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Paul McCartney recalls the moment he first watched Jimi Hendrix live

What would you do if you were alive in the sixties, an aspiring blues-turned-pop guitar virtuosic player, and had an opportunity to play on stage in front of three of your heroes at the time? What would you nervously say into the microphone to them, in front of other audience members, not to mention? While there is no way for me to know what you would say, I could still hazard a guess and assume that you would not be so audacious as to ask one of them to tune your guitar for you while on stage, in front of your new audience, would you? 

This is precisely what Jimi Hendrix did to Eric Clapton at the Saville Theatre in London on June 4th in 1967. The other two big dogs in attendance alongside Clapton were Pete Townshend and Paul McCartney. Looking back now, one wouldn’t think twice about it; Jimi Hendrix was just as good as them. But you have to understand that this was in Hendrix’s early days, and he was still very much up and coming. 

As it would so happen, this was not the only ballsy thing that Hendrix did that night. “Jimi opened, the curtains flew back, and he came walking forward, playing ‘Sgt. Pepper’, and it had only been released on Thursday, so that was like the ultimate compliment,” McCartney recalled.

As McCartney also said in an interview on the American late-night talk show, The Colbert Report, on Hendrix’s guitar, there was a Bigsby whammy bar which stretches the guitar strings and momentarily capitulates the pitch of the notes that are being played. As Macca is telling the story, he imitates the effect that the Bigsby bar has and makes a swooshing sound: “And we’re going, wow that’s great!” McCartney bemuses, referring to himself, Townshend, and Clapton. 

“But,” McCartney pauses for dramatic effect, “We knew that he was now out of tune.” As per the reaction he wants, he waits for the crowd to stop laughing. “Cause if you stretch the strings in those days, that would send you out of tune! And it’s his first number,” McCartney, of course, is referring to his band’s title track off The Beatles’ revolutionary Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album.

At this point, McCartney then tells the part of the story where Hendrix finds Clapton in the audience and asks him to tune his guitar, most likely done so, tongue-in-cheek. McCartney continues: “Eric is there, but Eric’s hiding.” After Colbert asks Macca if Eric Clapton did go up on stage to tune his guitar, McCartney simply concludes with, “No.”

For Paul McCartney to have witnessed Jimi Hendrix playing in those early days, before he became the legend he is now, he considers it a privilege, which says a lot about his humility. “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.”

Macca added: “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’s a pretty major compliment in anyone’s book. 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.”

Watch Paul McCartney’s interview with Stephen Colbert, below.

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