“Hey Joe” is an American popular song from the 1960s that has become a rock standard and has been performed in many musical styles by hundreds of different artists. The lyrics tell of a man who is on the run and planning to head to Mexico after shooting his unfaithful wife. In 1962, Billy Roberts registered “Hey Joe” for copyright in the United States. However, diverse credits and claims have led to confusion about the song’s authorship.
In late 1965, Los Angeles garage band the Leaves recorded the earliest known commercial version of “Hey Joe”, which was released as a single. They re-recorded the song and released it in 1966 as a follow-up single, which became a hit in the US. In October 1966, Jimi Hendrix recorded “Hey Joe” for his first single with the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Their version became a hit in the UK.
American singer Tim Rose claimed that “Hey Joe” was a traditional song. No documentary evidence has been forthcoming to support an assertion that “Hey Joe” is a wholly traditional work.
American musician Dino Valenti (also known as Chet Powers and other pen names) is listed as the songwriter on some early releases of the song.”Hey Joe” was registered for copyright in the US in 1962 by Billy Roberts, a California-based folk musician. Scottish folk singer Len Partridge has claimed that he helped write the song with Roberts when they both performed in clubs in Edinburgh in 1956. Roberts may have drawn inspiration for “Hey Joe” from three earlier works: his girlfriend Niela Miller’s 1955 song “Baby, Please Don’t Go to Town” (which uses a similar chord progression based on the circle of fifths); Carl Smith’s 1953 US country hit “Hey Joe!” (written by Boudleaux Bryant), which shared the title and the “questioning” format; and the early 20th century traditional ballad “Little Sadie”, which tells of a man on the run after he has shot his wife. The lyrics to “Little Sadie” often locate the events in Thomasville, North Carolina, and “down in” Jericho, South Carolina (a large rice plantation in the lowlands); Roberts was born in South Carolina.
Variations of “Little Sadie” have been recorded under various titles (including “Bad Lee Brown”, “Penitentiary Blues”, “Cocaine Blues”, “Whiskey Blues”) by many artists, including Clarence Ashley (1930), Johnny Cash (1960 and 1968), Slim Dusty (1961), and Bob Dylan (1970). Some versions change the southbound location from Jericho (South Carolina) to Mexico.
Rights to the song were administered from 1966 into the 2000s by the music publisher Third Story Music (now Third Palm Music); there the author is listed as Billy Roberts. Other sources (including singer Pat Craig) claim that Roberts assigned the rights to the song to his friend Valenti while Valenti was in jail, in order to give him some income upon release.
Early recordings (1965–1966)
Roberts’ song gained fans in the Los Angeles music scene of the mid-1960s, which led to fast-paced recordings in 1965 and 1966 by the Leaves, the Standells, the Surfaris, Love, the Music Machine, and the Byrds, swiftly making the song a garage rock classic. Both Valenti and the Byrds’ David Crosby have been reported as helping to popularize the song before it was recorded by the Leaves in December 1965.
The Leaves, who had been introduced to the song while attending performances by the Byrds (who had yet to record their own version of the song) at Ciro’s in Los Angeles, recorded and released three versions of “Hey Joe” between 1965 and 1966. Their first version was released in November/December 1965, but sold poorly. The band’s third recorded version of the song became a hit in May/June 1966, reaching No. 31 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and No. 29 on the Canadian RPM Magazine charts. The Leaves’ version is notable for being the only recording of the song to reach the Top 40 of the Billboard chart.
The Surfaris recording of the song, released on the B-side of their “So Get Out” single, is sometimes cited as being the first rock recording of the song, but a number of reliable sources contend that the Surfaris’ version dates from 1966, well after the Leaves’ original 1965 version. There is some dispute over exactly when the Surfaris’ recording of the song was released. Some sources list its release date as being late 1965 and other sources list it as being June 1966. However, the catalogue number of the Surfari’s single is Decca 31954, which when cross-referenced with other contemporaneous Decca single releases, allows the release to be conclusively dated to a May–June 1966 time frame. A June 1966 release date is further corroborated by the discographical information on the website of the single’s producer, Gary Usher.
Three other Los Angeles bands recorded the song in 1966: the Standells with the title “Hey Joe, Where You Gonna Go”, included it on their 1966 Dirty Water album; the Music Machine recorded a slow, moody, fuzz-laden version of the song in late 1966; Love’s Bryan MacLean was introduced to the song by David Crosby during 1965, while MacLean had been a roadie for the Byrds. Love’s lead vocalist, Arthur Lee, claimed in later years that it was Love’s version that turned Jimi Hendrix on to the song as well as most of the other Los Angeles acts who covered the song. Love’s recording of “Hey Joe” features slightly different lyrics than most versions of the song; for example, the lyric “gun in your hand” became “money in your hand” in Love’s version. The Byrds recording of the song also features the same altered lyrics as Love’s version. Love guitarist Johnny Echols claims that Love’s and the Byrds’ lyrics are the authentic ones. According to Echols, the Leaves (with whom they were friends) had heard Love performing the song and asked them for the lyrics. He rewrote them to play the Leaves a “dirty trick”, accidentally authoring the version that everybody got to know.
The Byrds included a recording of the song, titled “Hey Joe (Where You Gonna Go)”, on their 1966 album, Fifth Dimension. The lead vocalist on the Byrds’ version was David Crosby, who was instrumental in bringing the song to the group and in popularizing the song within the larger L.A. music community. Crosby had wanted to record the song almost since the band first formed in 1964 but the other members of the Byrds had been unenthusiastic about the song. By the time of the recording sessions for Fifth Dimension, several other bands had enjoyed success with covers of “Hey Joe”, leaving Crosby angered by his bandmates’ lack of faith in the song. Byrds’ guitarist and band leader Roger McGuinn recalled in an interview that “The reason Crosby did lead on ‘Hey Joe’ was because it was his song. He didn’t write it but he was responsible for finding it. He’d wanted to do it for years but we would never let him. Then both Love and the Leaves had a minor hit with it and David got so angry that we had to let him do it.”
General consensus within the band and among critics was that the Byrds’ version wasn’t an entirely successful reading of the song and was inferior to previous recordings of the song by Love and the Leaves. In later years, both McGuinn and the band’s manager, Jim Dickson, criticised Crosby’s vocal performance on the song for not being powerful enough to carry the aggressive subject matter and expressed regret that the song had been included on Fifth Dimension. Crosby himself later admitted that the recording of the song was an error on his part, stating “It was a mistake, I shouldn’t have done it. Everybody makes mistakes.”
The song would go on to become a staple of the Byrds’ live concert repertoire during 1966 and 1967. The band also included the song in their performance at the Monterey Pop Festival, which is included on the 2002 The Complete Monterey Pop Festival DVD box set as well as on the 1992 The Monterey International Pop Festival CD box set.
Folk rock singer Tim Rose’s slower version of the song (recorded in 1966 and claimed to be Rose’s arrangement of a wholly traditional song) inspired the first single by the Jimi Hendrix Experience. The ex-bassist for the Animals, Chas Chandler, who was now focusing on managing other acts, had also seen Rose performing the song at the Cafe Wha? in New York City and was looking for an artist to record a rock version of “Hey Joe”. Chandler discovered Jimi Hendrix, who had also been playing at the Cafe Wha? in 1966 and performing an arrangement of “Hey Joe” inspired by Rose’s rendition. Chandler decided to take Hendrix with him to England in September 1966, where he would subsequently turn the guitarist into a star. Rose re-recorded “Hey Joe” in the 1990s, re-titling it “Blue Steel .44” and again claimed the song as his own arrangement of a traditional song.
Some accounts credit the slower version of the song by the British band the Creation as being the inspiration for Hendrix’s version; Chandler and Hendrix saw them perform the song after Hendrix arrived in the UK, although the Creation’s version was not released until after Hendrix’s. It is unclear if the members of the Creation had heard Tim Rose’s version.
Released in December 1966, Hendrix’s version became a hit in the United Kingdom, entering the Top 10 of the UK Singles Chart in January 1967 and peaking at No. 6. The single was released in the United States on May 1, 1967 with the B-side “51st Anniversary”, but failed to chart. Nevertheless, “Hey Joe” as recorded by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, with backing vocals by the Breakaways, remains the best-known version of the song and is listed as No. 201 on Rolling Stone magazine’s The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. In 2000, Total Guitar magazine ranked it as the 13th greatest cover version of all time. In 2009 it was named the 22nd greatest hard rock song of all time by VH1. “Hey Joe” was the last song Hendrix performed at the Woodstock festival in 1969 and as such, it was also the final song of the whole festival. The song was performed after the crowd, comprising the 80,000 who had not yet left the festival, cheered for an encore.