Born John Mitchell on July 9, 1947, in Ealing, West London, Mitch started his career as a child actor in late '50s TV schoolboy romp Jennings before moving into TV commercials, through which he developed an interest in the studio drums. At 14 he started working in Jim Marshall's Hanwell guitar shop, talking himself into playing with visiting local groups before joining the Riot Squad in 1965. Mitch played many sessions for producers of the day before joining Georgie Fame & The Blue Flames, which crucially introduced him to the jazz drummers whose techniques he combined with the epiphany he'd experienced watching Ginger Baker's polyrhythmic bombardments with Graham Bond.
At an October 1966 audition, Mitchell's fluid versatility and engaging personality won over the young guitarist whom Chas Chandler had plucked from New York's clubs with the intention of storming the UK. Alongside bassist Noel Redding, Mitchell found himself in the Jimi Hendrix Experience, whose first single "Hey Joe" kickstarted a meteoric rollercoaster that took them to the very peak of the bourgeoning rock biz. Mitchell played on all three Experience albums: Are You Experienced, Axis: Bold As Love and Electric Ladyland. Even under the dazzling glare of Hendrix's supernova, he was so much more than a timekeeper, elevating tracks like "Manic Depression" with complex time signatures and meeting every challenge Hendrix threw down during shows with powerhouse virtuosity.
During the Rolling Stones' 1968 Rock & Roll Circus Mitchell played in the Dirty Mac Band with John Lennon, Keith Richards and Eric Clapton. Having played with Hendrix's Gypsies, Suns & Rainbows lineup at Woodstock, he watched while the guitarist spent three months on the Band Of Gypsies project with bassist Billy Cox and drummer Buddy Miles [who himself died in February] then returned to play with Hendrix until he died in September 1970. Your correspondent was privileged to witness the Experience's Royal Albert Hall gig of February 1969, where a coked-up Hendrix stood static (but for his dancing digits) while Mitchell's tiny five-foot-seven frame traversed every inch of his kit in his quest to push his comrade on to further heights.
Mitchell completed the posthumous Cry Of Love album then formed a short-lived group called Ramatam before adopting the low profile he would keep for the rest of his life, playing occasional sessions and compiling his memoirs in 1990's The Hendrix Experience. Mitchell was known as one of rock music's good guys, even a joker. At his book launch at the Hard Rock Café, London, he graciously received well-wishers and even gibbering long-time fans like this writer. "You couldn't beat that time," he smiled as he signed his tome. "A lot's been written about Jimi but I just had to put things straight and pay my own tribute. We had a great laugh too!"
Mitchell recently returned to the music he helped shape in Hendrix tribute band Gypsy Sun Experience, alongside Billy Cox, participating in the Experience Hendrix US tour with guitarists including Buddy Guy and Hubert Sumlin. Five days after the tour ended Mitchell was found dead in a Portland, Oregon, hotel room during the early hours of November 12, the day he was planning to return to the UK. Although an autopsy was still pending at press time the medical examiner described the cause of death as natural. Mitchell was the last surviving member of the Experience, Noel Redding having passed in 2003. It really is the end of an era.
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- Mitch Mitchell