Updated Thursday, November 15, 2012 at 01:16 PM
When Jimi Hendrix arrived in London in 1966, he was a complete unknown in England. Hendrix had spent the first two-thirds of his life in Seattle and later developed a minor reputation on the South's "chitlin' circuit," but fame still eluded him. Two weeks after arriving in England, he was a star. His life, and rock music as well, was transformed.
A new exhibit opening this weekend at EMP Museum chronicles Hendrix's rise to stardom. "Hear My Train a Comin': Hendrix Hits London" strives to give a sense of history being made, and it largely succeeds.
"Through luck, fate and talent, Jimi was able to go from being a nobody to the top of the charts in a few weeks," EMP senior curator Jacob McMurray said.
As McMurray spoke, he was supervising the assembly of more than 150 artifacts into display cases. It is an exhibit so large it stretches over two rooms. It includes a never-before-seen 15-minute silent film of Hendrix, whose image appears larger than life when displayed on a wall.
Though Hendrix memorabilia has always been central to EMP — Paul Allen initially conceived of the museum as only about Jimi — "Hendrix Hits London" is more era-specific than anything EMP has ever mounted. It focuses on the nine-month span from September 1966 to Hendrix's June 1967 Monterey Pop concert.
"During that short time, he played 120 concerts, recorded an album and did television and radio appearances," McMurray said. "It was almost nonstop."
A color-coded map on the exhibit wall, similar to the London tube map, pinpoints Jimi's concert locations.
An abbreviated version of "Hendrix Hits London" was on view in London during the Olympics, but McMurray has since fleshed that out. The show now includes a number of items from the collection of the late Mitch Mitchell, Hendrix's drummer.
"When Mitch died, his widow Dee ended up giving us access to his stuff," McMurray said. "Mitch saved so many things, and we're showing these to the public for the first time."
Some of the most insightful artifacts from Mitchell's collection are fan letters from teenage girls. One series by superfan "Marion" shows the innocence of the band at the time: "Congratulations, your record 'Purple Haze' is Number Eleven already! I'm very proud of you!"
Hendrix, Mitchell and bass player Noel Redding were accessible in this age, and the very fact that Mitchell kept these letters illustrates that their fans mattered to them. They even dressed to impress them, and one wall of the exhibit is devoted to Mitchell's outlandish stage outfits.
If there is a single miscue to this show, it's that EMP didn't find a way to give Redding equal billing with Jimi and Mitchell.
But most fans who witnessed Hendrix during those magical nine months, even "Marion," probably came away thinking mostly of Jimi's guitar playing. "Hendrix Hits London" includes a shard from one of the first times Jimi smashed an instrument.
"Hear My Train a Comin': Hendrix Hits London" will remain on display at EMP for the next three years, McMurray said. And though that gives ample time for fans to see it, don't wait that long. Like the extraordinary rise of Jimi Hendrix through the London club scene, this is not something to be missed.
'Hear My Train a Comin': Hendrix Hits London'10 a.m. Saturday through 2015 at EMP Museum, 325 Fifth Ave. N., Seattle; $14-$20 (206-770-2700 or www.empsfm.org).
'Hear My Train a Comin': The Concert'With Billy Cox, Ian Moore, Ernie Isley, Eric Gales, Mike McCready, Vernon Reid, Duff McKagan, Brandi Carlile, Audley Freed, Jeff Fielder, Barrett Martin and Mike Musburger playing the songs of Jimi Hendrix. 8 p.m. Saturday at EMP Museum, 325 Fifth Ave. N., Seattle; $25-$30 (206-770-2700 or www.empsfm.org).
COURTESY OF EMP
An exhibit poster advertising a Jimi Hendrix Experience concert in London in 1967.
Jimi Hendrix smashed this guitar on June 4, 1967, at the Saville Theatre, to mark his final show in London. On the back of the guitar he painted a poem that incorporates the lyrics to his song "Love or Confusion," with an allusion to his guitar as a loving sacrifice.