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Double Take: 'Hey Joe', Tim Rose / Jimi Hendrix

Robert Webb on cover versions

Friday 24 January 2003 01:00 GMT

Jimi Hendrix's debut hit has a puzzling provenance. Composition of this brooding tale of premeditated murder was claimed by a West Coast balladeer, Billy Roberts, who copyrighted it in 1962. One version of events has Roberts co-writing "Hey Joe" while playing an Edinburgh folk club in 1956. Len Partridge, a leading light in the Scottish post-war folk-blues boom, recalled: "We played quite a lot together, and one of the things that came out of that period was 'Hey Joe'. Don't even ask me now which bits were added by me. I can't claim credit for it – that really has to go to Bill."

The conventional chord structure and similarity to other blues ditties, and Roberts's inconsistency in explaining how he came up with such a powerful song, led many to doubt his claim. Niela Miller, a girlfriend of his in the late Fifties, insists that her song "Baby Please Don't Go to Town" was plagiarised by Roberts, who altered the lyrics to: "Hey Joe, where you goin' with that gun in your hand?"

"My music publisher at the time advised me against suing Billy," she is reported as saying. Martin Cohen, the lawyer who administers the rights to the song, has also doubted Roberts's claim. "It's always been difficult for me to believe that this guy could write this phenomenon," he said. "To my knowledge, Roberts never recorded it." According to Cohen, it was first cut by the singer Dino Valente, who, confusingly, also assumed co-writing credits for a while and was paid composer's royalties.

Before Hendrix (above), the best-known versions were by the Californian pop band The Leaves and the gravel-throated troubadour Tim Rose, who died last year aged 62. Rose clearly considered "Hey Joe" to be his. He added a verse and slowed it down for his first album, released in 1966. "I was essentially writing a new song," he said.

Hendrix picked up on that version from either his manager, Chas Chandler, or Love's Arthur Lee. Jimi's "Hey Joe" twists like a corpse on the gallows. Rose was unimpressed: "I know I'm not the guitar-player he was, but I still think my version is better."

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