And the same thing would happen again. He was hearing music, but he had no way to bring it, because he had no instrument. But when he hit about 14 and got his first guitar, he was off to the races. Everything fell in place for him; the cosmos were calling, and he captured that because he was born for this, he just needed his instrument. He even told me once that he wished that he had a bigger instrument. He took the guitar and that’s all he had, but really he wanted to be conducting symphonies and write orchestral music too.
“ . . . Jimi wanted to know where the music was coming from because he wanted to grab it, but he couldn’t. So, he took the radio apart and when we opened it, it was just some tubes and wires; there wasn’t anything to really investigate. We tried to put it back together, but just couldn’t do it. When my Dad came home and saw the radio wasn’t working we got scolded, to put it mildly.”
Do you have any other favorite early memories of your brother and his music?
Well, like I said, he heard the voices; he heard the call. When he finally got an instrument, a ukulele with only one string at first, he was able to make songs with that one string. He learned that he could tighten and untighten the string and get all the notes on just one string. Then at 15 he was in a band and wasn’t supposed to be able to get into the clubs because he was too young, but they’d let him in anyway because he was the best guitar player around. Then at 16 he worked for Ray Charles when Ray was living in Seattle. If you remember in the movie, at one point a guy says, “We should have stayed in Seattle playing with that kid.” They were talking about Jimi! Jimi went by Buster back then, but playing for Ray Charles was his first job.
I know that you’re a graphic artist and a musician yourself. Was there anyone when you two were kids that was encouraging you both to pursue your creativity and develop it?
No, not at all. In fact, they fought it. They wanted us to work with our hands; I’d help my Dad out gardening. They wanted us to work hard and become mediocre. We didn’t really break out of that until Jimi left, and then I left.
What kind of music were you two searching out on your own that was inspiring your creativity?
Oh, we were listening to Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, B.B. King, Willie Dixon and all of those other blues guys.
We’ve read your stories about Jimi taking apart your father’s radio looking for where the music was coming from. Was the radio how you two were discovering these artists?
No, because in those days you just had what they called the Top 40 and the Top 40 was the only music you’d hear in the whole United States. Every night at seven o’clock one channel would play those 40 songs and that was it. So, at the time, we didn’t have a record player, and there were no black people on the radio. If a black person wrote a song, they’d have to sell it to a white artist for them to record it and get it played on the radio.
Would you two listen to the Top 40 songs too?
Oh yeah, that’s all we did was wait for seven o’clock so we could listen to that radio. Then there was that one time when my Dad wasn’t home, and Jimi wanted to know where the music was coming from because he wanted to grab it, but he couldn’t. So, he took the radio apart and when we opened it, it was just some tubes and wires; there wasn’t anything to really investigate. We tried to put it back together, but just couldn’t do it. When my Dad came home and saw the radio wasn’t working we got scolded, to put it mildly. Jimi took up for me because he didn’t want me to get a whoopin’ and my Dad was a little inebriated and yelling, “Why did you do it?! Why did you do it?!” And Jimi told him, “I just wanted to know where the music was coming from.” He could hear it, he just wanted more information.
When you guys were growing up in Seattle, were there a lot of blues musicians touring through the Northwest? What kind of acts were you seeing?
All of them, all of them were coming through. Little Richard came through right after he’d quit rock ‘n’ roll and become a preacher. He came to Seattle because his mother’s sister lived right around the corner from us. That’s where we met Little Richard the first time, he gave us pictures and everything. Then we went to his sermons, and he was telling the whole congregation how he’d had this dream that rock ‘n’ roll was going to kill him. Jimi and I tried to get dressed up for it, but we were raggedy with wrinkled shirts and broken shoe laces. We thought we were looking good though.
Several of your brother’s songs talk about space themes. Do you know how he became interested in outer space and the bigger universe?
Well, the word “television” is made up of two things. “Tele” means transport and “vision” means to see into the future. And if you notice a lot of the stories we were watching on early TV have come true. So, there’s some type of natural progression of knowledge, and Jimi got on board; he was in the vortex or something. There’s a rhythm to the universe, and he was in it, and he never fought it. He just went with it and enjoyed it. All that he wanted to do was play music.
Do you think your childhoods contributed to that? Because you two were left on your own a lot of the time and forced to be imaginative and create your own fun?
You know, everyone here has their own personal experience and whatever you do with that is what it is. I kind of went off the deep end. I was a street kid when the welfare people stopped looking for me when I was 13 or 14. I went on a different journey, another pathway. I joined the Army for the same reason Jimi did, because a judge made me. Then Jimi came home, and I forgot I was in the Army and went on tour with him. Jimi said, “Let’s go!” And I was gone. Two years later I ended up in a penitentiary for it.
We know you’ve got your own radio show on Purple Haze Radio where you play some of your brother’s music. When you’re listening to your Jimi’s records, what are your favorite to go to? Do you have a favorite Jimi Hendrix song?
I don’t really because I feel like I’m not done listening to it all yet. When I listen to his music, I still hear stuff that I’ve never heard before. It’s all so beautiful. I mean he’s such a composer, and in between all of the main stuff there are so many tiny riffs, butterfly flutters, and stuff with the music. I just love it. It’s like when you read the Bible or good text from prophets, every time you read it becomes something different. Jimi used to say that music and sound isn’t investigated enough because it’s a spiritual force, and we can only use our instruments to bring it.
It’s been almost 50 years now since your brother’s passing. What do you think Jimi would say about his legacy?
Well, I think he’d say it’s pretty powerful. In places like South America and Madagascar some people think he’s a saint. Jimi did all of this, he created his own immortality. Because of his music he’s still here jamming and inspiring other guitar players; he inspires me. I’m very thankful for Jimi.
“But what I wish people would know? That he was a gentle person who never spoke harshly, he treated me very well, he was very humble, and also very artistic; he was like Michelangelo when he was a kid.”