When you hear the name Jimi Hendrix most people think of his 1969 Woodstock performance or his immensely successful music catalog consisting of songs like “Purple Haze” and “The Wind Cries Mary.” Most people’s minds also wander toward the story of his death, whether that line of thinking is readily admitted or not. It’s impossible not to—his flame burned so brightly only to be extinguished abruptly.
And what is the story behind the artist’s death? What really happened? Let’s find out.
September 18, 1970
Jimi Hendrix was pronounced dead at 12:45 p.m. on September 18, 1970, at St Mary Abbots Hospital. He was 27 years old when he died, earning him a deeply undesirable spot in the infamous 27 Club. His official cause of death was listed as asphyxia due to aspiration of vomit, meaning that he drowned in his own vomit. This is likely due to the fact that, at the time of his death, Hendrix had an excess of barbiturates in his system. Barbiturate is a depressant found in sleeping tablets, like the Versparax that Hendrix had taken.
The last person to see Hendrix alive was his girlfriend at the time, Monika Dannemann.
A Career Taking Its Toll
Now that we’ve got all the facts straight, let’s set the scene.
By 1970, Hendrix had established monstrous success in the U.K. and had won over the American music audience. For instance, his Electric Ladyland 1968 album had hit the number one spot on the Billboard 200 chart and the number six spot in the U.K. This record included popular tracks like “Voodoo Chile” and his timeless cover song “All Along the Watchtower.”
The success of that album was built on Hendrix’s two prior studio albums Axis: Bold as Love and Are You Experienced, which both saw commercial and critical success. Hendrix had also toured rather extensively to promote these albums.
So, by September of 1970, Hendrix was tired—physically exhausted, actually. Multiple biographers cited this final period of the singer’s life as being filled with difficulty sleeping, poor health, and the presence of drugs (both legal and illegal).
Some of the strain brought on during this period could be contributed to legal difficulties as well. Hendrix was in the midst of two lawsuits the week before his death, one involving a recording contract dispute, and was reportedly wanting to leave his manager, Michael Jeffery.
According to biographer Tony Brown, who wrote about Hendrix’s final days in a 1997 book, Hendrix confided in a friend, Sharon Lawrence, about his physical and emotional state days before his death. “Jimi tracked me down, detailing his pressures and discussing the ‘so-called friends’. He was jittery and angry,” Lawrence revealed. She also revealed that Hendrix told her: “I can’t sleep. I can’t focus to write any songs.”
This extreme exhaustion from fame set the stage for Hendrix’s untimely death.
In the final hours of his death, Hendrix had attended a party with Dannemann, who has been one of the main sources of information on Hendrix’s last days. When the two finally returned to Dannemann’s Notting Hill apartment in the early hours of the morning on September 18, Hendrix found that he could not fall asleep. Dannemann stated that Hendrix then took nine of her Vesparax sleeping pills to fall asleep, which was 18 times the recommended dose. Around 11 a.m., Dannemann noticed that Hendrix was unresponsive and called an ambulance. Unfortunately, the rest is history.
The Legacy Left by Jimi Hendrix
Hendrix was hands down one of the most influential and inventive artists in the history of rock music. It’s a bold statement, we know, and we stand by it. Regardless of his death or the number of active years, his legacy is one that continues to grow and continues to inspire. More specifically even, he has directed inspired artists like Prince and the Red Hot Chili Peppers in addition to numerous guitarists like Jerry Cantrell of Alice in Chains and Stone Gossard of Pearl Jam.
He changed the game, forever, and we are grateful for it. Rest in peace.
Photo by Doug McKenzie/Hulton Archive/Getty Images