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At Horace Mann Elementary School in Seattle during the mid-1950s, Hendrix's habit of carrying a broom with him to emulate a guitar gained the attention of the school's social worker. After more than a year of his clinging to a broom like a security blanket, she wrote a letter requesting school funding intended for underprivileged children insisting that leaving him without a guitar might result in psychological damage. Her efforts failed, and Al refused to buy him a guitar.[nb 4]
In 1957, while helping Al with a side-job, Jimi found a ukulele amongst the garbage that they were removing from a wealthy older woman's home. The woman told him that he could keep the instrument, which had only one string. Learning by ear, he played single notes, following along to Elvis Presley songs, particularly Presley's cover of Leiber and Stoller's "Hound Dog".[nb 5] By the age of thirty-three, Hendrix's mother Lucille had developed cirrhosis of the liver, and on February 2, 1958, she died when her spleen ruptured. Instead of taking James and Leon to attend their mother's funeral, Al gave them shots of whiskey and told them that was how men are supposed to deal with loss.[nb 6] In mid-1958, at age 15, Hendrix acquired his first acoustic guitar, for $5. Hendrix earnestly applied himself, playing the instrument for several hours daily, watching others and getting tips from more experienced guitarists, and listening to blues artists such as Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf, and Robert Johnson. The first tune Hendrix learned how to play was the theme from Peter Gunn.
Soon after he acquired the acoustic guitar, Hendrix formed his first band, the Velvetones. Without an electric guitar, he could barely be heard over the sound of the group. After about three months, he realized that he needed an electric guitar in order to continue. In mid-1959, his father bought him a white Supro Ozark, his first electric guitar. His first gig was with an unnamed band in the basement of a synagogue, Seattle's Temple De Hirsch. After too much showing off, the band fired him between sets. Hendrix later joined the Rocking Kings, which played professionally at venues such as the Birdland club. When someone stole his guitar after he left it backstage overnight,
Al bought him a red Silvertone Danelectro. In 1958, Hendrix completed his studies at Washington Junior High School, but he did not graduate from Garfield High School.[nb 7]
Before Hendrix reached the age of 19 years, law enforcement authorities had twice caught him riding in stolen cars. When given a choice between spending time in prison or joining the Army, he chose the latter and enlisted on May 31, 1961. After completing eight weeks of basic training at Fort Ord, California, the Army assigned him to the 101st Airborne Division and stationed him at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. He arrived there on November 8, and soon afterward he wrote to his father: "There's nothing but physical training and harassment here for two weeks, then when you go to jump school ... you get hell. They work you to death, fussing and fighting." In his next letter home, Hendrix, who had left his guitar at his girlfriend, Betty Jean Morgan's house in Seattle, asked his father to send him the guitar as soon as possible, stating: "I really need it now." His father obliged and soon after the red Silvertone Danelectro on which Hendrix had hand-painted the words "Betty Jean", arrived safely at Fort Ord. His apparent obsession with the instrument contributed to his neglect of his duties, which led to verbal taunting and physical abuse from his peers, who at least once hid the guitar from him until he had begged for its return.
In November 1961, fellow serviceman Billy Cox walked past the service club and heard Hendrix playing guitar inside. Cox, intrigued by the proficient playing, which he described as a combination of "John Lee Hooker and Beethoven", immediately borrowed a bass guitar from the club and the two jammed. Within a few weeks, they began performing at base clubs on the weekends with other musicians in a loosely organized band called the Casuals.
Hendrix completed his paratrooper training in just over eight months, and Major General C.W.G. Rich awarded him the prestigious Screaming Eagles patch on January 11, 1962. By February, his personal conduct had begun to draw criticism from his superiors. They labeled him an unqualified marksmen and often caught him napping while on duty and failing to report for bed checks. On May 24, Hendrix's platoon sergeant, James C. Spears filed a report in which he stated: "He has no interest whatsoever in the Army ... It is my opinion that Private Hendrix will never come up to the standards required of a soldier. I feel that the military service will benefit if he is discharged as soon as possible." On June 29, 1962, Captain Gilbert Batchman granted Hendrix an honorable discharge on the basis of unsuitability. Hendrix later spoke of his dislike of the army and falsely stated that he had received a medical discharge after breaking his ankle during his 26th parachute jump.[nb 8]