Hendrix drummer Mitch Mitchell dies in Portland hotel room
by Joseph Rose and Stuart Tomlinson, The Oregonian Wednesday November 12, 2008, 8:28 PM
Mitch Mitchell, the iconic drummer who provided the explosive heartbeat of the Jimi Hendrix Experience on rock classics including "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" and "Purple Haze," was found dead early Wednesday in a Portland hotel room.
Mitchell, 61, who pioneered a fusion style that allowed him and one of history's greatest guitar players to feed off each other, died of natural causes, the Multnomah County medical examiner said. He was found about 3 a.m. in his room at the Benson Hotel in downtown Portland.
Considered one of rock's greatest drummers, Mitchell was behind the kit at Hendrix's legendary sets at Woodstock, Monterey and the Isle of Wight.
Mitchell's final performance was Friday night at Portland's Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. It was the last stop on the West Coast leg of the Experience Hendrix tribute tour.
Looking pale and tired, he played only one song before the sold-out crowd, said Terry Currier, owner of the Music Millennium record shop.
"A friend who was waiting outside the Schnitz to get an autograph told me he saw a couple people helping Mitch walk into the auditorium that night," Currier said. "He didn't seem to be in great health."
Born in England in 1947, John "Mitch" Mitchell was a child actor who quickly moved on to music, becoming an accomplished jazz drummer before the age of 20. Eventually, he became Hendrix's most important musical collaborator, said Jacob McMurray, senior curator at the Experience Music Project in Seattle, Hendrix's boyhood home.
The museum's centerpiece is the world's largest collection of Jimi Hendrix artifacts and memorabilia, including the drum set Mitchell played at Woodstock in 1969.
"Jimi was an amazing guitarist and he needed somebody behind the drum kit who could hold his own," McMurray said. "That was Mitch Mitchell."
At 5-foot-5, the wild-haired Mitchell was a small guy who played "lead drums," combining meat-and-potatoes beats with rapid-fire jazz in the three-person group. He was inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame as part of the Jimi Hendrix Experience in 1992.
Hendrix's manager treated both Mitchell and original bassist Noel Redding as paid employees, limiting their rights to future revenue. In the 1970s, according to Eddie Kramer's book "Hendrix: Setting the Record Straight," Mitchell was forced to sell a prized Hendrix guitar to pay the bills.
"The bonds between Jimi and Mitch kept them together," McMurray said.
Mitchell and Hendrix recorded several tracks on their own, including "Fire," "Voodoo Child" and "Manic Depression," before bringing in Redding to finish them, McMurray said. Hendrix died after a drug overdose in 1970. Redding was 57 when he died in 2003.
Bob Merlis, a publicist for the Experience Hendrix tour, said Mitchell obviously wasn't feeling well during the last couple stops on the 17-date tour.
"We thought it was the flu," Merlis said.
Mitchell told Merlis he planned to stay in Portland for a few days to wind down from the tour before heading home to his wife, Dee, in England.
Sgt. Brian Schmautz, a Portland police spokesman, said an employee at the Benson called police after discovering Mitchell's body. Since police didn't suspect any foul play, Schmautz said, "we weren't involved beyond that."
Tom Chappelle, a deputy medical examiner for Multnomah County, said Dr. Cliff Young conducted the autopsy on Mitchell's body Wednesday afternoon.
"At this point, we're still saying natural causes," Chappelle said. "Cliff wants to talk to (Mitchell's) family first before releasing additional details."
Merlis said Mitchell was a "really warm, enthusiastic guy who was a lot of fun. He didn't hold back and liked to talk about Jimi" from their first meeting in a sleazy London club in 1966 to watching Hendrix light his guitar on fire at the Monterey Pop Festival a year later.
Judging from Mitchell's MySpace page, most of his friends and fans had not heard about his death by late Wednesday. The last post was from Sept. 27. On July 9, a fan wished him happy birthday.
But at Trade Up Music in Southeast Portland, the instrument shop's 27-year-old drum specialist remembered Mitchell as a "mind-blowing" musician.
"He came along at a great time," said Joey Ficken, who also plays in the band Sea Wolf. "He came along when there weren't really rock guitarists and rock drummers, and all these styles of music came together. People were seeing something they had never seen before."
These days, drummers tend to stay in the background. They really aren't like Mitchell any more, Ficken said.
"He was a star. People still idolize him."
-- Joseph Rose and Stuart Tomlinson; firstname.lastname@example.org