TAMPA — Jimi Hendrix, hailed by Rolling Stone magazine as the greatest guitarist of all time, was a lefty but played a right-handed instrument, sometimes behind his back or even with his teeth.
But what also impressed Michael Braun was Hendrix’ ability to scribble a food order under the toughest of conditions.
It was 1969. Braun was hanging with Hendrix and others in a Tampa hotel room after a concert, partaking in an activity — Braun said with a wink — that hampered their ability to function while giving them the munchies.
They decided to send out for food.
“I tried hard to take the order of everyone in the room but my mind couldn’t handle all the information — who wants tomato, onions, and so on,” Braun said with a laugh. “One by one, everyone else failed. Jimi nailed it first time. I was amazed.”
Braun was Hendrix’ fashion designer from 1968 until the rock legend passed away in 1972. Among the iconic Hendrix threads Braun created was his Woodstock outfit and a jacket that hangs with his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame display in Cleveland.
The business relationship turned into a friendship, allowing Braun to see Hendrix as few others did. The top rock performer of his day, Hendrix read fairy tales, watched football intensely and had a childlike curiosity over the guitar pick Chuck Berry used.
Hendrix, Braun said, was quiet, introverted and well mannered.
Still, he died so young that he remains largely a mystery even to his friend.
A new British biopic, “Jimi: All Is by My Side,” will try to fill in some of the gaps from the early days — 1966-67, just as Hendrix and his group first hit the pop charts with “Hey Joe” and “Purple Haze.”
The movie opens in selected cities Friday. Miami is one, Tampa is not, though it could be if early ticket sales are good.
Braun hopes it does come here. He wonders what it could teach him.
“That actor who plays Jimi looks like he got it right from what I have seen in the movie trailer,” Braun said, speaking of André Benjamin, whose musical group OutKast was influenced by Hendrix. “The nuances of how he talks and reacts look perfect.”
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Leonie Prendergast, who designed the clothes for the movie version of Hendrix, described actor Benjamin the same way.
“I think he really embodied Hendrix as a person,” Prendergast said. “So he made the clothes I made look even more authentic. It was a thrill to design clothes for someone playing Hendrix. I can’t imagine what it was like to do it for the real man.”
In the eyes of the fashion industry, Braun said, it was akin to making clothes for God.
“I like to think I was talented enough to succeed regardless, but having Jimi’s name to drop helped my career for sure.”
Among celebrity clients that followed for Braun were Aerosmith, the Allman Brothers, Bob Dylan, Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, Sonny and Cher, and the Ultimate Warrior.
Braun is now retired from the fashion industry. A few years ago he sold his 6,000-square-foot South Bayshore Boulevard home, its six-car garage his one-time clothing factory, and moved to smaller digs in West Tampa.
Today he creates digital abstract art.
“I needed a new creative challenge. I loved fashion but I don’t miss it. But I do like to reminisce.”
Born and raised in New York, Braun visited St. Petersburg in late 1967 to captain a yacht in a race. But he slipped on the dock before the competition began and dislocated his shoulder.
While recovering, he took to the warmth of St. Petersburg’s winters.
He also met a girl — Toni Ackerman. At first, they were romantically linked but that was short lived.
They remained friends and together went on to become some of the most sought-after fashion designers in entertainment.
Ackerman, said Braun, is reclusive and prefers not to speak to the media.
“I’m the loud mouthed one,” said Braun.
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The two made clothes for themselves at first, buying shirts and pants at the local Army-Navy store and altering them to their liking because that’s the only way they could afford the style they preferred.
For example, they replaced the seams along the sides of bell bottom pants with buttons and adorned the flared bottoms with embroidered flowers cut from Mexican shawls.
“No one was doing embroidery on clothes back then,” Braun said. “We’d go out at night and everyone wanted to know where we got our clothes. When we said we made them, the wallets opened.”
And like that, Michael & Toni Design was launched.
Initially, their biggest exposure came from local bands who wore them on stage in front of the few dozen people.
Then Vanilla Fudge, best known for its psychedelic cover of The Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” performed at the Armory in St. Petersburg. Outgoing New Yorker Braun snuck backstage and invited them to his house to buy clothes.
“What I was wearing was cooler than what they were wearing. So they said yes.”
Soon after, Vanilla Fudge appeared on the “Ed Sullivan Show” wearing Michael & Toni Design clothing.
Emboldened by success, Braun decided to reach out to Hendrix when he came to Tampa.
He asked friend Phil Gerhard, who was promoting the concert, to set up a meeting.
Gerhard called Hendrix, only to learn a visit with Braun and Ackerman was already in his plans.
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Hendrix’ style at the time, said costumer designer Prendergast, was inspired by British fashion — psychedelic shirts under the European nation’s military jackets. Seattle-born Hendrix was big in Great Britain before his fame spread to the U.S.
“He has two military signature jackets he was iconic for at the time plus a hand-painted jacket that Mick Jagger’s brother Chris made for him,” Prendergast said. “He dressed colorfully but not in those loose fitting blouses that he also became known for in his final years.”
Braun and Ackerman first met Hendrix the day of his concert in his suite at Tampa’s downtown Sheraton Hotel.
Hendrix was barefoot, Braun recalled, wearing a flowered shirt with English Navy-issue white pants dyed pink. As Braun laid out clothes on the bed, Hendrix sat in a chair and watched college football with the sound off and a BB King record playing. He reacted to every big play, ignoring Braun and Ackerman.
Then Braun laid out a pair of white front-to-back bell bottom pants with embroidered red flowers.
Hendrix perked up and asked, “How many different colors can I get those in?”
Braun and Ackerman closed the deal. Later, as they skipped away down the hotel hallway, Hendrix chased them down and asked, “Are you coming to the gig tonight?”
“I thought, ‘Am I coming to the gig tonight? Of course. You’re freaking Jimi Hendrix.’ But I coolly said yes and he invited us back to the hotel after the show.”
That night, Hendrix showed Braun and Ackerman a shirt he already owned that had witch sleeves — cuffs flared out like bell bottoms — and asked the duo to make more.
They did, flaring them out so wide they almost scraped the ground.
“It was the perfect storm,” said Braun. “Two crazy people making crazy clothes for a guy who was crazy enough to wear them.”
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Sometimes Hendrix would travel to Tampa just to see new designs by Braun and Ackerman. Other times, he would fly them to where he was performing.
Sometimes he placed an order with them by letter.
“I would like to have at least four of everything including different but comfortable arm bands,” reads one post card that Braun still has. “Please don’t use stiff material for the pants ... Try working in stones and jewelry in vests and pants ... More shirts with odd sleeves, very soft material ... sticky type buttons same color as material or close as possible.”
“Sticky type buttons was what he called Velcro,” Braun explained.
Hendrix sometimes lost his wardrobe to thieves. Shirts would not make it back from the dry cleaner or would go missing from his hotel room.
“He said women would take something after they slept with him for proof,” said Braun. “And that bothered him. It bothered him that some people used him rather than befriended him. It can be lonely at the top, I guess.” Hendrix last hung out with Braun in St. Petersburg in July 1970, two months before Hendrix’s death.
The details of their weekend have grown hazy with time, Braun said, but he remembers they ate at a Morrison’s Cafeteria and grabbed drinks at the Blue Room, both in St. Petersburg.
On their way to Tampa International Airport on Sunday afternoon, Hendrix made a detour to perform at a local jam session in the Men’s Garden Club near the airport.
On the morning of Sept. 19, Braun was awakened by a knock on his door. It was a friend bearing the bad news that Hendrix had been found dead in London, asphyxiated after a night of wine and sleeping pills. He was 27.
“I told him Jimi can’t he dead because he was just at my house a few weeks ago,” Braun said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
He still has a hard time accepting it.
“Some people come into your life for a brief time but stay with you forever. Jimi was like that and it has nothing to do with him being famous. It’s because he was such a great guy.”