Mitch Mitchell 13 Nov 2008
"Mitch Mitchell, who has died aged 61, was the drummer with the Jimi Hendrix Experience and the last surviving member of the trio which proved one of the most influential bands in rock music"
Mitchell, who had studied the examples of Max Roach and Elvin Jones, melded jazz and rock styles into what was to become known as “fusion”. His free and explosive technique made the drums a force in their own right rather than merely a rhythmic support to the lead guitar of Hendrix and the bass of Noel Redding.
John Mitchell was born at Ealing, west London, on July 9 1947, and started off his showbusiness career as a child actor on the television series Jennings At School. But his love of jazz and pop music was paramount, and his skills on the drums were largely self-taught. While still in his teens he was working as a session musician with groups such as Johnny Harris and the Shades, the Pretty Things and the Riot Squad. In 1965 he began to attract notice playing with Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames.
At about this time Jimi Hendrix was discovered in a club in New York and was brought over to London by Chas Chandler, formerly of the Animals but now embarking on a career as a manager. Chandler hired Noel Redding to play bass, then telephoned Mitchell to offer him the role as drummer. “We met in this sleazy little club,” Mitchell later recalled, “and [Jimi] was this guy in a Burberry raincoat. We did some Chuck Berry and took it from there.” At first Mitchell had no great expectations, thinking that he would “have a go” for two weeks.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience held its first rehearsal on October 6 1966, and almost immediately made its live debut opening for Johnny Hallyday on a short French tour. On the tour they played their version of Hey Joe (a song written by Billy Roberts) and two months later released it as a single which made the British Top Ten.
The band then signed to Track Records, the label launched by The Who’s managers Chris Stamp and Kit Lambert, and put out Purple Haze (which reached No 3 in May 1967 and became one of the anthems of the “love generation”) before embarking on a tour of Britain.
Their debut album, Are You Experienced?, reached No 2 — and would no doubt have attained the top spot had it not been in competition with the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper. The band gave a memorable performance at the 1967 Monterey pop festival — at which Hendrix famously set fire to his guitar — and at the end of the year released the album Axis: Bold As Love.
The double-album Electric Ladyland (which featured Crosstown Traffic and Voodoo Chile) came out in 1968 and went to the top of the American charts. By now the Jimi Hendrix Experience was among the world’s most successful and flamboyant groups, and they dressed to concur: dandyish psychedelic shirts and jackets, voluminous flares and big hair (Mitchell, it was said, had to submit to a perm).
In September they had a hit with their cover of Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower, but the end of their success was in sight: all three members of the group were drained by the relentless travel, lack of sleep and prodigious quantities of drugs. During a tour of the United States they had given 54 concerts in the space of only 47 days.
Chandler, their manager, had walked out during the recording of Electric Ladyland. Mitchell and Redding also left the band, although in 1969 Mitchell played with Hendrix at Woodstock. In 1970 he briefly rejoined Hendrix, who had formed the Band of Gypsys with Buddy Miles and Billy Cox, and appeared with him at the Isle of Wight festival.
Hendrix died at his girlfriend’s London flat as a result of choking on his own vomit in September 1970 at the age of only 27. Afterwards Mitchell helped to complete the production work on various Hendrix recordings, resulting in the posthumous releases Cry of Love and Rainbow Bridge (both 1971). The following year he teamed up with April Lawton and Mike Pinera (later of Iron Butterfly) to form Ramatam, but left shortly after recording a first album.
According to Eddie Kramer, in his book Hendrix: Setting the Record Straight, both Mitchell and Noel Redding were paid employees in the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and therefore had little share in the group’s future revenues. In the 1970s, strapped for cash, Mitchell sold his small claim to future Hendrix record sales for an estimated $200,000; and in 1990 he sold at auction a Fender stratocaster given to him by Hendrix two weeks before his death; it fetched £180,000 at Sotheby’s.
In 1994 Mitchell was confronted with a legal bill of some £100,000 after he unsuccessfully sued for libel the author of a book of about Hendrix.
Mitchell had auditioned for Paul McCartney’s band Wings in 1974, but was not taken on. He continued to perform with various artists, including Jack Bruce (the former bassist with Cream) and Jeff Beck, and also to undertake session work. Recently he was part of the Gypsy Sun Experience band, along with the former Hendrix bassist Billy Cox and the guitarist Gary Serkin.
Noel Redding died, aged 57, in 2003, leaving Mitchell the only surviving member of the Experience. Before his death Mitchell had just completed the Experience Hendrix Tour in the United States alongside artists such as the blues guitarist Buddy Guy and Robby Krieger from the Doors. He said recently: “I’m one of those really lucky people that still loves playing drums. If it gets to be work, I won’t do it.”
Mitch Mitchell was found dead on Wednesday in his hotel room at Portland, Oregon, where the band had appeared last Friday. He is survived by his wife, Dee, and a daughter