Jimi Hendrix’s Guitar Hero Now Lives Quietly In Spokane
(From Doug Clark’s column, October 10, 1996): In Tuesday’s column I mistakenly noted Seattle’s Little Bill Englehart as a black blues musician. He is white.
Hot young rockers from all over the country competed recently in Seattle to see who could make a guitar sing like Jimi Hendrix.
The everlasting brilliance of Hendrix, who died of an overdose one fall day in 1970, continues to influence practically any kid with callouses on his fingertips.
Sadly, few pickers under 40 have heard of the guitar man whom Hendrix idolized as a boy.
“Jimi Hendrix, who started playing guitar in 1957,” writes Paul de Barros in “Jackson Street After Hours,” his definitive 1993 book on the roots of Seattle jazz, “was influenced as a youngster by a local white rhythm-and-blues guitarist named Joe Johansen. …”
You can find Johansen today in downtown Spokane, living an obscure life in a cramped, low-income apartment.
He’s 54. He hasn’t seriously touched a guitar in six years. But once upon a time it was Johansen who had the hot hands.
Playing Seattle-area clubs in the late-1950s and early 1960s, Johansen backed touring stars and became known for a fiery style that shaped what became known as the Northwest Sound.
The legendary bands of the time - the Kingsmen (“Louie Louie), the Sonics (“The Witch”) and the Wailers (“Tall Cool One”) - all copied guitar licks from Johansen.
“He is the Northwest Sound,” says Robert Browning, a Spokane insurance agent and Washington rock ‘n’ roll history buff. “Joe is one of the great unsung heroes of guitar. He was there from the beginning of Northwest rock ‘n’ roll.”
From 1960 to 1963, Johansen played in the Dave Lewis Trio, a Seattle band that enjoyed a cult status with practically every area musician.
“That was kind of the happening thing,” says Rich Dangel, the Wailers’ lead guitarist, who is still recording and playing. “Joe was an awesome guitar player and a major influence to a lot of people.”
Nobody would mistake Johansen for a rocker today. He’s a big guy, round shouldered and overweight. He walks with a cane due to a bum back.
Johansen came to Spokane in the late 1980s to kick dependency problems. Like Hendrix and so many other gifted musicians, Johansen’s career was haunted by drug and alcohol addiction. He later went to school, and became a drug and alcohol counselor.
“All my musical heroes were junkies so I became one,” he says. “I blew some of the best years of my playing career. I’ll never know how good I could have been because I was always loaded.”
Johansen played Carnegie Hall twice while touring with headline acts. After five years as an L.A. studio musician, Johansen says, he retired in 1972 with a substantial amount of money in the bank.
He bought a house in Seattle and a pound of pure heroin in that order, he says. Broke by the late 1970s, he went back to playing. Eventually, Johansen was forced to choose between the guitar and sobriety. Sobriety won.
“See, I never played straight,” he says, chain-smoking Benson & Hedges menthol cigarettes. “So when I cleaned up and went through treatment I started playing again and relapsed. I had to make that choice to quit the guitar. I was real bitter about it.”
Born in the small Washington lumber town of Mossyrock, Johansen learned to play taking lessons from a door-to-door guitar teacher. He was a natural and moved to Seattle after high school to play with a band called the Adventurers.
His musical world changed when he became friends with Little Bill Englehart, a black musician who introduced Johansen to blues and jazz. One night he heard blues master B.B. King. “My tastes, the way I played, everything went through a major lifestyle change right there,” he says.
Johansen was transformed. He quickly became known as the cat to watch. While performing at a joint called the Spanish Castle, Johansen noticed a teenager hanging around the club night after night.
The boy kept listening and asking for a chance to sit in.
Johansen refused each time. “No way I was letting some weird-looking, skinny 15-year-old kid play my guitar,” says Johansen, exploding with a laugh. “Even if the kid was Jimi Hendrix.”