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Authors: Jimi Hendrix

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BOOK: Starting At Zero
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{JIMMY WAS DISCHARGED FROM THE ARMY IN JULY 1962.}

O
NE MORNING I found myself standing outside the gate of Fort Campbell on the Tennessee-Kentucky border with my little duffel bag and three or four
hundred dollars in my pocket. I was going back to Seattle, which was a long way away. But there was this girl I was kinda hung up on.

So I thought I’d have a look in at Clarksville, which was near, stay the night and go home the next morning. I went to this jazz joint and had a drink. I liked it and stayed. People tell
me I get foolish good-natured sometimes. Anyway, I guess I felt real benevolent that day. I must have been handing out bills to anyone who asked me. I came out with sixteen dollars left! And it
takes more than that to get from Tennessee to Seattle, because it’s two thousand miles. So no going home!

I first thought I’d call long distance and ask my father to send some money, but I could guess what he’d say if I told him I’d lost nearly four hundred dollars in just one day.
Nope. That was out. In the army I’d started to play guitar very seriously, so I thought all I can do is try to earn money playing guitar. Then I remembered that just before I left the army
I’d sold my guitar to a cat in the unit. So I went back to Fort Campbell, found the guy and told him I just had to borrow the guitar back.

 

I
T TOOK ME SOME TIME to get better from the injuries I had, and then I went down South. I played in cafes, clubs and on the streets. It was pretty
tough at first. I lived in very miserable circumstances. I slept where I could, and when I needed to eat I had to steal it. I earned some money, but I didn’t like it at all. Then I started a
group called the King Kasuals with a fellow called Billy Cox who played funky, funky bass.

In Clarksville we worked for a setup called W & W. Man, they paid us so little that we decided the two W’s stood for “Wicked and Wrong.” This one-horse music agency used to
come up on stage in the middle of a number, slip the money for the gig into our pockets and disappear. By the time the number was over and I got a chance to look in the envelope, I’d find
they’d only slipped us a couple of dollars instead of ten or fifteen.

Then we got in with a club owner who seemed to like us a lot. He bought us some new gear. I had a Silvertone amp, and the others got Fender Bandmasters. But this guy took our money, and he was
sort of holding us back. So I moved about some more.

I went to Nashville, where I lived in a big housing estate they were building. They hadn’t put the floor in yet and there were no roofs, so we had to sleep under the stars. That was
wild.

Every Sunday afternoon we used to go downtown to watch the race riots. You were supposed to call up some of your friends and say,

“We’re going to be shoutin’ at you down

there tonight, so be there.”

We’d take a picnic basket because they wouldn’t serve us in the restaurants. One group would stand on one side of the street and the rest on the other side. They’d shout names
and talk about each other’s mothers and every once in a while stab each other. That would go on for a couple of hours, and then we’d all go to some club and get stoned. Sometimes, if
there was a good movie on that Sunday, there wouldn’t be any race riots.

I used to have a childhood ambition to stand on my own feet, without being afraid to get hit in the face if I went into a “white” restaurant and ordered a “white” steak.
But normally I just didn’t think along these lines. I had more important things to do – like playing guitar.

In Nashville I played all kinds of stuff, even some rockabilly. In Nashville everybody knows how to play guitar. You walk down the street, and people are sitting on the porch playing more guitar

 

 

 

 

That’s where I learned to play, really.

 

 

 

 

W
HEN I FIRST STARTED PLAYING GUITAR it was way up in Seattle, and they don’t have too many of the real blues singers up there. When I went
down South, all the cats there were playing blues, and that is when I really began to get interested in the scene. I just listened to the way people played blues guitar, and I dug it.

I adore “folk blues.” “Blues” to me means Elmore James, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson. I like Robert Johnson. He’s so cool. That sort of music
gets the message over and comes through so easily. It doesn’t necessarily mean that “folk blues” is the only type of blues in the world. You can have your own blues. Everyone has
some kind of blues to offer, you know.

In Atlanta and Georgia there are some great guys, like Albert King and Albert Collins. Albert King plays completely and strictly in one way – just straight funk blues, new blues guitar,
very young, funky sound – which is great. One of the funkiest I’ve heard. He plays strictly that way, so that’s his scene.

Most of the guitarists come from the South. Down South at some funky club one cat there starving to death might be the best guitar player you ever heard, and you might not even know his
name.

 

N
ASHVILLE USED TO BE A FUNNY SCENE, with all those slick managers trying to sign up hillbilly singers who’d never been in a big town before.
It was like a game, like one big put-on all the way. Everybody trying to take everyone else. But once you knew how to watch out for yourself it could be a lot of laughs.

I met a guy called Gorgeous George in Nashville, and he got me on some tours. So I started traveling around, playing around the South. It was one of the hardest audiences. Guys must play really
good because for these people you can’t play less. They’ll recognize this. They hear it all the time. We played in bars on top of the platform, and it was really hot and the fans wanted
more and more. Cats used to jump on the guitar, and there used to be cats playing behind their heads or playing with their teeth or elbows. Sometimes they’d switch instruments, just for
fun.

Some cat tried to get me to play behind my head because I never would move around too much. I said, “Oh, man, who wants to do all that junk?” And then, all of a sudden, you’d
start to get bored with yourself, because those people were really hard to please. The idea of playing guitar with my teeth came to me in a town in Tennessee. Down there you have to play with your
teeth or else you get shot! There’s a trail of broken teeth all over the stage.

After that I traveled all over the States, playing in different groups. Oh God, I can’t remember all their names. I used to join a group and quit them so fast! There I was, playing in this
Top 40 R&B Soul Hit Parade Package, with the patent leather shoes and hairdo combined. But when you’re running around starving on the road, you’ll play almost anything. I got so
tired of feeding back on
The Midnight Hour
. I didn’t hear any guitar players doing anything new, and I was bored out of my mind.

I learned how not to get an R&B band together. The trouble was too many leaders didn’t seem to want to pay anybody. Guys would get fired in the middle of the highway because they were
talking too loud on the bus or the leader owed them too much money – something like that. Bad pay, lousy living, and gettin’ burned – that was those days.

I STAYED IN BUFFALO for about a month or two, but it was too cold up there. Seattle has a different type of cold. It’s a nice coldness, not so cutting as Buffalo. Anyway,
there’s this girl up there trying to work “roots” on me, trying to work this Voodoo stuff, keep me there, you know? There’s different things they can do. They can put
something in your food or put some little hair in your shoe. She put a lock of hair in the heel of my shoe. Crazy cat! But she must have tried it half-heartedly, because I was only sick in the
hospital for two or three days.

You wouldn’t think this sort of thing happens till it happens to you. But I can tell you it’s real scary when it does. Around the southern states they have scenes like that. I saw
it. If I see it happen or if I feel it happen, then I believe it. A person gives off certain electric shocks anyway, so if the vibrations are strong enough to get these charms working, they can
actually do it.

 

T
HEN I WENT TO NEW YORK and won first place in the Apollo amateur contest, you know, twenty-five dollars. I dig playing at the Apollo Theater. So I
stayed up there, starved up there for two or three weeks. I’d get a gig once every twelfth of never. I lived in very miserable circumstances. Sleeping among the garbage cans between them tall
tenements was hell. Rats runnin’ all across your chest, cockroaches stealin’ your last candy bar from your very pockets. I even tried to eat orange peel and tomato paste.

People would say, “If you don’t get a job you’ll just starve to death.” But I didn’t want to take a job outside music. I tried a few, including car delivery, but I
always quit after a week or two. I’d worry a bit about not having any money but not enough to go out and rob a bank.

Then one of the Isley Brothers heard me playing in a club and said he had a job open. So I played with the Isley Brothers for a while, and they used to make me do my thing (play with my teeth,
etc.), because it made them more bucks or something. Most groups I was with didn’t let me do my own thing.

But it wasn’t so groovy after all. I had to sleep in the clubs where they were playing, and there were a lot of cockroaches and rats. The bastard animals were all over you during the
night! I quit the Isley Brothers in Nashville. I got tired of playing in the key of F all the time, so I turned in my white mohair silk suit and patent leather shoes and began playing on the street
corners again.

After a couple of months there was a soul package coming into town with Sam Cooke, Solomon Burke, Jackie Wilson, Hank Ballard, B.B. King and Chuck Jackson, and I got a little job playing in the
backup band. I learned an awful lot of guitar picking behind all those names every night.

Then I got stranded in Kansas City, Missouri, because I missed the bus and didn’t have any money. This group came up and brought me back to Atlanta, Georgia, where I met Little Richard. I
had to do an audition with him and he liked me, so I started playing with him for a while. But I got the feeling that I couldn’t really develop under his influence.

He wouldn’t let me wear frilly shirts on stage. Once, me and Glen Willings got fancy shirts because we were tired of wearing the uniform. After the show Little Richard said,

 

“Brothers, we’ve got to have a meeting.

and I’m the only one who’s going to look pretty on stage.

Glen and Jimmy, will you please turn in those shirts

or else you will have to suffer the consequences of a fine.”

 

He had another meeting over my hairstyle. I said I wasn’t going to cut my hair for nobody.

“That’ll be a five dollar fine for you.”

If our shoelaces were two different types we’d get fined five dollars.

Everybody on the tour was brainwashed.

I guess I played with Little Richard for about five or six months. I worked with him all over America, finally landing in Los Angeles where I had enough of Richard. I quit because of a money
misunderstanding. He didn’t pay us for five and a half weeks. You can’t live on promises when you’re on the road, so I had to cut that mess loose.

 

I
WENT BACK TO NEW YORK and played with this little rhythm and blues group named Curtis Knight and the Squires. I made a few records and arranged a
few songs for him. I also played with King Curtis and Joey Dee. I played Cleveland Arena with Joey Dee and the Starliters, in some rhythm and blues show that had Chubby Checker in it.

Mind you, I jumped from the frying pan into the fire when I joined with Joey Dee and the Starliters. This is an outasight group – but! Nobody talked to me. I was just another Negro
guitarist. So after sucking on a “Peppermint Twist” salary I had to quit and began playing with a jukebox band. I finally quit that too.

I had nothing but a “wish sandwich” – two pieces of bread, wishing I had some meat between.

LETTER HOME FROM NEW YORK, AUGUST 1965:

I just want to let you know I’m still here, trying to make it. Although I don’t eat every day, everything’s going alright for me. I still have my
guitar and amp, and as long as I have that, no fool can keep me from living
.

There’s a few record companies I visited that I probably can record for. I think I’ll start working toward that line because when you’re playing behind other people
you’re still not making a big name for yourself, as you would if you were working for yourself. But I went on the road with other people to get exposed to the public and see how
business is taken care of, and mainly just to see what’s what. After I put a record out, there’ll be a few people who know me already and who can help with the sale of the
record. Nowadays people don’t want you to sing good. They want you to sing sloppy and have a good beat to your songs. That’s what angle I’m going to shoot for.
That’s where the money is. So just in case about three or four months from now you might hear a record by me which sounds terrible, don’t feel ashamed, just wait until the money
rolls in, because every day people are singing worse and worse on purpose and the public buys more and more records.

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. Tell everyone I said hello.
Leon, Grandma, Ben, Ernie, Frank, Mary, Barbara and so forth. Please write soon. It’s pretty lonely out here by myself. Best luck and happiness in the future.

Love, your son Jimmy

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