Yesterday Mitch Mitchell died, the last surviving member of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, a band that changed rock & roll music forever. The band consisted of Jimi Hendrix on guitar and vocals, Mitch Mitchell on drums and Noel Redding on bass and beginning in 1967, made three studio albums of music that would still sound fresh, new, and innovative if they were released tomorrow. The Jimi Hendrix Experience was a sensation not only with music fans but with their fellow musicians. The combination of Jimi Hendrix’ innovative guitar work and Mr. Mitchell’s propulsive and sensational drumming laid over Noel Redding’s solid bass lines redefined the rock band. They didn’t just expand the definition, they did away with any attempt to pigeonhole their music. It was Hendrix music, period, and it was great.
And for all the well-deserved acclaim given to Jimi Hendrix, he was not the only architect of his distinct sound. Mitchell’s drumming was a unique hybrid of jazz and rock & roll drumming that was at once rhythmic and daring and at the same time dead square on the beat and muscularly locomotive in it’s power. The Jimi Hendrix Experience was often called free-form in acknowledgement of the daring places it took the listener but the twin sherriffs of Mitchell on drums and the solid Noel Redding on bass laid down the law and kept order in town and forced the listener’s foot to tap squarely in rock & roll four-four time. Upon that solid foundation Hendrix was free to build his electric guitar castles in the air. If that sounds like a contradiction, it was, and yet it worked, and that was the beauty of the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
Drummers ever since have considered Mitch Mitchell one of the true giants of percussion, a man who was all at once a solid drummer and an adventurous percussionist, his work sounding like that of two very busy musicians. But it was just him, a pale, skinny Englishman with outrageous hair and wild clothes flailing away behind a half dozen drums and cymbals, creating sinuous rhythms that seemed sometimes on the verge of getting away from him but never did. The man played the song, never doing more than was necessary and his playing always perfectly complementing the material. He was a musician’s musician, never showing off what he knew just because he could, but serving the song at hand, quiet if it was called for, wild and off-the-wall if required, and always superbly tasteful and unique to himself.
Many of his drum riffs became an integral part of the compositions, like in “Manic Depression,” “Fire” or the ballad “Little Wing,” to name but a bare handful. When Jimi Hendrix turned his guitar sound inside out on songs like his great cover of Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower,” Mitchell was the rock of Gibraltar holding back the raging sea, but also subtly playing with the beat right in synch with Jimi’s guitar safaris to uncharted territory. Not many drummers could go where Jimi Hendrix went, but Mitch Mitchell could and did, his partner on stage and in the studio as an explorer, a musician and an innovator. Many times Hendrix would record basic tracks with just himself and Mitchell playing and feeding off each other to see where the music would take them, an unusual approach but a rewarding collaboratin.
Jimi died at only 27 years old, but along with Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding, who passed away in 2003, these three men created some of the best rock & roll music ever created from 1967 to 1969. The 3 studio albums this trio recorded were: “Are You Experienced,” “Electric Ladyland” and “Axis: Bold as Love.” After Noel Redding left the group in 1969 Mitchell recorded 3 more albums with Hendrix, continuing to grow and build on the Jimi Hendrix Experience sound with “Cry of Love,” “Rainbow Bridge” and “War Heroes.” These were released after Jimi’s untimely death in September of 1970, drawing on the wealth of unreleased Hendrix tracks.
Mitch Mitchell was 61 years old and had just finished playing a show of Hendrix material when he was found dead of natural causes in a Portland, Oregon hotel room. He never stopped playing drums and never stopped loving what he did for a living. The rest of us will never stop being in awe of his skill, his passion and his bold innovation. Bold as Love, indeed. Thank you Mitch Mitchell. You gave a lot more than you got, and there is no better legacy.