And when he plays and sings he communicates. His music cuts across all the barriers of race, time, space and can reach anyone who is human and, in his own way, knows suffering. They love him at Louise's Lounge in Roxbury, they love him at the Boston Teaparty, they love him at Yale University and they love him at the Village Gate. There are very few musicians who can reach such a diverse audience and still maintain their integrity. B. B. King can and does.
Until recently I would have ended everything I could say about Blues with B. B. King's greatness. In the last couple of months, however, I have finally had the oportunity to see Jimi Hendrix in a live concert. Prior to that my impresison of Hendrix was that he put out some really beautiful hard Bluesy Rock, but unfortunately played too much acid garbage complemented by some rather frothy third-rate pseudo Dylanesque lyrics. And live, well, you've heard the stories. At the Monterey Pop Festival he turned his guitar into an all purpose sex organ alternately screwing it, eating it, and finally setting the thing on fire with lighter fluid to simulate an orgasm. Not the stuff of Blues musicians, I thought.
When I finally got to see him, however, he was a big black, beautifully dressed natural freak who held his guitar like he loved it, and much to my pleasure (and the displeasure of the audience of teenyboppers and Yalies who were screamnig for "Purple Haze") he stood up there and played some of the finest Blues sets I have ever heard. Well it wasn't exactly Blues; it was Hendrix.
Hendrix is now a superstar, the ultimate conquest for groupies and the ultimate guitar player for many aspiring superstars. Hendrix created the freak show probably because he liked it and because it gained him fame and notoriety and made him a sex symbol.
For a guitar player who almost gave up music a couple of years ago because he couldn't find steady work he has done OK. The freakshow probably made it for him, but all the time underneath his clothes, his hair, and his histrionics, Hendrix is a Bluesman. His guitar playing is not as polished or perfected as that of B. B. King but he is years younger than B.B. and is far more adventuresome. Unlike many contemporary Rock stars success seems to have improved Hendrix rather than ruining him. He now doesn't have to worry about playing for his audiences. He will now play a whole set of beautiful Bluesy stuff and all he has to do is wind up with "Purple Haze" and the audience will worship him. In his last album, Electric Ladyland, he gets into a long jam called "Voodoo Chile," which is beautiful Blues.
Hendrix is mellow now and beautiful and some Rock and Blues writer has called him the most complete guitarist since Robert Johnson.
The comparison has some interesting implications. Johnson is the fountainhead of modern Blues. He is the greatest figure in Mississippi Delta Blues which became Chicago Blues through Bluesmen like Elmore James and was transformed into Modern Urban Blues by B. B. King. Hendrix may, in truth, be the spiritual heir of Robert Johnson. He is the most innovative and modern guitarist on the contemporary Rock scene. King may be the most perfect Blues guitarist alive but his style is of another era. If Blues is to continue to exist it must evolve and Hendrix seems to be leading that revolution. If Rock is to survive it must go back to its roots and again Hndrix is there.
The comparison of Hendrix to Robert Johnson has another implication. Johnson only lived to be 24. He was poisoned to death by a jealous woman. Hendrix like Johnson became a star when he wos young. Hendrix might not be poisoned. But it may become increasingly difficult for him to improve on his successes, as it might have been for Robert Johnson if he had lived. Where does Hendrix, and all of Blues, go now that we have all "been to Electric Ladyland?"