Forty Years Ago: The Most Significant Music Album Ever and Unfortunate Questions of Blackness

Like many blacks who live how they please Hendrix was often accused of not being "authentically" black; of being a sellout for his style of music, for not having black band mates and for dating white chicks.
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August, 1967 was the height of the summer of love. It was, too, the crowning month of an amazing year of music. In sixty-seven Pink Floyd released their first album. The Stones would release their 7th, 8th and 9th albums. The Monterey Pop Festival redefined live concerts. Plus there was a little album from the Beatles that was dropped to, oh, a bit of notice.

Also, the most significant music album ever was released in the US.

On August 23rd of that year America was introduced to the absolutely astounding debut record from 24-year-old Johnny Allen Hendrix. Jimi, to the world. At a time when both musicians as artist, as well as studio recording techniques were evolving at an accelerated pace, Hendrix possessed a singularity. As a self-taught guitarist -- left-handed, no less, on a flipped Fender Stratocaster as opposed to a true left-handed guitar -- he was an unparalleled virtuoso. Beyond his sheer ability, what made Hendrix Hendrix was the absolute fearlessness of a nuke scientist he owned when it came to mixing and blending styles. Rhythm and Blues, free Jazz, Soul, Rock... A cocktail he called the melding of Earth and Space -- Earth being the music itself, Space being a psychedelic approach to phrasing, playing and recording. Added to all that was Hendrix himself -- the hair, the clothes, the casual attitude toward life and the obsession for creating perfect music.

Hendrix's musical philosophy is put on raw display in an album that is track by track nearly flawless. On the US version (the tracks and track order are different on the UK version) the album opens with "Purple Haze," does a hard tumble into "Manic Depression," slips into the most famous rendition of Billy Robert's "Hey Joe" . . . Side Two begins with the soulful "Wind Cries Mary," then launches into what is the greatest straight ahead rock piece ever written: "Fire." The album closes with "Foxy Lady" and "Are You Experienced." In between and among all that is a tour de force by a man who was born to invert expectations of music and who played what how.

And that is the prime significance of Are You Experienced and Jimi Hendrix. There were, of course, no shortage of black music stars particularly at that time when Motown was in full flower. However there were few, if any, prominent black rock stars. To the contrary, the modus operandi of rock had been for white acts -- be it Pat Boone or Elvis, the Beatles, or the Stones -- to lift from black R&B, repurpose the music and sell it to white audiences. Hendrix flipped the script, took the rock format, re-infused it with Soul and Funk and gave a visage of color to Rock and Roll.

The influence of his artistry was powerful and pervasive. A direct line can be drawn from Hendrix to nearly ever guitar icon of the era: Jeff Beck, Pete Townsend and Eric Clapton (who would remain close friends with Jimi for the remainder of his life). It was Paul McCartney who got the Jimi Hendrix Experience -- Jimi's ultra-lean band with bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell -- into the Monterey Pop Festival. At the festival it was Stones' Guitarist Brian Jones who introduced The Experience.

Unfortunately, no matter that Hendrix "stole back" black music and openly acknowledged and credited countless R&B legends as being of influence to him, like many blacks who live how they please Hendrix was often accused of not being "authentically" black; of being a sellout for his style of music, for not having black band mates and for dating white chicks. Basically he was given crap for being himself rather than the kind of black that others perceive and dictate black should be.

You'd think in forty years such puerile questions of "authentic" blackness would have been long answered, then consigned to the Potters field of racial identity. Take a look at what nonsense Barack Obama still has to put up with, and you see that sadly they have not.

Perhaps even someone as unique as Hendrix could not change racial politics for all time. We'll all have to be satisfied with his having changed music forever.

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