In 1967, future Queen guitarist Brian May was a maths and physics student at London’s Imperial College. When he wasn’t knee deep in equations, he was a member of the college’s Entertainments Committee, where he’d play a part in booking bands such as Steamhammer, Spooky Tooth, America and, most memorably, Jimi Hendrix.
The 19-year-old May had first seen Hendrix play on January 29, 1967, when The Jimi Hendrix Experience opened for The Who at the Saville Theatre on London‘s Shaftesbury Avenue.
“I was playing guitar in my own band, 1984, but I and was absolutely blown away by Jimi,” May told Classic Rock in 2020. “He was doing things that I couldn’t even dream of.”
So impressed was May that he lobbied his fellow committee members to book Hendrix to headline a student ball that was happening at Imperial College on May 13, 1967 – the day after the Experience’s debut album, Are You Experienced?, was released. Hendrix’s star was rising fast and his fee reflected it: a princely £1000.
“You had three or four groups playing in different parts of the building,” said May. “We paid a thousand pounds for Jimi to come that night, and there were a thousand people in that hall. Tickets were more than a pound, so the Imperial College Union made a profit.”
Hendrix’s dressing room was the room where the college’s jazz club practiced. It was there that May had his only real interaction with the American guitarist.
“They were in there, making some noise, smoking a lot of dope,” recalled May. “It was getting near to the time when they were supposed to go onstage, so one of us knocked on the door and said, ‘It’s time, Mr Hendrix, it’s time to go.’ He came out with his guitar and says, ‘Where’s the stage, man?’ And we all pointed in the direction without actually saying anything, just starstruck. And that was my conversation with him, if you can call it that.”
After their fleeting brush with a superstar-in-waiting, May and his friends rushed to the front of the stage to catch Hendrix’s show. “He went on the stage and launched straight into Foxy Lady,” remembers May. “I was about 10 feet away when he struck up that first note. It was stupendous. I have never heard a sound like that in my life, before or since. I was already a devotee of Jimi, but that was life-changing.”
May’s abiding memory of that night is being overwhelmed. “It was slightly scary,” he said. “I thought I could play guitar at that time. I thought I was okay on guitar. But when you saw Hendrix, you just really, really wanted to give up – or try a lot harder. I looked at his equipment, and looked at him, and thought: ‘Well, he’s just a man, and that’s just a guitar, and those are just amps.’ But when he started up it was like an earthquake. That doesn’t even describe it. It was like a cross between an earthquake, an orchestra and a whirlwind of sound.”
One of the perks of being on the college’s entertainment committee was that May had booked his own band, 1984, to play the show, albeit in a different part of the building.
“We were playing in a room at the bottom, and Jimi was on in the main hall so in a sense, we supported him,” said May. “We played Purple Haze. that night as a kind of tribute to Jimi, and it’s rumoured that he came down and saw me playing it. People have told me that he came in, stood at the back and watched. I had no idea.”
The Imperial College gig wasn’t the only time that May appeared on the same bill as Hendrix. In December 1967, the Experience headlined the Christmas On Earth all-nighter at London’s Olympia venue. Also on the bill were 1984, even if their lowly stature meant they didn‘t even make the poster.
“We were hanging around near his dressing room, and we could hear them practising away,” May remembered. “They were playing some Beatles tunes, and we obviously didn’t know what he was planning. He burst straight onstage and played Sgt Pepper. That was amazing.”
May would leave 1984 in the spring of 1968, going on to form a new band, Smile, with former 1984 singer Tim Staffell and dentistry student/drummer Roger Taylor. By July 1970, Staffell had been replaced by Freddie Mercury and Smile had changed their name to Queen. Decades after that fleeting encounter with Hendrix, the American remained the benchmark which May aspired to as a guitarist.
“He’s still the model of what you want to be as a rock star,” May told Classic Rock. “He's doing it for the sheer joy of it. He's swept away by his own creation.