There has been — and continues to be – no shortage of great rock drummers out there, many who have contributed to the collective vocabulary and influenced countless others who followed. Distinguished names come to mind, like Bonham, Starr, Watts, Moon, and Baker, who long ago earned lasting respect. But there’s only one who, in the span of a few whirlwind years during the late ’60s, rewrote the rules of rock drumming so completely that things could never be the same.
For that, you can thank Mitch Mitchell, the drummer with the Jimi Hendrix Experience, who could be loose and funky, or sharp and precise, or soft and spacey, a thunderous backbeat or a wisp of breath - all within one song. Before then, such depth was absent from rock drumming, and the impact was profound.
Go back and listen to Mitchell on Are You Experienced, the band’s 1967 debut album. Whatever happens, Mitchell goes wherever the guitar goes, relying on instinct as much as technique. And the guitar went wherever Hendrix took it, which meant, of course, that it went to places that hadn’t existed before then. Together they enlivened rock with a newfound level of improvisation, unorthodox riffing, tonal liberation, and sheer speed and power that stands unmatched to this day.
Yet, during the years since the guitarist’s untimely death on September 18, 1970, the Hendrix legend ballooned to such mythical proportions that it all but obscured Mitchell’s groundbreaking contribution to the band’s sound. And that is nothing short of criminal, because those drummers who based their entire methodology on the unique combination of fire and grace that defined Mitchell’s work with the Experience know that, for utter historical innovation, his drumming matched Hendrix’s guitar wizardry note-for-note.
To hear Mitchell tell it, his introduction to Hendrix was hardly the weighty stuff of drumming lore. It could’ve just as easily never happened. In the mid-’60s, while still in his teens, Mitchell established himself in London, where he worked as a sideman and session drummer for various bands, including Screaming Lord Sutch and Johnny Kidd and the Pirates.
“It was an early equivalent, I suppose, of the brat pack,” he says. “There were a few young players in the studios at that time in London: Johnny Baldwin [John Paul Jones], Jimmy Page. There was this one street, Denmark Street, which was like London’s Tin Pan Alley. All the music publishers were there, and consequently, most of them had their little recording studios in the basement, and you’d go and do demo tapes for whoever it was.
“A lot of times, you didn’t know who the heck it was for, because we were recording backing tracks. It could be Tom Jones, it could be Petula Clark. I did some things for Ready, Steady, Go, which was a TV program. Basically, you would take on anything that moved, and if you were lucky enough, you progressed from doing Denmark Street demos to the proper Musicians’ Union sessions, which paid us a little bit more.”
In 1966, Mitchell was working with Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames, a well-known r&b act in Europe that had scored a respectable international hit the year before with “Yeh Yeh.” Mitchell visited Fame’s office every Monday to collect his weekly earnings, until one fateful payday when he was informed that the entire band was sacked. “My face sort of hit the floor, it was so unexpected,” he recalls. “I literally walked down Charing Cross Road past all the music stores, back to Denmark Street — it was like going back to your roots, basically – and I went to a coffee bar just to think things over.
“Apart from being pretty devastated, my first thought was, ’I’m 19 years old. What am I going to do? What do I want to do?’ I thought, the first thing, of trying to form some kind of band of my own. [laughs] That lasted about five minutes. Actually, I did get a session that afternoon and that kind of brought a smile to my face. I thought, ’Well, okay. I have the choice of either going back to the studio or hopefully, if I’m lucky enough, I’ll get gigs.’ I did like the idea of working on the road with a band. It just seemed right.”
Absolutely right, because Mitchell would soon receive a phone call from Chas Chandler, the former bassist with the Animals, who had since gone into band management and production. “I knew Chas vaguely from the Animals,” Mitchell remembers, “and he said, ’Hey look, do you want to come and have a play with this guy I brought over [from America]?’ I didn’t realize it at the time, but of course, it was an audition.