Jimi Hendrix might have changed the lives of generations of guitar players – a peerless talent the likes of which we might never see again – but you can’t please all of the people all of the time. Back when he was playing sideman and picking up gigs in backing bands, Hendrix’s preternatural abilities with an electric guitar could on occasion get him into hot water.
Speaking to The Times, Graham Nash recalled an in incident back in 1965 when they were all young colts. He was touring with The Hollies, taking Merseybeat Stateside and hoping to capitalise on the recent success of the Beatles post-Ed Sullivan.
The Hollies were playing with the livewire rock ’n’ roll godfather Little Richard at the Brooklyn Paramount and after watching a typically kinetic, high-energy headlining set from Little Richard he witnessed the sight of what happens to the backing band when they pull focus away from the star. Hendrix’s showmanship ran away with him and Little Richard was not impressed.
“I remember watching the end of Little Richard’s show,” said Nash, “and he came off screaming, ‘Don’t you ever play your fucking guitar behind your head again, don’t you upstage me, I’m fucking Little Richard.’”
Hendrix’s career was gathering a little steam by then. He was doing his time in the chitlin’ circuit. He played back-up to the Isley Brothers. He still lived by the seat of his pants and was penniless when he landed the Little Richard gig, two gigs a night.
But the times were a-changing as the ‘60s aesthetic matured, peace, love and all that jazz. Little Richard did not have the temperament for all that. Hendrix playing the guitar behind his head was always going to be an explosive provocation – what would he have done if he had set the guitar on fire?
As things were, Hendrix recalled Little Richard as a hard task master. In Steven Roby’s Hendrix on Hendrix: Interviews And Encounters With Jimi Hendrix, the man himself discussed the tensions when taking the Little Richard gig, and what was required of the backing band. The ‘hippy gear’ was verboten.
“Little Richard didn’t want anyone to look better than him,” said Hendrix. “I was best of friends with Glen Willings, another guy in the band, and we used to buy the same kind of stuff, and wear it onstage.
“After the show one night, Little Richard said, ‘Brothers, we’ve got to have a meeting. I am Little Richard and I am the king of rock and rhythm and I am the one who’s going to look pretty onstage. Glen and Jimi, will you please turn in those shirts or else you will have to suffer the consequences of a fine.’”
Hendrix might have avoided a fine for inappropriate stage wear but when he told Little Richard he wasn’t cutting his hair for anyone, it was a five-dollar fine. Hendrix said, “Everyone on that tour was brainwashed.”
Looking back on that era, Nash told The Times that he doesn’t think Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young will be remembered by future generations. Neil Young might be remembered, but few others.
“I think in 50 years when people look back at what happened in the late 1960s and early 1970s they will remember the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and they’ll remember Joni [Mitchell],” he said. “I don’t think they’ll ever remember CSNY at all, Neil [Young], maybe.”
They might even remember Hendrix for wearing loud shirts and playing his Fender Stratocaster behind his head. Little Richard was right. It was quite the show. If you want to know what Little Richard thought about Hendrix looking back, check out the video below – “He used to make my big toe shoot up in my boot! He did it so good."
Graham Nash's new album, Now, is out now via BMG.