Today, the iconic riff to Cream’s ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ is one of the most recognisable in rock. Alongside ‘Stairway To Heaven’ and ‘Iron Man’, playing the material serves as a sure-fire way of getting laughed out of any guitar store from Minneapolis to Magadan. But in 1967, when Cream unveiled the single as part of Disraeli Gears, it was utterly unlike anything anyone had heard before. Imagine eating oats your whole life and then, suddenly, somebody gives you a spoonful of honey – that’s what hearing ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ for the first time would have been like. Just consider, then, how mind-bending it would have been to hear the song performed live, not by any old shmuck, but by one of the most ferociously talented guitarists of the day: Jimi Hendrix.
Well, as you can see below, Hendrix did just that in 1968, a year after the single’s release. Hendrix had a knack for taking the biggest songs of the day and making them entirely his own. ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ was no exception. The fuzz-laden precision of Hendrix’s playing is a wonder to behold and makes Eric Clapton’s original fretwork seem like the twiddlings of some street-side banjo player.
It’s no wonder Hendrix seems to know every corner of the track so intimately. As he once recalled, the first time he played guitar in England: “I sat in with Cream. I like the way Eric Clapton plays. His solos sound just like Albert King. Eric is just too much. And Ginger Baker, he’s like an octopus, man. He’s a real natural drummer”.
There’s something of the free-jazz sensibility in Hendrix’s performance of ‘Sunshine of Your Love’. The track is only recognisable for the first four minutes or so, after which Hendrix and co engage in another four minutes of rumbling, textural exploration. The jazz-inflexions that come to dominate this section aren’t all that surprising when you consider the original track came together with the help of jazz-loving beat poet Pete Brown and one-time jazz double-bassist Jack Bruce.
As Brown recalled of the night the song came together: “We had very little time to write for Cream, but we happened to have some spare time and Jack came up with the riff. He was playing a stand-up – he still had his stand-up bass, because he’d been a jazz musician. He was playing stand-up bass, and he said, ‘What about this then?’ and played the famous riff. I looked out the window and wrote down, ‘It’s getting near dawn.’ That’s how it happened.”
Make sure you check out Hendrix bringing ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ back to its roots below.