Mitch Mitchell: The Hendrix Years

“I went down to this little basement strip club in Soho and there was Jimi with a Fender Stratocaster upside-down with a kind of fake London Fog raincoat on, with his wild hair, and Noel Redding, who had been playing with Jimi I think for a couple of days, who I found out later was a guitarist, really, playing bass. I think there was a keyboard player, if memory serves me right, from Nero and the Gladiators. That was the idea first off, to maybe have a keyboard player.

“I just took down a tiny little Ludwig drum kit and said, ’What do you want?’ basically. ’What are you looking for and what’s it about?’ I remember to this day, these tiny little amplifiers, and Hendrix was not happy with these little amplifiers so he was starting to kick them around. Like a lot of auditions, it really came down to the lowest common denominator. [We played] a bit of Chuck Berry, a bit of this, bit of that. I just threw in my Deutschmark, whatever you want to call it.

“He played a couple of things on the guitar that I found interesting — the style – and it kind of sparked me off. I used to get a lot of demos from, like, Curtis Mayfield, early Impressions things. And Hendrix was the first person I’d ever seen who could actually play that Curtis Mayfield style, which was unusual. So I named a Jerry Butler song, or an Impressions thing, and he knew it and could play it, and I thought, ’Oh, interesting.’ I mean, I’d never been around that area of music before.”

After jamming about 45 minutes, Mitchell packed up his gear and went home, feeling “intrigued.” Two days later, he received another phone call from Chandler, who once again invited the drummer to jam with Hendrix, only this time, when he showed up, Mitchell found that there was no keyboard player – just the core power trio that would soon become internationally known as the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

At first, the three-piece lineup reminded Mitchell of Cream — a star-studded super group featuring Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker – which had become the talk of the town around London. He remembers, “I came out with some facetious comment like, ’So, you want me to try to play like Ginger Baker or something?’ Hendrix just goes, ’Oh, yeah, whatever you want, man.’ But I did get the impression on that second time playing [together] that something was released. It was like a feeling of freedom. I don’t know if it’s a spiritual awakening. It was just a situation where I’d gone, ’Hey, you’ve never worked in a three-piece band in your life, ever, and there is something with this player that is very, very special.’”

Mitchell wasn’t alone. There were plenty of other drummers around London who wanted the gig. “What did surprise me, very much, is that it appears that a lot of people had been going for auditions and had been playing with Jimi for about two weeks prior to me hearing about this,” he says. “London’s not that large a place, and in those days, there weren’t that many drummers about. A lot of my peers, colleagues — call them what you will — they’d gone for the job. Aynsley Dunbar and Mickey Waller had gone, and knew about this guy and they wanted the job, basically. That’s what surprised me, because I didn’t hear about it.”

Mitchell got the gig after jamming with Hendrix and Redding for a third time. “I think I actually asked Chas, the manager, ’What’s on offer? What’s the deal here?’ It was like, ’Well, look. We’ve got nothing, apart from a chance. There’s two weeks’ work, basically.’ And I’d gone, ’Well, okay. I tell you what. I’ll give it a crack. I’ll have a go for two weeks.’ What have you got to lose? You’re 19 years old, and in fairness to the music, there was something that I could see was potentially inspiring.”

With no record deal and hardly any original material, Chandler began to book gigs around England for the Experience. “We had no songs when we first started,” Mitchell says. “So for the first couple of gigs, we were doing stuff like [Wilson Pickett’s] ’Midnight Hour,’ anything we could think of, quite honestly.” The band’s first tour was a series of opening slots for French rocker Johnny Halliday, followed by “anything that was offered,” including pubs and pool halls. But the word seeped quickly through the underground about the band’s wild stage shows and startling techniques, and record company cronies began to poke around backstage.

Chandler knew that the Experience was ripe for the studio. “Bless his heart,” Mitchell says, “Chas was hocking every bass he owned in sight just to subsidize the band and recording time.” The first song the Experience recorded was “Hey Joe” at De Lane Lea studios. In its day, it was a perfectly adequate facility, but by today’s standard it was practically Jurassic. “Over all those years, the technology changed so much,” Mitchell says. “When we first started recording from the Hendrix days, we had Chas Chandler working as the producer. Don’t forget, the Animals’ ’House of the Rising Sun’ cost £4 – which is $8.00, whatever it is – to make and was done in 15 minutes, first take. And it sounded good.

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