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Jimmy James & the Hendrix experience

Published:Tuesday | July 27, 2010 | 12:00 AM
Jimmy James
Jim Hendrix
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Howard Campbell, Gleaner Writer

In early 1967, singer Jimmy James and his band, The Vagabonds, were backstage at the Beachcomber ballroom in Nottingham, England, chatting and jamming with an American guitarist before their performance.

"The thing that struck me about him was apart from being a really cool guy, he was an amazing jazz player," James told The Gleaner last week from his home in Harrow, London.

The guitarist's name? Jimi Hendrix.

James, who is one of the honourees at Saturday's Tribute To The Greats show, said he and the Vagabonds shared several bills with Hendrix's band, The Experience, during the late 1960s when they were both trying to establish themselves.

"We used to hang out a lot at clubs like the Bag O' Nails, the Cromwellian and Whiskey A Go Go. A great guy, very quiet and unassuming," James, now 70, recalled.

The bluesy Hendrix is rated by musicians and music critics alike as the greatest guitarist ever. He was a pivotal figure in the psychedelic scene of the 1960s, along with the Rolling Stones, The Who, The Doors and Janis Joplin.

James' Hendrix link is confirmed by show posters in The Hendrix Experience, a 1998 book written by former Experience drummer, Mitch Mitchell. The Vagabonds and the Experience also played the Ricky Tick and Upper Cut clubs in London in December 1966 and January 1967, respectively.

Hendrix had been a sideman with Little Richard and the Isley Brothers, but was a struggling musician when he went to England in late 1966. In six months, he was a superstar, recording the seminal Are You Experienced? album while living in England.

He died from a drug overdose in London in September 1970.

Solid reputation

The St Ann-born James and his Vagabonds forged a solid reputation on the Kingston live scene in the early 1960s, and also recorded for producers like Clement 'Coxson' Dodd.

They moved to England and were signed to Pye Records, which was also home to a promising singer named Rod Stewart.

"When we first came to London, we were given the unique opportunity to headline every Tuesday night at the Marquee Club," James said. "Rod Stewart was also playing there with his then group The Steam Packet. As fellow musicians who respected each other's music, we developed a great friendship and spent many long hours together chatting and having a few drinks, sometimes too many."

Vagabonds guitarist Phil Chen went on to play bass with Stewart. He played bass on Do Ya Think I'm Sexy, one of the singer's biggest hits.

The ska (or blue beat) sound the Vagabonds played was popular in London's underground through singers like Laurel Aitken and Owen Grey. James went solo with Pye, scoring a minor hit with a cover of Neil Diamond's Red Red Wine in 1969.

James had a British hit in 1976 with the disco song, I'll Go Where The Music Takes Me. He still performs.

"Thankfully, I am still busy. My venues vary from the Bourne Leisure chain of Holiday Resorts (Britain's largest) to ships for the P&O Cruise Lines," he said.