Jimi Hendrix was never shy to hide his admiration for artists he truly loved and admired. The singer and guitarist was a dab hand at doffing his cap to those who came before him and even shared his love of contemporary rock stars too. There was no artist he valued more than The Beatles, and, back in 1967, the iconic guitarist took things to the next level.
On this day, June 4 in 1967, some 54 years ago, Jimi Hendrix was stepping out on stage for his headline show at the Saville Theatre in London and, knowing that The Beatles were in attendance decided to put on a special show for them. At the time, Hendrix was quickly becoming the talk of the town, but he still wanted to pay tribute to the Fab Four.
The stage was set, and Jimi Hendrix had his cacophony of chords whirling around in his head, ready to take the audience on another journey of psychedelic rock discovery. The guitarist had spent the better part of a week working on his opening number for a special show in London and his extra special audience members. With both Paul McCartney and George Harrison in the audience, Hendrix decided to open the show with his rendition of Sgt. Pepper‘s title song.
The guitarist had been motoring around swinging sixties London for a year or so when he was given his opportunity to shine in front of two of the Fab Four. Sure, he had blown away Cream’s guitar impresario du jour, Eric Clapton, with his technique, but The Beatles were something else altogether. The guitarist decided he had to pay tribute to the group with a simply sensational cover
Opening your own show with a cover of someone else’s song is a really ballsy move. But it was the sheer fact that The Beatles had only released the song three days (or over a week, depending on your source for records) before that moment, which caused the greatest shock and put the biggest smile on Macca’s face. Hendrix had seemingly learned the song, perfected it and performed it live at his headline show by the close of the weekend.
“Jimi was a sweetie, a very nice guy. I remember him opening at the Saville on a Sunday night, 4th June 1967,” McCartney once recalled in compelling detail. “Brian Epstein used to rent it when it was usually dark on the Sunday. Jimi opened, the curtains flew back and he came walking forward, playing ‘Sgt. Pepper’, and it had only been released on the Thursday so that was like the ultimate compliment.”
Macca added: “It’s still obviously a shining memory for me, because I admired him so much anyway, he was so accomplished. To think that that album had meant so much to him as to actually do it by the Sunday night, three days after the release. He must have been so into it, because normally it might take a day for rehearsal and then you might wonder whether you’d put it in, but he just opened with it.”
It was a sign of the artist that Hendrix was; completely obsessed with his craft and his instrument, utterly devoted to its expansion and entirely in awe of his position as a potential rock hero.
“It’s a pretty major compliment in anyone’s book,” recalled McCartney, “I put that down as one of the great honours of my career. I mean, I’m sure he wouldn’t have thought of it as an honour, I’m sure he thought it was the other way round, but to me, that was like a great boost.” It must’ve acted as the confirmation that McCartney needed that his original conceptual album had met its audience appropriately.
Back in 1967, McCartney was asked to review Hendrix’s new single ‘Purple Haze’. In the feature, McCartney didn’t hold back when effusing with praise for the mercurial guitarist: “Must be Jimi Hendrix,” he muses highlighting the impresario’s unique qualities. “So, Jimi freaks out and sounds all the better for it!” he continues. “It’s breaking out all over the place, you know.”
Referencing Hendrix’s riling of the establishment with his playing and garish stage costumes, “I thought it would be one of those things that people might keep down but it’s breaking through all over. You can’t stop it. Hooray. This is a good record too.” McCartney clearly enamoured with the psychedelic spin Hendrix put on the sixties did however show his pop sensibilities, “I really don’t know whether it’s as commercial as ‘Hey Joe’ or ‘Stone Free’. I bet it is though. Probably will be. Fingers Hendrix. An absolute ace on the guitar. This is yet another incredible record from the great Twinkle Teeth Hendrix!”
McCartney, along with the rest of The Beatles, all acted as huge champions for the fledgling Hendrix and were likely the main reasons for Hendrix’s success in the US, as the Fab Four’s promotion saw him included in several high profile festival slots, including the Monterey Pop Festival, that wouldn’t have been possible without the band.
It’s not only an indictment of The Beatles wide-ranging influence over music at that time but also of Hendrix’s supreme talent. As able to convey his own message through their song as he is his own, Hendrix proves that he is truly one of the best musicians of all time.
Here it is, Jimi Hendrix’s cover of The Beatles song ‘Sgt Pepper’: