Jimi Hendrix, American Master, on TV12

The master at the Isle of Wight Festival of Music, Aug. 30, 1970. (Courtesy of Chris Walter / Authentic Hendrix, LLC)

Everybody knows Jimi Hendrix, the only African American among rock's guitar gods - but the purest and most powerful deity in that pantheon. Hendrix was the hippie harlequin who both defined and transcended the Woodstock era with his searing re-creation of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the historic music festival.

Yet we know surprisingly little about the man, because his career was so short (he died in his sleep at 27), because he was startlingly shy away from the stage, and because in the '60s, cameras were not as ubiquitous as they are today.

American Masters offers a fascinating, though not definitive, portrait of this modern virtuoso in the two-hour Jimi Hendrix - Hear My Train A Comin' (Tuesday, 9 p.m. on WHYY TV12).

Presumably, an even clearer picture will emerge when All Is by My Side, the Hendrix biopic starring André Benjamin of Outkast, is released next year.

If nothing else, Hear My Train, directed by Bob Smeaton, proves that Hendrix was a better guitarist than most of his contemporaries while playing behind his back and using only one hand.

In fact, he pulls off exactly that acrobatic display in the film's opening scene, as he bashes out "Wild Thing" in front of a gobsmacked crowd at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967.

For fans of the guitarist, the revelation will be the archival footage and the Hendrix family photos that illuminate Jimi's salad years from his unstable childhood in Seattle, to his first band as a teenage Chuck Berry wannabe, to enlisting contentedly in the Army at 17.

After a medical discharge, he became a peripatetic sideman on the chitlin' circuit, backing performers such as Little Richard and Wilson Pickett. But it was in England that his genius was recognized and he became a star.

Seeing him whirl through "Purple Haze" on Top of the Pops in 1967 is still palpably electrifying. It wasn't just his phenomenal musicianship or his primal theatrics. Hendrix could make a guitar talk in tongues, using feedback and distortion - and making liberal use of the whammy bar - to create ferocious waves of sound.

One surprising facet of Hear My Train is the sophistication and devotion that infused his short but brilliant recording career. A producer, his astonishment still evident, recalls a session at which Hendrix laid down 39 takes of "Little Wing" before he was satisfied.

The level of popularity Hendrix enjoyed is remarkable - three albums in the Top 20 simultaneously. And he did it all without American television. While other rock bad boys like Elvis and the Rolling Stones still got exposure, including huge boosts from appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, Hendrix was considered too dangerous for the medium.

Interesting commentary is provided by other musicians (most notably Paul McCartney), journalists, Hendrix family members, and female intimates. But the real drawing card for Hear My Train A Comin' is the music, including a captivating coda that shows Hendrix strumming and picking the title song on an acoustic 12-string guitar.

While worthy, this is hardly an intimate portrait. And that opacity would have suited its subject just fine. He preferred to keep people, by and large, at a comfortable hearing distance.

And Jimi always had the amplifiers cranked to 11.



Jimi Hendrix - Hear My Train A Comin'

9 p.m. Tuesday, WHYY TV12


215-854-4552 @daveondemand_tv