Gary James' Interview With Jimi Hendrix Tribute Artist
Jimy Bleu has been paying tribute to Jimi Hendrix for over forty-five years! He started with Voodoo Child Revue and now with Kiss The Sky. He is the longest running Hendrix tribute artist in the world. Jimy has performed in major venues across the globe including MTV's Rock The Vote tour, the Atlantic Pop Festival, on the BBC, for PBS, and opened for Foghat, Aerosmith, Graham Central Station, Issac Hayes, Al Green, Brook Benton, Wilson Pickett, Slade and The J. Geils Band. He's also produced and starred in an off-Broadway play based on Jimi Hendrix's life. And that's just half of the Jimi Bleu story! We talked with Jimy Bleu about his one of a kind tribute to Jimi Hendrix.
Q - Jimy, you're in a very special category as tribute artists go. You actually met the man you're portraying. You met Jimi Hendrix in 1968 at Warner Reprise Records. How did that meeting come about?
A - I was a student at Performing Arts High School. The movie Fame was based on that high school. I was playing guitar. It was my secondary instrument. But I was doing a James Brown tribute. I've been dong that since junior high school. So I was really concentrating on that even when I went to high school. There was a girl I was chasing who was actually a groupie from Led Zeppelin and all these bands once they came into New York. She was in the Hendrix fan club. She came into our school one day wearing a button that said "Official Jimi Hendrix Fan Club, Warner Reprise Records." So, I was a little familiar with Hendrix. I was really into Sly. So she took me down to Warner Reprise Records and I joined the fan club. It actually wasn't until somebody from the high school's uncle did the actual camera work for Monterey Pop, he was one of the cameramen. We used to go over to that person's house and smoke and things like that. He came home and caught us smoking one time and cursed us out, but then said, "Come on. I want to show you something." He took us into the editing room he had in his apartment. He showed us raw footage from Monterey Pop. I was psyched to see Otis Redding. I was into Otis Redding. When I saw Hendrix I said, "That's what I want to do for the rest of my life." That's how it all started.
Q - Did you meet Hendrix at Warner Reprise then?
A - Not then. Actually, we were responsible for getting Jimi to speak at our high school. Every time he was in the tri-state area we would get into his concerts for free. I was at Woodstock. I hung around him. He never knew my name per se, but he always acknowledged the fan club. He was very much into his fan club, even the London fan club. We used to have a little competition with the London lady who ran the fan club. He used to come around the Performing Arts and sit on the steps outside with Buddy Miles because Buddy was dating a woman who was doing a Winter Performing Arts. So they used to come around there and hang out before they'd go to Manny's or Harlem or whatever.
Q - What would Jimi be talking about? Inspiring people to pick up an instrument? Get into music?
A - Yes. He only spoke one time for a small assembly. It was the norm for famous people to speak at Performing Arts when they came to New York. They didn't want him to speak because they thought he was a druggie. They were very conservative there, but we actually got him to speak for a small assembly. He was very inspiring. He didn't talk all that long. He didn't say anything really deep or poignant. He just said stay in school, that kind of thing, and stay out of trouble.
Q - You were at Woodstock '69 for the whole three days?
A - I was there for most of the three days I would say. I tell everybody Gary, I hated it. I absolutely hated it. I was cold. See, I'm a Mama's boy. So, I'm used to comfort. I was cold. I was wet. It was constantly raining. It was muddy. Caked mud was constantly on me. I couldn't go to the bathroom. I had to pee out in the woods. It was crazy. So, by the time we made it up to the front to the mud pit, that took almost a day to get up there, I had it. I wanted to go home. I was crying to the person who drove the van that took us there, "I want to go home." They were laughing at me. I wanted to go home. I hated it.
Q - You were there then when Hendrix hit the stage on the last day of Woodstock and performed for 10,000 people?
A - A little bit more than ten. As a matter of fact, quite a bit more than ten. I remember in the evening we were on a hill and saw Sly. We were just barely able to see the stage. But to hear half a million people yelling "Higher", they heard that over the bridge they said in the news. Hendrix didn't have close to that by the time he hit the stage.
Q - The figure that I keep hearing is that only 10,000 were left at the end of Woodstock '69 that heard Hendrix. You're saying it was actually much more than that?
A - Yeah. Usually anything from 20,000, and I've even heard some people quote 60,000. I've heard different quotes. There was quite a bit of people and most of the people were scattered. A lot of people were heading home. They didn't even think Hendrix was going to perform.
Q - You must have been fairly close to the stage when you saw him.
A - Yeah. We were at the front of what I call the mud pit. There was a gate and we were right in front. We actually made it to the back. They had these make-shift tents, but the roadies or whatever kicked us out. That's probably because Jimi was sleeping or something like that. We went back to the front and we were standing in this mud pit. I'm actually glad I did because when they did a quick little, I guess you would call it a sound check before Jimi played, his strap popped, the front part of his guitar strap. Frustrated, he threw it out into the pit and I caught it. I still have it to this day. So, it was good thing I was there.
Q - Could you use that guitar strop in your act?
A - If I got it fixed, but I put it in my scrapbook just as a momentum for me.
Q - You could probably sell that strap and get a fortune for it, couldn't you?
A - No, because I can't prove it was Jimi's. He didn't write on it or anything. I would never do that. I'm not into making money off of Hendrix.
Q - Did you ever see anybody play guitar the way Jimi Hendrix did? I'd never heard anybody play "The Star Spangled Banner" the way he did.
A - Well, I'd seen him do that at least twice before. He did it many times as a matter of fact, but never like he did at Woodstock. Never. To tell you the truth Gary, most of the time Jimi was alive he was not my favorite guitar player. My mentality then was I trying to be English. I was trying to be a Black, English guy. I used to love the English guitar players. I used to even try to talk English. You can imagine how stupid I sounded. (laughs) I used to see Grand Funk. I saw them three or four times. Mark Farner was one of my favorites. I used to love Clapton of course. People like that. These were my favorites. The guy from Yes, Steve Howe. Jimi was Black. He wasn't my favorite. This was my mentality back then. It wasn't until just before he died when I started to really realize how deep this guy was. I started really listening to those albums more closely and pick that stuff out. I said, "Wow! This is incredible stuff!"
Q - Jimi Hendrix was so unique, wasn't he? No one has come along since his death to rival his playing.
A - What I like about Hendrix in our recreation of his performances is the way he used his body when he was at his peak. That's what made him special as far as his playing to me. He used his body to accomplish different things that standing still he wouldn't have been able to accomplish.
Q - Would there have been anybody who could've picked up where Hendrix left off but maybe they just didn't get the lucky breaks? I'm talking about right after his death.
A - There probably were guys out there like that, but they wouldn't have been allowed through the gate. Little Richard in a 1973 documentary makes a point that goes over almost everybody's head. Little Richard says, "He was always great, but he had to be poured through the dipper and then brought to us again." Meaning he had to go through the gate. Everybody who was around him knew he was great, but it's not until he's allowed through that gate. You know what I mean?
Q I do, but go into a little more detail.
A - Through the gate is who the powers that be will allow to be number one. That's what Little Richard meant. As a matter of fact, a lot artists go to Europe first to make it and the are brought back, which is what Jimi did.
Q - What's the reaction to your show when you walk on stage and start playing?
A - Well, I've been doing that since 1968. I would say 80% of the time it's people sitting there with their arms folded, kind of, not really, but with that little smirk like, "Okay, let's see what this is all about. Let's see what he's got." They figure they've seen it all. So when they see what we accomplish, especially with this production, they're impressed.
Q - How long did it take you to find the other two guys for The Jimi Hendrix Experience?
A - It's not just two White guys who do Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell as The Experience. Then later in the show we have two Black guys who do the Band Of Gypsys, Billy Cox and Buddy Miles. We cover the whole period of Jimi's career. We even, when we're able to, we even have him sitting in a hotel room practicing to get on stage with Wilson Pickett's band. We have a scene like that even before he made it big, before he got discovered. So we cover the whole period until he dies.
Q - You're talking about this Broadway type show you put together?
A - Yes. It's not officially a Broadway show. We have a light show. We're using the same light show that Jimi and other performers used, the Joshua Light Show. We license that. We have video excerpts in between the costume changes, which are interviews with Jimi, the band members, recording engineers, and so the audience can get an idea. We set the audience up. Then we come out with that particular period of Jimi's career. So, it's the most comprehensive thing ever done on Henrdix,. Not even his family have done anything this extensive on Jimi.
Q - Was it your idea to actually take the show to Broadway?
A - Yes. I used to do an off Broadway show in the '80s. I got a cease and desist from the Hendrix estate. The show I did was for six or seven days. So yes, I've always had that in mind since the early '80s to do a Broadway production show on Jimi's whole career. I even do lecture demonstrations on Jimi. This has never been done. As a matter of fact, I would venture to say it's never been done with any tribute artist. Forget about Hendrix. This is the longest running tribute ever on anybody, Sinatra, The Beatles, anything! It's the longest running tribute of any artist and it's the most comprehensive of any artist, and I stand by that.
Q - Why would Jimi's family object to you doing a tribute show?
A - Back then Jini's father didn't have the estate. It wasn't in the family back then. It was run by Warner-Reprise lawyers. They would object still because they don't have control over this. I periodically tour with Billy Cox, who is now part of the Hendrix estate really.
Q - Now Janie (Hendrix), Jimi's sister, is in control of the estate and she has no problem with what you're doing, does she?
A - Yes, she has a problem with me. I met her cousin Diane years ago and Diane put us in contact through e-mails. She told me basically, to paraphrase, to stop what I'm doing and that she has complete rights over Hendrix's name and to stop doing his songs. So, she doesn't like me.
Q - Did you ever meet any of Jimi's family in person?
A - I shook his father's hand one time at an event, a Hendrix event. That's the closest I got to that.
Q - You didn't have a chance to tell him what you're doing?
A - No.
Q - I see you've opened for Aerosmith and Foghat. That's a pretty good match. Then you've opened for Al Green and Brook Benton. Do their audiences like your act?
A - Okay, you're reading that wrong. I backed up as a guitar player, Al Green and Brook Benton, Wilson Pickett and others. My show didn't open. I was part of their band.
Q - You studied at Berklee College Of Music on the recommendation of Jimi. That means he suggested you attend that college? He never had any formal training, did he?
A - Before he died, thanks to Larry Coryell, Hendrix was taking the correspondence course at Berklee. They didn't have the internet then, so it was the mail-in correspondence course. When Larry Coryell convinced him to get more into Jazz, Jimi wanted to learn the Jazz chordings and things like that. He admired Larry Coryell because of this. Plus, Quincy Jones convinced him into taking the correspondence course. So when he came to the school to speak to us, that's one of the first things he mentioned was this school that had a Jazz curriculum in Boston that we should all be trying out for. I tried out for. Matter of fact, I was the only one from my school who got accepted. You mention Foghat and Aerosmith. That's why I left Berklee after two and a half years, 'cause I answered an ad in the Boston Phoenix for an English band who was looking for a front man and I got accepted. Next thing I know I'm in the fourth band on tour with them. Areosmith had that hit, "Dream On". So you can imagine the fun I had. (laughs)
Q - Would that have been about '72, '73?
A - '73, yes.
Q - As an original recording artist, you were or are on Columbia Records?
A - Yes. Russell Simmons signed me. He was also my manager. He signed the band I had, an all female back-up band. He saw us play. He signed me. I thought once I got with Columbia / Def Jam, I could concentrate on Jimy Bleu, and Russell looked at me like, "What? Are you crazy? What better way to get out there quick and get your name out there than to continue doing your Hendrix show." He's the one who really verified me. "Yes, this is valid. Keep on doing this."
Q - Did you record an album for Columbia Records?
A - Yes, I did an album for Columbia / Def Jam. I almost finished a video for them and the deal fell through 'cause I was actually living with the ladies. I wasn't just hiring musicians, I was actually living with them. When they got us a place to live once I signed, I had the girls living with me. Columbia didn't like that. It was too controversial.
Q - Maybe you didn't mix business with pleasure.
A - I always did. I've done that seven times, all female bands over the years since the late '70s and I've never had a problem. Female musicians who play their butts off have a different mentality than male musicians. Once they find a guy who's compatible to that, we locked in very well.
Q - And here we are in 2017 and you're still doing the Hendrix tribute and that is musically satisfying for you, correct?
A - Yes. I've done a big production before. So it's nice now to get the backing and the people. We're all locked in the same mentality. I have a great manager. He sees things the way I do as far as presenting Jimi. We're like brothers. I also have a great p.r. woman, Gwen, and our agent, Kelly. What more locked in to presenting this to the world like no one has ever one it before! When you come to Kiss The Sky you're seeing what it was like back then, not only with Jimi, but the whole era. You're actually transported back to that era because of the light show and videos.
Q - How many concerts to you perform in a year?
A - Well, I just hooked up with them last September (2016) and we did a national tour. We were on national TV for 48 million people. So far this year we've got at least close to twenty tours lined up. A lot more are in the works. You're to be seeing a lot of this!
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