"Hey Joe" was written by a singer named Billy Roberts, who was part of the Greenwich Village folk scene in the early '60s. The song is structured as a conversation between two men, with "Joe" explaining to the other that he caught his woman cheating and plans to kill her. They talk again, and Joe explains that he did indeed shoot her, and is headed to Mexico.
Billy Roberts copyrighted this song in 1962, but never released it (he issued just one album, Thoughts Of California in 1975). In 1966, several artists covered the song, including a Los Angeles band called The Leaves (their lead singer was bassist Jim Pons, who joined The Turtles just before they recorded their Happy Together album), whose version was a minor hit, reaching #31 in the US. Arthur Lee's group Love also recorded it that year, as did The Byrds, whose singer David Crosby had been performing the song since 1965. These were all uptempo renditions.
The slow version that inspired Hendrix to record this came from a folk singer named Tim Rose, who played it in a slow arrangement on his 1967 debut album and issued it as a single late in 1966. Rose was a popular singer/songwriter for a short time in the Greenwich Village scene, but quickly faded into obscurity before a small comeback in the '90s. He died in 2002 at age 62.
This is the song that started it all for Hendrix. After being discharged from the US Army in 1962, he worked as a backing musician for The Isley Brothers and Little Richard, and in 1966 performed under the name Jimmy James in the group Jimmy James and the Blue Flames. Hendrix introduced "Hey Joe" to the band and added it to their setlist. During a show at the Greenwich Village club Cafe Wha?, Chas Chandler of The Animals was in the audience, and he knew instantly that Hendrix was the man to record the song.
Chandler convinced Hendrix to join him in London, and he became Jimi's producer and manager. Teaming Hendrix with Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell, Chandler had the group - known as The Jimi Hendrix Experience - record "Hey Joe," and released it as a single in the UK in December 1966. It climbed to #6 in February 1967, as Hendrix developed a reputation as an electrifying performer and wildly innovative guitarist.
America was a tougher nut to crack - when the song was released there in April, it went nowhere.
The song incorporates many elements of blues music, including a F-C-G-D-A chord progression and a story about infidelity and murder. This led many to believe it was a much older (possibly traditional) song, but it was an original composition.
Hendrix played this live for the first time at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. It was the first time the group performed in America.
This was released in Britain with the flip side "Stone Free," which was the first song Hendrix wrote for The Jimi Hendrix Experience.
The song was released in the UK on the Polydor label in a one-single deal. Hendrix then signed to the Track label, which was set up by Kit Lambert, producer for The Who.
Dick Rowe of Decca Records turned down Hendrix for a deal, unimpressed with both "Hey Joe" and "Stone Free." Rowe also turned away the Beatles four years earlier.
This is one of the few Hendrix tracks with female backing vocals. They were performed by a popular trio called the Breakaways (Jean Hawker, Margot Newman, and Vicki Brown), who were brought in by producer Chas Chandler.
The Hendrix version omits the first verse, where Joe buys the gun:
Hey Joe, where you goin' with that money in your hand?
Chasin' my woman, she run off with another man
Goin downtown, buy me a .44
In the original (and most versions pre-Hendrix), Joe also kills his wife's lover when he catches them in bed together.
This was the last song performed at Woodstock in 1969. The festival was scheduled to end at midnight on Sunday, August 17 (the third day), but it ran long and Hendrix didn't go on until Monday around 9 a.m. There weren't many attendees left, but Hendrix delivered a legendary performance.
While Jimi's version is by far the most famous, "Hey Joe" has been recorded by over 1000 artists. In America, three versions charted:
The Leaves (#31, 1966)
Cher (#94, 1967)
Wilson Pickett (#59, 1969)
Hendrix is the only artist to chart with the song in the UK, although a completely different song called "Hey Joe" was a #1 hit there for Frankie Laine in 1963.
Some of the notable covers include:
Shadows of Knight (1966)
Music Machine (1966)
The Mothers Of Invention (1967)
Deep Purple (1967)
King Curtis (1968)
Roy Buchanan (1973)
Patti Smith (1974)
Soft Cell (1983)
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds (1986)
The Offspring (1991)
Eddie Murphy (1993 - yes, the comedian)
Walter Trout (2000)
Popa Chubby (2001)
Robert Plant (2002)
Brad Mehldau Trio (2012)
The liner notes for Are You Experienced?
say this song is "A blues arrangement of an old cowboy song that's about 100 years old."
In an early demo version, Hendrix is caught off guard by the sound of his voice in the headphones, and can be heard on the recording saying, "Oh, Goddamn!" Then telling Chas Chandler in the booth, "Hey, make the voice a little lower and the band a little louder." Hendrix was always insecure about his vocal talents, but thought if Dylan could swing it, so could he.
6,346 guitarists played "Hey Joe" simultaneously in the town of Wroclaw, Poland on May 1, 2009, breaking a world record for most guitarists playing a single song.
The BBC apologized after "Hey Joe" was played following a report on the Oscar Pistorius trial, following the disabled athlete's shooting of his model girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. (The song includes the lines: "Hey Joe, where you going with that gun in your hand? I'm going out to shoot my old lady, you know I caught her messing around with another man.")
This was one of five bonus tracks added to the album Are You Experienced? when it was re-released in 1997. The only song on the album not written by Hendrix, it is credited to Billy Roberts.
Not much is known about the song's writer Billy Roberts, who apparently got in a car accident in the '90s that left him impaired. Royalties from this song go to him through the publisher Third Palm Music.