Mitch Mitchell: The Hendrix Years

“Obviously, we were fortunate enough to be around some pretty competent engineers. There was a certain amount of talent going around, especially in England then. It strikes me, looking back on it, English engineers made the most of the limited capabilities of the technology. They knew the structure of the rooms and they knew what mikes to use and where to record things from. They would make the most of the acoustics with limited equipment. And Hendrix did have a natural capability of working in the studio. To him, that was like his palate of colors. There are some people who feel very comfortable behind the board and know how things work. He was just very natural with the technology that existed. I don’t know how much time he’d spent working in studios before.”

Chandler kept the trio working at a frantic pace, rushing them from one gig to the next, while squeezing recording dates into the schedule whenever he could. Writing original material on the run, the band would often learn new songs in the studio, practically as they recorded them. “There were no rules on that stuff,” Mitchell says. “There are many things that were just done in the studio, created in the studio, written in the studio, played once, and never played again — onstage or anywhere else. That’s it. Consequently, you tend to forget all about them.”

But Mitchell can’t forget the intense level of creativity that buzzed through the room whenever the Experience wrote new material. “I was absolutely free,” he says, “but I’ve never had a fear then or to this day of asking another player, ’What do you hear on this?’ If he wanted it to go, ’boom-chicka-chick, boom-chicka-chick,’ whatever it might take, ’Tell me what you hear.’ Or Jimi would play a basic rhythm and I would see if I could come up with something that would either fit or oppose it.

“I’m just like any other drummer. I stole things from other drummers I could think of. ’Manic Depression’ comes to mind. I stole that completely from, of all people, the drummer called Ronnie Stephenson. It came from John Dankworth’s ’African Waltz.’ It’s just what fitted in. I heard this rhythm that Jimi was playing on guitar and I thought, ’Oh yeah, it’s that kind of feel.’ So thank you Ronnie Stephenson.”

Though Mitchell generously gives credit where it’s due, his humility underplays the deep divide that separated jazz cats from rockers when he recorded “Manic Depression.” In a radical moment of inspiration, by adapting Stephenson’s jazzy “African Waltz” groove to one of the heaviest rock songs ever written, Mitchell cast aside artificial barriers and foreshadowed the jazz fusion movement that followed in the early ’70s. He did this on song after song from Are You Experienced, Axis: Bold As Love, and Electric Ladyland, raising the stakes several notches for every rock drummer who suddenly had to labor over the licks that Mitchell whipped out so effortlessly.

Back then, he wasn’t trying to change rock and roll. He just wanted to lay down some great drum tracks. “How the heck do you know?” he asks. “You weren’t thinking of putting down something for posterity’s sake. It was important to try to put down the best music you could, because there was a very competitive spirit. It was like the be-bop era, it’s a very cutting situation, which is very healthy. And of course, in those days, just because it happened to be the ’60s, there were a lot of bands from the same area and everyone was trying to outdo each other.”

These chops shootouts often happened onstage, during extended jams at after-hours gigs, where musicians would show up to sit in with other bands. Mitchell remembers encouraging drummers like Tony Williams and Buddy Miles to play with the Experience, so that he could hear how the group sounded. And Hendrix would take Mitchell to check out other bands, and the two of them would often sit in.

“After the concert you’d go back to the hotel,” Mitchell says, “and it was like, ’Hey, I know this guitarist down the road,’ Roy Buchanan or Cornell Dupree, whoever it would be, because he knew these people from being on the road or from the south side of Chicago. I’d go along and was privileged to take those chances to have a play with these people. Jimi would always insist that the two of us would play together, which could be very strange at times.

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