Curious Nashville: Why Did Jimi Hendrix Play Jefferson Street?

Jan 4, 2017

This is a shortened version that aired Wednesday, Jan. 4. For the complete Curious Nashville podcast episode about Jefferson Street's R&B scene, click here.

Before he was an international superstar, Jimi Hendrix spent a year on Nashville's Jefferson Street. It's a chapter in the guitar legend's biography that's often glossed over.

Our question comes from Curious Nashville listener Joe Gramelspacher:

I understand that Jimi Hendrix played on Jefferson Street. What is the musical history of Jefferson Street?

Half a century has passed since the nightclubs on Jefferson Street shut down. But for people like Lorenzo Washington, it still seems like yesterday.

"This street used to be the mecca of music — live music — back in the day."

Places with names like the Club Baron, the Stealaway, the Black Diamond…

"Some of the biggest stars: Ray Charles, Duke Ellington. Duke Ellington played at the Del Morocco," Washington says.

It was dinner club elegant enough to attract luminaries like Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson, yet gritty enough to feature burlesque dancers.

Jefferson Street attracted all kinds of musical styles — Jazz. Soul. Blues.

It was a scene that produced several hits. Songs like the Prisonaires' "Just Walkin' in the Rain," the first recording of "Everlasting Love," and the song "Sunny," which Bobby Hebb wrote, sang and took to No. 2 on the pop charts.

And Jefferson Street was the place where, for a year in the early 1960s, the Del Morocco's house band featured a then-unknown guitarist named Jimi Hendrix.

Washington keeps a photo of Hendrix on the wall of his Jefferson Street recording studio, though it can be missed on first glance. Hendrix is clean-shaven, and his hair is conked back. And he's wearing a sharp-looking suit — pretty much the opposite of the mystic hippie Hendrix would become later.

"He was a young man at that time," Washington recalls. "Right out of the military."

It was the fall of 1962, and Hendrix was wrapping up a stint jumping out of airplanes with the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell. Any time he was free, he played Clarksville's bars.

That's how the Del Morocco's owners heard about him. They invited Hendrix and a bassist he'd met in the Army named Billy Cox down to Nashville for an audition.

"Really, he wanted to make his break to New York, Chicago, L.A. — a larger city than Nashville," Cox recalls. "I said, 'Well, we got to start somewhere.'"

Cox still lives in Nashville and performs with the Experience Hendrix Tour.

"So with a little convincing, we wound up in Nashville, Tennessee."

It's a fateful decision that North Nashville now celebrates. Hendrix's image has popped up on businesses all along Jefferson Street. And there's an effort to preserve the only venue still standing on Jefferson Street where Hendrix played — though it's now an Elks Lodge, not a nightclub.

'Jimi was an innovator'

By most accounts, Hendrix butted heads with the musicians on Jefferson Street. His sound was already vastly different.

"Jimi was an innovator. He would do things on stage and on his guitar that nobody else around here would think about doing," says Frank Howard, a singer who performed and recorded with Hendrix. "You don't be playing and grab your guitar and start picking with your teeth when you're in the middle of somebody else's show. And I don't think he did it showboating. I just think it was him. That was his personality. That was Jimi."

Hendrix was not thought of as a budding guitar hero. More admired was a West Tennessee blues guitarist named Johnny Jones. Even Hendrix would swing through the clubs when Jones played, taking note of his solos.

There's even story that they squared off in a guitar duel. And that Jones won.

"Hendrix would sit there and watch and he’d say, 'How you do that? How you do that?'" Howard says. "Johnny would tell him, but Johnny would tell him also, 'You'll never be the guitar player I am, because I am the best.'"

Nashville wasn’t the right fit for Hendrix. So in the fall of 1963, after only a year here, he hit the road, becoming one of the many great African-American musicians who honed their crafts on Jefferson Street before bursting into stardom.