Jimi Hendrix lived fast, and I don’t just mean to evoke a rock star cliché, but to get at the speed at which his career moved. He arrived in England near the end of September, 1966, at the tender age of 23. In less than a month, he and his manager Chas Chandler had recruited Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell into the Experience and booked the band’s first gig on October 13 across the channel in Évreux, France, one of four French bookings as a supporting act for The Blackbirds and Johnny Hallyday. They played mostly covers, including Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor,” Otis Redding’s “Respect,” Don Covay’s “Mercy, Mercy,” and Chris Kenner’s “Land of a Thousand Dances,” and traditional song “Hey Joe,” soon to become the band’s first single. It’s unclear whether anyone recorded that first gig, but we do have some audio of the fourth, on October 18 at the Olympia in Paris. Just above hear them play “Hey Joe” from that night, and below, they do The Troggs’ “Wild Thing.”
Hendrix was already a highly seasoned performer by this time, having blown minds all over the South while touring with, among others, the Isley Brothers, Little Richard, and King Curtis in the early sixties. He had been highly in demand as a backing and session player, but he grew tired of standing in the back and wanted to go solo. He met manager Chandler, then bassist for the Animals, while fronting his own band in New York. Chandler, writes PRI, “knew just what to do with the young guitarist” upon their arrival in England.
Six days after the short tour through France, the band played its first official show in the UK, at the Scotch of St. James, where the Beatles had a private booth. Hendrix proceeded to blow minds all over England, including, of course, those of all the British guitar greats: “Everyone’s eyes were glued to him,” remembers then girlfriend Kathy Etchingham, “He looked different. His guitar playing was superb. People in England hadn’t seen anything like it before. It was quite… out of this world.”
People in the U.S. hadn’t seen anything like it either. While Hendrix had honed many of his signature stage tricks on the soul circuit, by the time he appeared at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, he had fully come into his own as a charismatic singer as well as a “near miraculous” guitarist. But in his move from R&B to rock and roll, he never lost his blues roots. “Hendrix wasn’t a typical pop or rock musician,” says Hendrix scholar and English professor Joel Brattin. He “was an improviser. So, if there are 100 different recorded versions of Purple Haze, it’s really worth listening to all 100 because he does something different each time.” The same can be said of the songs he covered, and made his own. Just above, see them play “Hey Joe” at The Marquee for German TV show Beat Club just months before the release of their 1967 debut album. And below, Hendrix exhorts the crowd to sing along before launching into “Wild Thing,” in a Paris appearance one full year after the recording above at the Olympia. Compare, contrast, get your mind blown.