On January 13, 1966 a disillusioned Jimi Hendrix sent an Empire State Building postcard to his dad at home in Seattle, reporting sadly that “every thing’s so-so in this big, raggedy city of New York. Everything’s happening bad here.”
He was entering his fourth year as a permanently broke jobbing road musician on the gruelling ‘chitlin circuit’ of black juke joints and clubs. This was where he developed the vital crowd-pleasing antics that he’d copped from T-Bone Walker and Buddy Guy, such as playing guitar behind his head and with his teeth.
He’d already made one failed attempt to settle in New York in 1963, but it wasn’t until he jumped ship from Little Richard’s band while playing in Harlem in 1965 that he finally made the decision to stay in the Big Apple. “I wanted my own scene, making my own music, not playing the same riffs,” he said later. “I was seeing the number 1966 in my sleep, so I was just passing time till then.”
His prophecy would prove to be self-fulfilling. After stints with Joey Dee And The Starliters, venerable sax titan King Curtis and a sporadic gig with second-string hustler Curtis Knight, Jimi’s big break came in May 1966 when he met Linda Keith, a 21-year-old model and the girlfriend of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards.
Linda shared her boyfriend’s passion for the blues, and had come to New York to check out the scene in advance of the Stones’ fifth US tour. One night, her clubbing sorties took her to the Cheetah club on Broadway and 53rd Street, where Curtis Knight and the Squires were playing. Their guitarist, then calling himself Jimmy James, blew Linda’s mind with his raw charisma and repertoire of moves. Sitting in the sparse audience, Linda was mesmerised by Jimi, whose career she adopted as a kind of crusade.
“He was clearly a star, though he was such an odd-looking star,” she later recalled. “The way he was playing guitar, just the way that he was. It made me feel so incredible.”
After the set, Linda and her friends Roberta Goldstein and Mark Kauffman showered Hendrix with compliments and invited him back to an apartment on 63rd Street. One of them had some LSD, which was still legal. Hendrix’s drug experiences stretched no further than marijuana and cheap speed, so when Linda asked if he’d like some acid, he replied: “No, but I’d love to try some of that LSD stuff.”
It was life-changing for Hendrix, who said he looked in the mirror and saw Marilyn Monroe smiling back. Inspired by the apartment’s red velvet décor, he played a song he’d been writing, now called Red House.
Linda responded by playing him Bob Dylan’s new Blonde On Blonde, which would subsequently always remind him of his first trip. The following month he started playing his seismic version of Like A Rolling Stone, frizzing up his hair with curlers and, inspired by Dylan’s vocal delivery, started singing.