Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky
September 18, 1970, the Notting Hill Gate section of London. Samarkand Hotel, 22 Lansdowne Crescent, garden suite. The front door is wide open.
The bedroom is dark, blacked out. A solitary figure is on the queen-size bed.
The bed is extremely wet. Jimi is fully dressed. He is on his back spread-eagled like Christ upon the cross. His black jacket is covered by a towel across his shoulders, both soaking wet. Vomit and red wine cover him and are all over the bed. The stench is strong, dominated by the smell of the cheap wine. The stain that suffuses his clothing and the bedding is red, from the red wine, something Jimi Hendrix seldom drank.
Lately it has been no secret that he has big enemies. His loving friends are around him always, yet as spaced out as they usually are, what could they do if he was seriously threatened?
He is alone in the room.
A body, so still against the thin gray mute of London dawn. A room deep somewhere. Misty in soundless sleep. A gray aura murmurs from the long thin body upon the blanket and coverlet. Gas heat whispers underground where the earth rumbles with the sound of machine against concrete. Rising against the pale blue India-print curtains, tiny slits of dawn filter through the top rows of the gauzelike venetian blinds. The potted tree in the tiny sunken courtyard stands against a wide barred window next to the white front door with a gold engraving of a young Buddha. The white door faces a spiraling staircase with a wrought-iron gate at the top. Two lions sit before each of the three gray-white town houses that form the Samarkand Residential Hotel.
On the long residential street of Lansdowne Crescent, the Samarkand is opposite a block-long private park, fenced and locked. The key belongs only to the residents of the crescent. Down the well-kept street, solid brick gray-white town houses sweep in a curve past the Pakistan Embassy residence, twisting on through the groves of high trees that surround the fine homes of upper Notting Hill Gate. At the top of the hill are lines of shops and stores along Latimer Road, where during the dawn hours strange-shaped vans and trucks of English manufacture energetically deliver their wares. The weekend is just about here. The
early morning will throb with the energy of people expecting their pay and a holiday.
Past Lansdowne Crescent, the hill begins a steep descent into the flatlands of Notting Hill Gate where the West Indians, East Indians, mulattoes, hippies, and poor whites live. There, the view from below Lansdowne Crescent shows trees so prolific they become a solid mass of green rising like a natural mountain.
At dawn, solitary figures appear at various points along Talbot Road, where the buses and the Underground station converge. Posters and leaflets line the boarded-up storefronts, wooden fences and posts announcing the latest West Indian dances and house parties. The great flea market of Portobello Road will be held tomorrow. Throngs of bargain-seekers and fun-lovers will come from all over London to rub shoulders and mingle in the ghetto at a safe time. Crews of locals will be lined up at points along the mile-long route, drinking beer spontaneously in outdoor pubs. Street musicians, solo and ensemble, will play before clusters of casual spectators. Bargains ranging from good antiques to various concoctions of West Indian and East Indian foods will be sold.
Back up on the crescent his body is still. Opposed to the grind of the daily workers’ toil and time, his body often sleeps through their day to see some of them in his day, which is night.
Above London, moving across the world, a massive storm of fantastic colors sweeps voluminous currents and waves across hundreds of miles of landmasses and water at an incredibly fast pace. Sunrise over the Pacific Rim. Seattle. The sun is bright over the city on the hill. Fall, Indian summer; in the quick tinges of wind that hit with swift force, the harbinger of winter nights and the waters of the storms.
Time moving so fast, backward and forward, people and places move into scenes and then out again so quickly as if in the blink of an eye, they shift from one sphere of vision to another.
Seattle 1912. He sees sticking outward from a pinnacle, a hill, the high granite arm of a statue of an Indian man, tall and stately, pointing out over the buildings of downtown Seattle, out toward the lakes that lie before the Pacific Ocean.
People are crowded from the edge of the knoll to the top of the hill where, before the statue, a rotund man in a black frock addresses them with a megaphone from a reviewing stand. He is dwarfed by the statue he points to. He gestures broadly, shouting something about Indians. Then he rapidly reads a quote from the dedication: “When the last redman shall have perished and the memory of my tribe shall have become a myth among the white men, these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe…when your children’s children think them
selves alone in the field, the store, upon the highway, or in the silence of the pathless woods, they will not be alone…. At night when the streets of your villages are silent and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled them and still love this beautiful land. The white man will never be alone. Let him be just and deal kindly with my people, for the dead are not forever lost. Dead, did I say? There is no death, only a change of worlds.”
The statue is of Chief Seattle, the Indian chief the city was named after. He is wrapped in a granite robe that appears strangely tattered. His left foot forward, his right arm raised toward the bays, he looks like he might either be beckoning or waving good-bye.
The tiny officious figure orating is the new reform mayor of Seattle, George Cotterill. He takes the occasion to reaffirm his liberal nature and to belittle the former administration, noting that its former chief of police was at this moment serving time in the penitentiary at Walla Walla.
The crowd roars with approval. On the outskirts of the crowd stands a group of blacks. They laugh, throwing up their hands; the two women are dressed in very fashionable clothes from the East; the three men wear tailored dark suits, their hats tilted and broken in Chicago style.
Nora, the youngest, laughs with the rest but she knows they really have little to be happy about. Black vaudevillians stranded in Seattle, they were wearing their stage clothes and wondering about their survival. Nora, whose full name was Zenora Rose Moore, twenty-nine going on thirty, was flirting with being an old maid, as the other showgirls would tease. Ross Hendrix was seventeen years older and had been married before. But she loved him, and their years on the road had strengthened an already natural bond.
A Model T Ford moves along the Pacific Northwest shelf, heading for Canada. The Pacific Ocean coming in and out of view on the left, faded white streamers trail and break off the speeding black car in the dust and wind. JUST MARRIED has been scrawled in white along the rear of the auto.
Nora and Ross Hendrix are the newlyweds. They have decided to live in Canada and quit the show-business life. Their colleagues accompany them for the ride. They all sing the big song from the hit black play Darktown Follies:
First you put your two knees close up tight
Then you sway ’em to the left, then you sway ’em to the right
Step around the floor kind of nice and light
Then you twist around and twist around with all your might
Stretch your lovin’ arms straight out in space
Then you do the Eagle Rock with style and grace
Swing your foot way ’round then bring it back
Now that’s what I call “Ballin’ the Jack.”
It was a great song that swept the nation and was adopted by the “colored” jazz musicians of New Orleans, who were doing a new thing that they called “jazz.”
Ross desired to escape Jim Crow, a discriminative segregation against blacks in America, but he had to acknowledge that the black showtunes, dances, and plays were changing the nation, at least as far as entertainment and recreation went.
The rickety black Ford sped for Victoria Station and the ferry that would take them across the waters to another country.
Al Hendrix, Jimi’s father, may have sounded a bit comical in his sincerity, yet he held you spellbound as he spoke, in his offhand way, about the early years of his life. It was not often Al Hendrix spoke this way. It had to be a long quiet Sunday afternoon with perhaps a few beers and a couple of shots of hard stuff. He would look off straight ahead and his eyes, which were usually sheltered by his dark creviced brow and high, close cheekbones, would shine with a liquidy light through the mahogany brown.
Al Hendrix: “My mother was born in Georgia [November 19, 1883] and raised in Tennessee. My mother and dad got stranded here in a show tour. That was before the First World War. And he wanted to go to Canada, so they went up to Canada to live. They took out papers and became Canadian citizens. My mother was a dancer. She was a chorus girl. A chorus girl back in those days used to wear tights and all such as that. My dad didn’t do any entertaining, he was a stagehand.
“My father had a long name: Bertran Philander Ross Hendrix. He was born April 11, 1866, in a small town in Urbana, Ohio.
“I met a fellow in the army who had been through there. We had a hard time finding it on the map. My daddy had been married before. I don’t know if they were separated, divorced, or what. I remember him telling me one time that he had been a special policeman in Chicago.
“My mother’s sister was in the entertainment business, too. Her name was Belle Lamarr. That was her stage name. They always used some fantastic kind of name.”
Belle and Zenora’s mother, Al’s grandmother, Fanny, was a full-blooded Native American of the Cherokee Nation. She had married a half Native American and half Irishman named Robert Moore in Tennessee in 1881.
Zenora Moore and Bertran Hendrix’s marriage produced four offspring: Leon Marshall in 1913, Patricia in 1914, Frank in 1918, and James Allen Hendrix in 1919, the baby of the family. Bertran and Zenora became Canadian citizens in 1922. James Allen was called “Allie” by his mother and became simply
“Al” from then on. He worshiped his older brother Leon Marshall, who played both the violin and piano by the time Al became aware of music. Leon was long and lean with long tapering fingers on his large hands. He read and wrote music so well Bertran and Nora hired a piano teacher to help him advance. During the last part of the twenties Leon played the new jazz music so well that he had a discernible style of his own. He also was an excellent dancer who was very popular with the women. He had a regular dancing partner and they were often called upon to perform at public events, where they would do the generally popular waltz, tango, and even the Apache dance. But Leon shone when they got to the popular black dances: tap, the Charleston, the Lindy Hop. Leon often looked after Al and, at his youngest brother’s insistence, taught him those dances he had mastered. Al never forgot those lessons, those steps. When Leon died suddenly of a ruptured appendix in 1932, Al, only thirteen, was devastated. His father died two years later. The family was plunged into insecurity and poverty, but they held on. It was the height of the Depression and Al began to hustle for every cent he could earn. The family soon adjusted to their losses. Al took up boxing and went out and got a job waiting tables at Jean Fuller’s Cafe, an afterhours chicken place where his mother also worked on the weekends, supplementing the money she made doing laundry. Between orders Al would do some of the dancing he had cultivated and often received tips. The jitterbug craze grew and he and his sister Pat grew closer since he was the natural selection to escort her to dances, something Leon would have done. Frank was a wallflower, not very social. Pat and Al were photographed dancing to a Duke Ellington Orchestra appearance and it was printed on the front page of the Vancouver Sun. After that Al had local fame as a dancer.
Al Hendrix: “Duke Ellington came to Vancouver in 1936. That was the first time a big band came to Vancouver in years. Jitterbugging was in then. We used to have jitterbug contests. But they used to separate the whites from the blacks for the contests, because the whites thought they wouldn’t have a chance against the blacks. Once four of us entered the contest: Buster Keeling, Alma, myself, and Dorothy King. We were the couples in the black group. They had a hundred dollars for the prize. They brought a jitterbug group from L.A. and they danced on the stage to show the folks what the jitterbug was all about. That’s when jitterbugging first became a craze. Man, I picked it up real quick. I mean, shoot, I had all the timing, because I used to do a lot of tap dancing. We went down and put in an application for the contest. That night there were only two black couples in the thing. I thought we had it made. So I said, ‘Well heck, we’ll split the purse whoever wins and that’ll be twenty-five dollars apiece.’ But the girls went and chickened out and that made us so mad. They didn’t want to go on. That just about killed me. I was so disgusted.
Twenty-five dollars back in those days was equivalent to about a hundred nowadays. I wasn’t working or nothing.
“I used to go out and dance with a group, with a white band. But they couldn’t play my type of music. They didn’t have the rhythm. They’d flow the music along. I would try to tell the pianist to play stop-time music. So you’d get that do do doot doot…duu duu. I mean all the breaks in between the music. But man, he’d flow it all together. So I used to go out with them and dance, but I wouldn’t dance to their music. I would be humming to myself in my mind when I danced. I would go along with it. But I had to steel myself. Still, I enjoyed it. I mean, I always thought I would be scared in front of a crowd. But shoot, the bigger the crowd, the better I felt. I would be enjoying myself, and entertaining myself, too. I used to dance in between breaks at intermission. This group would go around to different dances, and they’d call me and I’d go along. I wasn’t able to make a living at it. I had other jobs. But I was able to make more in one night dancing than I could in a whole week of hauling wood.
“When Canada declared war against Germany, I knew it would only be a matter of time before the United States got into it. I knew the Canadian Army would come for me, because my brother served in the Canadian Army. I got my hat and headed for Victoria. I told Ma, ‘Well, I’m on my way.’ I tried to get a job on the railroad. But the old guy would never hire me. He’d tell me I was too daggum short. I wasn’t too daggum short, he just wanted to fool with me. I was around twenty, but I was about at my full growth then. This was during the Depression and I decided to go on for myself. I told my mother I ain’t coming back this way. I’m gonna go out and make something. So that’s what I did. When I left I went over to Victoria and worked there for about two weeks, made myself a little capital shining shoes, and then came to Seattle. I had always planned on going to New York or Chicago, the big places. I’m glad I didn’t go to those places. They were wild, cold-blooded. So I wound up here.”
Al Hendrix liked the unconscious part of jazz dancing the best. It was like a dream, all the people watching while he lost himself in the dance, and he would perform by sheer improvisation, reacting spontaneously to the music.
Al’s mother, Nora Hendrix, would laugh at his excitement over the new dance craze. Years ago, she used to tell Al that before he was born there was a dance introduced in the Negro musical Darktown Follies called the Texas Tommy that was the same as the jitterbug. This was in 1912 and 1913, when Nora and her husband were still very much in show business.
While others called the jitterbug the Lindy Hop, it made no difference to Al. He would add many steps of his own, steps he had seen done in movies by Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, or Fred Astaire, or Buck ’n’ Bubbles. Preferring to dance
alone, Al would start off in the basic jitterbug steps: two box steps with the accent off the beat, a kick and three hops on each foot, then the breakaway, and he was off on his own, flowing toward the space in his mind where he lost conscious awareness of his own dancing, the crowd, and the music. The music seeping into him as he moved in a semitrance, performing feats he could hardly remember when they were described to him afterward.
Al had benefited from his mother and brother’s dancing ability. Nora had showed him some of his very best steps: how to “fall off the log” or do the Lazy Walk. The times had demanded they pursue non-show-business jobs, yet they never skipped an opportunity to work out the way they used to. As a child, Al had often seen his mother and aunt Belle perform the acrobatic dance steps so favored in vaudeville—African crossover dances such as Ballin’ the Jack, the Texas Tommy, the Ring Shout, Cakewalk, Charleston, and other dances of the minstrel, vaudeville, and ragtime eras.
Al had a formidable array of dance steps to add to the largely improvised jitterbug. His steps seemed new to the youngsters who crowded around to watch him perform, first at high school dances and then at dance halls and ballrooms. Just over five feet tall, Al dressed in the style of the times, a zoot suit: a long jacket and ballooned pants that bellowed out at the thighs and knees, tapering to narrow cuffs. The suit was perfect for the acrobatic steps due to its outsize proportions. On the dance floor Al’s size was no problem. Jazz dancing often featured extreme sizes, either very fat, very tall, very slim, or very short. His size did make dance partners a problem, however. Usually Al danced alone. When he could find a partner who could keep up with him, she was usually too big for him to do the acrobatic air steps, such as the Hip to Hip, Side Flip, and Over the Back.
Al could do more floor steps than anyone in Vancouver. Many touring vaudeville troupes would pick up local black youngsters who were very talented dancers and insert a gang of them in their show as an act. Some “picks,” as they were called, went on to be big stars, while many, hired only for the town they lived in, were left to descend back into obscurity.
As a solitary “pick,” Al would come to the center floor of the dance hall. Space would be cleared for him and a spotlight trained on him. The band would play one of their hottest numbers and Al would go into his thing. A top jazz dancer was certain to turn on the orchestra and the dance patrons, propelling the vibrations to a fever pitch. With dance halls competing for the crowds, an act like Al’s was essential. Even though he danced alone, Al could turn the people on.
Benny Goodman had become nationally famous as the King of Swing through his coast-to-coast radio broadcasts. “Swing” had caught on as the name of the new dance fad, and became almost solely identified with Benny Goodman’s orchestra.
Fletcher Henderson had actually solved the problems of large orchestras playing hot jazz. But Goodman received much of the credit. Unlike the confusion apparent in Dixieland, when several saxophones, trumpets, and other horns tried to mix in the cacophony, Henderson had arranged many of his songs along the call-and-response patterns of African music. The horns alternated riffs and also played the melody as an ensemble. When Henderson sold his arrangements to Goodman, the precision of Goodman’s style, coupled with the marketing expertise of the eastern recording companies, made Goodman indeed the King of Swing. Fletcher Henderson and many other black orchestras had been playing these arrangements for almost ten years in Harlem, but few people outside of New York City had ever heard them play.
Al Hendrix first came in contact with swing through the radio broadcasts from New York, but he had already intuitively recognized in Louis Armstrong the roots of jazz.
One night in Seattle he danced with Armstrong and outdid every solo he had ever done. From the basic lindy steps, he had gone into Ballin’ the Jack, swaying his knees together left and right, doing a beautiful time step as if he were stepping on feathers, then, stretching his arms out in space, he did the Eagle Rock. Arms high over his head, he swayed his entire body from head to toe, going into the Georgia Grind, rotating his pelvis in a circle to the beat of the music, then coming out into a Charleston for a moment. He parlayed the kicks into air steps, took a solo flight, landed in a split, and rose without the aid of his hands and arms into the jitterbug right on time with the music.
Eventually Al found a dancing partner who was just the right size. Lucille Jeter was shorter than he, tiny, yet very shapely, with very light brown skin and a smile of great promise. She was actually strikingly beautiful, but still too young to realize it. Her delicate features contrasted with the amount of energy she generated on the dance floor. She danced as if dance was life in essence.
Al had met Lucille at the home where he lived with friends from Canada, Donald Green and his sister Christina. Lucille was a schoolmate of the landlady’s oldest daughter, Berthelle, and she had just happened by when Al and his roommates were heading out to a dance. Fats Waller was headlining with a local orchestra and it was quite exciting, as with anyone famous in the East who would make it to the out-of-the-way Pacific Northwest.
Berthelle brought Lucille directly to Al and introduced them, and then boldly suggested Al take Lucille along to the dance. She looked kind of young. Berthelle said she was nearly seventeen. Lucille was definitely quite attractive, and just the right size for the diminutive Al.
They went to the dance that night. No one except Al would dance with her because she looked so young. Al discovered she was only fifteen, and would be sixteen next month, October 12, 1941. But they had a good time, and danced
well together. After a couple more dates they began to smooch and then began going steady, so to speak. It got to the point where Al met her parents.
Lucille, the youngest of eight children (two deceased and two given up for adoption) was born October 12, 1925, two months premature, to Clarice Lawson Jeter, thirty-one years old, and Preston M. Jeter, who was nearing fifty. During her early childhood Lucille was often without the care of her mother, who suffered from physical and mental ailments, and her father was also not well. It would be ten years after her birth that her family would be able to get back together. From birth she had only known insecurity in her family life. While her mother, Clarice, recovered from her illnesses, Preston’s health problems began to merge with old age. Although still in high school Lucille was well aware of the burden she was on her parents.
They had no strong objections to their daughter’s relationship. Preston Jeter’s facial expressions and mannerisms reminded Al of the blustery white actor Wallace Beery. He seemed to be a stern and unyielding man, but Al’s sincerity grew on him. Lucille’s parents may have been relieved that Lucille was with someone older (six years), who was a serious workingman. Lucille could have been considered somewhat fast for her age. She had already established herself as a local jitterbug champ. Her little frame could really go. She reveled in the nightlife of jazz and had great enthusiasm. She had a great sense of humor and loved to laugh. Al and his family knew all the blacks in Vancouver, B.C., as there were so few, and he knew through experience there was no woman there for him. But here in Seattle he had found love.
Although the war in Europe had been staring everyone in the world in the face for several years, the United States’ entry into the war came as a shock to the citizens of Seattle.
Seattle shared the Pacific Ocean with Asia, so things were especially weird there. Almost overnight Seattle became a closed town. The city had been making civil-defense preparations for some time, and when the U.S. entry into the war was announced, a secret command took over the city.
Some places not far from the center of town became off limits overnight. Curfews sprung up. Blackouts and bomb drills became an immediate way of life. The air of hysteria channeled into passionate patriotism; everyone was threatened. Paranoia became intense. Japanese Americans were quickly interred in detention centers out in the countryside of Washington State and in other locations on the West Coast. The storm of war settled over Seattle. Anxiety about life and death became a strong element in everyone’s mind. The cruelties of existence under strife were taken for granted.
Lucille Jeter had just turned sixteen years old when war was declared. The war hit her hard, as it did all of Seattle, especially those just attaining adulthood. They had to make heavy decisions fast, decisions that could span their lifetimes.
Lucille and Al had just discovered that she was pregnant and he had received his draft orders.
They married just before he left to join the army. That was not so unusual. The couples they had gotten to know, most of them regulars at the jitterbug dances, swing clubs, and ballrooms, were faced with similar situations. Every week the ballrooms had more and more couples dancing their farewell dances, very often with the male already in military uniform. It seemed as if the entire swing world had joined the military overnight.
The music became a focus for unity, especially among the youth of America. The ones who had loved to dance now had to fight a war. The big swing band became a symbol of the unity of purpose of America. Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman conducted in uniform. The big bands were going overseas to entertain the boys on the front lines.
Jazz had a fantastic impact on the war. Hot jazz, or American swing, became an immediate rage in England and Europe. It was like the bugle call of the cavalry. Jazz became synonymous with the swinging American youth, the jitterbugs and cultural epicureans, who had adopted the music of black Americans. Europe in her history had felt the distant strains of Moorish martial music before. The dark Arabs and North Africans had ruled much of Europe for several hundred years, and the fighting ability of the Moors was well remembered in European history. The black Americans were jitterbugs, the white Americans swinging Lindy Hoppers. Jazz brought a great morale lift to the European fighting forces. Jazz was relatively new music to the Europeans. Although the cultural elite had always expressed an interest in it, World War II exposed the masses of Europeans to jazz. They flipped. Jazz was a balm that at the same time lifted their spirits. It gave them the intense joyous detachment of the Harlem hipster. Listening to jazz was like meditation, yet it did not cut you off from the world. In fact, jazz made you want to dance, to act, to express. Jazz became the dominant cultural symbol of the triumph of the Allied forces in the war.
Al and Lucille soon began to hear a new and exciting musician on the national coast-to-coast broadcasts of the Benny Goodman band. Featured with the band was a name new to the devotees of swing, Charlie Christian. Never before had a new and unknown person had such an impact on the music within such a short time. The reason was the amplified guitar Christian played. Christian could play rhythm with the best, chomping along and adding some nice tone colorings, as well. But Christian could also play intricate melodies with his electrified guitar. The sound was thrilling and immediate; it opened up new realms of meaning for the dancing swingers and the followers of the music itself.
Few “colored” musicians had ever had the exposure of Christian. It had been rough going for the white bandleader to even include a black player during those Jim Crow times. Benny Goodman had used Teddy Wilson in New York, but had
to go through a lot of changes to do it in 1936. In 1941 things had changed in the States. War seemed imminent. The Jim Crow laws in the South and the racism in the North began to quickly recede as national unity became the only posture reasonable in the face of Hitler, who, by the way, thought jazz one of the strongest elements threatening the destruction of the pure white Aryan race.
Charlie Christian’s electric guitar sent the banjo back to folk music. Electrically amplified, the guitar was able to top the rhythm with beautiful and strong sound, and then to step out of the background and deliver solos that gave definite blue tonality to the blues-inspired jazz, with slurs and fading vibratos and long sustained lines that were perfect for dance and for listening.
At the same time, uptown in Harlem, Christian was also contributing heavily to a new and secret music based on black rhythms, blue tonalities, and shouts with the likes of “Dizzy” Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, and Kenny Clarke. This music, “bebop,” would, in a few years, change the face of jazz irrevocably.
The sweet swing music of Goodman tremendously limited the genius of Charlie Christian. He gave more of his tradition than he received in inspiration. Many nights he would go uptown to Harlem after his gig with Goodman to sit in with some young and crazy black musicians who had all of Harlem in an uproar over the new music they played. Minton’s, located in the Hotel Cecil on West 118th Street, was the room for the new music. Goodman’s rhythm section usually played straight 4/4 rhythms with the drummer hardly ever varying from the straight jazz march beat. Uptown in Harlem, Kenny Clarke had pioneered a drumming style that had expanded the drum polyrhythmically. Kenny Clarke’s drums would talk to the soloists, exploding bombs according to the peaks of intensity of the music, rather than by arrangement. Keeping time with his right hand rather than his right foot, Kenny Clarke also expanded the use of the ride cymbal and high-hat, thus giving wide rhythmic material for the soloists to feed off.
Charlie Christian became an underground hero to the jazz aficionados who flocked to Minton’s from all over the tristate area to hear the new thing in jazz. At the same time he was a mainstay of the Goodman band downtown. While other guitarists such as Lonnie Johnston with Louis Armstrong and Floyd Smith with the Andy Kirk band had been important in the evolving of the guitar as a solo instrument, it was Charlie Christian who took it all the way in.
For the bop musicians, old standards such as “I Got Rhythm,” “Stardust,” and others became vehicles for solos, their melodies inferred, just as the blues tonalities in jazz had been inferred for so long. The wild and emotional soloing at Minton’s would become the dominant jazz style after the war. In 1941 it had every jazzman looking over his shoulder for the wave that would be sure to engulf him. Even Louis Armstrong was rumored to have put down bebop as something resembling Chinese music. But the war would defer the coming of bebop
for some years, strengthening its base in black Harlem while the nation and the Allies swung to the Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller bands.
Charlie Christian never lived to see either the full birth or bloom of bebop—or the U.S. entry into the Second World War. He died of tuberculosis in late 1941.
The newlyweds were only able to live together a few days before Al left for the war.
Al worried about leaving his young wife pregnant and without financial support. She was only sixteen and the baby sister of seven siblings in a family that had trouble keeping it all together. She was young, afraid, and no stranger to separation and abandonment. And in 1942 the war was especially tough.
When Al and Lucille’s son was born, at 10:15 A.M., November 27, 1942, she had just turned seventeen. Without Al to consult she named the baby Johnny Allen Hendrix and received a birth certificate from the city of Seattle with that name on it.
Al and Lucille had been apart for eight months—all of her pregnancy. Lucille had wanted to join Al in Alabama, where he was stationed for a while, but he was afraid of the prevalence of Jim Crow, which was rife throughout the South and in the armed forces, as well. Al would not let her come and had been sure he would be able to return home for at least the birth. But the abruptness of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and President Roosevelt’s immediate declaration of war meant that wartime administration was a mess and still getting itself together a year later.
Al, Lucille, and their newborn got a raw deal, but the same was true for many others. And on top of Al’s absence it took months and months for Lucille to begin receiving the monthly government allotment checks. Al sent all he could. But the pressures of separation, the anxieties of war, and the extreme youth of Lucille combined to alienate them. Their estrangement was not unlike the falling out of adolescents. After all, Lucille was only seventeen and still a high school girl and Al was in his very first serious relationship.
Apparently, after she gave birth Lucille stopped writing him regularly, and he noticed the few letters and postcards he did receive were all from different addresses. The photos of the baby and of her with the baby were all sent by others with secondhand greetings from Lucille.
Lucille was living with a friend of her family, Dorothy Harding, when she went into labor. After she gave birth, mother and child returned to Dorothy Harding’s home. But a newborn baby is difficult to put up with for the parents, much less a family friend. Lucille then moved to her parents’ home a few days
later. The Jeters lived in a converted garage (those in the neighborhood called it a “little shack”) and the heat was not sufficient. Her father was not well. Her mother was working as a housekeeper for folks who were close enough to be considered friends of the family, the Gautiers. A newborn in a freezing house with a man who was ill was a bad combination. When Lucille stayed away for a couple of days, her mother, Clarice, had to take the baby to work in a severe snowstorm and he had gotten very cold and wet. Freddie Mae Gautier and her mother, Minnie, demanded the baby stay there until the storm ended. When it became clear that all involved, including Lucille, thought it best the baby stay there for an extended time it was set up that way for a while.
Al received a formal photo taken in a professional studio of wife and son seated in a chair. His baby boy appearing healthy and Lucille looking quite beautiful just about broke Al’s heart.
Then Lucille was hospitalized in June of 1943 with a circulatory illness that resulted from the concentration of blood in certain parts and organs of her body: hypostasis. Her father, Preston Jeter, died at home later that month on June 25. Lucille took a job as a waitress since she still had not received any allotment (family support) money from the government. On July 4 her baby was admitted to King’s County Hospital with pneumonia. Grieving the loss of her father, Lucille entered into the first stages of becoming an alcoholic.
It is July 4, 1943. Johnny Allen Hendrix, eight months old, is held to the window of King’s County Hospital by a white-smocked nurse. The display of fireworks is particularly impressive this war year.
Johnny Allen had awakened to the great flashes of lights in the sky. The nurse had found him there awake, calmly surveying the rush of brilliant lights against the darkening sky. As she changed his diaper in the dim light of the infant-care ward, the nurse wondered what the fate of this little boy would really be. His mother was not all right.
Lucille had been consumptive from birth. The weakness of her constitution and the excitement of the war years was a bad combination, especially for a lonely, very young woman. Taking care of a child required a lot of strength on a steady basis. It would mean an end to the frolic of music and dance. She had gotten back out into the world too soon. Her baby’s delivery had been difficult. She had been advised to rest for a year, but as soon as she had felt strong enough she had gotten back out on the dance floor and tested her small strength to the fullest. As for little Johnny Allen, he would have to be elsewhere; he certainly couldn’t stay in the infant-care ward for the months necessary for Lucille’s recovery.
Al Hendrix: “They never gave me a furlough when he was being born. They told me when I went into the service that during emergencies, sickness, birth, or anything like that, you could get a furlough. But I was down in Alabama and all they allowed was a fourteen-day furlough. As slow as transportation was at that time, it would have taken me about fourteen days to get home. So I tried to get a longer furlough. I talked to the battalion commander and he told me, ‘Hendrix, by the time you get home you’d have to be turning around to come back.’ I was mad. He could see it. When I walked out he said, ‘Hendrix, don’t think about going over the hill.’ I turned around and said, ‘Yes, sir,’ and I threw him a salute. Daggummit. Not a week from that day we were all getting ready to go to mess, and on the late bulletin they had the names of the guys going into the stockade. There were three of us who went to the stockade on that day. I was one of them. I asked my top kick, I said, ‘What the hell am I being put in the stockade for?’ He told me, ‘General principles, general principles…’ I say, ‘Well, daggummit, usually a person has to be convicted of something.’ I said, ‘Well, I ain’t did nothing.’ Man, I just went to chow and come back. Sure enough the next day they took the three of us to the stockade. I said, ‘Well, ain’t this cold.’ I was in the stockade two months, but I didn’t lose any pay. I guess they were afraid I would go AWOL. That’s why I was railroaded. The day before our outfit was to leave, the MPs brought me back to the barracks. We were going to embark on the train. I got my gear together, and I went back and spent the night in the stockade. They brought me back to the barracks the next morning, and I got my gear together and we got on the train. And went out there to the California coast to go overseas.”
From California the troop ship stopped at New Caledonia and New Hebrides, but they did not disembark until they hit the Fiji Islands. There Al was stationed, providing security for the airbase. Al then was sent to Guadalcanal, where he saw Japanese POWs. He ended his service guarding airstrips in New Guinea.
During Al’s absence Lucille’s struggle with alcohol often got the better of her as she, unable to live with her parents, began a semi-itinerant existence. She always checked to see that her child was being taken care of, better than she thought she could do herself, and then went off again. She, like many others, dealt with the severe uncertainties of the war in her own way. Lucille created a parallel universe, of sorts, within the bars and clubs and many parties. She was not yet eighteen years old.
Lucille became involved with a strange, violent man named Joe Page. It is unclear whether she was being controlled by loneliness or fear of violence, but he took her to several locations in and out of Washington State before arriving in Vancouver, Oregon, where he beat her badly enough for her to be hospital
ized. He was arrested for violation of the Mann Act (taking Lucille over state lines when she was still a minor) and imprisoned.
In the meantime friends and relatives had retrieved the baby, who began to live in and out of essentially foster-home situations, except it was between relatives, friends, and church members—the black community of Seattle took care of Al and Lucille’s baby. They were not the only family having extreme difficulties during wartime.
Al Hendrix came back from the war in November of 1945. He was twenty-seven years old. In Seattle, departing from the troop ship, he was just another soldier returned from the war, disoriented, unemployed, looking for the loved ones he had left behind. He had been gone three years, seven months.
He had heard that Lucille had been sick. He had heard that the boy she had borne him was staying with relatives. He had not heard much more that made sense. Months of looking out into the darkness of war, the only reply a shot, an explosion, a crawling or running soldier: a sad resignation lined his face that day. He was used to uncertainty by now; the war had given him a cynicism usually reserved for a much older man. The war had bred a fatalistic calm into him.
He managed to get to his sister’s all right, heavy duffel bag and all. She gave him the cries and hugs and tears, but he wanted to know about his boy. She seemed to be saving that for later, trying to act in accordance with the concept of a soldier hero returning home. But he was not a hero and there was no homecoming. He had been a simple soldier and now he was a young man trying to pick up the pieces of a life he had had to leave nearly four years ago.
Al Hendrix: “My wife and I had been separated when I came home from the service in 1945. During the time I was in the service, she had left him with this person and with that person and one thing and another. The people always kept in contact with me, the different ones that had him. I would send her an allotment home. The government had a deal for sending allotments home, and besides I was trying to send extra money home. But after she and I separated I wouldn’t send nothing to her. Of course she got the government allotment. She was entitled to that. Jimmy was down in Berkeley, California. He was staying here with a woman in Seattle, I forget her name, but she died and then her sisters came from Texas and took him down to Berkeley. She lived in Berkeley. And when I came out of the service—I had kept in contact with this woman, and she had told me about her sister dying—I went down to Berkeley when our ship came in. I had come from the South Pacific. We were supposed to come in on Navy Day and I figured I would be discharged in Frisco. But on Navy Day the harbor was full of ships, and they weren’t able to discharge us there. So I got discharged up here in Seattle. I immediately went down to Berkeley and got Jimmy. He was
three years old. He had never seen me before. The people there had a picture of me in uniform, but it was a strange thing. I missed all his baby days and that’s what I always wanted to see.”
Before the war, Al Hendrix had never travelled any farther than the distance between Vancouver and Seattle. Now he undertook the third-longest journey of his life. He rode the Southern Pacific out of Washington State, through Oregon, and finally into California. Al disembarked at the Oakland depot on Sixteenth Street near the bay. A cab took him over the train tracks and headed down the East Bay streets into Berkeley.
Al was impressed by the view. The bay waters leading straight across to San Francisco, a silver-blue glistening city softly covered by a billowing fog. Veering from the approach to the Bay Bridge, the cab began driving toward the hills; the incline soon brought the bay back into sight through the receding stucco and brown-shingled homes. Al had the cabdriver slow down as he checked the numbers. They cruised along Grove Street until they came to a two-block-square low-rent housing development.
Savo Island Village was relatively new at that time and did not differ that much from the surrounding homes. Al was impressed. Berkeley seemed an affluent town. The Village looked peaceful and dignified—a nice place for his child, thank goodness.
Al Hendrix: “Those people didn’t want to give him up. But she told me in a letter, ‘I know you’ve been thinking about your son all the time you been in the service, and I’m not gonna hold him.’ He knew them, he only knew me by a picture. They’d ask him who was Daddy, and he’d point to the picture and say, ‘That’s Daddy.’ So when I got there that was a strange feeling. To see your own kid, and he’s talking and walking around, and doesn’t know you.
“I always wanted to be around my first child and raise him and just do things with him. When I got down there I stayed with them for about a week. I used to send the woman money all the time. They were very nice people. I often wonder where they are now. I don’t remember the woman’s name, but her daughter’s name was Celestine. They were Texans. Everybody was taller than me. I said, ‘You Texans sure do grow tall.’ They were a nice family. Celestine, she was around my age, and she was way up there. They figured that I should leave Jimmy with them because he knew them. I said, ‘Yeah, but this is my son, he’s the only thing I thought about all the time I was in the service. Shoot, I want the boy,’ I said, ‘this is mine.’ She told me in her letters, ‘I know we are more accustomed to him than you are and it’s gonna hurt us when you come down here to get him.’ She didn’t even go down to the train when we left. Nobody went down
to the train. I felt bad about it, but I told them this is part of me, and I’m gonna take care of my kid.
“Of course, Jimmy was only three years old, he didn’t know what was happening. All he knew was that he was going on a train ride. I had to give him his first whipping that night, though. He wanted to run up and down the aisles, and I said, ‘Well, father and son got to get to know each other.’ And he just kept running. Of course, he didn’t pay attention to me, he didn’t know me from Joe Blow. So I had to whip him. He said, ‘I’m gonna tell Celestine.’ I said, ‘Well you tell her. She would agree with me.’”
The first thing Al Hendrix did once he had gotten them settled in Seattle, at 124 Tenth Avenue, Room 580, was to change Johnny Allen’s name to James Marshall Hendrix. It became official on September 11, 1946. James Marshall, after his own first name and that of his brother, who had died in 1932—James Marshall Hendrix: a name with dignity and authority.
Al Hendrix: “When I brought him back to Seattle, we stayed with my sister-in-law. She had three girls and with Jimmy we did all right. I was getting my rocking-chair money from the government, twenty dollars a week. I was looking around for some work but there wasn’t much going on. But Jimmy was with me from then on.”
Jimmy became known as Buster, perhaps after the Buster Brown character associated with a boys’ shoe manufacturer very popular in the fifties. Buster Brown was a happy-go-lucky blond-haired boy dressed up in a brown suit who wore shiny brown shoes and lived in a big brown shoe with his brown pet dog.
Al and Lucille’s separation did not lead to divorce; they reconciled. They had never lived together yet. As man and wife reuniting just about four years after the first days of their marriage, having undergone the worst of war and now the uncertain peace, they gave it a go. But Al saw very clearly that Lucille had changed. She was naturally more worldly than the sixteen-year-old high school girl he had left pregnant, yet she was just now coming up on twenty-one.
But theirs was a poverty-stricken existence. They had moved in with her sister Dolores, leaving the room Al had rented upon his return with Jimmy. When Lucille got word that he was back she simply showed up one day. After being reassured that Al bore no grudge that would harm her physically, she suggested they give it a try and he agreed. Jimmy gave her a cold shoulder similar to the one he had given Al, seeing him for the first time in his life when he was three years old. For Jimmy those months apart from his mother probably felt just as long as those years apart from his father. Jimmy was learning emotional distancing at an early age.
The family was not able to stay with Lucille’s sister very long. They were three and they needed a place of their own. Soon they rented a room in the
cheap transient Golden Hotel. They all slept in the same bed; there was no refrigerator and only a hot plate for cooking. The bathroom was in the hallway, shared by several people. It was very rough, very depressing. Prostitutes worked the streets around the hotel. It was the worst of neighborhoods.
Al worked two jobs to help make ends meet. The small weekly sum he received from the government ceased.
Al, after several attempts, got a job aboard a merchant ship going to Japan. Again he had to leave Lucille and Jimmy in difficult circumstances. In Yokohama he was able to clearly see the devastation defeat had wrought physically and practically to the spirit of the Japanese and the infrastructure of the society. But the people he saw had survived and so had he. However, when he returned after two weeks to Seattle, the hotel room was locked up. Lucille and Jimmy were nowhere to be found.
He soon discovered that Lucille, after she had let her mother take Jimmy on a trip to the Midwest, had gotten put out of the room. The way Al heard it, “Lucille and this guy were caught up there in the room together and all that old stuff. So the landlady put her out.” Compounding the problem was that all his clothes and Jimmy’s clothes were missing, and would never be recovered, including his army uniform, his most valued possession. All he had were the clothes he had shipped out with.
Al reunited with Jimmy and they went to stay with Dolores Jeter. Soon Al and Lucille were back together again. They all knew, including little Jimmy, that their future as a family would not be easy.
Al and Lucille got housing in the Rainier Vista housing projects in 1947. Things looked up. It was a nice place in a pleasant environment with lawns and trees. They had a one-bedroom apartment and began to buy furniture. Al and Lucille were actually setting up housekeeping for the first time in their marriage.
They had their differences but they also had sweet, affectionate times together. They noticed that when they fought Jimmy would retire to the large closet in the bedroom and patiently sit it out. He was not yet five.
Determined to improve himself, Al utilized the G.I. Bill to go to school to study electronics. He went to school until 3:00 P.M., stopped at home for a little while, and then went to work at the Pike Place Market to clean up after the farmers and tourists, not returning until around midnight. Very often he would not be able to spend time with Lucille or his son.
Sometimes Jimmy would be there alone when Al returned, the lights still on, afraid to go to sleep.
Al began to notice that whenever there was drink in the house when he left, it would be gone when he returned. Lucille, it was established, loved to party.
With a drink or two in her she would welcome others to drink with her. A party would often ensue.
Jimmy became very shy. Al noticed it, but having missed his formative years could not definitely attribute the shyness to their present conditions.
Lucille’s mother, Clarice, was often around. She was crazy about her only grandchild. But Al noticed that when her mother was around for two or three days Lucille would often take off, confident that Jimmy would be looked after during Al’s long hours away. She began to stay away overnight, then a day, two days. Then she began spending a lot of time elsewhere.
Al maintains that Lucille had an affair with a Filipino man that resulted in a pregnancy and the birth of Leon Morris Hendrix on January 13, 1948. But Al always affirmed paternity in various official declarations. Al and Lucille stayed together and Leon was raised as theirs. Al also has written that Lucille gave birth to another child, Joey Allen, from another affair the following year of 1949. They got a larger two-bedroom apartment and Al attempted to raise the boys.
They struggled to hang on.
Leon had an early recollection of Lucille not coming home and Al gathering Jimmy and himself up and packing them in the backseat of his car and searching for and finding her. She had been with another man but came back with them. An argument ensued in the car and she almost caused an accident by pressing on the gas and the brake simultaneously. Both Leon and Jimmy were propelled forward into the front seat. As Leon reported, she hugged and kissed them, dismayed that her actions almost harmed her boys, further noting that that was the most affection he and Jimmy had received from her in quite a while, perhaps in all of his memory.
Al, having no skills and having spent his formative years in the military, had a tough time finding a steady job. Without a job, Al had to make the tough decision to send his children away to his sister. That summer of 1949, Jimmy and Leon stayed with Aunt Patricia, in Vancouver, British Columbia. The summer visit extended into the fall and Jimmy was enrolled in the Dawson Street Annex Elementary School at the age of six. The school was close to their home in the West End area of Vancouver, near English Bay. Leon was still a toddler and envied his big brother going off to school every day. His grandmother Nora made him special Indian-style clothing and treated him as a special individual. He really appreciated that. But although he was in the first grade he nevertheless had attendance problems. Al would come up Saturdays and once gave Jimmy a spanking for “lollygagging” and “dragging his butt” on the way to school.
Jimmy became even more introverted. Aunt Patricia used to laugh at puzzled visitors who wondered about his silence, and told them that he never had much to say, even to her. Tragedy struck when Aunt Patricia’s husband, Joe
Lashley, died suddenly. She brought the kids back to Seattle and stayed with them. Al and Lucille were living in a small room. Economically things were looking up: he had just landed a good job at the Boeing Aircraft plant.
Jimmy and Leon returned in November. There was a birthday party for Jimmy and they celebrated Christmas with a decorated tree and presents. There was some joy and laughter but there were also fights and drinking.
Al and Lucille separated, Lucille left the house, Al assumed custody, and soon they were divorced in December of 1951.
Leon recalled that after that there were no more Christmases nor birthdays with presents. Al, he maintained, said they were just “another day,” but Leon believes Al did not have the money. Leon may have also been implying that Al may have lost the will to earn enough to rise above the extreme poverty they found themselves in.
While divorced Al and Lucille still saw each other, often staying together for lengths of time.
Joseph Allen Hendrix had been born less than a year after Leon, in November 1949. Severely handicapped with a club foot, cleft palate, and one leg shorter than the other, among other things, he required extensive medical intervention. The expenses of the therapy, specialized and personal care, and medications Joseph required were judged by Al to be impossible for the impoverished family to bear, even though the state would have picked up most of the costs of surgery. Although Al would dispute paternity he never challenged it in the various family court hearings. Joseph was the baby of the family only for a year until the birth of Kathy Ira, born four months premature, weighing just over a pound and a half, and, as it would soon be discovered, blind. Just before the birth of yet another child, Pamela Hendrix, in October of 1951, Kathy Ira was declared in family court to be a ward of the state and was fostered out. Pamela also had health challenges, though not as bad as her sister’s. She was fostered out, as well. And then that next summer of 1952, Joe, who had lived with his family all of his two years and eight months, was made a ward of the state by Al and Lucille, ostensibly in order for him to get the developmental care he needed. Joseph remembers waving good-bye to Leon and Jimmy and then, in his mother’s arms, being driven by Al to a location where, as he put it, he was left on someone’s doorstep. Actually Lucille put him in the arms of a waiting nurse, but this all took place out of doors. Joseph waved good-bye to his mother for the last time from the curb where the nurse and he sat as the car pulled away.
Jimmy, nine, and Leon, four, were deeply impacted by Joseph’s removal from the household, especially since it was preceded by the disappearance of two other children born to their mother—all in the short time of less than three years. They surely must have felt their own tenure with Al and Lucille to be threatened. And since their parents were officially divorced there was only Al,
who had received legal custody, to take care of them. While it was obvious both of their parents were challenged by alcohol, it was clear it was Al as caretaker or nothing.
Leon became Jimmy’s responsibility those days and although Jimmy was much too young, he did his duty. Jimmy and Leon would still secretly go and see their mother, who lived in the neighborhood. She was kind and affectionate to them when she saw them, but she was not home for long stretches of time. Drinking, which before had been more of a sporadic thing with her, had now become a habit.
Demoralized, it became even more difficult for Al to make ends meet. Some thought that his drinking and gambling further depleted the family’s funds. Whenever things got really bad Al would send Leon to a foster home, and then it would be just him and Jimmy. And Jimmy, a big boy mature beyond his years, could pretty much shift for himself. Neighbors would intervene with meals and temporary care, and the welfare department kept an eye on the Hendrix family situation. When Al had the funds he would hire a housekeeper.
But as Aunt Pearl Hendrix maintained, Jimmy would often be dressed virtually in rags. She would buy him new clothes, including underwear. Because of his poor clothing Jimmy had an early remembrance of being driven out of church, which he often attended alone. He did not share many detailed memories of his childhood but he never got over the outrage he felt about that incident.
Summers were the best time for the brothers. The warm weather and the lack of the strictures of school gave them a lot of freedom. They could earn some money by picking butter beans with Jimmy’s new friends from Leschi Elementary School, James Williams and Terry Johnson. They would leave before sunup and return at sundown. All the long day belonged to them. Al knew Jimmy was responsible with Leon so that was not a problem. James Williams’s and Terry Johnson’s people would feed the boys, as would others. They were like vagabonds, Leon felt, but that enabled them to venture off, from sneaking on freight trains to going swimming to simply wandering about, taking things as they came.
In school Jimmy showed talent for art, drawing landscapes, scenes of Old Mexico, and science-fiction themes. But Jimmy’s poverty was a fact established to the point that Terry Johnson would give him some of his clothing to wear. Some folks thought Jimmy had trouble with his feet because he would often walk funny, but those who were close to him knew his shoes often had gaping holes in the soles, and/or extremely rundown heels.
Terry and his family would often host Jimmy when he could not get into his own house. That was usually when Leon was fostered out.
Jimmy and James and Terry liked to refer to each other as the Three Musketeers—all for one and one for all.
James Williams and Jimmy Hendrix’s friendship was solidified by a teacher who looked down on black people, Jimmy and James became inseparable. They both had paper routes right next to each other, and every morning they would meet before and after their deliveries.
James. James Williams. Slight James. Big cheeks. Like the cheeks of a squirrel filled with nuts. Incredible big cheeks and a soft voice. Slightly self-doubting, but always his friend. James had a serious face that always held a touch of humor, a glimmer, a smile. Big white teeth, not bucked but coming out at you. He would have to grow into those big teeth. Even in James’s big smile there was a sadness, a forlorn air that made the bigger Jimmy want to look after him. James’s sadness made Jimmy forget his own troubles. And James was a true companion. With you to the end. That is, when he wasn’t sick. Often harassed by his older sisters, his mother, or seemingly by life itself, he would seem to take refuge in sickness. Jimmy would make him laugh. Cheer him up. Think up things for them to do.
They were both very poor at the point in their adolescence when they began to be attracted to the girls of their neighborhood. But their clothes betrayed them; they looked like little hobos.
Jimmy would think of James as his brother; they were able to do things together. James was the smaller and more sickly of the two. Jimmy, tall and gangly, with amazingly outsized arms and hands, would look out for James. Jimmy had two fights with bullies who had come down on James. He won them both, no one suspecting that behind this gangling, painfully thin exterior existed a fierce and determined boy who had great love for James.
Leon, his little brother, was so much younger, so unknowing of what was happening. Yet Jimmy hardly knew himself what was happening, what had happened, or what would happen in the future. He couldn’t tell Leon anything, and even if he could, Leon was too young to understand. James, on the other hand, was like him in many ways. Even if they were each confused about their life and ultimate fate, they at least had their bond. They had their insecurities to measure themselves against and could mitigate the effects by sharing their emotions.
They played together on the Fighting Irish football team (composed of only black and Japanese boys), Jimmy with his long arms and speed and big hands playing end. James, because of his eloquence and low-key air, became the captain and Jimmy the co-captain. They joined the Boy Scouts. When it came time for their trip into the wilds, they wound up in Leschi Park and became the laughingstock of all the troops.
One summer day after they had picked butter beans in the fields outside of Seattle while hitchhiking back to town, Jimmy began to talk about his mother. He had had disturbing dreams and was afraid she would die. She drank an awful lot, and she was sick a lot, and very depressed.
Then when he was just on the verge of his manhood, Jimmy’s mother died. This hurt him deeply, yet he never said much about it.
Lucille had married again, but in 1958 her health had turned worse.
Al refused to take Jimmy to see her, but did permit Aunt Patricia to take him. Until she came back from Canada with the two children, Aunt Patricia had never met Lucille Jeter. She was afraid for Jimmy that his mother would look wasted and deathly in the hospital bed, but to her surprise, Lucille looked very good in the face, very pretty, with a shoulder-length pageboy hairdo. As usual, Jimmy did not have much to say. He mainly stared at his mother.
Lucille passed away shortly after their visit. She had been released from the hospital in pretty good shape, and cautioned to take it easy. But she did not follow the doctor’s advice. She died of a ruptured spleen.
Al was greatly saddened, his face assuming deep lines of grief. The boys had never spent much time with their mother and now they would never have the chance.
Aunt Patricia attended the funeral expecting to see Al and the boys there. But the boys never came. Al would not let them go. For the most part Al mourned Lucille privately, preferring not to mix with her family and her second husband’s people. Aunt Patricia would have taken Jimmy with her, but she did not know that Al was not bringing them until it was too late.
Al had the boys take a shot of whiskey with him as a way of mourning.
Soon afterward, Leon was fostered out, though not far from where they lived. Jimmy was still able to spend time with him.
Jimmy and his father became like two roomers, two old men who moved often from place to place, always at the mercy of one authority or the other: a new landlord, the unemployment officer, the schoolteacher, the welfare office, the foster home, and now that Jimmy was a teenager, the police. He was left back and had to repeat ninth grade.
Al, tiny and squint-eyed, was a strict authority figure because of his small five-foot-two frame, and also because of his belief that life had given him a bad deal. He seemed powerless against the forces that shaped his and his son’s existence. But while it was obvious that they were almost totally at the mercy of forces beyond their control, he maintained a stern silence about all that had affected them. He was the adult, the one responsible for handling things, but sometimes they seemed to be handled so poorly, and Jimmy was very aware of everything.
His father’s candor came not in the words he spoke, but in the spontaneous tears that often came after drinks. Jimmy learned to sense emotion rather than fact, and then it was not too hard to deduce that their plight was just about hopeless.
His father was not one for words anyway. An eighth-grade education had left him self-conscious about his verbal skills. Even when he tried to say something, somehow the words did not come. All of the deeper meanings of what affected their lives seemed to be tied up in big words that lawyers, doctors, teachers, and priests knew. Jimmy learned not to be impatient. He studied patience as the discipline that eventually would lead him and his father to a better life. He knew that his father would not tell him the truth about his mother, his brother, his birth, and his early upbringing. It couldn’t be all that sad; but the depths of emotion that the subjects wrought in his father made Jimmy afraid to ask, especially about his mother. She achieved mythic proportions, monstrous in intensity, a woman so powerful even in death that she deeply altered the lives of a man and two boys.
His father nursed a hurt that showed on his face much worse than the teenage pimples Jimmy had. A hurt that gnarled lines around his eyes and mouth, lines that grew longer and deeper every day, spreading to the cheeks and the forehead, deep-setting the eyes even more. And he seemed to descend deeper into a sadness that washed into turbulent waves, never to come out clear with the reasons, the truth of the matter. Coming back even stronger day after day.
Whenever his father seemed on the verge of telling the story, when they were close and intimate and it became obvious that the natural direction would be to mention his mother, his father would either become tearful and go outside, or become very authoritarian. He would snap shut the train of thought and bark an order. Clean up your room, sweep the floor, wash the dishes. Then he would usually go on about his life in the service, or more to the point, the obligation to duty. When the top kick said to do something you did it, or you got your head blown off; and that’s the way it is here: when I say do something, I want it done or else heads will roll.
Seeing through it, Jimmy thought it funny that his father would equate the military, with its thousands of men and huge bureaucracy, property, and funds, to a boy and his father alone in a room, in the world. But Jimmy would do what was said dutifully. All he could do was obey his dad. It made his father happy in a way. There was not that much to ask of each other, so many things being out of the question, so he did whatever his father asked, with as much love and effort as he could. It broke his heart, because what he was doing was something anyone could do, and while sweeping the floor or emptying the garbage he vowed to himself that someday he would do something that few people could
do, something that no one else in the world could do, something great for his father.
Al Hendrix: “The way I felt about tap dancing is the way Jimmy felt about guitar playing. I mean, it was in him to do it. He felt it. It was no job, he enjoyed it. He just picked it up all of a sudden. He had no formal lessons. He used to practice a lot. I’d come home from work and he’d be there, plunk, plunk, plunk. If I disturbed him or something, he’d go on in the bedroom, and he’d be in there plunk, plunk, plunking. And I’d say, ‘Jimmy, sweep the floor,’ or something, and he’d say, ‘Okay, Dad,’ and he’d do that. And after he finished doing that he’d go back to plunk, plunk, plunking. I used to hear it constantly.
“He’d be plunking away, and I could almost see his vision of himself playing for a band. I mean, that’s finally what he was doing, too. While he played around the house he was visualizing himself doing that.
“He got good on that acoustic guitar. He only paid five dollars for it from this guy. He asked me about it and I gave him the money to get it. And after that I went and got him this electric guitar. But before that he used to be plunking away on this old ukulele. I found it doing some of my gardening work. These people wanted me to clean out this basement, and I found it there and got strings for it. He used to plunk away on it before he got a guitar. He used to pick up a lot of pointers from different people. So many people tell me now, ‘Oh yeah, my son taught your boy how to play.’ I don’t think anyone taught him how to play. I mean any artist, guitar players or singers, learn so much from other people. They just don’t go straight up from themselves. Unless they get themselves a regular musical teacher and learn straight all the way. But Jimmy just wasn’t in that kind of boat. We didn’t have that kind of money. So he just taught himself. He just picked it up. It was just in him, and the guitar became another part of his anatomy.”
So while he waited for adulthood, he talked to his guitar. Like a new person in the household his guitar became alive. It made a world of sound. It held all the songs, all the melodies, and secrets of the universe. Though there were agonies, broken sound soon became melody, string after string the laws revealed themselves to him. It was painfully slow, yet he liked the time-eternal agony of making that guitar talk. After all, he had all the time in the world, all the ageless silence of his room late at night or any time of the day. When he got with his guitar all time ceased. He was transported to other worlds and suddenly realized that what he heard in the guitar, what it coaxed him to bring out, was something totally between them, a relationship he had nowhere else. Just the simplest song melody carried his mind deeper into the potentialities of the instrument, the medium between him and the mysteries of the universe. He began to get a sense of what he could do and how long it would take to reach the sounds in his
mind. Melodies he had never heard before came to him on rainy and windy nights and days, startling in their insistence.
He had not had many lessons. He liked the ease and the agony of the long-term agreement between him and his instrument, not taking for granted and shortcutting what they had together. After every trial and error, and every head-hurting drill he had to impose upon himself to master a line or passage, the final sound became his own. New precisely at that time, coming out of nowhere, created by that moment, elongated by trial and error to triumph and release. And his guitar began to respect him and he began to love it like no other love he had known. And then the guitar began to talk. It began to talk back to him. It began to chuckle at his mistakes and lead him to new truths at the same time. It began to murmur the sound he had heard in his mind for so long. It understood the frustrations of his situation. It could re-create every moment and then show him the proper relationship and release. The release was within him all the time. The guitar revealed its secrets and filled the void of lonely silence.
Now his father would find him at his guitar. And, as if he had found him communing with a priest, he would often soften his movements in respect. The quiet was pierced only by vibrating contralto sounds. The better he became with the sounds, the more his father respected his space and solitude. Al began to treat him better. His son now had a world of his own, a world he knew, a world he could understand. Jimmy had his own concern now, and when Al would interrupt him to sweep the floor or empty the garbage or clean up a bit, it was no longer a peremptory command out of the blue. Now Al would pop over and do a little song-and-dance vaudeville routine, or jitterbug to Jimmy’s playing for a moment, and then he would say, “Sweep the floor a little bit, son,” or “Wash the dishes” or “Empty the garbage.” But it was a love command.
One of the first tunes Jimmy played on his acoustic guitar was “Peter Gunn,” the theme song from a popular network TV detective show that aired weekly, and “Tall Cool One” by the Fabulous Wailers, a popular local band who frequented the classiest music venue in the Pacific Northwest: Spanish Castle, in nearby Kent, Washington.
Once he got an electric guitar he immediately learned the changes to the exciting hit “La Bamba” by Ritchie Valens. But his most appreciated achievement was learning to play “Bad, Bad Whiskey,” Amos Milburn’s great blues rocker, for James Williams’s mother.
Jimmy also noticed that a girl he liked, Carmen Goudy, liked the fact that he was into the guitar. She encouraged his progress. Betty Jean Morgan was Jimmy’s first real girlfriend. Recently from the South, she was unpretentious, sensitive to his moods, and supportive of his musical ambitions. She would often bring her little brother over when she visited Jimmy’s home. When they were in Jimmy’s room they always left the door open. Al was straightforward in
his warnings to Jimmy: “You’ve got to watch yourself. I hope you don’t go around getting any girl pregnant when you can’t even take care of yourself.”
Jimmy’s first band was a group called the Velvetones. One of his best friends, Parnell Alexander, who also played guitar, was in the group. It would have been great if James Williams, who sang, and Terry Johnson, who was learning the keyboards, could also be in the group, too, but that was not possible. The Velvetones were not that good but they did manage to get a weekly stint at Birdland, the most notable of the local clubs in Seattle’s black district. Their version of “Honky Tonk,” originally done by Bill Doggett, had sealed that recurring gig. “Honky Tonk” was an instrumental that one could listen to all night. It was a laid-back yet funky blues rocker that had an intriguing, relaxing quality. The fact that his band played at Birdland gave him the traditional musician’s free admission to the club, where he was able to compare notes with other guitarists, as well as hear a lot of live music for the first time.
Jimmy discovered that the vibrations of music can truly bring people together. He discovered through his closer relationship with his father that music is indeed magic. Music can heal wounds and offer other worlds. The guitar brought them closer together, and it made his father proud of him. His son was investigating a mystery he himself had always been close to yet had never mastered, though he had always wanted to. A man, a father worrying about not being able to pass along knowledge to his son, now had his prayers answered. His son was entering the secret mystical covenant. Jimmy’s music filled the silence, made the walls sing, made the air smell better, and heightened their lives together. A simple man, Al Hendrix did not ask that his son be a Charlie Christian, he was just happy his boy was using his time constructively.
During Jimmy Hendrix’s adolescence, rock ’n’ roll became an overnight national phenomenon. American popular music finally opened up to its tribal and folk roots, and the American public voted for the new music with cash money. Jim Crow had finally begun to be legally defeated in the U.S. Supreme Court decision of 1954 striking down public school segregation. The black masses finally had a major legal sanction of racism removed from their paths. American music began to release its racism, as well, and reveled in the elemental music of the country. Rock ’n’ roll swept the nation. The young people of America, the babies of the Second World War, began participating in this mass puberty rite, a wild musical initiation ceremony of incredible proportions whose momentum would transform these rites into a philosophy of life.
In 1954, black music began appearing on the national charts with increasing regularity. Up until that time white pop music dominated the national charts with only an occasional black entry. White pop music was most recently
descended from the 1940s smooth big-band vocal sound, which had appealed to the youth of the wartime decade. In the early fifties this sound became the dominant taste in music.
In 1949, the biggest songs in the nation were white pop, with black music subjugated to a narrow “race” market. The top songs of 1949 were “Mule Train” by Frankie Laine, “Tennessee Waltz” by Patti Page, and “Ghost Riders in the Sky” by Vaughn Monroe. “Ghost Riders in the Sky” continued as the top song into 1950, when it was joined by Mario Lanza’s semi-operatic “Be My Love.” “How High the Moon” by Les Paul and Mary Ford, an advanced composition in its use of electric-guitar overdubbing, echo chambers, and follow-through mastering techniques, became a hit. The monster hit “Cry,” a sad ballad by Johnnie Ray, entered the charts in October 1951 and was number one through all of 1952. Vaughn Monroe’s “Old Soldiers Never Die (They Just Fade Away),” became a lament to the Korean War, which was at its height in 1952.
As early as 1947, “Old Man River” by the Ravens had made the crossover from the black radio stations to the national charts. Amos Milburn was a favorite of Al Hendrix. “Rooming House Boogie” in 1949 and “Bad, Bad Whiskey” in 1950 seemed to speak directly to the Hendrixes’ experiences. Johnny Otis’s band, featuring Little Esther and the Robins (who went on to become Esther Phillips and the Coasters, respectively), had a trio of blues hits in 1950: “Double-Crossin’ Blues,” “Deceivin’ Blues,” and “Mistrustin’ Blues.” “Louisiana Blues” and “Long-Distance Call” by Muddy Waters were hits on the black stations in 1951. In 1952, Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” was number one on the black radio stations across America.
In 1953, the Orioles, a moderately popular group among blacks since 1949, recorded “Crying in the Chapel.” This song became one of the first, if not the first, rhythm and blues hits that crossed over to the national pop charts to be embraced by the entire record-buying public. The group received national publicity and the song became an instant classic.
In 1954, “Gee” by the Crows entered the national charts with resounding force, followed by the Moonglows’ “Secret Love,” which was “covered” by the McGuire Sisters. This started a “cover” song trend among white pop singers. They would sing the songs over, often with a new “pop” arrangement for the white mass audience. In 1954, “Shake, Rattle and Roll” by Big Joe Turner was covered by Bill Haley and the Comets. “Sh-Boom” by the Chords became a classic “cover.” As the song veered from the R&B charts onto the national charts, a Canadian group named the Crewcuts covered it. It went on to become the monster hit of 1954, with the Chords receiving moderate airplay. “Earth Angel” by the Penguins, released in November 1954, was so R&B-imbued that it was impossible to cover. It took over the number one slot from the Moonglows’ “Sincerely.”
By 1955, Tin Pan Alley was in a tizzy. The musical taste of the nation was changing right before their eyes. The national charts became dominated by R&B. Billboard magazine, the trade organ for the music industry, began to print under its weekly listings of the top songs: “Keep Pop Alive in ’55.” Even an R&B version of “White Christmas” sung by the Drifters edged out all the other Christmas songs as the year changed.
In 1955, “Earth Angel” faded from number one, only to be succeeded by “Pledging My Love” by Johnny Ace, who had just killed himself while playing Russian roulette. No pop star would ever do that. Johnny Ace’s story captivated the nation. R&B was not only dominating the charts, it was becoming legendary as well. “Pledging My Love” was number one for ten weeks. Then a flukey blues number by Little Walter called “My Babe,” written by Willie Dixon, took over number one. Finally white pop regained the coveted spot with “The Ballad of Davy Crockett,” the theme song of a weekly Walt Disney television series. The song was played twice a week, before and after the show, on national television. The sale of coonskin caps skyrocketed. Davy Crockett, hero of Texas, had again become a hero by saving the youth of America from the scourge of rock ’n’ roll. The press, parents’ groups, and many older people had labelled R&B and rock ’n’ roll trashy, dirty, primitive music of the lowest order. Even the Encyclopaedia Britannica Yearbook said: “The rock ’n’ roll school in general concentrated on a minimum of melodic line and a maximum of rhythmic noise, deliberately competing with the artistic ideals of the jungle itself.”
“Unchained Melody” by both Al Hibbler and Roy Hamilton had a little of both R&B and pop. When it succeeded “Davy Crockett” on the charts, it seemed that happy days for the older generation were here again. They rejoiced when “Cherry Pink and Apple-Blossom White,” an instrumental by Perez Prado’s orchestra, became a substantial number one hit for several weeks. There seemed to be a weird semantic battle going on in the world of song between black R&B performers and white pop singers. “Ain’t That a Shame” by Fats Domino took over again, while a slew of new black heavyweights entered the charts: Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline,” Bo Diddley’s “Bo Diddley,” the Nutmegs’ “Story Untold,” the Four Fellows with “Soldier Boy.” But then to the chagrin of those of the older generation, who believed the music came from the jungle or hell or both, whites started singing that stuff in earnest. “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and the Comets became the national anthem of rock ’n’ roll, signaling to all that many whites had joined the fray—on the other side.
Bill Haley and the Comets used to be called the Saddlemen but changed their name just as the new youth music gathered on the horizon. They had had moderate hits before. They covered Big Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll” in 1954. Bill Haley, who was also a songwriter, penned a tune called “Rock-a Beatin’ Boogie” for another group. It had a refrain that exhorted the listeners,
“Rock rock rock everybody, roll roll roll everybody.” Nationally syndicated DJ Alan Freed adopted “rock ’n’ roll” as the name of the new music of black and white youths. Rock ’n’ roll, though owing a great deal to rhythm and blues, also came to incorporate white country music elements, as well.
Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” became the theme song of a new movie called Blackboard Jungle, which featured a juvenile gang on the rampage in a New York City public high school. This confirmed, for the older generation, rock ’n’ roll’s inexorable connection with youth violence, even though the song had been well on its way to becoming a hit before the movie came out.
“Rock Around the Clock” was succeeded by “Maybelline.” Chuck Berry, with his charismatic way of performing, became one of the most popular early rock ’n’ rollers. The pop school was given further hope when Mitch Miller’s “Yellow Rose of Texas,” with its white choral unison sound, topped the charts for a moment. But the impetus of the new trend was solid.
The national television show Your Hit Parade, the showcase for white pop music, became hard pressed to duplicate the R&B and rock ’n’ roll hits. Crooners from the old school—Snooky Lanson, Russell Arms, Giselle MacKenzie, and Dorothy Collins—found that their interpretations of R&B and rock ’n’ roll songs failed, often miserably.
Cover songs became an industry with the advent of Dot Records. Gale Storm, a television star of her own series My Little Margie, covered “I Hear You Knocking,” taking away from Fats Domino’s initial effort. Pat Boone, sporting a clean-cut “Joe College” image from Columbia University, covered in succession “Ain’t That a Shame” (by Fats Domino), “Tutti-Frutti” (by Little Richard), and “I’ll Be Home,” a beautiful ballad about returning home from the Korean War, as sung by the Flamingos. By the end of 1955, Pat Boone was the king of the cover artists, his flat baritone veering further and further from R&B truth.
By the end of 1955, even Frank Sinatra was “Learning the Blues,” but Billboard’s exhortation to pop lovers seemed to make a difference in 1956. “Sixteen Tons” by Tennessee Ernie Ford was number one on January 1. “The Great Pretender” by the Platters and “Memories Are Made of This” by Dean Martin reversed the trend back to pop in the first weeks of 1956. Kay Starr’s “Rock ’n’ Roll Waltz” made no bones about the amalgam that Tin Pan Alley was betting heavily on.
The trend might have been totally turned back to pop in 1956 if some country boys had not shown up singing about their “Blue Suede Shoes” (Carl Perkins) and “Heartbreak Hotel” (Elvis Presley). Then came little Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers’ “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” and the Teen Queens’ “Eddie My Love” to prevent a complete sweep by the pop on the charts. An
army of cover singers of the pop school were keeping the new rock ’n’ roll back as many former country artists took to rock ’n’ roll.
Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers would hold up the rock ’n’ roll banner until 1960, when Chubby Checker and the Twist came in and swept the entire nation.
But in the mid-fifties there were black recording artists who were very happy to remain in the narrow race market. Hank Ballard and the Midnighters were doing very fine with their brand of “blue” material. No one would dare copy, cover, or even sell it over the counter. Yet his music spread by word of mouth like wildfire. Their first recording of “sexually frank” material, “Get It,” was a big success in every black ghetto from coast to coast. Although it got virtually no airplay, “Get It” was followed by a string of singles that used “Annie” as a sex goddess: “Work with Me Annie,” “Annie Had a Baby,” “Sexy Ways,” and “Annie’s Aunt Fannie.” Etta James fashioned a reply to Ballard and “Annie” called “(Wallflower) Roll with Me Henry,” which, while released commercially, was still thought to be too risqué. After several changes the title became “Dance with Me Henry,” which was promptly covered by Georgia Gibbs, becoming a big pop hit of 1955. But Hank Ballard and the Midnighters continued on with their suggestive songs, doing good business under the counter. “Annie Had a Baby” and she could not “work” anymore. The song goes on to describe that she gave all of her attention to the baby, “walking” with it rather than with the narrator. Since “Annie Had A Baby” it was “Understood”:
That’s what happens when the getting
Gets good, so good, so good
Hank Ballard wailed on, his high Texas tenor piercing the heavy raunch of the Midnighters. It was more a pure get-down rocker than a risqué song to Jimmy, but his ears glowed anyway because he was not supposed to have heard it.
Having babies and making love were normal in Seattle’s Central District. The house rent parties that were given every weekend seemed to play “Work with Me Annie” and “Annie Had a Baby” continuously. Amos Milburn and his “Bad, Bad Whiskey” was still popular and Muddy Waters was coming on strong with “Long-Distance Blues” and “Hoochie Coochie Man.” But Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, with their happy up-tempo songs about “Annie,” a carefree, free-loving, unattached young woman, and her subsequent motherhood, were closer to the reality of how the blacks in the projects really felt and lived their lives. Of course, the authorities felt very differently about the joy of lovemaking among the blacks in the projects, especially since the consequences seemed to make their jobs a nightmare. But the blacks had their own feelings about it that
were hidden from the authorities, to be celebrated among themselves. It excited Jimmy to know that the record was banned, was a secret, but sold very well anyway. And its popularity also gave him a new sense of the emergent underground black music. He realized that there was more happy fun where “Work with Me Annie” and “Annie Had a Baby” came from.
The first bands Jimmy consistently played with in Seattle were the Velvetones, a junior high school group, which gave way to a band formed by Fred Rollins, a high school friend, called the Rocking Kings. At first he had been terribly shy and played rather badly. But his deferential sincerity and his good ear made him a good person for the young band. He listened to every kind of musical expression and idea. When they had a gig he took what was offered with sincere appreciation, whether it was a couple of hamburgers in payment or five or ten dollars. He became one of the best young R&B and rock ’n’ roll guitarists in Seattle.
The Canadian border is only sixty miles from Seattle. Vancouver, British Columbia, the largest city in western Canada, was starved for the new youth music of the States. The Rocking Kings found work there and went up to play as often as possible.
The ride to Vancouver was beautiful. The boys listened to the radio on the way up. Each had certain favorites. Jimmy’s were “Sleep Walk” by Santo and Johnny, “Rocking Crickets” by the Hot Toddies, “Cathy’s Clown” by the Everly Brothers, “La Bomba” by the Carlos Brothers, and “Summertime Blues” by Eddie Cochran. He received constant kidding from the fellows; his spacey ways and shy, soft mumblings were always good for an impersonation when the trip got boring. The Rocking Kings played several of the Coasters’ hits, things like “Charlie Brown,” “Poison Ivy,” “Yakety Yak,” “Searchin’,” and “Along Came Jones” all were big hits in 1958–59. “Do You Wanna Dance?” by Bobby Freeman and “At the Hop” by Danny and the Juniors were surefire songs to get a crowd moving, and “The Twist” by Hank Ballard was unbelievable. Jimmy really got off on the “Peter Gunn” theme, but like “Sleep Walk,” it was hardly danceable and hardly reflected the big-beat rhythm and blues rock ’n’ roll the audiences preferred. “Petite Fleur,” written by jazz great Sidney Bechet for the Chris Barber jazz band, was another favorite of Jimmy’s. He longed to play his guitar like a horn and saw no reason why that was not possible, but his remarks along those lines never failed to bring sarcastic reactions from his bandmates.
Although spacey and spooky, Jimmy was a hit with the girls. This never failed to irritate the members of the Rocking Kings or the regular guys at Garfield High. When it got around that Jimmy, in order to protect his hands, would not engage in fistfights he began to have more trouble.
One day after school, Jimmy refused to let a bully handle his guitar. He was
chased across the football field in full view of the homeward-bound students, knocked down, and beaten, kicked, and stomped. But he never released his guitar from his protective embrace.
He stopped playing with the Rocking Kings after an intrigue with another band member’s girlfriend. Jimmy did not go out of his way to attract the girl, but there was something in the way he moved and joked and jived that she found attractive. Jimmy would always go into his showtime routine onstage while he played. This would enrage all of the Rocking Kings. They thought he was making a fool of himself and them, too. Jimmy would always say he was sorry, but would do it again at the next occasion, afterward saying he was sorry again. But the girls ate it up. One night before a gig at Birdland, Jimmy was called into the men’s room for a private conference with the band member whose girl dug him. Everyone in the band knew what was up but did nothing to stop it. As the two boys disappeared behind the door the band members speculated on whether Jimmy would fight back or not. When they came out a few minutes later it looked like Jimmy had not bothered to defend himself. He had a bloody nose, his hair was messed up, and he was puffy in a few other places, but he cleaned himself up and went on and did the show anyway. Soon after that incident Jimmy ceased playing with the Rocking Kings.
The Rocking Kings were breaking up anyway. Fred Rollins, the leader of the group, had been scheduled to go into the army and he left soon after the bathroom incident. The next time Jimmy saw Rollins was when he was home on furlough. Rollins was decked out in an army paratrooper’s uniform with a screaming eagle emblazoned upon the lapel. Everyone was really impressed and so was Jimmy.
James Thomas, who had managed the Rocking Kings, took over the band as front man, renaming it Thomas and the Tom Cats. Jimmy rejoined.
Al Hendrix had not planned on being a gardener, but after working at Bethlehem Steel hauling red-hot steel rods that would singe the double pants he wore, sometimes burning through, Al found gardening to be a relatively placid way to earn a living.
He proved amazingly strong to those who, because of his slight height, thought him to be half a man. Al was all wringing, twisting, rippling muscles, with a boxer’s light grace on his feet. His centaurlike legs made short hustling steps, and seemed to slide across the garden, as if dancing, his muscles forming without concentration.
Jimmy had the same twisting, sinewy muscles, only he was much taller than his father, although not quite six feet himself. Jimmy’s arms draped down almost to his knees. Sometimes his father would stop work and come over and stand by his side comparing arm lengths in jest. Then, mock-measuring his
arms, Al would shake his head as he gazed down to where Jimmy’s arms ended above his knees.
Al Hendrix: “Well, Jimmy slumped in school just like I did. When I was going to school I used to tell my mother, ‘Daggummit,’ I say, ‘I ain’t learning nothing. I ain’t getting no further ahead.’ I dropped out from Templeton Junior High School in Vancouver. I said the best thing for me to do is to go to work. That was after my dad died, and my mother was on something similar to welfare here. Public assistance of some kind. My brother and I were both going to school, but it was costing too much for us to catch the school bus. So I used to walk home in the evening. I used to catch the bus going to school to make sure I’d get there on time, and then I walked home. I had plenty of time; I didn’t have to worry about being late coming home.
“I think Jimmy stopped in his senior year. I think he only had one more year to finish. I kept getting letters from his teachers saying Jimmy wasn’t doing this or that. It seemed like he just lost all interest. I used to tell him, ‘Man, you better finish. Finish this year.’ But he didn’t. After he dropped out, I went up there one day and the teacher told me, ‘Well, he’s got too many strikes against him. He can’t make it.’ And I said, ‘Okay.’ So Jimmy came home with me and I said, ‘You have to go out and work with me. It’s all for our common survival.’ He tried to get jobs in some of the supermarkets as a bag carrier. He applied at a lot of places. And I said, ‘That’s all right, but while we wait for that to come through, you can come and work with Dad.’
“I had another worker with me named Shorty, and we got along good. I used to drive him hard. He never asked me what I was paying him. I told him it was for the common cause of survival, to make that rent money and to have some food in our stomach. Of course, on the weekend he’d sport around and I’d give him a few dollars. I’d say, ‘Well okay, I know you going out with the guys, here’s five or ten dollars.’ Of course, cats nowadays say, ‘Ooooh man, what am I gonna do with that? Where’s five dollars gonna take me?’ but Jimmy would say, ‘Yeah, Dad, thanks.’
“I knew Jimmy had been smoking for some time. In the apartment where we lived we had to go down the hallway to the common bathroom to take a bath or use the toilet. Jimmy would go down there and smoke. Once I was walking up Madison, going to the Honeysuckle to shoot pool, and I saw him and his buddy coming down the street. I saw him before he saw me. He was just walking down the street like Mr. Big Time. I caught up to him right in front of the Honeysuckle Poolhall. ‘Hey Jimmy,’ I said. He had his cigarette behind his back. ‘Well, you can bring your cigarette out,’ I said, ‘before it burns your fingers.’ And he looked at me so funny. Real sheepishly. I said, ‘That’s all right, man, it’s okay.’ I always told him, ‘You be truthful to me and I’ll be truthful to you.’ And that’s the way he
was. But he was surprised that day. I guess he figured I was a kind of strange dad. Sometimes I tell him no on some things and yes on some.”
James Williams and Jimmy spent New Year’s Eve 1960 together. It was a bitterly cold evening and they, as usual, had nowhere to go. They sat in Jimmy’s room. Jimmy always wanted to play and sing. He didn’t care what kind of music it was as long as it made song and melody. James liked to sing, to croon. He could sound just like Dean Martin, so they did “Memories Are Made of This,” the crooner’s latest hit, which was accompanied by a stylish acoustic guitar on the 78 rpm recording.
Take one fresh and tender kiss
And one golden night of bliss
Jimmy played guitar and sang the accompanying chorus about how sweet the memories were, and how those memories could not be surpassed. Over and over they sang that song. James did not like those wild rhythm and blues songs, but he loved the slow sentimental ballads that his father and mother preferred.
Singing such a sentimental song evoked images of loves and lost loves. Jimmy stopped to make a phone call. It became a long and involved call and soon Jimmy beckoned James to the phone. Clamping the receiver with his palm, Jimmy told James that he was talking to Betty Jean, his one big love. Unable to take her out, he had called; she was too young to really party anyway. But she knew what to feed a man for a good night of lovemaking.
“Now what you gonna give me to eat when I come over?” Jimmy asked her again. “Go on, tell me everything.” She began to recite as Jimmy excitedly let James eavesdrop. As if from memory she crooned: some eggs, soft-boiled, oysters and clams, raw on the shell, lots of butter and toast…
James was confused; Jimmy nearly convulsed with laughter, converting it into the good cheer he projected into the receiver. He hung up. James asked him what that was all about. “That’s what a woman gives her man for his sex,” Jimmy replied. “That’s love food that builds up the potency.”
It was late for seventeen-year-olds, nearly midnight. Jimmy, who seemed to have no rules circumscribing his movements, walked James most of the way home through the chilling night winds. There was no food in the house and Jimmy wanted to eat. The Kingfish Cafe was close to James’s house, so they headed in that direction. When they arrived, Jimmy asked James for some money to get food. James, who had just gotten paid, gave Jimmy ten dollars. They said good-bye again, waving. James looked back as he walked away and
saw through the steaming window Jimmy sitting gingerly, shyly at the counter. It was New Year’s Day 1961. They never saw each other again.
Jimmy’s relationship with Betty Jean seemed to have brought out a new defiance that surprised him and also surprised his father. Along with smoking cigarettes, for the first time he became very conscious of his clothes. He desired to change what had become his trademark look: overlarge shirts with collar always up; too short pants, retro-tapered at the ankles; unfashionable, worn shoes. He began working black shoe polish into his reddish hair to achieve a slick, black effect. Then in a desire to own better, new clothes he and an accomplice broke into a store he knew well since its owner was a client of Al’s gardening business. Rank amateur thieves, once they had broken in and gotten the clothing they freaked and tried to put them back, getting caught in the process. No charges were pressed but the owner had Al and Jimmy work off the damage to the premises by doing gardening work. Angry at the extra unpaid work, Al’s temper flared during a confrontation and he struck Jimmy hard in the face. This was not one of Al’s signature slaps, but a punch Al, as a former amateur boxer, knew well how to give. Hurt, dismayed, and embarrassed, Jimmy ran away from home. Al heard pretty readily that Jimmy was at Pernell Alexander’s. He went and got him, full of mild, almost conciliatory words about Jimmy always letting him know where he was. To cap off the usually mild Jimmy’s first revolt, he was caught in stolen cars twice in the same week, and arrested, spending a few days in the lockup. While he maintained he did not know the cars were stolen, it did not matter since it quickly became clear that Jimmy would be put away unless he chose his only option—join the military, a surefire way to have the prosecutor waive a trial and certain jail time.
Al Hendrix: “‘Dad, I have been going down to the recruiting office,’ Jimmy told me one day. He knew he was one-A. He knew if he volunteered he would get the category he wanted. He kept going down to see this recruiting officer, and then one day he told me, ‘Dad, I’m going in.’ I said, ‘That’s all right, that’s all right. There’s nothing wrong with that. Get it over with.’ There were no wars going on, it was after the Korean War and before the Vietnam deal. He said he wanted to get into the Screaming Eagles, and I said, ‘Oh wow! You going on further than ol’ Dad did.’ I remember I told him when I was in Fort Benning, Georgia, we used to watch them guys jump in their practice parachutes. Man, them paratroopers were double-timing. They weren’t allowed to stand at attention or anything. Double-time every place they went on the base. And I said, ‘Man.’ When Jimmy told me that he wanted to be a paratrooper, I said, ‘Oh no!’
“‘Son, you gonna be double-timing your whole time.’ He said, ‘I want to get one of them Screaming Eagles, Dad.’ ‘Well, that makes me feel real proud,’ I said. That made me feel real proud of him. He was trying to do something.
“He went to ship out, and I went down there with him and gave him some money. A helper-out. It made me feel real good. About as good as I would have felt if my dad had seen me going into the service.
“When Jimmy went into the service he didn’t take his guitar with him. He had an electric guitar, but he didn’t have any amplifier or anything of that sort. I said, ‘Well, I’ll send it to you after your basic training. Just let me know.’”
In the opening lines of an untitled long poem written in his eighteenth year Hendrix reveals something of how he saw aspects of fashion and slang.
Blessings on thee little square
O barefoot hag with uncombed hair
with thy solid peg-legged pants
and thy solid hep cat stance