Jimi Hendrix's Death: A Classic Whodunnit

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The world’s most famous guitarist. The girlfriend who wanted to be his wife. The famous rock singer. The rock singer’s wife who wanted to be the guitarist’s girlfriend. The guitarist’s manager, who mysteriously “misplaced” a fair amount of money. The manager’s associates, both of them angling to take over as manager. And Colonel Mustard, with the rope, in the library. Okay, even if we ignore that last one, this has all the makings of a murder mystery (or at least, a diverting game of Clue), but it is, in fact, the tale of the death of Jimi Hendrix. We’ve always been told, since that fateful day in 1970, that he overdosed on drugs and choked to death on his own vomit. But there have always been rumors that perhaps this wasn’t the real story…

Eric Burdon sang “House of the Rising Sun,” “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place,” and “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” – all huge international hits for his band The Animals. Then he scored a big hit again with the band War and the song “Spill the Wine.” But… did he also (cue dramatic music) kill Jimi Hendrix???

Author David Henderson, in the newly-revised edition of his Hendrix biography ‘Scuse Me While I Kiss The Sky, doesn’t claim anything so preposterous. But he does point out that Burdon was on the scene, helping Hendrix’s girlfriend “clean up” (ie, get rid of the drugs) the scene before the ambulance came for the guitarist’s body. And that Burdon was one of several men (the manager would be another) who lost his woman to Hendrix. So add Eric Burdon to what quickly becomes a very long list of people pissed off at Hendrix: jealous girlfriends, jealous and now lonely husbands and boyfriends, various hangers-on and would-be managers, even the FBI and the Mafia. Henderson has a plausible explanation why each of these various groups might have had cause to want Hendrix dead (the FBI saw him as a black power icon, like Malcolm X; the Mafia controlled the territory where Hendrix built his Electric Lady Studio in NY), but of course there’s not enough evidence to name any one person or entity as the possible culprit.

On the one hand, Henderson comes off sounding like yet another conspiracy theorist; on the other, he does actually identify some of these things as conspiracy theories, so he’s aware of the fine line he’s walking. One thing seems clear from the statements, finally, of the ambulance and hospital staff who dealt with Hendrix’s body – the widespread media story of the drug overdose and resulting choking seems almost as implausible as any of the other theories out there.

So what happened? And 38 years later, does it matter? Does it matter to you? Would proof of Hendrix’s death – either as a result of accidental overdose, suicide, or foul play - change the way you think about his work?