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Music

When Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King and Joni Mitchell played a tribute gig for Martin Luther King

I don’t think anyone can truly understand the shock that was felt when the news broke that The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot and murdered on the evening of April 4th, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. If you were a black African-American, this was perhaps the most alarming thing that could have happened. The figurehead of the civil rights movement being gunned down whilst off duty on his motel balcony was a sign that the sinister racism of America was not going to back down easily.

Understandably, King‘s assassination by the career criminal James Earl Ray is regarded as one of the biggest political tragedies of the 20th century. The non-violent campaigner was the shining light for African-Americans, and without the enormous steps he took in the fight for integration, it is not an exaggeration to say that society would not be where it is today.

Although there is still much to do in contemporary times, King’s campaigns had a significant hand in spreading the word of the civil rights movement and attracting white allies, such as the counterculture. Through the genius of his intellect, King utilised peaceful means of protest as a way of evoking the worst rage from racist America and showing it to be the wholly insidious force it is. Reflecting just how far King’s influence has spread, his bravery and tactics permeate all civil rights movements today. 

Rightly, King’s death sparked outrage, and all of those – regardless of skin colour – who had campaigned for civil rights demanded an answer. People were incensed by the crime, and ironically in some cases, it brought the different elements of the movement closer than they’d ever been before. They were united both in rage and grief. 

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A few days after the death of King, on the 7th, a group of the era’s foremost musicians gathered in unity a the Generation Club in New York City for a makeshift performance to honour the late minister. Per an account on Joni Mitchell’s website, some of the counterculture’s heroes took part. Alongside Mitchell was Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Buddy Guy, Al Kooper and B.B. King. A legend even claims that music’s resident gun-nut, Ted Nugent, was in attendance. 

However, Nugent would later dismiss the claim, as he told Ultimate Classic Rock: “I did indeed jam with B.B. King, Al Kooper, Elvin Bishop, Buddy Miles, Rick Derringer, Steve Winwood, Jimi and others in NYC around that time. Joni Mitchell was never a part of any jams I was involved in.”

Despite this flaw in the common story, the evening was comprised of stellar performances. Mitchell and Guy kicked off proceedings before Hendrix entered the fore. Things quickly morphed into an extended jam, and all those in attendance were dazzled, as B.B. King and Hendrix participated in a duet of the kind the world had never seen. 

It was master and apprentice attempting to soothe the pain caused by Martin Luther King’s death. Additionally, it is thought that the ideas for the 2006 release ‘Ezy Rider’ / ‘MLK Jam’ originated that night, although it has never been proven. 

Luckily for us, though, the jam between B.B. King and Hendrix was recorded. It made it onto the 1994 album The King’s Jam. You won’t be disappointed by its energy. It was a triumphant reaction to one of the greatest injustices of all time.

Listen to The King’s Jam below.