Admirers from the beginning: the real story behind Jimi Hendrix and Little Richard
If you type the words “Little Richard and Jimi Hendrix” into Google (always the best place to start for a thoroughly researched article), you should see an album called “Friends from the Beginning”. This album has been totally discredited; neither Jimi nor Little Richard played on it – it was purely an attempt to cash in on Jimi’s name following his untimely death. Not only is it musically dishonest, its title is a misnomer; whatever word you could use to categorise their relationship, friends would never be the first choice. This does not, however, detract from its fascination. While they may not have sought each other out for a drink after a gig, what they did on stage placed two of popular music’s most remarkable pioneers a few feet from one another – and neither was willing to move an inch.
What brought the two together in the first place was not music itself, but a musical city. Seattle, Jimi’s hometown, was also home to Richard’s mother and sister for a time, and it was at this time (in 1957) that he was reinventing himself as a Christian preacher (the reasons for which are much too complex to enter into here). Hearing that he was in town, Jimi’s older brother Leon spotted his limousine and raced home to fetch Jimi. Their mother’s name was Lucille, and pointing this out to Little Richard – who himself had penned a recent song of the same name – earned them an autograph, along with an in-person meeting of Jimi’s future boss. At age 14, Jimi had never even picked up a guitar, yet here he was face-to-face with one of the gods of Fifties rock ‘n’ roll, who had recently re-discovered the Christian God himself. It was God – the subject, at least – who brought them together again later that night, when Jimi and Leon went to see him preach at the Goodwill Baptist Church. His commanding stage presence, honed through years of searing musical performances, must have translated to his retelling of God’s commandments as Jimi and Leon sat “in awe at him”. Jimi later described his music as “electric church music”, and one wonders whether Richard’s overt combination of music and religion helped shape his attitude to the power of both. It would be more than five years before the pair would meet again, yet during this time apart there was a strange mirroring of musical careers. First Richard, then Jimi, would take steps to revive, or kick-start, their respective success – steps that would send them thousands of miles from home.
Little Richard, of the Little Richard Evangelistic Team, formed following his time studying theology at Oakwood University, Alabama, was relatively short-lived. He did not turn his back on music during this time, but he did on Rock ‘n’ Roll – preferring to record the Gospel music that amplified his faith. These records did not strike much of a chord with his American fans, but fared far better across the Atlantic. Europe, and the UK especially, had not fallen out of love with Little Richard, nor his seminal rock and roll records of the previous decade; they continued to be an integral part of British vinyl collections. It was this enduring love of American blues music, and its more recent son, that spawned the British greats of the 60s – and convinced Little Richard that his secular music career could be born again (something he was becoming increasingly adept at). So it was that Richard Penniman decided to make a go of it, travelling to the UK and touring with an up-and-coming British band called The Beatles as his support act. He travelled to Hamburg with them, and spent much of 1962-4 touring around Europe and the UK, where he was most fervently loved. His new rock releases did well in the UK charts following this exposure, but failed to make the impact he desired in his home country. He resolved to return to America and break it for the second time, and it is here that we meet our man once again, a man whose future would follow a strikingly similar trajectory.
Jimi Hendrix (then performing under the moniker Jimmy James) was fast becoming a hot commodity in the backing musician game. Having already performed with Sam Cooke, The Everly Brothers and Wilson Pickett, Jimi was more than qualified to join Little Richard’s comeback band The Upsetters. Richard’s mythological status as a rock and roll original was not lost on Hendrix. He was one of Jimi’s heroes, and his younger brother Leon remembers the phone call that relayed the good news; his older brother was “out of his mind with excitement… he’d been hired to be in Little Richard’s band!” This excitement characterised the early days of their relationship – truly the honeymoon period. Richard spotted Jimi’s talent, selecting him to record on a track as the sole guitarist – the beautiful, yearning soul ballad I Don’t Know What You’ve Got (But It’s Got Me).
Jimi’s playing is markedly restrained, befitting of the track and his status at the time, but it is Jimi that opens the song, with a sliding, scalic run followed by his now trademark double stops and arpeggiated scales. Throughout the song (if you can bear to tear your ears away from Richard’s masterful vocal performance), Jimi’s guitar playing is audible, and he is doing far more than simply laying down chords. I urge you to listen to this hidden gem, and try and pick out Jimi’s guitar lines snaking around the horn section; or simply let the sound of Little Richard, Jimi Hendrix and Billy Preston making music in the same studio wash over you. It only happened the once, but boy did they make it count.
It was during this time that Jimi began to emulate Richard’s look, sporting a pencil-thin moustache, flamboyant shirts and a new hairstyle. Richard, however, was not about to be upstaged; his backing band was destined to remain firmly where their name suggested. “Brothers”, he said, “we’ve got to have a meeting. I am Little Richard. I am the King of Rock ‘n’ Rhythm and I’m the only one who’s going to look pretty on stage.” Jimi and his bandmate Glen Willings were forced to turn in their frilly shirts, fix their hairstyles and ensure their shoelaces weren’t two different types or suffer the consequences of a five dollar fine – on each count. Jimi said that everyone on the tour was “brainwashed”, that Richard withheld pay for five and a half weeks, and that after about five or six months he had had enough – he had to “cut that mess loose”. Richard maintained that because he gave Jimi his first big break, and Jimi refused to let him come backstage to see him once he had made it, he was a touch ungrateful.
The truth, as always, was probably somewhere in the middle. There were good times, there were bad times, they probably fought and got along in varying degrees. They were both striving to make their mark, and in the end it was what they shared in musical talent that ultimately drove them apart. It would be years of hardship before Jimi made it alone, but he eventually followed a path already trodden by Richard. He set out for Europe, and, more specifically London – as the lovers of our museum know all too well. But where Richard was reclaiming his stardom, Jimi was on a mission to forge it.
The last recorded encounter of the two together was in our own city, whilst Jimi was trying to make this breakthrough; in late 1966. Hard-up, Jimi went to see Little Richard to discuss money he was owed from their Upsetters days; presumably the weeks of withheld pay. Kathy Etchingham, Jimi’s then girlfriend, went with him and remembers the encounter well. He welcomed them up to his Knightsbridge hotel room, and they sat around drinking and talking for a while, reminiscing. Once Jimi plucked up the courage to ask for said fifty dollars, Little Richard “roared with laughter” and simply told him “you missed the bus man, you missed the bus.” Kathy asked what he meant, and Jimi admitted that he had missed the bus to a gig once; an oversleep that proved the final straw and got him fired. Punctuality never was Jimi’s strong suit. Some reports claim that Richard paid Jimi the fifty dollars, or told him to go out and earn it, but Kathy maintains that they left “empty handed”. In any case, what it demonstrates is that time can muddy the waters of all relationships, inflating and reducing them as each party sees fit. Jimi Hendrix and Little Richard had a professional relationship, where a fledgling guitarist was handed the opportunity to record and play with a musical titan. Jimi was, at the time, truly grateful for the chance he was given and witnessed what it was to own a stage and an audience. Inevitably their two personalities clashed, and it is fortunate for us that they did, as Jimi went on to emulate Richard in more ways than his facial hair alone. Their music inspired one another, and neither of them had a bad word to say about each other’s musicianship; greatness recognises greatness, despite Richard’s fondness of superlatives for himself.
The moral of this story, if there is one, is that whilst it might be a good idea to meet your heroes, working for them probably isn’t. Especially if you happen to be two of music’s greatest visionaries; inimitable, singular talents who the world sorely misses, and will surely never forget.
Written by Handel & Hendrix in London volunteer Aidan Carroll.