On December 16th, 1966, a certain James Marshall Hendrix would make rock history, launching his debut single, “Hey Joe.” Although the origins of the song would be disputed, the identity of its greatest interpreter would not. The instant he discovered those magical, ironclad openings chords, Hendrix must have known that he had something very special on his hands. Though the strands of lead guitar are certainly more than serviceable, it was actually Hendrix’s gritty, gutsy vocal performance that lends the song its deep poignancy. Yet, Hendrix had such a lack of confidence in his own voice that producer Chas Chandler called in female backup singers, the Breakaways, to support him. Though Hendrix was wrong to discount his own vocal abilities, the Breakaways help lend a ghostly quality to an already eerie tune.
Retrospectively, of course, it is incredibly surprising that Hendrix’s guitar playing wasn’t the focal point of the recording. Perhaps fearing to upstage a tune that was already a force of nature, the Jimi Hendrix Experience chose to shine the light on the song’s inescapable musical sorcery. Its chord changes are based on the circle of fifths to a spellbinding effect, and Mitch Mitchell’s electric, rapid-fire drumming in tandem with Hendrix’s mercilessly honest vocal performance are also what makes this track so riveting.
The band attempted to sell the single to Decca Records, but the label rejected it. Hendrix was in good company here, however, as Decca also rejected The Beatles (whoops). When released, the single was a top ten hit in the UK, a smashing success for the soon-to-be legendary guitarist across the pond. However, the song didn’t even chart in the United States. But time has proven to be a friend to “Hey Joe”: Rolling Stone ranked it as the 201st greatest song of all time, for instance, and VH-1 honored the song as the 22nd greatest hard rock tune in history. “Hey Joe” would be a tough act for the young Hendrix to top. Fortunately, he had an ace up his sleeve, an ace that went by the name of “Purple Haze.” [Photograph by Hendrix LLC.]