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Looking back at Jimi Hendrix's powerful 'Hey Joe' 55 years later

Even 50 years after his tragic passing, Jimi Hendrix is still regarded as the greatest guitarist of all time. Through his wild talent and even wilder imagination, he created a whole new rock scene that revolved around his swirling riffs and raucous sonics. However, despite being one of the most unique players the world has ever seen, he garnered a lot of fame for his covers. Some of the guitarist’s most famous songs are covers and, while his version of Bob Dylan’s ‘All Along the Watchtower’ is enigmatic and imperious, it’s his cover of ‘Hey Joe’ that reigns supreme.

First things first, we should cover off the obvious elephant in the room. Yes, ‘Hey Joe’ is a cover. Initially written by Billy Roberts in 1962, the song soon became a staple in America and was indicative of the new sounds that were swallowing up the country. The Leaves took on the piece in 1965 and gave the track its first commercial release. One year later, Hendrix would pick up the song and use it to pry open the lucrative market that swinging London had become.

There are a few differing stories surrounding how Hendrix got to the traditional song. Still, the most likely one seems to be that Hendrix’s manager, Chas Chandler — former bassist of The animals — saw folk-rock singer Tim Rose perform the track in the early part of 1966 at the legendary Cafe Wha? in New York. At this venue, Chandler also discovered Hendrix and convinced him to join him in London that autumn. He’d not only bring his guitar with him but a few tunes that were bound to enthral a UK audience. One of those songs was ‘Hey Joe’.

Though his distinctive style would win him favours across the pond, one thing that Hendrix did perhaps better than anyone else at the time was to take other people’s songs and turn them into something unique and singular to his sound and vision. He did so with his cover of the rock standard ‘Hey Joe’, creating, without doubt, the essential version of the song. Included as the additional songs added to the Are You Experienced? CD, it is easily one of his best tracks.

Released as a single with’ 51st Anniversary’ on the B-side, Hendrix was proving that he wasn’t only the present and future of rock, but he had a great grip on the past too. In fact, it would build the foundations of his awe-inspiring sound. The song is certainly slowed down in Hendrix’s version of the track, and it allows his virtuoso playing to be given ample room to breathe.

What becomes quickly apparent with the song is that if any other artist was to have guitar playing on their song as fantastic as this, they would have made it the track’s focal point. As it is, his playing just melts into the background and creates the setting for the song’s story. It’s one of Hendrix’s more restrained pieces, and yet it still feels vivid and vivacious 55 years later.

There are plenty of versions of Hendrix absolutely slaying ‘Hey Joe’, but our preference is to watch him shock the BBC with showing of the track on the Lulu show from 1969.