There’s no tougher task than taking a song as ubiquitous and anthemic as The Beatles’ ‘Hey Jude’ and trying to make it your own. The track is such a well-loved and world-renowned moment from the Fab Four history that the mere mention of it to a musician will likely illicit a shudder of insecurity. Only ever maligned for its viral infection of our entire culture, the song has become an iconic pillar of the golden age of pop music.
To pick up the song Paul McCartney wrote for the son of his friend John Lennon, Julian, is to pick up the weight of history, the Beatles’ esteem, and the chance of sounding like a karaoke pastiche, all in one greedy handful. Few artists have successfully negotiated the song with sincerity, fewer still with originality. But one man, Wilson Pickett, saw his opportunity in 1968 to grab the song by the collar and turn it into something he, and the rest of the world, could cherish. Pickett gave us quite possibly the greatest Beatles cover of all time.
In 1968, there was simply no band bigger than The Beatles. They had navigated through the blustering excitement of Beatlemania and proved that they were far more than a simple pop group. With the dual songwriting mastery of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, amply backed by The Beatles-machine, the group was rightly considered the music scene’s pinnacle. The group had turned pop into a personal expression, and ‘Hey Jude’ is another example.
The song has been open to many interpretations over the years, but there seem to be two main theories behind the conception of ‘Hey Jude’. According to Paul McCartney and, later, Julian Lennon, the song was written for John’s son as the looming figure of divorce between Lennon and his first wife, Cynthia, came ever closer. The track was written in the summer of 1968, shortly after Lennon had begun his relationship with Yoko Ono and, in turn, had left the marital home of Cynthia, leaving behind his son Julian too.
Driving his Aston Martin to Weybridge to visit Cynthia and Julian, McCartney began to write the song as he thought about their changing lives and the rocky road which lay ahead. McCartney said in Anthology: “I thought, as a friend of the family, I would motor out to Weybridge and tell them that everything was all right: to try and cheer them up, basically, and see how they were. I had about an hour’s drive. I would always turn the radio off and try and make up songs, just in case… I started singing: ‘Hey Jules – don’t make it bad, take a sad song, and make it better…’ It was optimistic, a hopeful message for Julian: ‘Come on, man, your parents got divorced. I know you’re not happy, but you’ll be OK.’”
He added: “I eventually changed ‘Jules’ to ‘Jude’. One of the characters in Oklahoma is called Jud, and I like the name.” However, the other school of thought, perpetuated by John Lennon himself, sees the song framed as a plea from McCartney to keep their friendship together. “He [Paul] said it was written about Julian, my child,” said the bespectacled Beatle. “He knew I was splitting with Cyn and leaving Julian. He was driving over to say hi to Julian. He’d been like an uncle to him. You know, Paul was always good with kids. And so he came up with ‘Hey Jude’.”
He continued: “But I always heard it as a song to me. If you think about it… Yoko’s just come into the picture. He’s saying, ‘Hey, Jude – hey, John.’ I know I’m sounding like one of those fans who reads things into it, but you can hear it as a song to me. The words ‘go out and get her’—subconsciously he was saying, Go ahead, leave me. On a conscious level, he didn’t want me to go ahead. The angel in him was saying, ‘Bless you.’ The devil in him didn’t like it at all because he didn’t want to lose his partner.”
Whichever way you cut it, upon its release, the song quickly gathered pace as a single. Not only was it a heartfelt ballad but it contained one of the most uplifting choral moments in the band’s catalogue. To this day we’d bet that you could start singing “Na, na, na…” and expect to hear the final line repeated back at you. To try and cover the song in 2021 would be somewhere between karaoke and sacrilege. But to pick up the song in 1968, just weeks after it was released, was tantamount to suicide. But that’s exactly what Wilson Pickett did.
Rather than stick too closely to the euphoric sound of the original, Pickett decided to change it up and allow his penchant for guitars to shine through. “To this day, I’ve never heard better rock guitar playing on an R&B record. It’s the best,” said Eric Clapton of Duane Allman’s playing on this enigmatic cover. Certainly the best cover of this endlessly covered song’s life, Pickett’s vision of ‘Hey Jude’ is sublime and serene. The cover was never a part of Pickett’s plans but instead came about after a nudge from Duane Allman.
“Pickett came into the studio, and I said, ‘We don’t have anything to cut,’” recalled Rick Hall, the owner of famed Muscle Shoals studio, “We didn’t have a song. Duane was there, and he came up with an idea. By this time, he’d kind of broken the ice and become my guy. So Duane said, ‘Why don’t we cut ‘Hey Jude’?’ I said, ‘That’s the most preposterous thing I ever heard. It’s insanity. We’re gonna cover the Beatles? That’s crazy!’ And Pickett said, ‘No, we’re not gonna do it.’ I said, ‘Their single’s gonna be number one. I mean, this is the biggest group in the world!’”
Adding: “And Duane said, ‘That’s exactly why we should do it — because [the Beatles single] will be Number one and they’re so big. The fact that we would cut the song with a black artist will get so much attention, it’ll be an automatic smash.’ That made all the sense in the world to me. So I said, ‘Well, okay. Let’s do it.’”
What Pickett and Allman manage to do in a comparatively small studio with a much smaller ensemble (the original contained a 36-piece orchestra) is unbelievable. With the honesty of their work and the purity of the material, the group behind Pickett created one of the greatest Beatles covers of all time. In fact, we’d go as far as to say we prefer it to the original.