Jimi Hendrix arrived on the London scene like a ton of bricks in 1966, smashing every British blues guitarist to pieces the instant they saw him play. As vocalist Terry Reid tells it, when Hendrix played his first showcase at the Bag O’Nails, arranged by Animals’ bassist Chas Chandler, “there were guitar players weeping. They had to mop the floor up. He was piling it on, solo after solo. I could see everyone’s fillings falling out. When he finished, it was silence. Nobody knew what to do. Everybody was dumbstruck, completely in shock.”
He only exaggerates a little, by all accounts, and when Reid says “everybody,” he means everybody: Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Brian Jones, Jeff Beck, Paul McCartney, The Who, Eric Burdon, John Mayall, and maybe Jimmy Page, though he denies it. Mayall recalls, “the buzz was out before Jimi had even been seen here, so people were anticipating his performance, and he more than lived up to what we were expecting.” In fact, even before this legendary event sent nearly every star classic rock guitarist back to the woodshed, Jimi had arrived unannounced at the Regent Street Polytechnic, and asked to sit in and jam with Cream, where he proceeded to dethrone the reigning British guitar god, Eric Clapton.
Nobody knew who he was, but “in those days anybody could get up with anybody,” Clapton says in a recent interview, “if you were convincing enough that you could play. He got up and blew everyone’s mind.” As Hendrix biographer Charles Cross tells it, “no one had ever asked to jam” with Cream before. “Most would have been too intimidated by their reputation as the best band in Britain.” To hear the story as it’s told in the clip above from the BBC documentary Seven Ages of Rock, no one else would have ever dared to get onstage with Eric Clapton. Clapton, as the famed graffiti in London announced, was God. “It was a very brave person who would do that,” says Jack Bruce.
Actually, it was Chandler who asked the band, and who also tried to prepare Clapton. Jimi got onstage, plugged into Bruce’s bass amp, and played a version of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killin’ Floor.” Everyone was “completely gobsmacked,” Clapton writes in his autobiography. “I remember thinking that here was a force to be reckoned with. It scared me, because he was clearly going to be a huge star, and just as we are finding our own speed, here was the real thing.” Fear, envy, awe… all reasonable emotions when standing next to Jimi Hendrix as he tears through “Killin’ Floor” three times faster than anyone else played it (as you can see him play it in Stockholm above)—while doing the splits, lying on the floor, playing with his teeth and behind his head…
“It was amazing,” writes Clapton, “and it was musically great, too, not just pyrotechnics.” There’s no telling how Jimi might have remembered the event had he lived to write his memoirs, but he would have been pretty modest, as was his way. No one else who saw him felt any need to hold back. “It must have been difficult for Eric to handle,” says Bruce, “because [Eric] was ‘God,’” and this unknown person comes along, and burns.” He puts it slightly differently at the top: “Eric was a guitar player. Jimi was some sort of force of nature.”
Rock journalist Keith Altham has yet a third account, as Ed Vulliamy writes at The Guardian. He remembers “Chandler going backstage after Clapton left in the middle of the song ‘which he had yet to master himself’; Clapton was furiously puffing on a cigarette and telling Chas: ‘You never told me he was that fucking good.’” Who knows if Hendrix knew Clapton had struggled with “Killin’ Floor” and decided not to try it live. But as blues guitarist Stephen Dale Petit notes, “when Chas invited Jimi to London, Jimi did not ask about money or contracts. He asked if Chas would introduce him to Beck and Clapton.”
He had come to meet, and blow away, his rock heroes. “Two weeks after The Bag O’Nails,” writes Classic Rock’s Johnny Black, “when Cream appeared at The Marquee Club, Clapton was sporting a frizzy perm and he left his guitar feeding back against the amp, just as he’d seen Jimi do.”