19 Nov Hey Joe and the Death of Mitch Mitchell

Drummer Mitch Mitchell, sixty-two years old, died abruptly last week, apparently of heart failure. In 1966, when he joined the Jimi Hendrix Experience, he was just nineteen. It is hard to imagine that Jimi Hendrix – genius though he was – would have had as great an impact if it weren’t for Mitch Mitchell. Nobody was doing what Mitchell was doing in rock. He was a jazz drummer through and through. But he had a rocker’s heart and drive. Hendrix was a bluesman gone psychedelic. Together, with the ever-competent Noel Redding on bass, they created fusion before anyone had a name for it.

Miles Davis’s landmark fusion album of 1970, Bitches’ Brew, owes a nod to Hendrix mostly because of Mitchell’s jazz-inspired treatment of Hendrix’s arrangements. Few drummers on the rock scene at the time had Mitchell’s chops. It was obvious that he had studied the jazz greats, especially Elvin Jones , who often kept time with a steady rain of syncopated rolls. This style became Mitchell’s signature and is evident in most of Hendrix’s tune. You can hear it on Hendrix’s first hit, “Hey Joe.” Here, take a listen:
Hey Joe

Listen to the way Mitchell rolls through the lulls between verses, very fast and controlled and varied in every pass – from double-time sixteenth notes to punchy single-stroke triplets. These licks would become the standard of rock power-drumming. But nobody was doing these before Mitchell Not coincidentally, one of his contemporaries, Tony Williams, was Miles Davis’s young drummer. Behind all of these ground-breaking fusion drummers was Max Roach, who — starting in the late 1940s — played jazz drums hard, giving them new authority not simply as a grand-stand noise-maker but as something musical.

To get a firmer sense of what was going on in 1966, take a listen to another version of “Hey Joe” by the rock group Love. It slightly pre-dates Hendrix’s version but stylistically lies a galaxy away. Mind you, Love did a good job with the tune. Still, their limits are painfully clear. Like the Byrds and other groups who tried “Hey Joe” at the time, they could only chase after the melody with a manic drive. Hey Joe by Love

Hendrix’s version has an elegance that comes not only from his bluesy treatment but also from the rain of rhythm that Mitchell supplies. In hearing Mitchell’s jazzy style, less experienced drummers (no pun) thought they had to play solos through every song. Thus began decades of overplaying among rock drummers. Mitchell was always mindful of being an ensemble player. In orchestrating the dynamics of every tune, in making the drums more musical, he elevated Hendrix’s work so far above what other rockers were doing that these albums — “Are you Experienced?”; “Axis Bold As Love”, and “Electric Ladyland” — remain among the best in the rock catalogue.

Alas, Mitchell did not, or could not, fulfill the greatness his debut with Hendrix seemed to promise. He never found another band that allowed him to shine in the same way. Nonetheless, he kept playing and playing well and earning great respect everywhere he went.