The death of drummer Mitch Mitchell, aged 61, marks an unwanted milestone in rock mortality. Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, all have suffered fatalities over the years. However, with the passing of Mitchell, all three members of the Jimi Hendrix Experience are now dead. This is especially poignant since, with 1968's Electric Ladyland, the three of them created a double album of such sheer volume, incandescence and pyromaniac creativity that it remains unmatched and undimmed. It still has the power to knock you off your seat and Mitch Mitchell's percussive ferocity is a significant contributor to that.
Mitchell and bassist Noel Redding were selected for the Jimi Hendrix Experience in 1966 as much for their ability to look the part for the psychedelic novelty act the band were being promoted as. They were two kooky, pseudo Afro-sporting innocents standing alongside the Wild Man of Rock, and critics have occasionally been condescending towards Redding and Mitchell as a result. Writers like Nik Cohn suggested that they were uncommonly lucky to be playing alongside a genius like Hendrix, while biographer David Henderson wrote of the "strange contempt" he divined in Mitchell towards Hendrix. However, Mitchell deeply resented these remarks and, while he may not always have been happy with the lack of attention or remuneration he received in comparison with Hendrix, all of this was channelled as grist to his percussive mill.
Mitchell had been a child actor, a skill he brought to bear in the spoken word intro to Axis: Bold As Love, and at ease with the extroversion of rock showmanship. He had the same boundless, manic qualities as Who drummer Keith Moon – it seemed at times that he was not so much playing his kit as trying to smash it to smithereens. However, he really could play. He was steeped in jazz and particularly indebted to the post-bebop drummer Elvin Jones.
Playing with Hendrix was no second-fiddle indignity for Mitchell but a challenge to be risen to, time and again. On a track like Manic Depression, it's as if he's about to be pitched off his drum seat over the top of the kit, propelled by the sheer tsunami of his drumming. He is almost the dominant force. By 1968, as Hendrix really began to experiment, bassist Noel Redding found himself marginalised and eventually jettisoned. Mitchell, however, rose again to the occasion, holding his own in the jam session with Hendrix and Steve Winwood that gave rise to Voodoo Chile. Even when Hendrix went the way many of his black followers had hoped he would and formed the African American trio Band of Gypsys, Mitchell was never out of the loop. On the last Hendrix recordings, he was part of a trio that included bassist Billy Cox. He worked with him to the end, and beyond. For on October 19, 1970, it was Mitchell's grievous duty to go in and lay down the studio drum part to Angel, over the guitars and vocals of his colleague who had died tragically just a month earlier, aged 27. The rising swell of cymbals that concludes the track feel like a final embrace with the ascended soul of his old friend.
Although he played in a supergroup involving John Lennon, Mitchell never really found a major role for himself following Hendrix's death, and towards the end of his life he had been playing on the Experience Hendrix tour across America. However, rock historians should always remember to open their ears beyond Hendrix's dazzling playing and recall that Mitchell was, then and forever, an indispensable part of the Experience.