Psychedelic rock legend inspired Prince, Van Halen, and more

By Tom Sinclair
Updated September 20, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

It was an undignified ending to an extraordinary life. On Sept. 18, 1970, Jimi Hendrix, 27, the most influential guitarist of his era, choked on his own vomit. He was taken to St. Mary Abbots Hospital in Kensington, London; an autopsy found barbiturates, amphetamines, and alcohol in Hendrix’s body.

James Marshall Hendrix’s star turn had begun in 1966 when Animals bassist Chas Chandler caught his set at Cafe Wha? in New York. The Seattle-born Hendrix, an ex-R&B sideman who had backed both the Isley Brothers and Little Richard, was wrenching astonishing sounds from his guitar. Chandler hooked him up with bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell, changed the spelling of Hendrix’s given name, and christened the trio the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

The band’s August 1967 debut album, Are You Experienced?, launched the hippie era’s first black superstar, whose blues-informed approach to heavily amplified psychedelia — previously the province of whites — was as outrageous as his dandyish sartorial style and his bold-as-love sexuality. His artful use of feedback, distortion, and wah-wah would change the way guitarists played; today, Hendrix’s influence can be heard in the music of [the artist formerly known as Prince], Eddie Van Halen, Vernon Reid, and many others.

Sadly, drugs, false friends, and a variety of business and personal problems (not to mention starting to lose his hair) plagued Hendrix in his last two years. By 1969, the Experience was defunct, though Hendrix continued writing, recording, and playing to the end, jamming with Eric Burdon & War two days before he died.

Since his death, Hendrix’s legend — and net worth — has grown immeasurably. The past quarter century has seen the release of dozens of posthumous albums, many of them bootlegs. In 1995, after years of legal wrangling, the rights to the multimillion-dollar Hendrix estate were finally returned to the family. Today, Hendrix’s stepsister, Janie Hendrix Wright, is president and CEO of Experience Hendrix, which oversees his business affairs. ”I was in awe of him — he was my hero,” she remembers. ”He told us the reason he was doing what he was doing in music was so that the family would have a better life.” Those who loved him can find solace in the lyrics that serve as his unofficial epitaph: ”If I don’t meet you no more in this world/ I’ll meet you in the next one — and don’t be late.”

Time Capsule: Sept. 18, 1970

Airport flew high at the box office, while TV viewers checked up on Marcus Welby, M.D. David Ruben told readers Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, and ”Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” scaled the music charts.