Music Bugle Exclusive – Q & A – Author Charles R. Smith Jr./Illustrator Edel Rodriguez Discuss “Song For Jimi: The Story Of Guitar Legend Jimi Hendrix”

Photo courtesy of Holiday House.

By Nicholas Jason Lopez

If Jimi Hendrix was alive today, he would celebrate his 80th birthday, but sadly, it wasn’t meant to be, as the legendary musician left us at an untimely age of 27.

There’s no doubt, however, about the impact he made on the music industry in an egregiously short time that has had ripple effects, even in today’s fast-paced “What have you done for me lately?” world.

Last year, award-winning creators Charles R. Smith Jr. and Edel Rodriguez collaborated on a fifty-six page lyrical account of Hendrix’s life entitled “Song For Jimi: The Story Of Guitar Legend Jimi Hendrix,” published by Neal Porter Books/Holiday House.

While aimed specifically for readers aged 7 through 11, the book serves as a perfect stocking stuffer for music lovers of any age, chockfull of vibrant artwork by Rodriguez and enthusiastic verbiage styled in a series of verses complete with intros and outros. The reverse of the book’s jacket also comes out as a poster.

The Music Bugle had the opportunity to sit down with Smith Jr. – a Coretta Scott King Honoree – and Rodriguez – former TIME art director – to discuss the creation of the book, what they expect readers to divulge from it and more, which you can check out below.

Music Bugle – Where did the idea for “Song For Jimi” come about? 

Edel Rodriguez – Charles!

Charles R. Smith, Jr. – The idea came back in 2008 when I got an award in Cleveland. The host took the award winners to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame there and I was excited to see Jimi’s display. When I got to it, I noticed that he didn’t just have one thing, like many of the others, he had his own little section. In addition to a guitar and clothes, he also had some crayon drawings. That caught my eye because they were done when he was a child. Since we always think of artists and celebrities as finished products, it was a reminder that at one time, he was just a kid with dreams like everyone else. That got the wheels spinning and I began to work on telling how he became the artist the world would come to know. 

Music Bugle – What do you think Jimi himself would say if he had the chance to read the book? 

Edel Rodriguez – “Groovy!”

Charles R. Smith Jr. – My hope would be that he appreciates me showing all the work and dedication he put in to his craft to get where he is and how much he really loved music.

Music Bugle – Going into planning of the book, did you have an idea laid out of what you wanted the artwork to look like?

Charles R. Smith Jr. – As a visual artist myself, as a photographer, my editor and I discussed the overall approach and wanted it to have that Peter Max 60’s psychedelic style to it. He then searched high and low and found Edel and it was a perfect fit. 

Edel Rodriguez – I read the manuscript and instantly had a sense of the colors and mood I wanted to convey with my artwork. I wanted the book to start off cool, quiet and then build up its visual intensity as it progressed. I wanted the artwork to be graphic, bold and contemporary, with visual cues to the psychedelic era, which Jimi embodies.

Music Bugle – What was it specifically about Jimi’s music that inspired you? 

Charles R. Smith Jr. – Honestly, it was the lyrics, the loudness and the fact that he was a black guitarist playing rock music. You just didn’t see that. I went to a small photography school for college and I was the only black student and though race wasn’t an issue, it was isolating at times. However, the great thing about art is that it draws likeminded individuals together and as I made friends, we introduced each other to music and I got turned on to Jimi through others. He was a true individual and seeing him excel in a field where he was literally the black sheep, was inspiring.  

Edel Rodriguez – Jimi’s music is a feast for the senses. It’s multilayered and emotional. It has direct connections to blues and soul music, so there is a lot of material to tap into for a visual artist.

Music Bugle – What do you think people will learn the most about Jimi from this book? 

Charles R. Smith Jr. – I think they’ll be surprised to learn he served in the military and earned his Airborne wings. People will see how his childhood pain shaped his dedication and fueled his need for expression through the guitar. You often hear about the 10,000-hour-rule where that’s the amount of time it takes to develop mastery at something. I think Jimi hit that mark and then left it behind long before he became a star. 

Edel Rodriguez – There are many little known things about Jimi’s childhood that people will learn about in this book. I think it’s very important for kids to learn that anyone can achieve their dream if they are dedicated and work hard. Jimi’s story is a perfect example of how that is done.

Music Bugle – Do you guys have any other books for musicians in the works? 

Charles R. Smith Jr. – Not currently. 

Edel Rodriguez – I don’t have any in the works, but I have done one about Celia Cruz in the past. It’s titled “Oye, Celia!”

Music Bugle – What are people missing out on by not reading on a regular basis? 

Charles R. Smith Jr. – Education. Reading opens up new doors in the mind and helps us understand the world and each other. My hope by putting Jimi out in the world is that people get to see how a quiet child became a force in music that changed the way the guitar was played and how black musicians, let alone artists, are viewed.

Music Bugle – What’s your favorite line from “Song For Jimi”? 

Charles R. Smith Jr. – I have a bunch since I wanted every line to be justified, but a couple that stand out are, “Yeah Lucille died, and Jimmy cried, Jimmy cried, Jimmy’s wide eyes dripped tears, like the gray Seattle sky.” When the line came to me, it best conveyed his pain. Another one for me is, “And there before his eyes, stood a git-tar magician, a sonic tactician, a Picasso with a pick, painting in the blues tradition.” That one just came out of the beautiful flow state of writing and summed up who Jimi was. Very proud of that phrase because only a poet could write that. 

Edel Rodriguez – For me, it’s, “To play them blues, see, you gotta walk that walk, I say to play them blues, you gotta make that git-tar talk.”

Music Bugle – Who are you listening to right now, music-wise? 

Charles R. Smith Jr. – I listen to a bit of everything, but in general, mostly rap. As a poet, it helps me stay on my game and the artists I listen to are some of the best to do it, like J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, Nas and Jay-Z, among others. 

Edel Rodriguez – I listen to a wide variety of music, from salsa to rap, reggaeton, rock and alternative.  Stuff like Ruben Blades, Los Van Van, Travis Scott, Bad Bunny, Jack White, Wilco, Radiohead, etc..

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