Little Richard, Jimi Hendrix, Maurice James and the sprint for stardom
The young Jimi Hendrix didn’t play long with Little Richard, but he used every minute to further his push for fame and recognition. Before long, it was Jimi’s own ambition that curtailed a fabled pairing.
Little Richard performing live, UK, 27 June 1975. Image: Angela Deane-Drummond / Evening Standard/Hulton Archive / Getty Images
“I am the innovator. I am the originator. I am the emancipator. I am the architect of rock ’n’ roll!” The late legend Little Richard knew how to ‘give good quote’, that’s for sure. But he also knew the far-reach of his influence… and his declaration was not some idle boast.
It’s not too often on a rock ’n’ roll musician’s passing that everyone agrees, but it is the case with Richard Wayne Penniman. He really was the architect of rock ’n’ roll. Paul McCartney stole his vocal screams. The young Bob Dylan said his ambition was to be in Richard’s band. Prince dressed like him. But only one six-stringer went further than any and regularly played with him: a young Jimi Hendrix.
Jimi’s time with Richard was on/off, and not without trouble: much like both their very different careers. But it was significant in the development in the life of the man who’ll forever be regarded as the greatest guitar player ever.
Jimi’s brother Leon recalled that the brothers had seen Little Richard, as fans, back in 1959 when Richard was away from showbiz. “His mum and sister lived in Seattle,” said Leon. “I took a bunch of greens over to a neighbour’s house, Mrs Penniman, saw this black limo and Little Richard. I ran home to get Jimi, we rode bikes up there and sat there in awe at him preaching at the Goodwill Baptist Church.” Jimi would have been about 12 or 13.
The two first met on a Little Richard tour stop in Atlanta, Georgia, in December 1964. Richard had already ‘retired’ once in 1957, but he was now back with a vengeance. In some ways, young Jimi’s introduction to his first ‘superstar’ gig was bizarre: he started with only five strings on his Fender Jazzmaster and as a valet to a valet.
Theodopholous Odell George was known as ‘Gorgeous George’ on the Southern R&B circuit because he wore a blond wig like a famous wrestler of the same name, and George would also release a 45 on Stax, The Biggest Fool In Town, produced by Steve Cropper (1965). But at this time, the pompadoured George – as glamorous as Little Richard himself – was valet to Richard’s fellow touring act Hank Ballard And The Midnighters, also a sometimes tour MC/performer, and also helped other tour stars with their needs. The young Jimi befriended George quickly, looking for any opportunity…
Henry Nash, manager of Richard’s touring band The Upsetters, recalled in Charles White’s The Life And Times Of Little Richard biography of 2003, “In Atlanta, George asked me if I would allow Jimi Hendrix to come on the tour as his valet…”
According to Little Richard himself, Hendrix – trying to catch any break he could in the southern States after being let go from his first stint with the Isley Brothers – was stranded and broke. “My bus was parked on Auburn Avenue and Jimi was staying in this small hotel,” Richard told White. “And so he came by to see us. He had watched me work and just loved the way I wore these headbands around my hair and how wild I dressed.”
Things were done properly, though. Richard asked to meet Jimi. “My [existing] guitar player was about his age, and he brought him up to the room … He was about 18 or 19 then.” Another of Richard’s entourage, Bumps Blackwell, actually knew the Hendrix family and phoned them in Seattle. Jimi’s father Al reportedly told Blackwell, “Jimi just idolises Richard. He would eat 10 yards of shit to join his band.”
Nash said, “We gave Jimi the opportunity to load the bus as Gorgeous George’s helper.” Jimi was hired. Nash recalled, “I will never forget Jimi loading his belongings on the bus. His guitar was wrapped in a potato sack. It only had five strings on it.
“Well, we left Atlanta for Greenville, South Carolina. After the concert that night, we went to an after-hours club and began working the after-the-concert date. George talked me into allowing Jimi to sit in with The Upsetters. He played the entire night with only five strings to his guitar. He made a good impression on the band, though, and they welcomed having him onstage with them. So throughout the tour, whenever we would have after-hours dates to play, Jimi would sit in and I would allow him to.”
Richard’s band of that time became billed not as The Upsetters, but The Crown Jewels and/or The Royal Company. Notably, as the latter, they wore military-style jackets (see Are You Experienced-era Hendrix).
It’s unclear just how many times Hendrix actually backed Richard. Some of it would have been these ‘after-hours’ shows along the tour, others more formal headliners: as a then-unknown backing guitarist, few in the audience would have been taking notes. But BB King recalled meeting Jimi in January 1965 as part of Little Richard’s band, and Jimi himself wrote a postcard to father Al (dated 25 Jan 1965). “Dearest Dad, I received your letter while I was in Atlanta. I’m playing with Little Richard now – we’re going toward the West Coast. We’re in Louisiana now. But my address will be Los Angeles when I write again. Jimmy.”
Every minute, Jimi was pushing hard to become a showman in his own right. John Goddard was a photographer and fan of Little Richard who was at the San Francisco show of Feb 1965. “My favourite Fillmore show,” Goddard later reminisced. “I remember [Jimi] because he played with his teeth and behind his neck, but to me that night, he was just this guitar player who kept getting in the way of me taking pictures of Little Richard!”
Richard seemed to like Jimi’s style, though, and Henry Nash also liked what he brought to the band. “Jimi, to me, was never a precision guitarist. I know he was not a reading musician in those days, though he played well by ear. I regarded him as being innovative, creative and something of a stylist. He would sometimes play with his teeth and then put the guitar behind his neck and play with his fingers. This brought raves from the audience. Once the tour ended I didn’t see any more of Jimi and I don’t know whether he went back to Atlanta with George…”
One thing that may well have flawed Jimi’s time with Richard was his desire to get around as much as possible, as he also reportedly played with Ike and Tina Turner around this time, as well as with Rosa Lee Brooks on My Diary (Revis Records 45).
Richard’s brother Marquette Penniman told Charles White: “Richard didn’t hide Jimi. He used to allow him to do that playing with his teeth and take solos, it became part of the act… The only thing he wouldn’t allow his musicians to do was play at some other places when we were in town to do a show. Richard was a little strict with the band. Sometimes, on off nights, the guys would want to appear in places, to sit in, and Richard would say: ‘No. No. Tomorrow night you’re going onstage with me and I want it to be a whole new thing. I don’t want people to say, ‘Oh, yes, those are the same guys we saw last night over at such-and-such a club… Richard must have picked them up. They’re not his band.’ Maybe that’s what they mean by saying Richard suppressed his musicians. He would limit them by saying: ‘You work for me.’”
Marquette Penniman also insisted it was Jimi who got the most from the relationship. “Richard taught Hendrix a lot of things, and Hendrix copied a lot from Richard. That’s where he got the charisma. Richard used to say, ‘Look, don’t be ashamed to do whatever you feel. The people can tell if you’re phoney. They can feel it out in the audience. I don’t care if you’re wild. I don’t care if you’re quiet. They’ll know if you’re putting yourself into it, whatever it is.’”
Hosea Wilson, Little Richard road manager, insists that “Richard brought Hendrix out. Helped him a lot to be what he became.” A few years later, Hendrix himself said: “I want to do with my guitar what Little Richard does with his voice.”
In time, though, Jimi grew unhappy with the set-up, even though he loved to play with Richard. Sometimes Richard would take a plane from one venue to the next, while his band travelled by bus. Jimi started flouting rules and, some say, was deliberately bad at time-keeping. It was Richard’s brother, Robert, managing the whole tour package, who decided he had to go.
Robert Penniman: “I fired Hendrix, who was using the name Maurice James all the time I knew him. He was a damn good guitar player, but the guy was never on time. He was always late for the bus and flirting with all the girls and stuff like that. It came to a head in New York, where we had been playing the Apollo and Hendrix missed the bus for Washington DC.”
Little Richard himself opined, “Jimi Hendrix’s problem was women. He liked a lot of women. He’d meet women, and he’d forget what he had to do… He’d be hypnotised! Oooh, she’d take over the whole system.”
Robert Penniman phoned Jimi back in NYC from Washington DC and delivered the bad news, in May 1965: “We had some words. I was running the road for Richard and I didn’t accept that kind of bullshit.” Richard and Jimi were not known to speak again before Hendrix’s death.
Don’t get overly excited about ‘lost recordings’, either. Hendrix is pretty certainly on one Little Richard 45, I Don’t Know What You’ve Got (But It’s Got Me) (Vee-Jay, 1965), along with pianist Billy Preston and drummer Bernard Purdie. He’s also somewhere on Dancing All Around the World, also 1965. But a whole album, Friends From The Beginning – Little Richard & Jimi Hendrix is bogus – some of the tracks date from 1971 (Hendrix was dead!), and some believe half of it isn’t even Little Richard!
It was a short and frenzied episode, ultimately, and only made sense to Robert Penniman a couple of years later. While on a plane, the headset entertainment programme featured this new star, Jimi Hendrix, whom Robert had read was “making like a hundred thousand dollars for 45 minutes.” When Robert later mentioned Hendrix to Little Richard, the singer said, “‘Robert, do you know who that is?’ He let me hang for a couple of minutes, then he said, ‘That’s Maurice James’. I never related Jimi Hendrix to Maurice James until then.”
Get the latest news, reviews and features to your inbox.Subscribe