John Graham “Mitch” Mitchell was born on 9 July 1946 in Ealing, Middlesex, UK to Phyliss (née Preston) and Thomas J Mitchell. As a teenager, he starred in a children’s television programme, which was very much part of the formative years of the Baby Boomers generation of which I was an unknowing member.
The TV programme was called ‘Jennings and Derbyshire’ and was about a couple of schoolboys at a boarding school and also featured a very youthful Jeremy Clarkson (of Top Gear fame) in it. Mitch also had a leading role in the 1960 British film ‘Bottoms Up’ with Jimmy Edwards. I’m pretty sure I recall Mitch telling me he was a tap dancer which suggests that, like Phil Collins, he went to stage school – or at least dance classes.
He was largely self-taught although actually became a musician through working at Jim Marshall’s drum shop on Saturdays while still at school, so he may have had the odd lesson there – no prizes for knowing Jim was responsible for producing the amplifier which went all the way up to 11!
Like most sixties drummers Mitch’s career blossomed by simply playing with as many groups as he could – as a touring and also a session musician. He worked with groups with typical sixties’ names like Pete Nelson and the Travellers, Frankie Reid and the Casuals, Johnny Harris and The Shades, Bill Knight & the Sceptres, The Riot Squad, and even The Who as a session drummer while the band was in the process of replacing their original drummer with Keith Moon. He also replaced, albeit temporarily, Viv Prince as drummer in the Pretty Things. He was very much part of the ‘Drum City’ crowd who simply hung-out in Ivor Arbiter’s shop on London’s Shaftesbury Avenue. We young pros would congregate there to chew the fat and talk non-stop about the nuts and bolts of drumming.
He had a ten month stint from December 1965 until October 1966 with Georgie Fame’s Blue Flames and I think this period was hugely significant as far as his eventual playing style was concerned. He played on their 1966 album: “Sweet Things” and in an interview published in 2015 Georgie remembers: “His [Mitch’s} main hero was jazz drummer Ronnie Stevenson and if you look at early film clips of Mitch, he had that Ronnie Stephenson look, the way he set his jaw. And he loved crashing around on the cymbals like Ronnie, but in my band I liked the arrangements pretty tight. When he started splashing around I’d say, ‘Just play the hi-hat!”.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience came almost immediately after he parted company with the Blue Flames. Chas Chandler, the one-time bass player for The Animals saw Jimi in a New York club and brought him to the UK to kick-start his career. Mitch auditioned for Hendrix’s band in October 1966 along with many others, and beat Aynsley Dunbar to the gig – rumour has it as a result of Hendrix spinning a coin. At the time it was felt that Mitch’s fast, driving, jazzy playing knit well with Hendrix’s (until then) unheard of approach to the electric guitar.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience held its first rehearsal on October 6 1966, and almost immediately made its live debut opening for Johnny Hallyday on a short French tour. It was on this tour that they first played their version of “Hey Joe” and two months later released it as a single straight into the Top Ten. They then signed to Track Records, the label launched by The Who’s managers Chris Stamp and Kit Lambert, and put out ‘Purple Haze’ just before embarking on a tour of Britain.
As I said, Mitch came from an altogether more jazzy background having played with Georgie Fame’s band and, like many of his contemporaries in the London scene, was influenced by the obvious American players such as Joe Morello, Elvin Jones and Max Roach.
His tenure with Jimi Hendrix wasn’t actually that long and in the beginning Mitch actually thought he’d give it a couple of weeks to see how it went! It actually lasted from October 1966 to mid-1969 and he found time to play on three albums and do a lot of touring. The albums in question were “Are You Experienced”, in 1967, “Axis Bold As Love”, and “Electric Ladyland” both in 1968. “The Cry Of Love” and “Rainbow Bridge” albums were both in 1971 and “War Heroes” came out in 1972 after Jimi’s untimely death in September 1970.
Mitch was in the Hendrix band when they played at Woodstock in August 1969 and eventually in another “Experience” version in 1970 with Billy Cox on bass – known subsequently as the “Cry Of Love Band”.
Once we got into our respective strides, Mitch and I would see one another at gigs, bars, drumshops and even the odd party on the beach in California. It was at one of these that I noticed all three of the ‘Experience’ guys each had someone standing attentively close by them in a tight shiny suit with strange, uncomfortable bulges in their jackets. Mitch told me they’d simply turned-up out of the blue to look after them – and they’d stayed.
In December 1968, Mitch moonlighted by playing with ‘The Dirty Mac’ which was an all-star band put together for ‘The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus’. It comprised John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Eric Clapton, and Keith Richards playing bass! Also while he was working with Hendrix from late 1969 until early 1970, Mitch teamed up with the ‘Jack Bruce and Friends’ band fronted by the ex-Cream bassist with keyboard player Mike Mandel and jazz-fusion guitarist Larry Corryell. Mitch also had a hand in Miles Davis’ demo sessions for the 1969 album “Bitches Brew” but didn’t make it onto the final album. Alongside this he was working with Hendrix’ engineer Eddie Kramer on putting the finishing touches to “Cry of Love” and “Rainbow Bridge” not long before forming ‘Ramatam’ with Mike Pinera and April Lawton.
Ramatam was the opening act for Emerson, Lake and Palmer at a number of concerts and Mitchell and Hendrix had both been asked to join the band with Keith and Greg when they were forming, but obviously Carl Palmer got the gig instead. Mitch Mitchell went on to perform in concerts with Terry Reid, Jack Bruce and even Jeff Beck when he substituted for Cozy Powell. Mitch also drummed alongside John Halsey (once of ‘The Rutles’, ‘Timebox’, ‘Patto’ and Lou Reed) in the 1970s jam band, ‘Hinkleys Heroes’, allegedly the only time he played alongside another drummer.
This is the part of Mitch’s story when things start to become slightly less cheerful.
Hendrix’s manager, demoted Mitch and Noel Redding to being paid employees without any share in future revenues. This naturally limited their earnings and led to them being pretty much excluded from any revenue share from the Experience. This led to Mitch selling a guitar Hendrix had given him at Sotheby’s for £180,000 and also selling his small legal claim to future Hendrix record sales for about $200,000.
In 1974, Mitch auditioned for Paul McCartney’s band ‘Wings’ but this time lost out to Geoff Britton (once of ‘East of Eden’), inauspiciously it seems on the toss of another coin. For the rest of the 1970s, 1980s and through to the 1990s, Mitch was semi-retired and living in Europe although he continued to perform and occasionally record. In 1986, he worked with jazz musician Greg Parker as well as doing session work with Junior Brown and in 1999, he was part of the ‘Gypsy Sun Experience’, along with Billy Cox and Gary Serkin. He also appeared with Cox, Buddy Miles and Jack Bruce on unknown guitarist Bruce Cameron’s album called “Midnight Daydream”.
In 2008 he spent his final days commemorating Hendrix’s music on the ‘Experience Hendrix Tour’ which carried out an 18-city circuit of the US which finished in Portland, Oregon. The rest of the guys on the tour were Billy Cox, Buddy Guy, Bobby Kreiger, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Hubert Sumlin, Eric Gales, Jonny Lang and others.
Five days after the tour ended Mitch Mitchell died in his sleep of natural causes, in a hotel room in Portland. He was buried in Seattle. If truth be told he hadn’t been well for years due to alcohol-related problems.
In 2005, John Graham Mitchell was named the 23rd greatest drummer of all time by Rolling Stone Magazine and was inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame in 2009. In 2016 Mitch was named the eighth out of the 100 greatest drummer of all time in another Rolling Stone poll.
Roger Taylor described Mitch as an early role model. He said: “I still think listening to Mitch Mitchell, especially the early stuff with Hendrix, is just fantastic.” Matt Sorum praised his “pure musicianship” and called him “one of the greatest drummers of all time”
In an interview Stewart Copeland listed the first Jimi Hendrix Experience album [Are You Experienced] as his favourite drum album of all time, and recounts how as a child in school, he would have drum beats in his head and wonder how Mitch Mitchell would play that song.
Mitch was instrumental in popularising jazz fusion which nowadays we know well is the blending of jazz and rock drumming styles. The use of lead drums was not exactly a new concept in jazz, it was relatively unheard of in rock. Upon joining Hendrix in late 1966, it became evident to Mitch that the trio format of the band would allow him to become more free with his playing. The definition of it is that like a jazz drummer, the playing would not only provide a rhythmic support for the music, but also a source of momentum and melody. Mitch made heavy use of snare rudiments, fast single and double stroke rolls, and jazz triplet patterns. He used both traditional and matched grips.
While he was with Hendrix, Mitch mostly used Ludwig drums although there are some pictures of him with a Gretsch. He moved on to Hayman, although in the end he was playing DW. He also used various setups or combinations of Zildjian and Paiste cymbals, and yet we know he mostly used Zildjian.
Mitch Mitchell died on 12 November 2008 not long before he was to receive a Zildjian Life-time Achievement Award. I talked to him about an interview and writing something for www.mikedolbear.com but he felt nobody would be interested! I assured him he was absolutely wrong.