Mitch Mitchell (pictured above, left), who died in Portland, Oregon in 2008 – just a few days after featuring on the ‘Experience Hendrix Tour’ alongside Doors guitarist Robbie Krieger and bluesman Buddy Guy – only took up playing the drums after a promising start to his first career as a child actor, during which he appeared in Emergency – Ward 10, and as an ‘Ovalteenie’ in TV adverts.
Having taught himself to play the drums, and stints with the likes of Screaming Lord Sutch, The Tornados and Johnny Kidd and The Pirates, he finally ditched acting for music in 1965 when he landed a job in Georgie Fame’s Blue Flames, the most respected R&B band in London at the time.
Fame disbanded his group the following year to concentrate on a solo career. Five days later Mitchell received a call from Chas Chandler to see if he fancied playing with a guitarist who the former Animals‘ bassist had discovered and brought over from America.
Not for the first time, British music lovers proved far more responsive to black American talent than the Americans themselves, and within a few days of their first showcase gigs, The Jimi Hendrix Experience – with bassist Noel Redding completing the trio – were the sensation of Swinging London.
Guitar heroes such as Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and Pete Townshend were left agog at the newcomer’s extraordinary talent, while Eric Clapton was apparently so traumatised by the experience of jamming with Hendrix that he contemplated giving up the guitar altogether.
A string of classic hits, including Purple Haze and All Along The Watchtower, was accompanied by albums that broadened the group’s approach, ranging from blues-rock (Are You Experienced?) through outright psychedelia (Axis: Bold As Love) to a rich melange of long, bluesy jams, punchy R&B, exotic space-rock and wah-wah guitar showcases (Electric Ladyland).
Mitchell kept pace with Hendrix every step of the way, but during the Black Power era, Hendrix’s decision to involve more black musicians, and the entourage that began to accumulate around him, left Mitch feeling increasingly uneasy as the token honky, so he quit.
But in the wake of Jimi’s death, Mitchell’s career waned inexplicably as he struggled to find the right setting for his distinctive talents.
The problem was his sheer percussive presence, a situation brought into sharp relief when he failed auditions for the drum seat in Paul McCartney‘s new band, Wings – on the grounds that his playing was simply too busy.
Sadly, Mitch had turned down the opportunity to join Keith Emerson and Greg Lake in their proposed new ‘supergroup’ (ELM anyone?) shortly before Jimi’s death, and he may have been too proud or too tasteful to join the lesser heavy metal acts that flourished in the wake of Cream and The Experience.
Unfortunately, the appalling contracts that restricted Redding and Mitchell to the role of hired hands meant that neither received due recompense for recording with The Experience.
By 1990, Mitchell was in such dire straits that he was forced to auction off a guitar given to him by Hendrix. It fetched £180,000. Not bad, but nowhere near what he deserved.