'Jimi Hendrix: American Masters': 'He squeezed a lot of life into four years'

jimi-hendrix-american-masters-pbs-325.jpgProbably the most enduring image of Jimi Hendrix is of him onstage at Woodstock, performing "The Star-Spangled Banner" -- complete with rockets' red glare -- before a muddy field full of drugged-out hippies.

But the pioneering blues/rock guitarist who played that August 1969 morning in upstate New York has a rich back story, and it's told in "Jimi Hendrix: American Masters," premiering Tuesday, Nov. 5, on PBS (check local listings).

"From when he came to London in September of 1966, (Hendrix's recording career lasted) like four years, four albums, numerous tours," notes Bob Smeaton, the film's director to Zap2it. "And you forget, when he came [to London], he was like 23 years old, and then he died at 27. And now you think of someone at 27 years old like a young kid. And you think he'd done so much in such a short space of time. ... He squeezed a lot of life into four years."

The film tells how the Seattle-bred Hendrix, who taught himself to play by ear on a discarded ukulele at age 15, did a two-year stint in the Army in the early 1960s, then joined bands and went on the "chitlin circuit," a series of venues frequented by African-American performers during racial segregation.

By 1964, he was in the studio recording with the Isley Brothers, and in 1966 he launched the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Word got out quickly that this was an extraordinary talent who should be seen.

"You know, he didn't do 'The Ed Sullivan Show'; he never had the nationwide big push. It was basically through touring and records," Smeaton says. "I think it was Paul McCartney who said, 'It was very much word of mouth.' "

Hendrix's star burned very brightly until Sept. 18, 1970, when he accidentally overdosed on sleeping pills in London.

Smeaton speculates that if Hendrix were alive today, he'd still be working.

"He wanted to play the blues," he says. "He would have reverted back to playing the blues -- maybe some sort of psychedelic blues or electric blues. And I think he would have been a 70-year-old guy playing in a club in London ... playing blues, playing 'Hear My Train a Comin'.' "
Photo/Video credit: PBS