IN LATE SEPTEMBER, 1966, JIMI Hendrix called his father, Al, from London to announce, "Dad, looks like I'm on my way to the big time." It was no idle boast. After years backing such acts as the Isley Brothers and Little Richard, Jimi's own star was now on the rise, and in less than a year he would be hailed as rock's first black superstar. But Jimi's time in the spotlight was destined to be short-lived. And just under four years later, on September 18, 1970, Al received another long-distance phone call, informing him that his son was dead at the age of 27.

In the 29 years since his death, most books about the legendary guitarist have focused on those last four years of Jimi's life, the time when he was in the public eye. Though the experiences of Jimi's early years undeniably helped shape the artist he became, his pre-fame years were routinely covered in one or maybe two chapters. And despite the fact that Jimi's dad has given countless interviews over the decades, both he and the Hendrix family remained frustrated at the "rubbish" about Jimi that continued to be published.

Three years ago, Al finally decided it was time to tell his side of the story. The result is My Son Jimi, and the "as told to" credit for co-author Jas Obrecht might just as easily apply to the reader. Obrecht fashioned the book by taping and transcribing Al's interviews, taking full advantage of Al's laid-back, anecdotal style. Thus, My Son Jimi is less a memoir, and more like spending a pleasant evening with Al, listening as he muses about the past.

There's also a larger story to be found in the narrative. My Son Jimi is not only a biography of Jimi Hendrix and a history of the Hendrix family, it's also the story of African Americans' struggle to find their place in American society, the sacrifices they made to assure their children would have a better shot at attaining their dreams, and the dawn of the civil rights era.

When Al Hendrix was born in 1919 (like his son, Al's first name is James, but he was known by his middle name), his parents had quit show business in favor of getting regular jobs to support the family, and relocated to Vancouver, B.C. Al himself had show-biz aspirations, working as a dancer and taking up boxing. But the need to earn a living eventually came first. "During the depression, you had to snatch up whatever job that came along to survive," he says. "That's how it was with me. I liked to entertain. But after I got out of the service, that cut off everything."

By the time Jimi is born in 1942, the tone of My Son Jimi has been set. Hard work and responsibility are the facts of life, and it's easy to see where Jimi's work ethic was rooted. Al's marriage to Jimi's mother, Lucille, had been rocky from the start, and by the time they divorced, Lucille had two more sons by two different men; two daughters followed, post-divorce. Al took over the raising of Jimi and his half-brother Leon as a single father, constantly moving from one small apartment to another in the Central District, Rainier Valley, and Capitol Hill, taking any job he could find to get his family through one more week.

Humble beginnings are the standard stuff of most celebrity biographies, and Al's description of his son as "an ordinary, run-of-the-mill kid," follows the same pattern. "He used to like a lot of space stuff, science fiction, and things of that sort," Al says. "He thought about being a commercial artist at one time. He didn't get interested in music until his early teens, when I got him his first guitar, for five dollars, from a friend. He started plunking on that and wore it out, trying to copy B. B. King and Muddy Waters. He'd practice all the time, every day, watching TV."

But though Al believed Jimi's determination would lead to his success, Jimi's massive fame astonished him: "When he made it worldwide like he did, that really blew my mind. That was more than I really expected," he says. And when Jimi returns to Seattle with his band in February 1968, Al's reminiscences are a bittersweet mixture of pride and the realization that he and his son occupy entirely different worlds: "I kept pinching myself to see if this was a dream. I didn't realize Jimi had so much talent. And his antics on stage!"

In stark contrast to most Jimi bios, in My Son Jimi it's Jimi's years of fame that are condensed to one chapter. The illustrations and family photos resurrect the man behind the legend, along with a subtle reminder of the price one has to pay for fame.

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