Hello there! In this week’s blog we consider the song Hey Jude. This is an absolutely beautiful song written by Paul McCartney and performed by The Beatles. After discussing the original song, we will review covers from Wilson Pickett and Jose Feliciano.
The Beatles and Hey Jude:
The spring of 1968 was an extremely tense time for the Beatles. Following John Lennon’s affair with Yoko Ono, John and Cynthia Lennon had separated and their teenage son Julian was living with Cynthia.
In May 1968, Paul McCartney drove out to see Cynthia and Julian. Paul was thinking of the loneliness and confusion that Julian must have been experiencing, and on the drive he composed a song that was meant to console Julian during this period.
The photo below shows the Beatles, from L: John, Paul, Ringo and George. They are posing outside their manager Brian Epstein’s house prior to the launch of their Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album in summer 1967.
The initial title of the song was Hey Jules, after Paul’s nickname for Julian Lennon. However, he soon changed the title to Hey Jude.
The lyrics comprise advice from one friend to another regarding steps to deal with a difficult and depressing situation.
Hey Jude, don’t make it bad
Take a sad song and make it better
Remember to let her into your heart
Then you can start to make it better
Hey Jude, don’t be afraid
You were made to go out and get her
The minute you let her under your skin
Then you begin to make it better
And anytime you feel the pain, hey Jude, refrain
Don’t carry the world upon your shoulders
For well you know that it’s a fool who plays it cool
By making his world a little colder
Curiously enough, after writing the song specifically to cheer up Julian Lennon, Paul did not mention this to Julian. It was almost 20 years later when Julian realized that Hey Jude had been written for him personally.
It is even more curious that John Lennon was convinced that the song was written for him. When John heard Hey Jude, he believed that the lyrics referred to his relationship with Paul.
From Lennon’s perspective, the song represented a monologue by Paul. Lennon believed the song’s ‘message’ expressed Paul’s sadness over the end of his close relationship with John. However, Paul was moving on and was accepting John and Yoko’s relationship. Despite all evidence to the contrary, for the rest of his life John Lennon retained this assessment of Hey Jude.
Others have speculated that Hey Jude was actually autobiographical, and that Paul was writing the song about his own life at that moment. This is based on various lines of reasoning.
The most persuasive argument is that the lyrics seem to describe not a teenager but a grown man. Mark Hertsgaard has commented
that “many of the song’s lyrics do seem directed more at a grown man on the verge of a powerful new love, especially the lines ‘you have found her now go and get her’ and ‘you’re waiting for someone to perform with.'”
It is certainly true that McCartney’s romantic situation at that time was quite complicated. Paul had been romantically involved with actress Jane Asher for a few years, and they announced their engagement in December, 1967. The photo below shows Jane Asher, Paul McCartney and their Old English Sheepdog Martha in Glasgow, Scotland around the time of their engagement.
However, in June 1968, American Francie Schwartz was in London discussing a film proposal with Apple. Ms. Schwartz began living with Paul at his house in St. John’s Wood. That same month, Paul began an affair with American photographer Linda Eastman.
Not surprisingly, when Jane Asher found out about Paul’s amorous activities, she called off the engagement.
Hey Jude was recorded at Trident Studios in London at the end of July, 1968. The Beatles used Trident because that studio had an 8-track recording machine, while Abbey Road was still limited to 4 tracks.
The personal tension between the Beatles at this time was evident in the recording sessions for Hey Jude. For example, John Lennon’s insistence on having Yoko accompany him at all times was irritating to several of the other band members.
In addition, Paul and George Harrison had a serious disagreement over George’s guitar part on this song. George had suggested brief guitar solos following each verse of the song, but Paul vetoed this. George was annoyed at Paul’s insistence on controlling every aspect of the recording session.
In any case, recording of Hey Jude was soon completed at Trident Studios. The initial recording session featured the Beatles, with Paul on piano and lead vocals, John on rhythm guitar, George on lead guitar and Ringo on drums.
After that, the song received a significant amount of overdubbing. Paul added a bass guitar part, backing vocals by Paul, John and George were added, and Ringo contributed on tambourine. Beatles producer George Martin then scored the parts for a 36-piece orchestra, that comes in during the long coda at the end of the song.
The Beatles then produced a promotional film to introduce Hey Jude. The film was shot at Twickenham Film Studios. Noted commentator David Frost introduced the Beatles, who lip-synch to the song.
After the first chorus, the Beatles are joined by a studio audience who surround the group, sing along and clap to the song. The film was shown in Britain on the David Frost show on Sept. 8, 1968; the film was then broadcast in the U.S. on the Smothers Brothers TV show on Oct. 6. And here is that video.
Hey Jude is an absolutely wonderful song. It is one of Paul’s true gems, where the melody and lyrics mesh perfectly, and are complemented by Paul’s beautiful vocals.
Hey Jude would have been a smash hit regardless of this film clip. However, the effect of the video was rather amazing. The song rocketed up to the top of the pop charts, and remained there longer than any other Beatles song.
After all the tension and angst regarding the state of the Beatles, this song was so uplifting and positive that fans could not get enough of it. It is undeniably one of the greatest Beatles songs.
Hey Jude is unusual in several respects. First, at over 7 minutes it was extremely long for a pop tune for those days. Second, the final verse is followed by a 4-minute coda, where Paul repeats the phrase Na na na na na na na over and over again, 16 times in all.
The impression left by the coda is similar to that in chanting a mantra. In addition, Paul shows off his great vocal range in this coda, as he invokes his “Little Richard voice” at various points. Finally, at the end the music simply fades away.
Hey Jude was the best-selling single record the Beatles ever released. However, even here there was controversy within the group. The B side of the record was Revolution (‘you say you want a revolution’). John Lennon was adamant that Revolution should have been the A side, since Revolution was obviously a superior song to Hey Jude.
Even following the spectacular reception for Hey Jude, Lennon continued to maintain that Revolution was the better tune.
Fortunately for us, we don’t necessarily have to rank these songs, we can just sit back and enjoy the entire glorious Beatles catalogue.
Wilson Pickett and Hey Jude:
Wilson Pickett was an R&B and soul singer-songwriter who carved out an impressive career for himself. Like so many R&B singers, Pickett started out with a gospel group.
In the mid-50s, Pickett toured with a gospel group called the Violinaires. He noticed that a number of his fellow gospel singers were leaving for a career in pop music, so Pickett decided to join them.
The photo below shows Wilson Pickett performing at the North Sea Jazz Festival in The Netherlands in July 1999.
The first soul group that Pickett joined was called The Falcons. He co-wrote a song called If You Need Me, and sent it as a demo to top R&B producer Jerry Wexler. Wexler gave it to Solomon Burke, the top R&B star at Atlantic Records at that time, and it became quite a hit for Burke.
Despite the fact that his song made the R&B charts, Pickett was deeply disappointed that he had not been given the chance to release it under his own name. But in 1964, Wilson Pickett was signed to a record contract at Atlantic Records.
Pickett’s first big success occurred with songs he recorded at Stax Records in Memphis. There, he teamed up with the terrific Stax “house band,” Booker T and the MGs. Pickett’s first major hit was the 1965 release, In the Midnight Hour, which Pickett co-wrote with Eddie Floyd and Stax guitarist Steve Cropper. The song went to #1 on the R&B charts and #21 on the Billboard pop lists.
In December 1965, Stax co-owner Jim Stewart decided that he would no longer allow his studios to be used for outside productions, so at that time Pickett began recording at Rick Hall’s Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
Backed by the terrific Muscle Shoals session musicians, Pickett garnered some of his biggest hits, songs such as Land of 1,000 Dances and Mustang Sally.
Wilson Pickett’s cover of Hey Jude has a fascinating backstory. In 1968, Wilson showed up for a recording session at Fame Studios, and one of the musicians, a guitarist nicknamed “Skydog,” suggested that they record a cover of The Beatles’ Hey Jude.
That suggestion was met with considerable skepticism. For one thing, the Beatles’ original recording of Hey Jude was still atop the pop charts; for another, Pickett’s rough R&B vocal style was radically different from Paul McCartney’s sweet voice.
There seemed to be several obvious reasons why it did not make sense for Wilson Pickett to cover Hey Jude. However, the guitarist persisted, and eventually they cut a demo of this song.
Here is the audio of Wilson Pickett’s cover of Hey Jude, released by Atlantic Records in 1968.
Isn’t this terrific? Perhaps surprisingly, Wilson Pickett’s gospel-tinged vocals mesh perfectly with Paul McCartney’s lyrics. This is a powerful performance of a great song. As might be expected, Pickett’s cover of Hey Jude made it into the top 16 in the Billboard pop charts.
The instrumental accompaniment also won rave notices. This was particularly true for the session guitarist who had suggested the song, “Skydog,” aka Duane Allman.
Allman is playing on Pickett’s cover of Hey Jude, together with drummer Roger Hawkins and bassist Jerry Jemmott. People in the music industry singled out Duane Allman for his guitar work.
Eric Clapton commented, “I remember hearing [it] and calling either Ahmet Ertegun or Tom Dowd and saying, ‘Who’s that guitar player?’ …To this day, I’ve never heard better rock guitar playing on an R&B record. It’s the best.”
As a result of the exposure he received as a Muscle Shoals session musician, when Duane later formed the Allman Brothers Band, executives Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records were happy to sponsor the group. And later, Duane Allman and Eric Clapton would team up on Clapton’s 1971 album, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.
Here is Wilson Pickett in a live performance of Hey Jude. This is from season I of the TV program Midnight Special, in June 1973. Wolfman Jack is the MC, the Bee Gees are the hosts and Pickett is a special guest artist.
Wilson breaks into what he calls a “soul hootenanny” with his cover of Hey Jude. Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees rashly joins in and tries to match Pickett’s funky soul style.
While Wilson Pickett is completely comfortable in this R&B treatment, by contrast Barry Gibb is completely out of his element in this song. Gibb started his career as a folk-rocker, and made a transition to disco when he discovered he could sing falsetto.
Barry Gibb has an amazing and versatile voice. However, he needs to shy away from soul music, particularly if he finds himself competing with someone like Wilson Pickett!
Wilson Pickett last had a song on the pop charts in 1974. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991, and in 1999 he released an album called It’s Harder Now for which he was named Soul/Blues Male Artist of the Year by the Blues Foundation.
Over the course of his life, Pickett had some troubles with the law. In 1987, he was fined and received two years’ probation for carrying a loaded shotgun in his car. Then in 1993, he struck an 86-year-old pedestrian with his automobile. The pedestrian eventually died, and Pickett pled guilty to drunk driving charges, for which he received a one-year prison sentence and five years’ probation.
In 2006, Wilson Pickett died of a heart attack at age 64. His good friend Little Richard spoke at his funeral.
Jose Feliciano and Hey Jude:
We discussed Jose Feliciano in our blog post on the Doors’ song Light My Fire. Here we will briefly review his life and career.
Below is a photo of Jose Feliciano performing in the late 1960s.
Jose Feliciano was born in Puerto Rico in 1945. He was blind at birth due to congenital glaucoma, and at the age of five his family moved to Spanish Harlem.
He became obsessed with the guitar, reportedly practicing up to 14 hours a day. Feliciano loved rock and roll, although the greatest influences on his style were classical guitarist Andres Segovia and jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery.
Jose Feliciano developed a trademark guitar style which prominently incorporates both his jazz and flamenco influences. He applied his guitar technique to a number of popular songs with some spectacular success. From his familiarity with flamenco style, he was the first guitarist to introduce nylon-string guitars into rock music.
Feliciano began his musical career by playing in clubs in the US and Canada, and signed a recording contract with RCA Victor. He then traveled to Argentina and the UK, and became famous across Latin America.
After moving to LA, he hooked up with producer Rick Jarrard. They released a Latin-style version of The Doors’ Light My Fire that became a blockbuster hit. As a result, Jose Feliciano won Grammy Awards in 1969 for both Pop Song of the Year and New Artist of the Year.
Here is the audio of Jose Feliciano’s version of Hey Jude.
I really enjoy his cover of this classic Beatles song. Feliciano applies his unique guitar style to this song, an impressive combination of flamenco and jazz styling.
Feliciano is backed by an orchestra that features both strings and flute. At the 3-minute mark, he begins singing in Spanish. A half-minute later he begins an extended virtuoso guitar solo. Wow!
One of the hallmarks of a great pop song is that it can be reprised in many different formats, and still retain its power. That is certainly the case with Hey Jude, as we have seen with both R&B and jazz-flamenco covers of that great tune.
In October 1968, Jose Feliciano sang The Star-Spangled Banner prior to a World Series game in Detroit. As was his custom, he produced a Latin-influenced, stylized version of the national anthem. We covered Jose Feliciano’s presentation in our blog post on performances of the national anthem.
Jose Feliciano’s version became highly controversial, with traditionalists deeply criticizing his interpretation of the song. At that time, people were simply not accustomed to hearing a non-standard treatment of our national anthem.
However, with the passage of time his performance has become appreciated as a creative and sincere expression of this song. Feliciano has been invited back a few times to reprise his version of the national anthem at major-league baseball games.
Following his one big hit with Light My Fire, Jose Feliciano hit the big time once more in 1970 with his Latin-inspired song, Feliz Navidad, which has become a Christmas classic.
Since then Jose Feliciano has continued to record, to tour around the world, and to garner occasional awards for his records and for his collaborative efforts with musicians in many varied fields.