Yes, Jimi Hendrix played Union College – More than once

Guitar great's 'powerhouse' performances on campus in mid-1960s recalled by graduates
Jimi Hendrix at Union College in the mid-1960s with The Ronettes; inset: reaching between his legs to play guitar.
Jimi Hendrix at Union College in the mid-1960s with The Ronettes; inset: reaching between his legs to play guitar.

The photo went wild on social media — then went WILD on social media.

Is that … Jimi Hendrix? Playing Union College’s Memorial Chapel?

“Jimi Hendrix played Union three times,” recalled Union grad Jeff Hedquist (class of 1967) in a booming radio voice over the phone. The longtime commercial producer, folk performer and storyteller said Hendrix played behind both the Ronettes (shown in Nat Stevens’ 1968 well-traveled color photo) and the Drifters (in Bob Saltzman’s ’69 black-and-whites) at Union’s Memorial Chapel. Also on the same show: the Lovin’ Spoonful. 

“I remembering getting those bands for less than $1,000 each,” said Saltzman by email. Like Hedquist, Saltzman was a member of Union’s concert committee; later he became a GE researcher and fireworks technician.

Hedquist and Richard Ferguson (’67) led the revival of WRUC, Union’s on-campus commercial radio station, a force in bringing music to campus in a perfect early/mid-1960s pop moment when Hendrix personified how the honed discipline of soul bands — check the matching outfits! — exploded into the intergalactic anarchy of psychedelic rock. 

In 1966, after Hedquist graduated and before joining the Army, he worked at WPTR, the 50,000-watt powerhouse that competed for the rock audience here with WTRY in the hectic, shout-in-the-mic era of Boom Boom Brannigan and Jack Spector. 

Opening the mail one morning, “In came this promotional record from England,” said Hedquist. “It was ‘Hey Joe’ and there were three guys on the cover with wild hair and feather boas.” Hedquist recognized one. “It was that Jimi guy!” Hedquist said. “He was this tall, skinny guy. We just knew him as Jimmy. We’d meet him backstage and say, ‘Hey, good to see you again.’ He was very cool, very shy, but a powerhouse onstage.”

Saltzman said that during the Ronettes’ set at the Memorial Chapel, Jimmy Soul (“If You Wanna Be Happy”) poked his head out and asked Hendrix to play more quietly. “Jimi, not so loud!” As if!

“That Jimi guy” got around. 

“There was a dance at the gymnasium the night before in which Jimi played with the Jimmy Soul band,” said Saltzman. “The Kingsmen (“Louie Louie”) also played at this dance. Jimmy Soul also performed at a fraternity party later Friday night.” Saltzman’s photo of Hendrix reaching between his knees to the guitar neck shows “The Lovers” written in tape across his amp. The Jimmy Soul Band and the Lovers were versatile combos of New York City-based players assembled for efficiency, as well as skill, to back multiple performers on touring shows.

The Union concert committee brought a veritable parade of pop, rock and jazz groups to campus through the ’60s, including the Shangri-Las and Eric Burdon and the Animals on the same show, then jazz genius Louis Armstrong the next night; Little Richard (whose WRUC interview Hedquist recalled was wild as he was); the Kingston Trio; the Beach Boys; the Buckinghams; the Blues Project (featuring Schenectadian Steve Katz); Otis Redding (seven months to the day before his fatal plane crash); B.B. King — even a special and unlikely all-Wilson show with R&B singer Wilson Pickett and comic Flip Wilson.

When the Young Rascals canceled a show in the Union field house after organist Felix Cavaliere caught the mumps, the panicky concert committee frantically chased a fill-in. They made an offer to Simon & Garfunkel. Simon was all for it, but Garfunkel had a date he didn’t want to break.

When headliner Gary U.S. Bonds (“A Quarter to Three” and other raucous party blasts) no-showed for another field house show, Hedquist recalled, “In that gap, Hendrix (leading the Lovers) took over as bandleader.” Hedquist said, “I don’t remember him singing at all,” but he vividly recalled Hendrix’s playing. 

“Remember ‘Sleepwalk’ by Santo and Johnny?” asked Hedquist. Yes: a dreamy duet of electric guitar and pedal steel guitar. “Jimi played that whole thing, on his [Fender] Strat[ocaster]. He played all the steel parts on his Strat!” marveled Hedquist. “He played some Ventures stuff (“Walk, Don’t Run”); he played the guitar behind his head, between his knees, behind his back, picking the strings with his teeth — it was bizarre! He got a chance to shine as a performer, to show, ‘This is what I do.’ ”

A guitarist himself, Hedquist said, “Back then, nobody was doing anything like this, being so overtly sexual with the guitar. That was the last time I saw him.”

Were you at some of those Union College concerts in the 1960s? Tell us about it. Send an email to Michael Hochanadel at [email protected]

Categories: Entertainment

Leave a Reply