Take Five: Pre-fame Jimi Hendrix

The Woodstock Music and Art Fair took place 53 years ago this August. A list of the festival’s highlights could fill volumes; chief among them was Jimi Hendrix’s incendiary reading of “The Star Spangled Banner.” While Woodstock served as a coming-out part for a number of new groups (Santana and CSN&Y among them), by August ‘69 Hendrix was a well-established major star.

When the Jimi Hendrix Experience released their debut single in the UK in December 1966, the music world changed. But it took awhile before anyone noticed: it would be six months before Hendrix broke through in his native U.S. And while Hendrix seemed to appear out of nowhere, he had been working as a journeyman guitarist for several years, quietly honing his skills. Here are five recordings featuring the legend … before he became one.

Isley Brothers – “Testify” (1964) The Isley Brothers’ music always transcended genre, encompassing soul, funk, r&b, gospel and rock. While they’re best known for the original versions of “Shout” and “Twist and shout” (both later covered by The Beatles), their catalog is filled with classics. This powerful shouter showcases the group’s gospel roots. Listen closely for Hendrix’s sharp chording.

Little Richard “I Don’t Know What You Got (But It’s Got Me)” (1965) This track is stuffed to the limit with future legends. On guitar is Jimi Hendrix; the organist is a young player formerly with Ray Charles’ band, Billy Preston. Ubiquitous session drummer Bernard Purdie is on hand as well. Despite all that firepower backing Little Richard, the song wouldn’t become a hit.

Owen Gray – “Help Me” (1965) The backing track for this recording features King Curtis’ band with Hendrix on guitar. A standard cost-saving practice at the time, the same track was used on several recordings including one by Ray Sharpe. Produced by Island Records head Chris Blackwell, this release features Jamaica-based vocalist Owen Gray and was released only in the UK.

Jimmy Norman – “That Little Old Groovemaker” (1966) A solid slab of soul, this dance floor raver kicks right off with some stinging licks from Jimi Hendrix. His metallic yet fluid texture adds to the excitement of an already superb arrangement.

Curtis Knight – “Hornets Nest” (1966) While the performance and production values suggest that this side was a rushed, single-take affair at the end of an album session, there’s no denying the power and ferocity of Hendrix’s playing. The guitarist co-wrote the instrumental, a hint of where he was heading musically. The Jimi Hendrix Experience would debut just months after this single’s release.