Remembering Jimi Hendrix’s First-Ever Public Performance
Often it seems that gifted musicians emerge magically, fully formed, hitting the public stage with a virtuosity that was always present. Truth is, that’s almost never the case. The example of the great Jimi Hendrix is a perfect case in point. As the folks at TeamRock point out in a splendid new feature, Hendrix’s first gig was a near-disaster, and yet in many ways his humble beginning foreshadows the artistic integrity that would drive the all-too-brief sweep of his career.
Hendrix’s debut public gig took place at, of all places, a synagogue just a few blocks away from his childhood home in Seattle. Just 16 at the time—it was the fall of 1959—“Jimmy” had been playing guitar for only one year. Outside the confines of his bedroom, his interaction with other players had been limited mostly to the usual “garage jams” with friends—until some older high-school musician-kids recruited him to join them for a show at Seattle’s Temple De Hirsch Sinai synagogue. If things went well, so the implication went, he would become a full-on member of their band.
The hours before the show were filled with trepidation. Far from the confident figure that audiences would see a few years later, Hendrix was nervous to the point of near-nausea. “Do you really think I’ll have fans?” he asked his then-girlfriend, Carmen Goudy.
As TeamRock points out, Hendrix’s nervousness was warranted. In 1959, “dance numbers” were the order of the day, and the young six-stringer’s emerging style was ill-fitted to such music. Moreover, he had yet to rein in—or give form to—the incendiary solo flights he was already prone to. “He would play this wild stuff,” fellow Seattle musician Dave Lewis later recalled, “but the people couldn’t dance to it. They just stared at him.”
As Goudy remembers, Hendrix paced the hallway of the synagogue prior to the show, his ever-present guitar strapped across his shoulder. Despite his young age, his musical ambitions were emerging fast, and he viewed the gig as a giant step in his burgeoning journey. Unfortunately, Goudy recalls, things went off the rails almost from the start. “During the first set, Jimi did his thing,” she remembers, as reported by TeamRock. “He did all this wild playing. And when they introduced the band members and the spotlight was on him, he became even wilder.”
By show’s end, in Goudy’s view, Hendrix had delivered a spectacular performance, and indeed afterwards she rushed to find him and offer her congratulations. To her surprise, she found him crouched in an alley behind the synagogue, fighting back tears. He had been fired, he told her—his playing was “too wild” … “not danceable.” For an hour, Hendrix lamented the fact that the musical direction in which he felt pulled—his instincts, in a word—were simply ill-suited to audience’s expectations. Goudy suggested he dial it back—be less extravagant—but the young guitarist rejected the thought. “That’s not my style,” he said. “I don’t do that.”
The remaining years of Hendrix’s life proved just how prescient he was. Fully seven years would pass before the times would catch up to Hendrix, but when they did, fans and musician-peers alike recognized in him a new kind of artistry, a new kind of guitar language. In the meantime, he paid his dues, performing in R&B bands and perfecting his ever-developing skills—often in private. For aspiring musicians everywhere, Hendrix’s journey constitutes a lesson in perseverance, fortitude, and destiny. As Joe Satriani once said, “There are still things he did that astound and mystify me. When I watch footage of him playing … I’m blown away by his musical choices. That’s the thing: it wasn’t about his gear, his guitar, and it wasn’t about what microphone he was singing into it. It wasn’t about anything but his own brilliance.”