It’s hard to square the subtitle of Becoming Jimi Hendrix: From Southern Crossroads To Psychedelic London, The Untold Story Of A Musical Genius with the abundant amount of literature already devoted to the groundbreaking guitarist. Nevertheless, there’s something to be said for concentrating on the years during which Hendrix forged his style as an R&B sideman, which California authors Steven Roby and Brad Schreiber do in their new study.
Between 1962, when he joined the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, and 1966, when new manager Chas Chandler took him to London, set up auditions for the band that became the Experience, and launched him to worldwide stardom, Hendrix joined one touring act after another—Little Richard, The Isley Brothers, Joey Dee And The Starliters—after impressing them with his instrumental fluidity and uncanny ability to pick up a song in an instant. Frequently, he was fired just as rapidly, for being habitually late and underdressed, showboating onstage, or simply playing too loudly for his paymasters’ tastes. In some cases, Hendrix quit out of frustration with having to play the same songs the same way every night. The kind of freedom he brought to rock improvisation was instilled in his lifestyle well before he began exploring jazz seriously, not to mention before he started taking LSD.
Roby and Schreiber faithfully lay out the facts, sketching out the milieu of Hendrix’s various locales: the bustling music scene in Nashville during the mid-’60s, where Hendrix went after his Army discharge; the crime-laden street life of Harlem during his stay there, before he headed down to Greenwich Village to try his luck as a bandleader. Hendrix’s involvement, in one way or another, with drug dealers, pimps, and prostitutes makes for colorful reading, and his time in the Village—where he became Jimi Hendrix in name (it was originally Jimmy) as well as other ways—is the book’s meatiest part.
Unfortunately, the writing is often clumsy. Roby and Schreiber tend to load first meetings with overheated portent, as when Hendrix encounters Chandler backstage in New York years before their business relationship: “And neither Jimi nor Chandler, as they went their separate ways, knew that together they would join forces in just over a year, which would lead to recognition of Jimi as the greatest electric guitarist in rock music.” It’s nice to have a close-up of Hendrix’s formative professional period, but his comings and goings during this era have the kind of repetitiveness that Hendrix wanted to break away from musically.