A new Hendrix exhibit keeps its eye on Seattle
Jimi Hendrix spent most of his life in Seattle. He left his hometown on May 29, 1961, when he entered the army, and only returned to the city on four brief occasions, when he played shows. But while most of the writing on Hendrix concentrates on his years of fame, from 1967 to 1970, a new Seattle exhibit keeps the focus on his Northwest roots, and how those influences remained with him throughout his life.
Bold As Love: Jimi Hendrix at Home, which opened at Seattle’s Northwest African American Museum last November (on what would’ve been Hendrix’s 76th birthday), digs into the family archives in exploring Jimi’s early days. “I don’t think a lot of young people realize the many facets of Jimi,” says Janie Hendrix, Jimi’s adopted sister. “That he’s an artist, and he liked to draw, and that his handwriting is beautiful. And a lot of his influences were found here in Seattle. People look at Jimi and see this wild person on stage burning a guitar and they don’t think, ‘Hey, where did he come from?’ What kind of things inspired him? Mountains and hydroplanes and log cabins and water. This is where it all sparked his imagination.”
Janie, CEO and President of Experience Hendrix, LLC, is also on NAAM’s board. The museum, which opened in 2008, had long considered doing a Hendrix-related exhibit, and work on Bold As Love finally commenced about two years ago. Curator Jackie Peterson says she was given “carte blanche” to the Hendrix archives, and was particularly taken with his youthful drawings.
“Jimi’s childhood artwork, to me, is one of those things that really resonates with anybody,” she says. “Because I remember when I was five years old and messing around with crayons. And just seeing the development, the progression of his artwork, getting more and more sophisticated as he got older, that for me was like a ‘Wow!’ moment, like gosh, he was an incredibly talented artist. And just being able to see these expressions of his imagination and understanding how his mind was working was a really powerful experience.”
The exhibit begins with a look at the lives of Jimi’s paternal grandparents, Ross and Nora Hendrix, who worked in vaudeville, and eventually settled in Vancouver, B.C., where Jimi’s father Al was born. Jimi lived with his grandparents on occasion, and enjoyed their stories about their life in show business. “Jimi loved to play in grandma’s trunk of clothes, and the big hats, and the feathers, and the boas — you can see where his style came from,” says Janie. Some of Nora’s hats and hat pins are on display, along with other artifacts like a bible. A nearby sign juxtaposes pictures of Nora with her famous grandson, noting, “Like his grandmother, Jimi loved wearing bright colors and patterns.”
There’s a picture of a youthful Al, an aspiring dancer, in the Vancouver Sun, after winning a jitterbug contest. Al later moved to Seattle, where he met and married Jimi’s mother, Lucille Jeter. It was a troubled marriage, and after their divorce, it was Al who won custody of Jimi and his brother Leon (Lucille died in 1958). There’s a letter in the exhibit from Al to his mother from 1945, when Al had returned from the service and first laid eyes on his son: “He sure is a fine boy and is he sweet.”
Though money was often tight, Jimi found ways of entertaining himself, exploring the bucolic setting around him. One photo in the exhibit shows Jimi and his cousin Bob on their bicycles in front of a bank of hedges and trees. They’re wearing peaked caps, inspired by Marlon Brando’s look in The Wild One, the boys looking gravely into the camera, emulating Brando’s cool. After the photo was taken, Jimi rode his bike off a small cliff. “He looked at Bobby and said ‘Let’s do it!’” Janie says. “Bobby was scared to death, but he said Jimi did it so he had to do it too.”
There are several examples of Jimi’s artwork on display, both originals and reproductions. There are colorful pictures depicting Seattle’s hydroplane races; mountains emerging from the fog; a rainbow colored dragon; and numerous drawings of football players. “Jimi would watch football on TV and then he would turn the sound down and play his guitar and make his own soundtrack!” says Janie. There’s even a drawing of Elvis, which Jimi drew after the King visited Seattle in 1957. With his blonde hair piled high, Jimi’s Elvis bears an uncanny resemblance to a certain politician; “Now people think that’s Trump!” says Janie. “But it’s not. That’s actually Elvis.”
The family’s Decca stereo record player is on display, as well as the couch Jimi slept on when he returned to Seattle post-fame (“He slept on it downstairs because it was too hot upstairs,” Janie explains). Jimi’s attachment to home and family are further seen in the letters and postcards he sent to Seattle while in the army and during his itinerant musician days. In a letter on display dated June 8, 1961, his tenth day in the army, he writes: “Oh the army’s not too bad so far. It’s so-so although it does have its ‘ups and downs’ at times. ALL, I mean all my hair’s cut off and I have to shave.”
Postcards trace his journeys across America when he worked as a sideman. “We’ve been to all the cities in the Midwest, east and south,” he notes on a 1963 card, while he sounds discouraged in 1966, stuck in the “big raggedy city of New York” where “Everything’s happening bad here.” Though he also boasts “Tell Ben & Ernie I play the blues like they NEVER heard.” In September of that year, he would be taken to London by his new manager, Chas Chandler, his first step on the way to the worldwide fame that would follow in 1967.
There’s a final, touching tribute at the exhibit’s end. Jimi moved frequently as a child, until his father purchased the family’s first home, at 2603 26th Avenue South. When the home was demolished in 2009, materials from the structure were salvaged and used to create the beautiful instruments in the Harmonic Hendrix Home Guitars series, by JOI Guitars. According to a posted sign, “Nearly every component of each guitar contains woods, scrap metal, old paint and wiring” from the home, wood being used for the body and neck, while wiring and nails were used for the head. One such guitar is on display, alongside boards of the home; one white painted board is marked as being from “Jimi’s room.” Partial proceeds from the sales will be donated to Jimi Hendrix Park, which is adjacent to the museum.
The exhibit was launched with two openings. There was a lower key preview on November 26, that brought in old friends like Terry Johnson, who played with Jimi in his Seattle bands, and was wearing a t-shirt featuring their 1953 elementary school class picture. The following night, Jimi’s birthday, was open to the public, with free admission, cake, a small buffet, and live entertainment. NAAM Executive Director LaNesha DeBardelaben’s pride in the new exhibit was obvious in her opening remarks: “The name Jimi Hendrix is synonymous with black brilliance. With genius. With humility. With one of a kind talent. And here we are at the NWAAM telling his story in his own words using the original artifacts that were a part of his Seattle life. Because his roots started right here. And as we say, his feet never left Seattle ground symbolically. Seattle was home for Jimi Hendrix. The starting place. And we are returning to that story of how Jimi Hendrix and his life began.”
In her comments, Janie reminded the crowd that Jimi would’ve been 76 on November 27, 2018. “It’s kind of hard to imagine, because you look at his pictures, and he’s 25 to 27 years old, and that’s what he’ll always look like,” she said, an icon frozen in time, and being aware of the passage of time when someone now in their seventies comes up to Janie to say “Jimi and I were in school together.” For Janie, the loss is more personal. But she also understands the connection that people around the world feel with rock’s greatest guitarist. “To us he was our beloved Jimi,” she said in her remarks. “He was our family member. And we miss him very much. But what we do is a labor of love, because he gave to us, and we’re just continuing to give back.”
Bold As Love: Jimi Hendrix at Home runs at the Northwest African American Museum through May 5, 2019.