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Curtis Knight: Living in the Shadow of Jimi Hendrix?

More than thirty years after his death, the mystique and musical genius of rock-guitarist Jimi Hendrix is still a topic of heated debate internationally. A lot of the controversy centers around Hendrix’ later electrifying albums overshadowing the earlier rhythm & blues/rock & roll crossover fusion he and song-writer, blues/rock-singer Curtis Knight created together. 

How much credit does Curtis Knight really deserve in promoting Jimi Hendrix’ climb to stardom?  Did Knight give Hendrix the first real freedom to express himself musically, or did he see an opportunity to exploit Jimi’s talent for his own gain? Some claim it was only after Jimi escaped Curtis Knights’ hold on him and went to London with Chas Chandler (ex-Animals bassist) in 1966 that Jimi’s genius on the guitar was unleashed. It was there he exploded onto the “Psychedelic” and “Acid Rock” scene with sounds and style  that fans claim have never been matched.   

The flamboyantly sensual, defiant legend of Jimi Hendrix is still clouded by drug-abuse allegations but very much alive.  Old recordings are being remixed and re-released, new music from hidden vaults and collections has come to light, and bitter lawsuits are still being fought over the rights to his music.  In 2005 one of Jimi’s guitars sold for a reported $190,000; and a recent auction advertised a Jimi Hendrix guitar along with memorabilia of Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley and Anna Nicole Smith. His album “Are You Experienced?” is No. 6 on the current chart of the 30 Most Significant Albums In Black Music History, as compiled by Hip Hop Media Training.

The controversy and worldwide on-line arguments surrounding the relationship between Curtis Knight and Jimi Hendrix spurred Kathy Knight-Mc Connell to “set the record straight” on Curtis Knight’s personal feelings and thoughts on this subject in a new book, Curtis Knight:  Living in the Shadow of Jimi Hendrix.

A former dancer at New York City’s famous Peppermint Lounge, Kathy met Curtis Knight in 1976 and soon became his companion and business partner--a relationship which lasted over 16 years.  She says there is a truth that could only be known through living with Curtis Knight. There is also a need to dispel any speculation or misinformation that there was a rift between Jimi and Curtis which might have caused JImi’s sudden departure to London in 1966, where he formed the Jimi Hendrix Experience and where he died in September 1970.  

Kathy denies that Curtis Knight exploited his relationship with JImi Hendrix by getting him to enter into contracts that capitalized on Jimi’s talent or to secure rights to Jimi’s music for his own financial benefit, “Most of the time Curtis and I were together we struggled financially. Curtis made very little from those recordings or even his own book about Jimi Hendrix, and he didn’t own any of the copyrights to even his own original music on the albums they performed together.” 

She recalls Curtis Knight’s deep devotion to Jimi Hendrix and his fears about Jimi’s drug experimentation and self-destructive behavior. “I never knew Jimi Hendrix. He died several years before I met Curtis,” Kathy says, “but Curtis spoke often of his close friendship with Jimi Hendrix, which lasted from the day they first met until Jimi’s tragic death at the age of 27 from a supposed drug overdose, which many, over the years, have claimed to be a murder.” 

According to the chapter, “Jimi from the Inside,” Curtis Knight first spotted the eccentric, free-spirited Jimi Hendrix in 1964 in the lobby of the rundown Hotel America, between Broadway and 6th Ave. in downtown NYC. Hendrix had just sold his guitar to pay rent so he wouldn’t get locked out of his room. His eclectic outfit and aux naturale hairstyle in the days of “slick” sparked Curtis Knight’s lifelong intuitive ability to sense talent and individuality. When Hendrix said he was a back-up guitarist and “on the floor” broke and looking for a gig, Knight went to his car and brought a guitar and amp up to the room, where he was shocked to see Jimi’s gorgeous girlfriend lying in bed covered by only a sheet. 

In the book, Curtis describes Jimi’s “audition” as, “…like a starving, dehydrated person who had just stumbled in from being lost in the desert and suddenly found a banquet of food and water.”  Curtis instantly offered to hire him for his own group, the Squires, and let him “play the way he felt.” True to his word, Curtis put Jimi upfront, with free reign to work his magic not only instrumentally, but for the first time as a singer. 

Curtis continued mentoring Jimi Hendrix and together they went to a recording studio where Jimi’s unique, hypnotic sounds could be captured and preserved. With the merger of these two great talents, the destiny of Rock & Roll changed forever, as Curtis and Jimi melded rhythmic sounds from their own Black/Native American heritages with R&B, rock and traditional blues. 

But it was Jimi Hendrix’s reckless abandon on the guitar and the publicity over his drug use that ultimately mesmerized and fascinated music fans and critics. Curtis Knight continued a long and prolific musical career but never achieved the recognition or credit some believe he deserved for his own and for much of Jimi’s initial success.

“Curtis loved Jimi, but he felt Jimi’s fame continually overshadowed his own career,” Kathy explains, “Curtis referred to it as a ‘glass shadow’ and, in an interview a few years before he died, he said, ‘He’s someone I’m in touch with, he’s someone that’s always with me and, even though I’ve had my solo career…all over the world, I can never get away from Jimi. And sometimes it’s almost drowning me and other times it takes me to incredible heights. It’s something that fills my whole soul, and I feel it. I feel he’s right where I can touch him, and I feel he’s inside me, but sometimes, I feel like I can never get away from that. I’m running and even though the sun is not shining, that glass shadow is following me. It’s following me. I can’t get away from it.’”

“Although Curtis never begrudged Jimi’s success, there seemed to be a concerted effort to block Curtis from getting any credit for his own musical contributions,” contends Kathy Knight-McConnell, who still lives in New York, and who provides in her book a ten-page discography of Curtis Knight’s records and music, revealing his career accomplishments back to early years singing with the Statesman, a group of Air Force musicians he formed while serving as a medic in Japan in the mid-1950’s. 

“It was ironic that ultimately both Curtis and Jimi had to leave the U.S. to get proper recognition of their talents,” Kathy reflects. “Jimi went to England.  Curtis moved to the Netherlands, where he died of prostate cancer in November 1999. This is where he finally got greater recognition for his own contributions and achievements. This is where he was loved for his own musical style and developed a large part of his fan base which is still strong today.

It’s unlikely that a book will end a fiery controversy that has taken on a life of its own, but Curtis Knight: Living in the Shadow of Jimi Hendrix will definitely influence the conversation. Did Jimi Hendrix use Curtis Knight as a stepping stone and disrespect his friendship for the promise of greater fame? Would Curtis have ultimately achieved deserved recognition in musical history without Jimi Hendrix? Did Curtis Knight really live in the shadow of Jimi Hendrix?


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