Bev Hutchinson tells of the night 50 years ago this week that one of the most colourful and charismatic figures in music history played a hotel in Darlington.
JIMI HENDRIX was only world famous for three-and-a-half years, so it is an amazing piece of good fortune that Darlington has a slice of his story.
Fifty years ago almost to the day, when Woodstock and the Monterey International Pop Festival were yet to come and he had only had the first taste of fame, he played at the Imperial Hotel on Grange Road.
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That date – February 2, 1967 – is now the most famous in Darlington’s music history.
Hendrix was born in 1942 in Seattle. His father bought him a $5 guitar when he was 15 and throughout his tragically brief career, he could not read music. Although left-handed, he played a right-handed guitar with the strings swapped around so that he could play more comfortably.
After a turbulent childhood, he enlisted in the US army in 1961 and joined the paratroop division.
Only when a parachute jump went wrong and he was discharged with a broken leg did he begin to take music seriously, and he embarked on a career as a session musician working with Ike and Tina Turner, Sam Cooke and Little Richard.
In 1965, he was discovered by Chas Chandler, bassist for The Animals. Newcastle-born Chandler became his manager and whisked the unknown guitarist across the Atlantic for a series of gigs in the UK. One of those gigs just happened to be in Darlington.
But by the time he arrived in town, his anonymity was slipping. His first single, Hey Joe, was rising up the charts and peaked at number six. His record company, Reprise, offered the Imperial £300 to cancel the gig so Hendrix could go to London for promotional work, but the club refused and the show went ahead.
Around 200 people were present. Paying 10 shillings per head, they crowded in to the ballroom to watch the performer whose promotional poster said: “Don’t miss this man who is Dylan, Clapton and James Brown all in one!”
Three minutes into the show, Jimi’s amplifiers are believed to have blown and there was a delay while repairs took place. As a result, he played for two and half hours solid, taking no break so that the show would not overrun.
After the show, a black Fender Stratocaster belonging to Hendrix is said to have been stolen. Some say it was taken from the back of the tour van, others that it was nicked from the stage.
Legend has it that, upon hearing the news, Hendrix said: “I hope the dude can play.”
In 1985, as a young singer doing the North-East circuit, my guitarist and I were invited to view a guitar said to be the stolen one. However, it turned out to have been made in the 1970s, much to the owner’s dismay. Over the years, there have been many reports of the guitar’s whereabouts but none has ever been authenticated.
The untimely death of Hendrix aged just 27 on September 18, 1970 - he took an overdose of barbiturates and choked on his own vomit in London - brought his short burst of world fame to an end.
During his too short career, Hendrix was a massive influence on guitarists everywhere. He broke the mould on how to play guitar and paved the way for so many new ideas and genres of music.
Fifty years on, calls for a blue plaque on the Imperial to commemorate the gig continue, and next Friday, one of Europe’s top Hendrix tribute acts, Are You Experienced?, plays at The Forum to mark the anniversary.
Plus, a few lucky people will still have personal memories of the night of musical history that they witnessed.