As his 70th birthday year nears its close, iconoclastic ’60s guitarist Jimi Hendrix gets an affectionate two-hour tribute Tuesday night on PBS in American Masters: Jimi Hendrix – Hear My Train A Comin’. The program, which American Masters co-produced with Experience Hendrix LLC and Legacy Recordings, traces Hendrix’s too-short life and electrifying career from his Seattle childhood through his musical glory days between 1966 and 1970.
Born to a hard-partying mother who only occasionally drifted in and out of his life, Hendrix was raised by his dad, Al, a military veteran who bought his son a heavily used acoustic guitar for $5 when he was a teenager. Seeing how single-mindedly the younger Hendrix applied himself to his practice, Al Hendix subsequently invested in an electric guitar, which would become Jimi’s instrument of choice.
After finishing high school, Jimi joined the Army but saw his service cut short by an injury during a parachute exercise. Determined to establish himself as a musician, he started out with low-paying gigs on the so-called “chitlin’ circuit” of predominantly black music clubs, then landed jobs playing back-up for various acts, although most venues wanted their acts to play only covers of established Top 40 radio hits, not original material.
Hendrix got his first big break when a friend introduced him to Chas Chandler, a former bass player for the Animals who was moving into artist management. In a shrewd move, in 1966 Chandler took Hendrix to London, a musical mecca where the young guitarist’s talent almost immediately was spotted and championed by members of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. In 1967, Hendrix returned to the United States for an electrifying and star-making performance at the Monterey (Calif.) International Pop Festival.
Hendrix never looked back after that, although he was so single-mindedly consumed by his music that, as many friends and colleagues freely admit during this documentary, he relied on others to take care of him in other respects. He was only 27 when he died on Sept. 18, 1970, of what apparently was an accidental overdose of barbiturates at the home of his girlfriend.
Jimi Hendrix – Hear My Train A Comin’ incorporates extensive, previously unseen performance footage and home movies taken by Hendrix and Mitch Mitchell, drummer for the Jimi Hendrix Experience, along with a vast archive of photographs, drawings and letters (Hendrix, happily for the producers, apparently was a faithful correspondent with his friends and family).
Some might argue that this two-hour presentation soft-pedals Hendrix’s drug use (Experience Hendrix LLC and Legacy Recordings are releasing an expanded home video edition of this documentary on Blu-ray and DVD on the same day this American Masters episode airs, but I haven’t seen the former and can’t comment on its content). The portrait of Hendrix that emerges from the PBS presentation is a compelling one, however, emphasizing his intense mistrust of flattery. This was a musician who, very clearly, preferred to let his music speak for itself.
As a run-up to tomorrow’s PBS premiere, Bob Smeaton, director of the documentary, invites Hendrix fans to participate in a 20-minute online-exclusive sneak preview of Jimi Hendrix – Hear My Train A Comin’ tonight (Monday, Nov. 4) at 6:30 p.m. ET via this link: https://ovee.itvs.org/screenings/6jxrc .