After a stint in the U.S. Army and a creatively unfulfilling stretch as a session musician and sideman to acts like Little Richard and The Isley Brothers, 21-year-old Jimi Hendrix moved to New York City in 1964 to set about building a solo career. “Discovered” two years later by the British manager/producer Chas Chandler, a former member of the The Animals, Hendrix moved to England in 1966 and teamed up with bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell to form The Jimi Hendrix Experience. The group scored an almost immediate UK hit with “Hey Joe,” which was released in mid-December. It was 10 days later, however, on December 26, 1966, that Hendrix wrote “Purple Haze”—the song that would not only give him his breakthrough hit in the United States, but also go on to define an entire musical era.
In fact, Jimi Hendrix had been fooling around with the guitar riffs that became “Purple Haze” for several months, but it was on the afternoon of this day in 1966, while in a backstage dressing room at the Uppercut Club in London, that he wrote the song’s famous lyrics. And while critics and fans alike rightly hail Jimi Hendrix for having revolutionized the very sound of rock’s most important instrument, his status as arguably the greatest electric guitarist who ever lived sometimes overshadows his talents as a songwriter. “Purple Haze” was a song that instantly grabbed listeners’ attention with its famous opening riff—”a ferocious two-note guitar march scarred with fuzz,” in the words of Rolling Stone—and didn’t let go through a little more than three minutes of tightly constructed instrumental chaos. But its lyrics—”‘Scuse me, while I kiss the sky“—sounded just as revolutionary in 1967, and may be just as much a part of the song’s appeal today.
Released in the United States as the lead single from The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s debut album, Are You Experienced, in June 1967, “Purple Haze” actually had relatively little commercial success as a single. It was Hendrix’s legendary, guitar-burning live performance at the Monterey Pop Festival that same month that established him as a star—though not too big a star to act, briefly, as the opening act for The Monkees later that summer.
In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked “Purple Haze” #17 on its list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”