On February 20th, 1959 Jimi Hendrix, a 16-year-old high school student, played his first public gig with a band in the basement of Temple De Hirsch, a Reform synagogue in Seattle, Washington.
According to Loudersound.com, in that era, Jimi wasn’t even Jimi. Back then he was known as James to his high school teachers, Jimmy to his family, and Butch to many of his musician friends.
“Butch was his nickname for a while,” recalled Sammy Drain, who grew up down the street from Jimi, “because he was so shy. But he wasn’t shy about learning licks from other guys.”
Hendrix had only got his electric guitar the previous year, and at 16, he wasn’t even considered the best guitar player on his street.
He’d jammed with the neighbourhood boys in garages and at community centres, but had never done an actual gig before a few older high-school boys asked him if he could play at a dance at Temple De Hirsch Sinai and Jimi had said yes.
Drain didn’t attend that first show, but Jimi’s girlfriend, Carmen Goudy, did. She remembers him being extremely nervous, with none of the confidence that later would mark his storming of London stages in 1966 when he became a star. “Do you really think I’ll have fans?” Jimi nervously asked her before the show. Goudy says he was so nervous she thought he might throw up.
He had a reason to be anxious. Hendrix had only been playing the electric guitar for a bit over a year by then, and despite showing intuition for the instrument, according to his childhood friends, he still wasn’t particularly good. His playing was often untethered, as if he hadn’t come to terms with this unwieldy machine. His erratic playing was accentuated by the fact that bands only succeeded in that day by playing popular dance numbers, which weren’t Jimi’s forte. Dave Lewis, one of Seattle’s most accomplished bandleaders, once recalled a time when Jimi sat in with his band: “He would play this wild stuff, but the people couldn’t dance to it. They just stared at him.”
Before the synagogue gig, Hendrix paced the hall of the building with his guitar strapped on, as if in his head he was already rehearsing what he planned to do. It would be a huge leap from jamming with neighbourhood boys to playing for an audience that didn’t know him – and one that needed to be entertained. For a kid who grew up in abject poverty, dreaming of music as a career, the idea of a paying gig was also a heady elixir.
Goudy remembers what happened when the show started, and how quickly things went awry. “During the first set, Jimi did his thing,” Goudy recalled. “He did all this wild playing. And when they introduced the band members and the spotlight was on him he became even wilder.”
When the set ended, Goudy went to the back of the building to find Jimi to congratulate him on such an exemplary performance. But he was nowhere to be found. She searched the entire building. Finally she left, and saw him in an alley behind the synagogue. She would recall years later that he looked as if he was moments away from tears. He’d been fired. The bandleader had said he was simply too wild, and that the way he played interfered with the crowd’s dancing.
The synagogue was at 15th and Union, which was only a few shorts blocks north of where Jimi lived at the time, but rather than walk home he simply sat down in the alley, despondent. For over an hour, Goudy recalled, he recounted every aspect of his short appearance on stage, frustrated that what he thought was an extraordinary performance had not been well-received by the audience, or by the bandmates he thought he was joining up with, writes Loudersound.com.