Jimi Hendrix was in the right place at the right time, playing the right song.

In the summer of 1966, Hendrix was playing the Café Wha? In New York City, performing with a band billed as Jimmy James and the Blue Flames. It had been a rough few years for the guitarist, who was left unsatisfied by gigs as an R&B sideman and trying to gain exposure as a band leader.

Animals bassist Chas Chandler was in the audience that night, in town for his final U.S. tour with Eric Burdon and Co. He had been convinced to come by model and rock scenester Linda Keith, with whom he’d reconnected a night earlier when she played him a folk record by Tim Rose called “Hey Joe.” The song impressed Chandler, who was angling to transition into music management.

“[‘Hey Joe’ had] been out for eight months or so and had never been a hit,” Chandler told Guitar Player. “I said, ‘Wow, I’m gonna find an act and record that song in England. That’s going to be a hit.’ When I saw Jimi Hendrix at the Café Wha? in Greenwich Village, the first song he played was ‘Hey Joe.’”

It wasn’t merely serendipity. From all accounts, Chandler was knocked out by Hendrix’s combination of guitar talent and fiery charisma, amazed when the musician began playing the “Hey Joe” solo with his teeth. The next day, Chandler made arrangements to bring Hendrix to London – following Chas’ Animals tour duties – and work on starting his recording career overseas with “Hey Joe.”

Listen to the Leaves Perform 'Hey Joe'

Of course, Hendrix and Chandler weren’t the only ones obsessed with “Hey Joe.” This song about a man murdering his unfaithful lover had become a grass-roots phenomenon, taking off in New York’s folk scene at the same time it was becoming a live standard among the Los Angeles rock crowd. The origin story for “Hey Joe,” however, remained confusing, with some (like Rose) saying it was a traditional song ripe for adaptation, while other singers were claiming writing credit. (Later, it turned out that folkie Billy Roberts had copyrighted the tune in 1962.)

Before most people had heard of Jimi Hendrix (or his version), “Hey Joe” had been recorded by Love, the Byrds, the Surfaris and garage rockers the Leaves. The latter even made three different recordings of the song, starting in 1965, and finally scored a No. 31 hit with it in the spring of ’66. All of these editions took an uptempo, hard-charging approach to “Hey Joe” – sometimes called “Hey Joe (Where You Gonna Go)” – and some of the lyrics were different, depending on the version. Meanwhile, on the East Coast, Rose recorded a slower, bluesy arrangement, rooted in a backwards circle of fifths.

Although it seems that Hendrix was inspired by Rose’s lumbering, blues-based musical approach and the Leaves’ take on the lyrics, many artists have claimed a role in bringing the song to Jimi’s attention, including some of those West Coast bands – as well as U.K. rockers the Creation, who allegedly performed “Hey Joe” at a concert attended by Chandler and Hendrix not long after the two came to London.

Listen to Tim Rose Perform 'Hey Joe'

Regardless of the inspiration, Hendrix recorded his version of “Hey Joe” in London’s De Lane Lea Studios, contributing a squealing, mid-song solo that emphasized the violence and heartbreak in the wrenching song. The guitarist/singer was backed by his brand-new band the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Chandler had wasted little time in bringing in converted guitar player Noel Redding on bass and former Georgie Fame sideman Mitch Mitchell on drums. Backing vocals, which would not become a common trait of Hendrix’s catalog, were provided by the Breakaways.

The new manager landed the Experience a contract for one single with Polydor, who put out “Hey Joe” backed with the Hendrix original “Stone Free” on Dec. 16, 1966. In little time, the song became an enormous hit in Britain, entering the Top 10 a month after its release before peaking at No. 6 on the U.K. charts. Hendrix quickly became a superstar on the British rock scene, landing an album contract and earning worship from fans and fellow musicians such as Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend and Paul McCartney.

Although “Hey Joe” become one of Hendrix’s signature songs (and one of the best tracks in rock history), it’s interesting to note that the debut single was a flop when it was released in the U.S. in May 1967. The American hit versions belong to the Leaves (who appeared with the song on the original Nuggets compilation), Cher’s 1967 pop cover and Wilson Pickett’s 1969 R&B rendition. But Hendrix would have a U.S. hit soon enough, when “Purple Haze” climbed the Billboard charts in the Summer of Love.

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