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On This Day in Music... February 20, 1959: Jimi Hendrix Plays His First-Ever Gig, and Gets Fired Halfway Through

A 16-year-old Hendrix was booted from his first live performance 65 years ago.

Source: MEGA

Jimi Hendrix's first live performance saw him expelled from the band during intermission.

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Every larger-than-life figure needs an early setback to their story, an initial hurdle that makes the otherworldliness of their gifts seem just a little less intimidating to us mere mortals. And even if one doesn't exist, history often has a way of coming up with something. Michael Jordan, for instance, was never exactly “cut” from his Laney High School basketball team — as a sophomore who had yet to hit his final growth spurt, he was simply sent to the junior varsity squad to develop his skills for a year. But it made for a nice little inspirational anecdote, and so the legend made it to print.

In the case of Jimi Hendrix, however, there’s no need for any false historical humility. On this day 65 years ago, the man who has topped every credible list of the all-time greatest rock guitarists for the past half century played his first-ever gig, and was fired halfway through it. It would not be the last time that he was booted from a band, and that early litany of failures would prove an indispensable component of his early development.

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Hendrix's onstage flamboyance rubbed many of his early employers the wrong way.

Raised in Seattle in often dire poverty, Hendrix’s monomaniacal obsession with the guitar was obvious from an early age — he played imaginary guitar on a broom so often that a social worker told his father it might cause him “psychological damage” not to have a real one. (Hendrix Sr. disagreed.) Hendrix eventually graduated from a broom to a one-string acoustic, and had a further revelation in 1957 when he saw Elvis Presley perform at Sick's Stadium. Lacking the $1.50 to buy even a nosebleed ticket, he spied on the concert from the top of a nearby hill, and even from that distance, Presley’s flamboyance and unbridled command of the stage unlocked something primal in the 14-year-old. At age 15, he finally procured his first electric: a $5 Supro Ozark.

He’d only been playing seriously for a year when he got a chance to play his first gig, with a group of older kids in the basement of Seattle’s Temple De Hirsch Sinai on February 20, 1959. (That date is disputed by some, but, well, print the legend.) In an odd coincidence, the synagogue’s musical director at the time, Samuel E. Goldfarb, was a noted figure in Jewish musical history, credited with composing the English-language lyrics to the Hanukkah song “I Have a Little Dreidel.” Goldfarb was also, in another bizarre coincidence, a surviver of the 1956 sinking of the SS Andrea Doria, as was songwriter Mike Stoller, who co-wrote the Presley standards “Jailhouse Rock” and “Hound Dog”…but that’s a sliding-doors rabbit-hole for another day.

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Hendrix, no longer in danger of being fired, with girlfriend Kathy Etchingham in London.

Not much is known about the other members of that band, nor their repertoire, except that they had been hired to play two sets that night, and invited the young Hendrix to a trial-by-fire audition. Hendrix took the stage for the band’s first spate of songs, and despite his inexperience, he didn’t hesitate to offer a little preview of the Presley-inspired showmanship that would eventually make him an icon.

“During the set, Jimi did his thing,” Hendrix’s then-girlfriend Carmen Goudy would later recount to biographer Charles R. Cross. “He did all this wild playing, and when the spotlight was on him, he played even wilder.”

When the band returned to the stage for its second set, however, Goudy realized Hendrix had gone missing. First assuming he’d been stricken with stage-fright, she instead found him in an alley behind the temple, near tears, where he told her the band had fired him during intermission for overplaying. When she suggested he might consider toning down his pyrotechnics the next time he got a shot, she says he shot back: “That’s not my style. I can’t do that.”

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Hendrix's first TV appearance, as a sideman for Buddy & Stacey.

This would become a constant in Hendrix’s early career. After a disastrous stint in the military, Hendrix decamped to Nashville and gigged with Army buddy (and future Band of Gypsies bassist) Billy Cox, where he developed an ever more elaborate arsenal of onstage tricks. As his talent become more and more undeniable, he managed to snag gigs touring with a who’s-who of early 1960s R&B greats all across the South. All of these gigs were short-lived, and Hendrix’s cause of dismissal was usually the same.

As Solomon Burke would later recall of Hendrix’s brief tenure in his band: “Five dates would go beautifully, and then at the next show he’d go into this wild stuff that wasn’t part of the song. I just couldn’t take it anymore.” Burke first tried to pawn Hendrix off on his tour-mate, Otis Redding, but after a single week, “we ended up leaving him by the side of the road.”

In the following years, Hendrix would log stage time with the Marvelettes, Bobby Womack, Little Richard, and Ike & Tina Turner. (Ike later remembered: “His solos were so elaborate they overstepped their bounds.”) His time with the Isley Brothers was more successful than most, though he still chaffed at the buttoned-down professionalism expected of him, telling an interviewer in 1967: “We had white mohair suits, patent leather shoes, and patent leather hairdos. We weren’t allowed to go onstage looking casual. If our shoelaces were two different types, we’d get fined five dollars.”

By 1966, Hendrix was in a rut: as broke as ever, frequently guitar-less, and playing with also-ran R&B singer Curtis Knight in Harlem, having failed to hold a steady gig through half a decade as a professional musician.

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Fortunately, there was a whole other world across the Atlantic. Thanks to a serendipitous run-in with Keith Richards’ girlfriend Linda Keith (who wasted little time introducing Hendrix to acid, Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, and his first manager, Chas Chandler), Jimi would soon set sail for the U.K.

When he returned to the States less than a year later, with new band the Jimi Hendrix Experience, he was on the precipice of stardom. His homecoming performance at the Monterey Pop Festival saw the same onstage exuberance that had gotten him fired over and over again turn him into an overnight sensation, his “wild playing” and unbounded solos now earning him the awestruck admiration of everyone from Eric Clapton and Paul McCartney to Miles Davis and Jeff Beck.

By 1969, ten years after he’d been unceremoniously dumped in the middle of his first gig, he was one of the highest-paid live performers in the world.


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