“Red House” is a song written by Jimi Hendrix and one of the first songs recorded in 1966 by the Jimi Hendrix Experience. It has the musical form of a conventional twelve-bar blues and features Hendrix’s guitar playing. He developed the song prior to forming the Experience and was inspired by earlier blues songs.
“Red House” was first released on the British edition of Hendrix’s debut album Are You Experienced in May 1967 (for the American album release, previously released Experience singles were used in its place). A second similar take was eventually released in the US in July 1969 on the American Smash Hits compilation.
The song was a fixture of Hendrix concerts throughout his career. Although the lyrics and basic structure were followed, his performances usually varied from the original recording. Many were recorded and continue to be released officially for the first time, including on Miami Pop Festival (2013) and Freedom: Atlanta Pop Festival (2015). “Red House” has also been performed and recorded by a variety of blues and other artists.
“Red House” was inspired by blues songs Hendrix was performing early in his career as a sideman. Music critic Charles Shaar Murray describes a song he calls “California Night”, which Hendrix performed with Curtis Knight and the Squires, as “a dead ringer, both in structure and mood, for his 1967 perennial ‘Red House'”. Originally recorded by Albert King in 1961 as “Travelin’ to California”, it is a slow blues with lyrics that follow the common blues theme of the rambling man and his lost love (sometimes also misidentified as “Every Day I Have the Blues” – both songs use the verse “nobody loves me”).
Hendrix recorded two live versions of “Travelin’ to California” with Knight, which prominently feature his vocal and guitar playing. Both were recorded at George’s Club 22 in Hackensack, New Jersey, on December 26, 1965 and/or January 22, 1966. After Hendrix’s death in 1970, the recordings (using various names) were released by several European record companies that specialized in bootleg and grey-market albums. In 2017, a version was officially released on Curtis Knight [Featuring Jimi Hendrix]: Live at George’s Club 20.
Music writer Keith Shadwick describes Hendrix’s performance as “a staggering display of blues guitar playing that is worthy of mention in the same breath as his later efforts with the Experience”. Although Shadwick compares his guitar tone and phraseology to that of Buddy Guy, he adds that his techniques “simply transcend any previous models, and breaks new ground” and shows that “his ability to spin out long and consistently surprising lines across the standard blues changes is already full grown”. In 1966, during his residency as Jimmy James and the Blue Flames at the Cafe Wha? in New York City’s Greenwich Village, Hendrix continued to develop his slow blues number that became “Red House”.
“Red House” is a moderately slow blues, which music writers Tom Wheeler and Joe Gore describe as having “the twelve-bar structure, the lyrics, the accompaniment, and the arrangement [that] are more or less conventional”. The song is notated in 12/8 time in the key of B with a tempo of 66 beats per minute (although Hendrix fingered the song in the key of B, he usually tuned his guitar one-half step and sometimes one step lower, resulting in a lower pitch). The song opens with a diminished seventh chord frequently found in blues songs, including the intros to the Robert Johnson songs “Dead Shrimp Blues”, “Kind Hearted Woman”, and “32-20 Blues”. After the four-bar intro, Redding and Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell come in while Hendrix solos up to the vocal at bar thirteen. After two twelve-bar vocal sections, Hendrix solos for twelve bars, then finishes up with another vocal section.
The song’s most prominent characteristic is Hendrix’s guitar work. Author Jeffrey Carroll describes his solo as “concise and packed solid with vocalisms, the bending and glissandos, jumps, drops and whoops of his guitar kept within a traditional structure of a break”. Shadwick also compares it to a vocal, calling it a “close approximation of the human voice … scooping and bending his phrases to maximum expressive effect”. American bluesman John Lee Hooker commented, “That ‘Red House’, that’ll make you grab your mother and choke her! Man, that’s really hard, that tears you apart. He could get down, he could mash it, yeah, Lord! He had so many blues”.
According to Experience bassist Noel Redding, Hendrix told him it was about Hendrix’ girlfriend in high school, Betty Jean Morgan. Jimi’s brother, Leon Hendrix, also felt that it was about Betty Jean, but also included her sister Maddy, although their house was brown. Shadwick suggests that the song was inspired by Linda Keith, Keith Richards’ then-girlfriend and early Hendrix supporter. Keith referred to her friend’s Manhattan apartment, with its red velvet walls and decor, as the “red house”, and the two frequently stayed there during the summer of 1966. In London in 1970, Hendrix met up with Keith and when he performed “Red House” at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, he dedicated the song to her and added “I got to get out of here, because my Linda don’t live here no more” to the lyrics. However, Billy Cox, longtime friend and bassist for Hendrix’ post-Experience groups, explained, “As far as I know, ‘Red House’ didn’t have any significance in reference to a particular person, place, or thing. It was just a blues number that Jimi put together”.