By Brad Dison
Johnny Allen was born on November 27, 1942, during World War II. During his teen years, Johnny occasionally got into minor trouble, but nothing too serious. In 1961, Seattle policemen were investigating a rash of home burglaries in which about $2,500 worth of goods and cash was stolen. On Tuesday night, May 2, Johnny and three friends were riding around in Seattle having a good time when they were pulled over by a policeman. Upon speaking with the boys and checking the paperwork on the car, the policeman learned that the car was stolen. All were arrested. Johnny and his three friends were transported to the Rainier Vista 4-H Youth Center. Johnny was a passenger in the car and, with no evidence to prove it was he who stole the car, Johnny was eventually released to his father. Johnny claimed he had no idea the car was stolen and his father believed him.
Just three days later, another policeman pulled another car over in Seattle. Just as before, the policeman learned that the car was stolen. Just as before, Johnny was a passenger in the stolen car. All were arrested. This time, Johnny did not get off so easily. After spending seven days in Rainier Vista, he was taken to court to face the judge. The judge considered the fact that Johnny was experienced at being in stolen cars. The public defender assigned to Johnny’s case put forth a plea bargain to the judge. The judge suspended Johnny’s two-year sentence provided that he immediately enlists in one of the branches of the military. Johnny had no desire to join the military, but he had less desire to go to jail. On May 29, 1961, Johnny joined the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne and left Seattle on a southbound train for Fort Ord, California.
The United States had committed itself to stop the spread of communism in the world. Just a month prior to James’s arrests, at the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, the United States covertly financed and directed the Cuban exiles’ invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. The invasion, part of a larger mission to overthrow Fidel Castro, was an utter disaster. Tensions between the United States and Cuba grew worse seemingly with each passing day. Both the United States and the Soviet Union continued testing nuclear weapons despite agreements not to do so. After the Bay of Pigs, Cuba became allied with the Soviet Union. With tensions flaring in multiple parts of the world, it seemed likely that Johnny would eventually see military action.
After completing eight weeks of basic training, Johnny was sent to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, the home of the Screaming Eagles Air Assault Division. From there, Johnny wrote a letter to his father which detailed the challenges he was experiencing: “There’s nothing but physical training and harassment [sic] here for two weeks, then when you go to jump school, that’s when you get hell. They work you to DEATH, fussing and fighting.”
In January 1962, after eight months and eight days in the Army, Johnny finally earned his 101st Division Screaming Eagles patch. Johnny, however, was homesick. He missed his family. He missed his girlfriend, Betty Jean, and he missed his guitar. Johnny knew that he could not get a pass to return home to visit and knew they would be unable to visit him. His guitar was another matter altogether. He wrote to his father and pleaded for him to send his guitar, a red Danelectro Silverton electric guitar on which he had scrawled the name Betty Jean after his girlfriend, to the Army base as soon as possible.
Johnny seemed to change once his guitar arrived. His constant strumming annoyed his fellow soldiers. They derided him for talking to and even sleeping with his guitar. Eventually, some of the soldiers in his unit hid his guitar. After begging and pleading with them, the soldiers finally returned Johnny’s prized guitar. His superior officers in the Army were displeased at Johnny’s performance as a soldier. He often abandoned his work details to play the guitar.
In February 1962, Army Captain Gilbert Batchman sent Johnny for a physical and psychiatric examination. Captain Batchman concluded that “Individual is unable to conform to military rules and regulations. Misses bed checks; sleeps while supposed to be working; unsatisfactory duty performance. Requires excessive supervision at all times.” The Army brought up proceedings against Johnny to determine his fate in the military. Johnny declined counsel and submitted no statements or evidence on his own behalf. Johnny was ultimately given an honorable discharge from the Army.
The remainder of Johnny’s short life revolved around guitars and music. He continued to sleep next to and to talk to his guitar. On September 18, 1970, Johnny’s girlfriend woke up and found that Johnny was unconscious and unresponsive. Johnny was dead. With only four years as a mainstream artist, Johnny became one of the most influential electric guitarists in history, and one of the most celebrated musicians of the 20th century.
In 2019, the post office at 4301 4th Street in Renton Highlands, Washington, which is about a mile from Johnny’s grave, was renamed in Johnny’s honor. You see, Johnny Allen was the name he was born with but not the name he died with. Four years after his birth, for reasons that have never been fully explained, Johnny’s parents changed his name to James Marshall. The post office in Renton Highlands is now known as The James Marshall “Jimi’ Hendrix United States Post Office.
Source: Steven Roby and Brad Schreiber, Becoming Jimi Hendrix from Southern Crossroads to Psychedelic London, The Untold Story of a Musical Genius (New York: Da Capo Press, 2010), p.9-24.