As well as the three Jimi Hendrix books by Tony Brown, I was also responsible for the UK publication of what I believe to be the best all-round biography of the great guitarist: ’Scuse Me While I Kiss The Sky: The Life of Jimi Hendrix by the black American writer, academic and musician David Henderson. The first ever substantial biography of Hendrix, it was originally published by Doubleday in the US in 1978 but it wasn’t until 1990 that I acquired the rights for Omnibus, having been alerted to its merits by a bookshop proprietor in Camden who’d been selling import copies.
Imagine my surprise, then, when in 1992 – 14 years after its first publication – former Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell decided to sue Omnibus Press for libel, claiming that our edition of the book (the text of which was identical to the US edition) portrayed him as a racist. I didn’t think it portrayed him as a racist at all and neither did our lawyers who concluded that Mitchell had been put up to this by a third party in the hope that Omnibus would capitulate and offer him an out-of-court settlement rather than defend the allegation and risk a trial which, if we lost, might prove very expensive. We didn’t cave in and Mitchell lost his case, and afterwards faced a massive bill for legal costs.
Mitchell’s case relied on passages in the book that mentioned a bit of antagonism between him and Jimi but it seemed to me that this was simply envy, that the drummer was irked because the spotlight fell on Jimi who got all the newspaper headlines, more money and the prettiest groupies, and had nothing whatsoever to do with the colour of Jimi’s skin. Typical drummer’s rant, I thought. The book also drew attention to the unusual racial make-up of the Experience – after all, in 1966 it was unusual to have a black American guitarist fronting a trio with white English boys on bass and drums. There was a mention of the Notting Hill race riots in 1958, but none of these references to matters of race seemed to imply Mitchell was actually a racist.
Nevertheless, I spent three fascinating days at the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand observing the due process of law and how m’learned friends cope with the world of rock’n’roll, which is about as far removed from the legal trade as Jimi was to Segovia. Before a bewigged, red-robed judge and a jury of 12, Mitchell gave evidence, plenty of it, and in order to establish his credentials as a frontline drummer claimed that he had played ‘with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones’. No one in the courtroom (other than me and him and my rock writer colleague Johnny Rogan who often sits in on rock’n’roll trials) knew the first thing about rock history so this bold assertion went unchallenged, though I remember passing a Post-It note to the barrister representing Omnibus on which I had written ‘THAT’S BOLLOCKS’. It took me some time to realise that Mitchell was probably referring to his appearance with The Dirty Mac, the one-off group that John Lennon put together in 1968 for the filming of The Rolling Stone’s Rock’n’Roll Circus, which featured Lennon, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards on bass and Mitchell on drums, with Yoko adding her customary strident vocal on the song ‘Whole Lotta Yoko’.
Furthermore, Mitchell claimed to have played on ‘three number one hits’ which also puzzled me. I think he must have been referring to his time with Georgie Fame’s Blue Flames but although they had three number ones, the first was before he joined and the last was after Mitchell was recruited for the Experience, so I think he was overegging the pudding a bit here too.
At one point during the trial Mitchell’s girlfriend took the stand to testify that Mitchell was so adversely affected by the book that he was unable to play the drums any more, a terrible fate indeed but surely another exaggeration. The poor girl was limping badly and walked with a stick, and when Mitchell’s barrister inquired the cause she replied that she had injured her leg while rescuing a drowning puppy from a fast-flowing river near where they lived at Rye in East Sussex. Its owner, a small girl who was sobbing on the riverbank, evidently alerted her to the puppy’s plight. A collective sigh rose from the court but the judge was having none of it and in his subsequent summing up instructed the jury to dismiss this evidence as it was of no import to the matter in hand (and had, of course, been introduced by Mitchell’s barrister as a blatant attempt to curry sympathy with the jury).
The trial was enlivened by Mitchell’s friend Geno Washington who endeared himself to everyone, even the judge, with his entertaining testimony that, in a nutshell, boiled down to his view that Mitchell wasn’t a racist. Somehow, I thought, he’d missed the point. The question was not whether Mitchell was a racist, which was indeed most unlikely, but whether or not the book implied that he was a racist, an entirely different matter. I don’t think Geno had even read it, which made his testimony irrelevant. The judge agreed.
Indeed, the issue of relevance was the primary focus of our barrister’s submission to the jury. Almost all of Mitchell’s testimony was designed to prove that he wasn’t a racist and had little to do with the book. At my prompting, our barrister suggested that if Mitchell was serious about having been portrayed as a racist he’d have sued the original publishers back in 1978 and not waited until 1992 to sue the UK publishers in London where he felt he had a better chance of winning. In this regard, of course, any personal harm that Mitchell may have suffered from the book was surely negligible if – as he claimed – he was unaware of its existence until 14 years after it was first published. It was a storm in a teacup, my barrister argued, an invalid claim with no basis in fact brought to court in the hope of enriching the plaintiff. To this end he called no witnesses, thus relieving me of a duty I wasn’t relishing, which infuriated Mitchell’s legal team, not just because it reinforced the contempt in which we held Mitchell's claim but because under court rules this tactic meant that our barrister could address the jury last, so his words were ringing in their ears when they retired to consider a verdict.
Announcing that verdict after retiring for only about 90 minutes, Mitchell looked crestfallen and declared his intention to appeal, which he subsequently did, before three judges in a closed sitting, and he lost that too. Then I heard he’d skipped the country to avoid paying his legal bills. Meanwhile, newspaper coverage of the case – ‘Hendrix Drummer Loses Racism Claim’ – had the unfortunate consequence of subtly implying that he really was a racist, so it was a double own goal.
Much later, Kathy Etchingham, Jimi’s girlfriend for most of his stay in London, told me that Mitchell had read an American edition of ’Scuse Me While I Kiss The Sky when it first came out and didn’t seem that bothered by it. She was, though, and after a discussion with him sued the US publisher over a reference to her turning Jimi on to drugs that was subsequently removed. A lively, free-spirited lady who married a doctor and eventually moved to Australia where she now lives, Kathy was quite put out by the unlikely supposition that she, a fairly naïve young London girl in 1966, could possibly have introduced marijuana to Jimi Hendrix, a worldly, professional American rock musician with heaps of experience of the US chitlin’ circuit and the downtown New York rock scene. “I ask you,” she said, laughing her head off.
’Scuse Me While I Kiss The Sky is still in print, having been published in many editions now. The Omnibus edition that caused all the fuss, its cover designed by Lisa Pettibone (aka Lisa Charlesworth), is at the top of this post and the most recent Omnibus Press edition is below, with the current US edition below that.
Mitch Mitchell died in 2008, the last of the three members of the Experience to kiss the sky following bassist Noel Redding in 2003 and Jimi in 1970. I actually felt a bit sorry for him after all this legal business as I don’t think it was his idea to bring the case at all, nor, of course, that he was ever a racist either. RIP all of them, and thanks for the great music.