By Armond Blackwater as told by Ron Russell. Edited by Jillian Martineau.
I wrote this article in 1999. A friend brought Ron Russell to the Cafe’ Be At Studio in Tampa saying that I really needed to hear this guys story. I was dubious. After 7,000 gigs I’ve heard hundreds of unbelievable stories. Weird, crazy stories that the tellers swore happened to them. Only, I heard the same story by multiple tellers. They were common road stories. Do you how many Southern drummers jammed with the Allman Brothers?
All of them.
With Ron Russell there was a difference. I, like most, accepted the official proclamation that Hendrix died of a drug overdose. He joined Janis and Morrison in the pantheon of Rock Stars that died at age 27.
But Ron Russell had a different take on Jimi’s death. Ron insisted that Jimi was murdered.
If it was just some guy telling me this story on a bar stool in a local pub I’d have listened politely and probably bought him a drink or three for entertaining me. But there was something different about Ron Russell. He exuded an aura of truthfulness. The level of detail that he related was uncommon. I asked many questions as he went along. His memory of the events was crystal clear. His descriptions were chilling at times. It was clear that he truly believed that Hendrix’s death happened exactly as he described.
I’m not a journalist. I’ve never claimed to be. I studied Creative Writing in college, not Journalism. But I do confirm stories before I publish them. I also talked to my lawyer who advised against publication of these potentially libelous claims. “They can’t sue me if it’s true, can they?” He said, “No, but you’re risking everything.” I don’t care about money or things. I care about truth.
I did more research on this story than any previous. I talked to people that knew Ron at the time of the incident. One in particular played Hammond Organ onstage of the Men’s Garden Club in Tampa, Florida, with Jimi while Ron drummed.
I spoke with the lady who had been Jimi’s road manager, Lore Pearson, on his final European tour. She confirmed the story, “It all fits.”. Ron met with Lore to share their memories of Hendrix. Ms. Pearson reported back to me that she was 1000% convinced that Ron was telling the truth.
Add to all that the fact that Ron had a great career going as drummer for Bertie Higgins’ Band of Pirates, was a session drummer, and on call for bands such as the Beach Boys and other National acts. Ron had everything to lose by telling his story.
Despite my lawyers protestations, I decided to publish in 2000.
I received numerous comments on the article, most questioning my sanity and one veiled threat. I took them in stride. However, I was never contacted by the principal named as one of the murderers. I was never sued. Yet, I know that he read the story and was fuming. He was the one that sent the veiled threat – a red and black devils face.
I also received an email from Eric Clapton. Yes, The Eric Clapton. His message was simply, “This is the worst piece of rubbish I’ve ever read.” I was blown away. First, that The Eric Clapton had taken time to read my story and, second, that he ranked it as “the worst piece of rubbish” he’d ever read. Wow. I’d have been honored if I’d fallen into the Top 100 pieces of “rubbish” he’d ever read, but to me Number 1 on his list? I felt majestic.
The story died down and was mostly forgotten. That was until James “Tappy” Wright published his autobiography “Rock Roadie“. Therein, Tappy described a conversation that he had with his close friend Michael Jeffries (notorious manager for Jimi Hendrix) that paralleled Ron Russell’s story down to the minutest of details.
Tappy had never read my story or heard of Ron Russel or me. He merely related a story that Jeffries told him over brandy in 1975 as he unburdened himself of 5 years of guilt.
I contacted Tappy. We conversed and he confirmed Ron’s description of the events. Today, Tappy lives about 100 miles from me. We intend to get together for dinner some night when our schedules permit. I’m looking forward to that night.
That’s the background, now here’s the story.
The Truth Behind The Death Of Jimi Hendrix
By Armond Blackwater as told by Ron Russell, Edited by Jillian Martineau
Ron Russell developed his love of music at an early age. He was even born with the love.
“My parents were really into music. They loved Jazz most of all. In that day, my father would have been called an audiophile because he owned some pretty sophisticated sound equipment. Most folks in the 1950s owned an AM radio and a monaural phonograph. Very few had stereophonic audio systems. My dad had all the hottest gear, woofers, tweeters, precision amplifier and feather-touch turntable with a stereo needle; he was an electrical engineer who was fascinated by gadgets,” Ron recalled.
Ron’s father took him to a Gene Krupa concert when he was six years old. Gene Krupa was the greatest drummer of the big band era. Krupa was a contemporary of Glenn Miller, Bennie Goodman, Tommy Dorsey… The Swing Era players.
Krupa inspired many drummers: Buddy Rich, Carmine Appice, Neal Pert; an entire generation of drummers. Gene Krupa was the Carl Palmer of his day. Understand, of course, that I see Carl Palmer as the best percussionist of our time and tend to measure all drummers against him from my keyboard galaxy. Not just the best, there wasn’t another in Krupa’s class. Seeing Gene Krupa perform set off a raging fire in the impressionable young Ron Russell.
“That’s what I want to do,” Ron stated emphatically, “That’s what I want to be.”
So, for his next birthday (January 10th), Ron’s father bought him a set of drums, Kent drums as Ron remembers them. His father also arranged for Ron to take lessons from a local jazz legend Dave Tough, who played with The Glenn Miller Band for 16 years. Ron studied with the man for a year, but death claimed his professor ending the lessons. The professor died of cirrhosis of the liver, an all too common ailment among musicians.
Shortly thereafter, Ron’s family moved to Xenia, Ohio where Ron studied under the professor of percussion at Ohio State University. Ron proved to be a natural drummer. He was a serious student who practiced relentlessly. He absorbed the lessons and tapped into the rhythm of the universe. He became one with his drumming.
In 1960, Ron’s father, who was an electrical engineer, was selected for a vaunted position as a scientist at Cape Canaveral. The Russell family left Xenia and moved to Satellite Beach on the Florida Space Coast. Ron studied and expanded his quest to be the best drummer that he could become.
In seventh grade Ron formed a band with a few local musicians. The group played local teen dances, parties, and eventually wound up in the club scene. Middle and High School years are particularly rough times in the developmental process of a teenager. It is an awkward time when bodies are changing, hormones are raging, and swerving through various social gauntlets can prove excruciating. Being in a band grants identity to the fragile players as well as broadcasting that they are one of the “cool cats”. Plus, chicks dig musicians for some reason. We never ask why, we just accept and enjoy.
Ultimately, Ron’s band that came out of high school and burst upon the Tampa music scene was named Raindriver. The band included Ron on drums and Waldemar “Wally” Dentz on bass. Wally joined the Bellamy Brothers in 1980 and has been playing with them ever since. Wally is also an accomplished harmonica player.
Not long after the bands move from Satellite Beach, Raindriver became the premier act in Tampa. They performed as the openers for many of the big name groups of the day, such as Blue Oyster Cult, REO Speedwagon and others.
The band also played the Tampa scene. Among the gigs they played was a classy venue called The Men’s Garden Club, where they hosted a weekly jam session. Raindriver provided their amplifiers, drums, and PA (Public Address) equipment and invite musicians to sit-in with the band. It gave local musicians a chance to showcase their talents, meet other musicians, find a gig, or earn a free drink or two.
The turbulent 1960’s were coming to a close. The Vietnam Conflict (War) was at the summit of its savagery, butchery, and insanity. Hippies were preaching a message of love, peace, and expanding your mind. Drugs became a favorite method of mind expansion. “Tune in, turn on and drop out” was the oft-repeated doctrine of acid-guru Timothy Leary. Marijuana, LSD, and cocaine were the mind expanding drugs that the hippie culture embraced, plus two deadly old favorites: alcohol and heroin. The word on the street was that all of those treats could be found at The Men’s Garden Club – where the hippies were.
One Sunday, Raindriver had just completed a set and were taking a break. Ron sought refuge from the crowd and the madness under a tree to the side of the stage. Before long, a limousine pulled up to the entrance of the club. People started yelling excitedly, “It’s Hendrix. It’s Hendrix.” Frenzy broke out as Jimi Hendrix emerged from the limo. The towering guitarist rapped with fans and signed autographs. He also obtained a vile of heroin from a skinny cat by the name of Ron Wells.
Meanwhile, Ron Russell sat content – enjoying the calm. Ron wasn’t a Hendrix fan. Ron’s musical tastes ran more towards jazz than rock and roll. He had heard of Hendrix, but wasn’t very familiar with his work. “I wasn’t really into Hendrix,” Ron explains, “at the time,” he added with a chuckle.
*end of part 1*