Life and Times in Leschi: Angel came down from heaven yesterday
Late last November, along with hundreds of others, I attended a celebration at the Museum of History and Industry of the 80th birthday of Jimi Hendrix. He may be the most famous person ever to emerge from Leschi. But until he was out of the army and his performing career took off, he was just known as Jimmy.
At the festivities, the M.C. was his much younger sister, Janie Hendrix. After the show, I buttonholed her and asked if she could refer me to someone who was a childhood friend of Jimmy’s and would have experienced life in Leschi with him. She connected me with Tehran (Terry) Johnson, a Leschi School classmate of Jimmy, who stayed friends with him for years after. Terry grew up on 29th Avenue South at Lane Street, near the Hendrix family and not far from the home of Powell Barnett, profiled here earlier this year. Recently I had the pleasure of interviewing Terry, who provided some of the information that follows.
Jimmy Hendrix attended Leschi School with Johnson from the 3rd grade, graduating from 6th grade there in 1955. They went on to Washington Junior High (and Hendrix went to Meany part of the time, when he was living with his uncle and aunt).
While at Leschi School, Jimmy tried out for football. His coach, Booth Gardner, was a UW student working a summer job for the Seattle Parks Department, coaching after school in the Central Area. Gardner remarked that Jimmy had no talent for the game. Rather, his interest lay in music and art. Jimmy became an international superstar, while Gardner went on to be Washington’s governor.
Terry, Jimmy, and other friends grew up playing and swimming on the beaches of Lake Washington, from Seward Park to Leschi and Madrona. Their friend James Williams later wrote that he and Jimmy liked to play in Leschi Park, “a woodsy, hilly park with trails and dense vegetation.” (It sounds like he was referring to Frink Park.) “The winding road through the woods at the park was like our own backyard. … Leschi has a kind of wild beauty—deep dark greens, madrona trees, scarlet berries. There’s a lot of history there. We learned about it at school and somehow that made it all more magical.”
Terry and Jimmy shared a paper route that went from the Hindquarter (now BluWater) all the way to McClellan Street. Jimmy’s friend Pernell Alexander wrote that he and Jimmy would ride their bikes all over Seattle. They loved the hydroplane races and would camp out near the pits. One time, Alexander says, Joe Taggart, the famed driver of Slo-Mo-Shun IV, gave them a ride across the lake and back. (Seems improbable, for every reason anyone could think of.)
As a youngster, Jimmy plinked away on a ukulele. When he was 12, he and Terry started playing music together—Terry on the piano and Jimmy on guitar. Jimmy’s father, Al Hendrix, gave him a Fender Stratocaster, but it was a while before he got an amplifier. Terry describes Jimmy as a shy boy who bonded closely with a small group of friends who he played music with. He says Jimmy did not have much of a singing voice as a child, nor did he like to dance. He never had music lessons, at least not as a child. But he taught himself and became one of the world’s greatest. Even so, Terry says that in performance videos one can see that he wanted to get the singing over and get back to the guitar.
A story has it that Jimmy, in his childhood Leschi bedroom, thought he heard a woman’s name being blown on the wind of a thunderstorm.
And the wind whispers Mary.
Jimmy’s father, after work, would drink the evenings away at the Mt. Baker Tavern, at 2504 Jackson Street. His mother was not much of a presence in his life. Jimmy, locked out of his house until Dad came home, spent the evenings playing guitar at Terry’s house nearby, with Terry on piano.
As the boys grew into their teens, they got to play backup for visiting bands like the Shirelles and Jan & Dean. In high school, they joined the band The Rockin’ Kings, whose home base was the Yesler Terrace gym. A younger neighbor told me that, walking to Washington Junior High School, he would hear Jimmy practicing guitar at his home.
After junior high, Hendrix and Johnson were reunited at Garfield. Years ago, I was friends with the son of Frank Hanawalt, who had been Garfield’s principal. My friend enjoyed telling anyone he met that “My Dad kicked Jimmy Hendrix out of high school.” A classmate told me that Jimmy would sometimes nod off in class, having been up all night playing in a band. But the expulsion seems to have been a mere formality, since by then Jimmy wasn’t coming around much anyway. John Boitano, Garfield’s highly successful football coach, later said, “The only time I ever talked to Jimmy Hendrix was one day at a practice when I told him to take his banjo [sic] and leave the ball field. I didn’t want him to distract my players.”
After high school, Jimmy enlisted in the army in May 1961. Following basic training he was posted to Germany as a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne. But the next year he was discharged – a general discharge under honorable circumstances, because he was “poorly motivated for the military and has no regard for regulations.”
Released, he went to England and formed a band, which needed a piano player. He wrote to Terry and asked him to join them, but Terry, in the air force in Thailand, had just re-upped for four more years and was unavailable.
After that—well, everybody knows Jimi’s life story from there. He hit the big time and told us about the sweet love between the moon and the deep blue sea.
Fly on, my sweet angel. Forever I will be by your side.
The author writes monthly about Leschi history and his experiences over his 47 years in the neighborhood.