When Jimi Hendrix met Spock: the incredible story of the guitar legend's encounter with a sci-fi icon

Leonard Nimoy and Jimi Hendrix
(Image credit: Future / Adam Forster)

Being a musicologist is like being a detective, especially when you’re tracking the artifacts of legendary performers who have passed. You research not in musty libraries but often in conversation with the survivors and cohorts of genius, following leads that take you down sonic wormholes and cultural tributaries. 

I’ve always compared digging up the truth about a legend like Jimi Hendrix to the journalist in Citizen Kane who searches for his quarry’s Rosebud. It’s like foraging for runes in the Great Pyramids, except instead of sarcophagi, you dig up priceless Stratocasters, rare minutiae of photographs and sagas of performances long since silenced.

That’s how it went when I interviewed the disc jockey who brought Jimi Hendrix and Leonard Nimoy together – and also when I spoke with Spock before he passed. I was working on a chapter of my forthcoming book, Hendrix Now! Backstory of a Legend, in 2015 and things were going well.

I got my first chapter written about Jimi’s days in the Village in New York City, where I encountered him for the first time and we sat on a stoop on MacDougal Street comparing notes about blues records; I was set to begin the book’s second chapter.

As I announced giddily in the final hours of a Kickstarter campaign for the book, Nimoy had been in touch and asked for some guidelines from me so that he could write something apropos for the book’s foreword. And then that February… Spock left the planet. I was distraught, not only for the loss of a hero and friend but because Leonard’s passion had left such a huge hole in my universe, a terrible disturbance in the Force.

We had a common interest in things spiritual and musical – the Kabbalah, Shlomo Carlebach and the origins of that Vulcan hand signal he devised from his memories of going to the synagogue in his youth.

In his 1975 autobiography, I Am Not Spock, Nimoy, who was Jewish, wrote that he based it on the Priestly Blessing performed by Jewish Kohanim with both hands, thumb to thumb in this same position, representing the Hebrew letter Shin, which has three upward strokes similar to the position of the thumb and fingers in the gesture.

I had never seen anyone play like [Jimi]. The music that came out of that guitar was unbelievable. He was on fire. At one point he played upside down

Chuck Dunaway

The Vulcan sign became so well known that in June 2014 its emoji character was added to version 7 of the Unicode standard as U+1F596. We also had a common interest in Yiddish.

And then there is the “Mind-Meld Experience,” the day that Jimi, a renowned traveler through space, time and dimension, encountered Nimoy, another astral musical voyager. 

Here, then, is WKYC Radio disc jockey Chuck Dunaway’s fascinating account of a wild night with Jimi and Leonard Nimoy in Cleveland on March 25, 1968. It is Chuck D.’s story of that day, illustrated with a few rare artifacts, some of which I published in the March 1988 Guitar World [Special Collectors’ Edition: Hendrix Lives! Tribute to a Genius] and others from Chuck’s personal archives.

First, let me get some journo business out of the way before I tell you why you should care about what Jimi and Spock had to say to each other during their night of debauchery, philosophy and music. As I write this, I’ve just had a rambling phone conversation with the 86-year-old retired radio personality and station owner – known for his work with a number of popular radio stations in Texas, Ohio, Oklahoma and New York City – on his birthday, December 1. 

On page 82 of the March 1988 GW, there’s a pair of photos credited to “George Shuba/Commerce Studio” documenting Hendrix’s visit to Dunaway’s radio show, ostensibly to have a 30-minute interview and talk about music, which turned into the aforementioned tear-ass through Cleveland with Nimoy and Noel Redding and a couple of groupies. 

The caption read: “Frequency Adulation: Jimi leaves WKYC, a Cleveland radio station on the day of a performance in that city, March 26, 1968. The deejay is Chuck Dunaway. Note worshiping onlookers.” 

So why do you care about what happened in Cleveland that day? For one thing, as I’ve just experienced after listening to Jimi’s performance at the Music Hall in Cleveland in March 1968 (which is available on YouTube as of this writing), the Stratocaster master was in rare form that night. Shuba took a bunch of great photos that day for a Time magazine article. His eyewitness description says it all:

“I spent pretty close to almost eight hours with him throughout the day. I knew nothing about Hendrix except that we went on the WKYC radio and the Chuck Dunaway show. Jimi and one of the members of his band [Redding] went on and talked about different things. They were promoting the Spirit album [their self-titled 1968 debut]. I have photos of him with Chuck and the Spirit album.

“The thing I remember about Hendrix is that the first concert was at 7:30 [p.m.] and the second was at 9:30. I watched the first concert. But just prior to the concert, I remember the master of ceremonies coming out and saying, ‘We think there is a bomb underneath the seats in the hall, so could everybody stand up and lift up your seats to look and see if there’s a bomb?’ Like a fool, I lifted up my seat. I could have blown up. Fortunately, there was no bomb.

“I had never seen anyone play like [Jimi]. The music that came out of that guitar was unbelievable. He was on fire. At one point he played upside down. And at one point he took his guitar and smashed it into his amps. He couldn’t bust that guitar. He was having a tough time with it.”

The crowd was fired up, too. “Take off the hat!” one kid shouted. “I’ll take my hat off if you take your pants off!” Jimi fired back.

Dunaway tells me that the fire marshals were concerned when they saw the lighter fluid in Jimi’s hand, and Chuck went over to Jimi to ask him to cool it. Bomb threats always add a little edge. Said Hendrix to the crowd: “I’m the only one who can burn the house down.” And he did, with a set that led off with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Fire and climaxed with the aforementioned pyrotechnics on Wild Thing.

So now we come to another iconic image in the Hendrix hagiography. I’ve had this pic in my collection for some time, given to me by Hendrix historian David Pearcy – a copy of a copy. But it wasn’t till I met up with Dunaway that I got ahold of the high-res version and an oil painting that he had made from it, which to this day is framed in a place of honor on his wall next to the trophies and accolades from his illustrious career. 

It chronicles a meeting in Cleveland on March 25, 1968, the night before Jimi was already in town and played at Otto’s Grotto jamming with local band Good Earth. The Experience played two shows on the 26th, and Nimoy was in attendance. Later on, they met at the club and talked for hours. They even continued into Jimi’s hotel room and talked again until 2 or 3 a.m.

Jimi Hendrix Meets Nimoy

(Image credit: George Shuba/Bill Nitopi Collection, used by permission)

This photo [above], taken in Cleveland on March 25, 1968, shows Redding (second from left), Nimoy (center) and Hendrix (third from right). Nimoy was at a dinner in Cleveland to promote his album, Two Sides of Leonard Nimoy

Earlier in the day in the Statler Hotel there was a press party for the Experience. Noel Redding, wandering around the hotel, stepped into one of the other ballrooms and found Nimoy promoting his second album as a composer and singer.

In Redding’s 1996 book, Are You Experienced?, the bassist talks about bumping into Nimoy, skipping out of the event and going back to Noel’s room to party. “We snuck up to my room for a joint and commiserated over the utter boredom generated by press affairs,” Redding said.

Dunaway revisited the events from memory on the phone to me. 

“I interviewed Jimi on the air in the afternoon, and we walked from the studio to the entrance to the hall and went into the stage door entrance,” he said. “It was to have been a 30-minute interview, and he stayed for the entire show... introduced records, spoke in that smooth, gentle voice about all kinds of rock ’n’ roll banter. 

“Nimoy was in town for a convention, and he was there to promote his record on the radio. Leonard was excited to meet Hendrix.” Hendrix was likewise keen to meet Spock. An autographed copy of a Nimoy album was found in Jimi’s record collection.

He was a true genius – a great artist. A tragic end. He died much too soon, much too young

Leonard Nimoy

Nimoy recalled what that meeting was like. “I was out doing some promotion in my illustrious singing career in Cleveland for an album that had just been released, Two Sides of Leonard Nimoy. The promo people said there will be a dinner for you this evening and there will be a lot of record people there; we were in a private room at the hotel where Hendrix was staying. So [Chuck Dunaway] says, ‘Hendrix is in the next room – he heard you were here and he’d like to come in and say hello.’ 

“I thought about it for a nanosecond, and I said sure, bring him in. He was charming and very nice and we had our picture taken – he and Noel Redding and a half-dozen other people who rushed to get in the picture. He was a true genius – a great artist. A tragic end. He died much too soon, much too young.”

Dunaway says they went to see Hendrix and the Experience play a show and went to dinner after that. 

“Nimoy and I hit it off, talking politics for hours in his hotel room. Leonard said he had heard of Hendrix and decided to stay in Cleveland another day, joining me at the Hendrix ‘impromptu’ guest shot with the local band. We met Jimi at the club that night, and the three of us began talking politics. We were all on the same wavelength, wanting to see the end of the war in Vietnam.” They hung out till 3 a.m., finally ending up in Hendrix’s hotel room.

“After the photo op, we spent the rest of the night and into the early morning hours in Jimi’s suite talking politics and stuff. Jimi suggested he come to my radio program the next day, and he showed up exactly at 3, which was when I went on the air. A photographer for the Cleveland Press had taken the pictures and brought them to the studio where Noel and Jimi signed them. After the radio show we walked to the venue, which was a block from the radio station.”

So here, now, in his own words, Chuck Dunaway sets the record straight about the day Jimi and Nimi did their mind-meld:

“Since I’d only been in Cleveland a couple of months, I had no idea who the local promoter was or if anyone locally was working the city for shows. I asked around and was told that the Belkin Brothers, Mike and Jules, who owned a neighborhood clothing store, had promoted Gary Lewis and the Playboys to entertain in their parking lot. 

“I called the brothers and spoke with Mike. They knew nothing about Hendrix since it was so early in his career. None of us knew how big Hendrix was becoming, but Ron Sunshine’s insistence that the concert was money in the bank convinced us to do the deal and buy our advertising from WKYC. As soon as I mentioned the Hendrix concert, the phones at the station were on fire. The kids knew. 

“Joe Eszterhas, a writer for Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer, and I had become friends. Joe was given an assignment for Time to cover Hendrix coming to Cleveland a day before his scheduled concert to play a right-handed-strung guitar with his left hand. He had done this in the past and it was good publicity. 

“Jimi was going to sit in with a band called Good Earth at Otto’s Grotto, which was a club in the basement of the Statler Hotel downtown. No publicity was given to the fact that Hendrix was coming to Cleveland a day early. Otto’s wasn’t big enough to handle a massive crowd, which it would have been.

“The night of Monday, March 25, we congregated at the club in anticipation of seeing Jimi do his thing. Nimoy and I were sitting close to the stage. Noel was working the room. Jimi and Noel got to the club early and came to our table and we began to talk. Jimi had a suite in the hotel where the club was located, so coming downstairs for the guest shot was easy. 

“After about an hour of conversation Jimi asked me if I knew any of the ladies at the bar. I did know a couple and he wondered if I would ask them to join us in his suite after the guest stint and some picture taking for Joe’s story. That was no problem, and we settled in for Jimi’s guest shot playing a guitar strung for a right-handed player – only Jimi played it perfectly with his left hand.  

We spoke of politics and war and all things hippie. We agreed that if we could harness the energy of the anti-war protesters into a political movement it would be gigantic

Chuck Dunaway

“After the photo op, Leonard and I went to Jimi’s suite with three women. When we went to the rooms Jimi disappeared with the ladies into his room and the rest of us sat on a couch and talked. After a short while Jimi emerged, told the girls goodbye and settled into our conversation. 

“We spoke of politics and war and all things hippie. We agreed that if we could harness the energy of the anti-war protesters into a political movement it would be gigantic. Sounds like dope talk, but it wasn’t – Jimi never did any drugs in front of me that night. We talked from about 1 to 3 a.m. 

“We were about to leave and Jimi walked us to the door. He asked what time I was on the air that day and I said 3 to 6 p.m. He asked if I’d like to have him and Noel drop by for a visit on the air. I said yes, but I felt that was something that wasn’t going to happen.”

Nimoy told me before he passed that spending those hours talking about politics and spirituality, musical influences and philosophical touchstones was a high point of his career. He was struck by the dichotomy of Jimi: the wild man on the stage flying about in a purple haze versus the soft-spoken, sensitive guy who rarely raised his voice – and didn’t have to – in order to be heard.

Dunaway picks up the narrative. 

“I got to the station at about 2 and began to lay out my program. The studios were toward the front of the building on the second floor. I walked to the window and saw a limo with Jimi and Noel getting out. I introduced my first record and by the time it was over, Jimi and Noel had been brought to my studio. 

“I got into my second song and had the engineer set up mics for Jimi and Noel so we could have a brief conversation, as they had to get to the venue for a sound check. We began talking about Jimi’s career and music. I asked Jimi what group he was interested in now, and he said Spirit. 

Nimoy was struck by the dichotomy of Jimi – the wild man on the stage flying about in a purple haze versus the soft-spoken, sensitive guy who rarely raised his voice

“I had someone go to the music library and get Jimi a copy of their album, which I gave to him. I also had the promotion person for the station get me some love beads to give to Jimi and Noel. After we were on the air for about an hour, the photographer from The Plain Dealer came to the studio with the developed photo from the night before at the club.

“Jimi and Noel signed the picture and before they left, we posed for another picture in which Jimi is shown holding the beads and the Spirit album. That photo was featured in the ‘75th anniversary of radio’ feature in USA Today and in other publications, including GW. Noel and Jimi enjoyed being on the show so much that they blew off a sound check. That was amazing to me.

With about 30 minutes left in the first show, a group of Cleveland bomb squad personnel came backstage and told us to shut it down while they looked for a bomb

“The concert hall was half a block down the street and the backstage entrance was at street level on that side of the building. We left the studios at about 6:15 and strolled to the concert hall. We got there in time for Jimi to have a very quick meeting with the road manager before going on.

“With about 30 minutes left in the first show, a group of Cleveland bomb squad personnel came backstage and told us to shut it down while they looked for a bomb. There had been a bomb threat called into the police station. Jimi’s road manager told me to go on stage and tell Jimi what was happening and stop the show. I was a little leery, as roadies tend to sweep folks off the stage who show up unannounced.

“But I was assured that wouldn’t happen. Jimi was about to light the guitars on fire. He had the lighter fluid can in his hand; when I whispered in his ear what was going on, he stopped immediately as the crowd began to boo. As instructed, I went to the mic and told them to look under their seats for a brown paper bag.

“While this was going on, the bomb squad guys were sweeping backstage. After 30 minutes or so, we were told to finish the show. Jimi picked up where he left off, and the second show – and the night – went off without any more drama.

“As for Joe Eszterhas’ story in Time... there was nothing about the guest guitar playing at the club. It was all about the bomb threat. To quote the first paragraph of the Time article, ‘Midway in rock singer Jimi Hendrix’s concert at Cleveland’s Public Hall last week, the master of ceremonies asked the audience to check under their seats: there had been a bomb threat. But as it turned out, the only explosion that night was onstage. Said Hendrix, ‘Nobody but Jimi burns a house down.’

“The picture of that night at Otto’s Grotto continues to be a topic of rock ’n’ roll conversation. The events that surrounded the famous picture are exceptional.”

  • Adapted from Hendrix Now! Backstory of a Legend, coming soon from a major publisher. 

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Noë Gold was the founding Editor-in-Chief of Guitar World magazine.