Ernie Isley was 11 years old when his older brothers Kelly, Ronnie and Rudy — of the legendary R&B group the Isley Brothers — hired a 21-year-old Jimi Hendrix to play guitar in their band, and invited him to move into their mother's home in New Jersey.
According to Ernie, his older brothers had heard about Hendrix —and after helping Jimi get his guitar out of hock, they had him play what had to be the shortest audition on record.
"When Jimi auditioned for my brothers, he only had to play for about 30-45 seconds before they asked him to join the band," Isley told NUVO. "And that's when he moved into the spare bedroom in our house."
Isley and an all-star cast of guitarists, including Hendrix collaborator Billy Cox, Steve Vai, Jonny Lang and Susan Tedeschi, are paying tribute to Hendrix this fall on the Experience Hendrix tour, which will make its final stop at the Murat Theatre Nov. 20.
For a couple formative years, Ernie Isley had the opportunity to experience Hendrix from up close.
"Jimi interacted with and became a part of our family," Isley remembers. "Jimi would practice his guitar in the living room, the kitchen, all around the house. He spent the majority of his time playing his guitar. Even though I was only 11 at the time, and not yet a musician, I could tell that nobody played like Jimi. He definitely had his own style."
A couple of years after Hendrix moved out of the Isley home, Hendrix took the white Stratocaster that the Isley brothers had bought for him and travelled to England. He made a name for himself as a blues-rock guitarist in the country that had spawned blues-influenced rock bands like the Rolling Stones and Cream.
"Those guys in England were up and running by the time Jimi showed up over there," Isley says. "And they soon discovered that nobody played like Jimi did. He was a giftedleft-handed guitar player in a right-handed world."
Isley says that he didn't listen to Hendrix's 1967 debut album Are You Experienced upon its release. But his friends did. "I remember my friends went ga-ga over the record. I told them that I didn't have to hear it, that I had already experienced it. To me, that record was Electric Guitar 101. It was totally outside the box.
"I refer to Jimi as the High Priest of Electric Guitar. There were great electric guitar players before him, like Muddy Waters and B.B. King, and great guitar players after him, but Jimi had certain stripes that no other player has ever had."
Now, 40 years after Hendrix's death, Isley is taking the opportunity to pay homage to his boyhood friend by playing a powerful rendition of "Manic Depression" during his portion of the Experience Hendrix shows.
"When I was asked to join the tour this past spring, I told them I wanted to play 'Manic Depression,'" Isley says. "It turns out that nobody had played that song on any of the previous Experience Hendrix tours."
Isley says that the current tour "is going very well. We're having a lot of fun doing Jimi's songs and the audiences are really digging it.
"I think that (the young guys like) Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Jonny Lang play Jimi's music very well. I told Kenny and Noah (Hunt, the lead vocalist in Shepherd's band) after a show the other night that they played a 'testosterone and adrenaline show.' They didn't lose stride all night; it was like (watching) Frazier and Ali."
Scheduled performers for the Saturday night show include Isley, Vai, Lang, Tedeschi, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Robert Randolph, Los Lobos' David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas, Eric Johnson, Living Colour, Chris Layton of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble and The Slide Brothers, aka Chuck and Darick Campbell of Sacred Steel.