The bond between Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton was brief but passionate. Before Jimi Hendrix’s sad death, it was obvious the two guitarists were similar in their approaches to the instrument and were fully aware of each other’s prowess. Their initial encounter, though, wasn’t exactly straightforward. Regardless, it was a turning point that altered music for all time. the occasion of Jimi Hendrix’s 1966 arrival on the gloomy beaches of small-town England as a savior of the counterculture.
The public in Britain was not prepared to encounter the young American’s crazy style of spiraling, multicolored musical enchantment. In his debut performance on English soil, Jimi Hendrix upended the status quo and won over Eric Clapton, the nation’s reigning guitar king, who looked on as he was essentially deposed. The fact that Eric Clapton, a well-known competitor, was content to let Jimi Hendrix command the stage demonstrates the high regard he had for the musician and the bond they would develop. It all started at a drab polytechnic in London.
Hendrix accepted Chas Chandler’s invitation on September 24th, 1966, and departed for a thrilling new life in London. The Jimi Hendrix Experience was created as a result of Chandler’s quick recruitment of musicians for a group that would maximize Hendrix’s extraordinary talent. When Hendrix first arrived in London, nobody knew who he was; but, within a few days, that would drastically alter. Hendrix’s soaring confidence started to permeate the music industry as soon as the guitarist stepped off the plane and even before he played a headline gig. Prior to the advent of Hendrix, Clapton’s band Cream was occupying its rightful position atop the London music scene, and, to be honest, nobody else was at Clapton’s level.
Hendrix took the stage one week after deciding to go to London. Although Hendrix wouldn’t perform live for the first time in a few days, he was prepared to raise the stakes. It was the night when Hendrix and guitarist Eric Clapton first met when Chandler escorted Hendrix to the London Polytechnic on Regent Street, where Cream were scheduled to perform. Later, Clapton noted that when they first met, Hendrix wasn’t reserved. He said, “He asked if he could play a couple of numbers. I said, ‘Of course’, but I had a funny feeling about him.”
Hendrix entered the stage during the middle of Cream’s performance and sang a frantic rendition of the Howlin’ Wolf song “Killing Floor.” Later, in 1989, Clapton recalled the performance as follows: “He played just about every style you could think of, and not in a flashy way. I mean he did a few of his tricks, like playing with his teeth and behind his back, but it wasn’t in an upstaging sense at all, and that was it… He walked off, and my life was never the same again.”
He added, “It was funny, in those days, anybody could get up with anybody if you were convincing enough that you could play. He got up and blew everyone’s mind. I just thought ‘ahh, someone that plays the stuff I love in the flesh, on stage with me. ’I was actually privileged to be (on stage with him)… it’s something that no one is ever going to beat; that incident, that night, it’s historic in my mind but only a few people are alive that would remember it.”
The two granite pillars started a special connection on this particular evening. They would have a special relationship that would last until Hendrix’s terrible death on September 18, 1970. After the demise of their icon, the whole rock ‘n’ roll community was in grief. Fans, musicians, and everyone in between were left in a state of denial about his passing and the fact that there would always be a gaping Hendrix-shaped hole in their hearts. Eric Clapton, though, was maybe the hardest impacted.
Later, Clapton thought back on the profound sorrow he felt at losing his buddy and how, on the tragic night of Hendrix’s passing, they had planned to spend out together. Clapton said, “After Jimi died, I was angry. I was incredibly angry. I thought it was, not selfish on his part but just erm, a lonely feeling—to be left alone. And after that, I kept running into people who kept shoving him down my throat ‘Have you heard this one he did, this one’s never been on record before’.”
“To see these young kids playing the guitar coming up and saying ‘Have you heard this one’ or ‘I can do all this’. Forget it, mate. It’s been done, It’s the same with Robert Johnson. I won’t listen to Robert Johnson in mixed company. I won’t put him on, I won’t listen to him if there’s anyone there who don’t feel it. And that’s how I feel about Jimi. I knew him, I knew him and I played with him and I loved his music. But I don’t ever wanna hear anything said about him again.”
From that point on, Clapton is left wondering what would have happened to Jimi and whether things would have turned out differently if he had been able to see him as planned on the night of his passing. “The night that he died I was supposed to meet him at the Lyceum to see Sly Stone play, and I brought with me a left-handed Stratocaster. I just found it, I think I bought it at Orange Music. I’d never seen one before and I was gonna give it to him.”
“He was in a box over there and I was in a box over here. I could see him but I couldn’t… we never got together. The next day, whack! He was gone. And I was left with that left-handed Stratocaster.”
The story of Jimi Hendrix is drenched in tragedy, and Clapton has been plagued by melancholy for the past 50 years. Fans of music have had a difficult time accepting Hendrix’s passing, let alone an artist like Clapton who was so important to Hendrix’s tale. He made him the buzz of London, helped him integrate into a foreign culture, and gladly gave up his stage so that Hendrix could perform. It’s difficult to estimate how significant Hendrix would have been without Clapton and how much Eric was affected by Jimi’s passing. The bond they enjoyed cannot be tarnished by time, much like Hendrix’s music.