Mitch Mitchell: In Memoriam


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When the Jimi Hendrix Experience's Are You Experienced? initially appeared, all of the attention was focused on the guitarist—understandable, as this was his group, and the guitar sounds were unique extensions of blues, rock and electronics (the latter particularly) that had never made their way to the general record buying audience (greater displays of virtuosity could be heard from Danny Kalb and Larry Coryell a little earlier, and Clapton, Blackmore and Townshend had experimented successfully with feedback—albeit tentatively—a little earlier); but Hendrix was the total package—singer, song writer, visionary, guitar wizard—and he would be heard. A key element to the explosiveness of the mix was John "Mitch" Mitchell, former child virtuoso, former Georgie Fame drummer, and winner of the coin toss in which Hendrix was deciding between him and Aynsley Dunbar. Dunbar had formerly played with Mayall and Jeff Beck, founder of the Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation, later of the Mothers of Invention, and finally, super group Journey. (Hendrix' manager, Chas Chandler, was hoping that Dunbar would win the coin toss, because Mitchell was much more temperamental).

Given the way the Experience turned out, Mitchell was the better choice. Dunbar was certainly technically capable of doing what Mitchell did, and may have taken Hendrix' music in a different direction, but Mitchell responded to everything that Hendrix through at him. He was a masterful drummer, using explosive fills (more controlled than Keith Moon, and also more studied, as Mitchell was grounded in jazz) and his drumming always fit Hendrix songs. On the first album alone, "Purple Haze," "Fire," and "Third Stone from the Sun" among others, would have sounded radically different with any other drummer. "Manic Depression" is a tour de force, easily ranking (and, in my opinion, outdistancing) virtually any song accompaniment of the '60's, with the possible exception of Keith Moon on "I Can See for Miles". Other examples from later albums would be "Up From the Skies," the perfect accents and fills on "Spanish Castle Magic" and even "You Got Me Floating". Mitchell had great ears, fast reflexes and always seemed to know what Hendrix was thinking, as can be heard on "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" (which really became free jazz drumming) and "All Along the Watchtower."

He also introduced Hendrix to Jim Marshall of Marshall amplifiers, as Mitchell had worked for Marshall and taken a few lessons from Marshall, who was a drummer and drum teacher. There is some (disputed) information that Mitchell played bass on some of the songs on Electric Ladyland, using the bass he bought from Kevin Ayers of Soft Machine.

When Hendrix formed Band of Gypsies, Mitchell was briefly relegated to the background. There are a variety of theories as to why Band of Gypsies was formed. Buddy Miles (who also recently passed), an old friend of Hendrix was recruited for the drum chair, but the chemistry was not the same as with Mitchell (Miles, in the Band of Gypsies documentary, felt Hendrix was manipulated by Mike Jeffery); but the Miles/Hendrix chemistry did not, to my ears, match the excitement of that with Mitchell. Mitchell, influenced as he was by Elvin Jones, one of the greatest jazz drummers of the sixties and later, would encourage Hendrix to take more chances. In some ways, it was a match made in heaven, and with the addition of Billy Cox, Hendrix' playing just seemed to get better and better.

There were some weaknesses to Mitchell's playing—his solos seemed fairly wandering, as though he had trouble constructing a well-thought out solo, but Moon also shared this failing. And drum solos can be an acquired taste—I love them, personally—but many consider them to be overindulgent exercises. Also, given his contributions to Hendrix' songs, and his improvisational acumen in a group setting, it seems beside the point.

Mitchell, along with Baker and Moon (and to a lesser extent, lesser known drummers like Brian Davison and Jon Hiseman) were forerunners in bringing the drums to the forefront, laying the foundation for folks like Bruford, Palmer, Collins and even folks like Guy Evans, Chris Cutler or Neal Peart!

Shortly before Hendrix' death, there were some tentative plans to form a super group with Keith Emerson, Hendrix, and Greg Lake, but reports differ as to how serious this was. Apparently, Mitchell was not interested, and Emerson was not eager to hire another person with substance abuse problems (given his experience with Nice guitarist Davy O'List). Many people said Hendrix was going to team with them before he died, but apparently some kind of event was scheduled, but never came together.

After Hendrix' death, Mitchell linked up with Larry Coryell, Jack Bruce and keyboardist Mike Mandel for a short lived group (his drumming style becoming more Baker-esque with this band. He had also played with John Lennon on the Rolling Stones "Rock and Roll Circus" and with various performers (including Emerson) on the Music from Free Creek album.

The next big activity he was involved with was Ramatam, featuring virtuoso female guitarist April Lawton. Response was lukewarm and Mitchell, although active musically, was not visible—like Brian Davison, of the Nice, he suffered from being a superior talent associated with a superstar, but who had been left behind by a group disbanding, albeit this time because of an accidental death (the only person I can think of who pulled this off was Dave Grohl of Nirvana, and now Foo Fighters—but he had to change instruments!).

Mitchell did help Alan Douglas in the controversial posthumous Hendrix recordings, and in recent years was involved with both the Hendrix Estate and Experience Hendrix. From what I understand, his playing still retained the spark and creativity of the old days. There is also a great report of how he kept playing at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, well in excess of time constraints, much to the managers' chagrin, but to the delight of fans.

A superlative, extraordinarily creative drummer, who did much to change the face of rock drumming, Mitch Mitchell will be sorely missed.

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