On February 12, 1968, Seattle native Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970) -- who has not played guitar publicly in his hometown since leaving to join the military in 1961 -- brings his London-based band the Jimi Hendrix Experience to play a concert at the Seattle Center Arena. The show will be remembered for an "avalanche of sound" generated by Hendrix and his band, and "a driving, incredibly expressive guitar style augmented from time to time with vocal interludes" ("Jim Hendrix Belts Out ...").
Seattle Born and Raised
Born and raised in Seattle, James "Jimmy" Marshall Hendrix was transfixed by R&B music and early rock 'n' roll in his childhood. Acquiring a guitar as a teenager, he jammed around and joined bands such as the Velvetones, the Rockin' Kings, and Thomas and his Tomcats. He attended teen dances when possible and grew fond of Northwest combos including the Wailers, the Dynamics, and Tiny Tony and the Statics.
But after serving in the U.S. Army between May 1961 and June 1962, Hendrix's visits back home were few and far between. He soon hit the road touring with a string of R&B stars, and it is believed that he passed through Seattle while part of Little Richard's (1932-2020) band around 1964. After that he popped up in New York, where he scuffled around in various bands until being discovered by Chas Chandler (1938-1996), the bassist of the British band The Animals. Chandler signed Hendrix to a management contract, changed his stage name to "Jimi," flew him to London in 1966, built a band -- the Jimi Hendrix Experience, with bassist Noel Redding (1945-2003) and drummer Mitch Mitchell (1946-2008) -- and basically made Hendrix an overnight sensation.
The band's debut single from December 1966, "Hey Joe," became a radio hit, and its subsequent album, Are You Experienced, created such a stir upon release in Great Britain that the band got booked as a headliner at the Monterey International Pop Festival, on June 18, 1967. The band's earth-shattering single "Purple Haze" was released the following day.
As the general excitement increased, two things occurred in Seattle. First, some of Hendrix's old friends and schoolmates -- most of whom hadn't heard a word from him since 1961 -- began to wonder if this "British" rock star with the psychedelic wardrobe could be the same shy guitar kid from Garfield High School. Turns out it was; in fact, Hendrix embraced his roots and eventually composed a song titled "West Coast Seattle Boy." Then came an announcement via Seattle counterculture newspaper Helix that a concert was scheduled for August 2, 1967, at the Eagles Auditorium at 700 Union Street.
The Eagles had served well throughout the 1950s for dances by Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Big Jay McNeely, and others. In more recent times, hippie promoter Boyd Grafmyre (d. 2019) had been producing shows by top bands such as the Doors and Jefferson Airplane. But there were problems. One was that on May 25, 1967, the Helix published a promotional ad for the concert, to be headlined by San Francisco's Moby Grape, but misidentified the support band as "Jimmy Hendricks." Worse, someone had jumped the gun, and the Eagles concert never came to pass. Instead, the Jimi Hendrix Experience would not visit Seattle for another six long months. In the interim, the band would play triumphant concert dates elsewhere, and its classic second album Axis: Bold As Love, was released in the U.S. on January 15, 1968.
1968 U.S. Tour Begins
Chas Chandler and his business partner (and former Animals manager) Michael Jeffrey (1933-1973) organized what would be the Jimi Hendrix Experience's first concert tour of the United States. The band flew from London, landing in New York on January 30, 1968, all set to commence with a 54-day, 47-date tour. In Seattle, there was controversy when it was announced that instead of playing at Boyd Grafmyer's comfortable Eagles Auditorium, the venue would be the concrete bunker-like Seattle Center Arena at 225 Mercer Street. The show would be run by Seattle's Concerts West company, headed by KJR radioman Pat O'Day (1934-2020).
The Helix reacted to this switch with an story by soon-to-be-famous Seattle writer Tom Robbins (b. 1932), in which he groused about how the Hendrix concert had been greatly anticipated, "but the atmosphere is different now because Hendrix will not be heard in the easy looseness of the Eagles; no, he's been sucked into the Pat O'Day syndrome with all of the phoney baloney implicit in that milieu. A week before (before O'Day and pals talked Hendrix out of a Boyd Grafmyre Eagles date and signed him for the Arena), Jimi's new LP was listed as 'Up and Coming' at the bottom of the KJR Top 40 album charts. Now, with ominous suddenness, the album shoots into the No. 2 spot in the ratings and KJR begins playing Hendrix records for the first time" (Robbins).
O'Day's recollection was rather different: "Yes, Boyd had actually booked him, but at that point in time Jimi was running with different promoters and was dissatisfied. Some people weren't paying him the money he thought he should have" (author interview with Pat O'Day). O'Day said a connection with Concerts West occurred via Ron Terry, a talent agent in New York. According to O'Day, Terry was a person "who recognized the power of this new idea called Concerts West. Because having a touring company that paid for everything in advance, and covered all the costs of the group, and planned all of the outdoor and indoor dates, and then settled up with them at the end of the tour -- that had never been heard of before. And that's what we did. We created a new idea in the delivery of concerts, and as a result, Jimi Hendrix was very appealing to us, and as a result we worked through Ron Terry and got ahold of Jimi's attorney and made a deal where we would get to handle all of his appearances, and in return, we would finance all of his touring and travels" (author interview).
Continued O'Day: "And so when we got in charge we said, 'Let's just cancel all future appearances. Take a step backwards. Take a deep breath. And let's put this together right.' And so it goes ..." Regarding the Helix, O'Day recalled that, "The hip side of the community -- led by the Helix and that whole crazy group out of the U-Dub [University of Washington] -- they despised us. They despised me. They said that 'Pat O'Day is a rip-off' and a 'shuck' and that music should be 'free for The People.' Can you imagine that!?! And as a result, they were always opposed to what we did. And for that reason, we used Boyd Grafmyer as the front-man [laughter] for the Eagles [operation]" (author interview). And so, even when Hendrix had been scheduled for the Eagles in August 1967, it would have been, in effect, a surreptitious Concerts West deal.
When the Jimi Hendrix Experience finally arrived at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Hendrix was met and swept away by family -- his little brother Leon Hendrix (b. 1948), his father Al Hendrix (1919-2002), and Al's second wife Ayako (1920-1999), plus her kids. They held a brief media reception at his father's home at 7954 Seward Park Avenue S, and then spent much of the day hanging out and getting reacquainted.
Word of Hendrix's success over the previous year had caught the attention of many of his old friends on the Seattle music scene, including organist and bandleader Dave Lewis (1938-1998). Years earlier, young Hendrix had begged to sit in with his band at its regular weekly gigs at the Birdland at 2302 E Madison Street, and then typically had to be disinvited from the stage for playing too wildly. "You know, the thing about people like Jimi is," Lewis recalled, "he was persistent. Some way or another we could almost count on him coming in and asking to sit in. No matter how many times he was rejected, he'd be there the next Sunday. Now, I had been hearing murmurs about him in a underground kind of way. I passed it off. And when I really started noticing Jimi was when 'Purple Haze' and the other ones started coming out, and I really started liking what he was doing. Then I knew: time was bringing about a change" (Lewis, 1983).
The night of the concert, Hendrix's family was seated in the front row. That was a sweet gesture on Hendrix's part, but the aural onslaught was too much for Al Hendrix; he was seen plugging his ears at times. Lewis, who was seated just down the row, would concur: "I went down to the Civic Auditorium [the original name for the Seattle Center Arena] and I had the first seat upfront. They had a literal wall of amplifiers and when he played, and [the volume] like pasted me to that seat" (Lewis, 1983).
After the concert's opening act, the British band Soft Machine, played its set, the Jimi Hendrix Experience came out roaring. Although nine songs were performed, only these five have been documented for certain:
- "The Wind Cries Mary"
- "Foxy Lady"
- "Hey Joe"
- "Purple Haze"
Candles in the Wind
The following day the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Seattle Times published concert reviews. Both raved about Hendrix, the P-I pointing out that he was a "Seattle boy who left this city some seven years ago ... and became one of England's most praised and influential rock stars, who had returned last night in a truly triumphant homecoming." And that "the near-capacity Arena -- ticket sales were brisk since the show was announced only seven days ago -- gave Hendrix a rousing ovation but remained perfectly quiet while the music was playing, respect seldom given rock performers" (MacDonald).
The Times review noted that Hendrix demonstrated "a driving, incredibly expressive guitar style augmented from time to time with vocal interludes. How good he is as a vocalist, last night's concert didn't reveal. The amplification level the group selected for their instruments so heavily outweighed the volume potential of the voice [mics] that only occasional vocal phrases emerged. So loud, in fact were the instruments amplified, that the equipment kept blowing out like candles in a windstorm and the program was interrupted several times to throw in new power units. Hendrix' guitar style in some respects benefits from loud sound levels -- the instrument wows, stutters and almost howls as he slides his right hand ... over the frets, and each ripple of his fingers sends electronic screams into all corners of the house. But at the same time, much of what he does with a guitar has subtlety as well, and some of it got lost in the avalanche of sound he generated" (Hinterberger).
Tom Robbins described it this way: "Listening to rock in the Arena is like making love in a file cabinet. It's a study in frustration." Fortunately, the popularity of the Jimi Hendrix Experience continued to skyrocket, and the next time Hendrix came to town -- on September 6, 1968 – his band was booked into the larger and acoustically superior Seattle Center Coliseum.