Born in Seattle, Washington, he received a medical discharge from the 101st Airborne Division (at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, about fifty miles from Nashville, Tennessee), due to a broken ankle sustained in a parachute jump. Hendrix, who volunteered for service in the Vietnam War, never saw action, but his recordings would become favorites of soldiers fighting there. He initially made his living supporting touring soul and blues musicians, including Curtis Knight, B. B. King, and Little Richard during 1965. His first notice came from appearances with The Isley Brothers, notably on the two-parter "Testify" in 1964. On October 15, 1965, Hendrix signed a three-year recording contract with Ed Chaplin, receiving $1 and 1% royalty on records with Curtis Knight. The agreement was later to cause continual litigation problems with Hendrix and other record labels.
By 1966 he had his own band, Jimmy James and the Blue Flames, and a residency at the Cafe Wha? in New York City. While with the Blue Flames, he was discovered by Chas Chandler, of British rock group The Animals, who brought him to England, where Chandler, as the record producer, helped Hendrix form a new band, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, with bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell.
After a few concerts, the band started to gain a reputation among their contemporaries, impressing Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, as well as members of The Beatles and The Who, who signed him to their record label. This promise was borne out in their first single, a cover of "Hey Joe", a stylized blues song that was virtually a standard for rock bands at the time.
Further success came with the follow-up, the incendiary original "Purple Haze", whose heavily distorted guitar sound would be highly influential for the next 20 years, and the ballad "The Wind Cries Mary". These three songs were all Top 10 hits. 1967 also saw the release of the group's first album, Are You Experienced?, whose mix of melodic ballads ("Remember"), pop-rock ("Fire"), psychedelia ("Third Stone From The Sun"), and traditional blues ("Red House") would prove the template for much of their later work. Hendrix was taken to hospital suffering burns to his hands after setting his guitar on fire for the first time at the Astoria Theatre in London on March 31, 1967. He was later warned by Rank Theatre management to "tone down" his stage act after causing damage to amplifiers and stage equipment at his shows.
At the instigation of Paul McCartney the band was booked for the Monterey Pop Festival, and the concert, featuring Hendrix's iconic burning and smashing guitar, was immortalized by filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker in his film Monterey Pop. The Monterey festival was seen as a triumphant homecoming. This was followed by a short tour opening for the pop group The Monkees, who asked for him simply because they wanted to see him play. Unfortunately, the Monkees' audience didn't warm to Hendrix and he quit the tour just as "Purple Haze" began to chart. Chas Chandler later admitted that being thrown off The Monkees tour was designed to give maximum media impact and outrage for Hendrix given the complaints from the conservative Daughters of the American Revolution.
Meanwhile back in England, Hendrix's wild-man image and musical gimmickry (such as playing the guitar with his teeth) continued to garner him publicity. 1967 also saw the release of his second album. Axis: Bold as Love was in the vein of the album Are You Experienced, with tracks such as "Little Wing" and "If 6 Was 9" showing his continuing mastery of his instrument. However, increasing personality differences with Noel Redding combined with the influence of drugs and alcohol led to a disastrous tour of Scandinavia. On January 4, 1968, Hendrix was jailed by Stockholm police, after completely trashing a hotel room.
The band's third recording, the double album Electric Ladyland 1968, was more eclectic and experimental, featuring a lengthy blues jam ("Voodoo Child"), the jazz inflected "Rainy Day, Dream Away"/"Still Raining, Still Dreaming", and what is probably the definitive version of Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower". (Hendrix credited British band The Alan Bown for inspiration on the arrangement.) The recording of the album was extremely problematic, with Hendrix's work habits becoming erratic, and a studio filled with his hangers-on causing longtime producer Chandler to quit on December 1, 1968. Chandler complained that Hendrix's insistence on doing multiple takes on every song ("Gypsy Eyes" apparently took 43 takes and he still wasn't satisfied with the result), combined with what he saw as incoherence caused by drugs led to him to sell his share of the management to Mike Jeffrey.
Despite this, many of the album tracks show Hendrix's expansion beyond the scope of the original trio (it is said that the sound of this record would help inspire Miles Davis' sound on Bitches Brew). Due to this expansion of horizons, and a deterioration in his relationship with his bandmates (and particularly Redding), the Experience broke up. His relations with the public also came to a head when on January 4, 1969 he was accused by television producers of being arrogant after playing an impromptu version of "Sunshine of your Love" past his allotted timeslot on the BBC1 show Happening for Lulu. On May 3 he was arrested at Toronto International Airport after heroin was found in his luggage. He was later bailed for $10,000 US. On June 29, Noel Redding formally announced to the media that he had quit the Jimi Hendrix Experience, although he effectively ceased to be with Hendrix during most of the recording of Electric Ladyland.
By August of 1969, however, Hendrix had formed a new band, called Gypsy Suns and Rainbows, in order to play the Woodstock festival. It featured Hendrix on guitar, Billy Cox on bass, Mitch Mitchell on drums, Larry Lee on rhythm guitar and Jerry Velez and Juma Sultan on drums and percussion. The set, while notably under-rehearsed, ragged, and played out to a slowly emptying field of revelers, featured an improvised instrumental version of "The Star Spangled Banner", distorted almost beyond recognition. The rendition has been described by some as a generation's statement on the unrest in US society, and others as an anti-American mockery, oddly symbolic of the beauty, spontaneity, and tragedy that was endemic to Hendrix' life. It was an unforgettable rendition remembered by generations. When asked on the Dick Cavett Show if he was aware of all the outrage he had caused by the performance, Hendrix himself stated simply "I thought it was beautiful."
The Gypsy Suns and Rainbows were short lived, and Hendrix formed a new trio with old friends, the Band of Gypsys, comprising Billy Cox, an old army buddy, on bass and Buddy Miles on drums, for two memorable concerts around New Year 1969/70. His association with Miles however was not to last and ended abruptly during a concert at Madison Square Gardens on January 28, 1970, when Hendrix walked out after playing just two songs, telling the audience "I'm sorry we just can't get it together". Miles later stated during a television interview that Hendrix felt he was losing the spotlight to other musicians. The rest of that year was spent recording sporadically, often with Mitchell, and attempting to carry out the Rainbow Bridge project, an ambitious combination of film/album/concert set in Hawaii. On July 26, Hendrix played at his hometown of Seattle at Sick's Stadium, where under the influence of drugs he started verbally abusing members of the audience.
In August he played at the Isle of Wight festival with Mitchell and Cox, expressing disappointment onstage at his fans' clamor to hear his old hits rather than his new ideas. On September 6, during his final European tour, Hendrix was greeted by booing and jeering by fans while performing at the Fehmarn Festival in Germany in a riot-like atmosphere. Bassist Billy Cox quit the tour and headed back to the United States after reportedly being dosed with PCP (phencyclidine). Hendrix remained in England, and on September 18th, he was found senseless in bed in the flat of his German girlfriend Monika Dannemann after taking too many sleeping pills and choking on his own vomit. He died later in a hospital. His body was returned home and he was interred in the Greenwood Memorial Park, Renton, Washington, USA.
Hendrix's guitar of choice was a right-handed Fender Stratocaster, played upside down. He left behind more than 300 unreleased recordings, and became legendary as one of the 1960s' rock-n-roll musicians who, like Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison, died at a young age.
After Hendrix's death, hundreds of unreleased recordings caused controversy when his manager supervised the mixing, overdubbing, and release of several albums generally considered to be of low quality that Jimi would not have allowed to be released.
In the absence of a will, Jimi's father Al Hendrix inherited Jimi's recordings and royalty rights, and entrusted this estate to an attorney, who allegedly tricked Al into selling these rights to shell companies owned by the attorney. Al sued in 1993 for mismanaging these assets. The litigation was funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, a longtime devoted fan. In a 1995 settlement, Al regained control over all rights. Several albums were then re-mastered from the original tapes and re-released. Al Hendrix died in 2002 at age 82.