How Paul McCartney Helped Jimi Hendrix Break Through in America

By the spring of 1967, Jimi Hendrix had become a star on the British rock scene. After decamping to London the previous year, the Seattle-born Hendrix recorded two singles that cracked the UK top 40 in the space of two months.

“Hey Joe,” his breakout song, peaked at No. 32 in January ’67. His follow-up, “Purple Haze,” became a smash hit and vaulted all the way to No. 3 in March. Beyond that, Hendrix was the talk of London, with everyone from Eric Clapton to Mick Jagger and The Beatles singing his praises.

But, without any recordings released in the U.S., Hendrix remained unknown in his native country. When his debut single went out in May ’67, that didn’t change. It wasn’t until Paul McCartney recommended Hendrix for the Monterey Pop festival that the guitarist’s fortunes changed.

Paul told the Monterey Pop organizers Jimi should play

Jimi Hendrix performs onstage at the Monterey Pop Festival on June 18, 1967. | Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Before Monterey Pop, no one had ever tried to put on a large showcase for rock groups and other artists appealing to America’s youth. But the festival’s organizers, which included former Beatles press officer Derek Taylor and John Phillips of The Mamas and the Papas, wanted it to be historic.

Naturally, they wanted the biggest groups of the day (The Beatles and The Rolling Stones) to play. But neither would appear at Monterey. When Phillips asked McCartney who should play, the Beatle didn’t hesitate. “I recommended Jimi Hendrix,” he said in Anthology.

Since Phillips had been on the West Coast with his band, he’d never heard of The Jimi Hendrix Experience (or the group’s superstar guitar player). “Is he any good?” McCartney recalled Phillips asking him when they met up in London. He assured Phillips he wouldn’t regret getting Hendrix aboard.

Of course, no one had any idea just how good Hendrix would be at Monterey. The set the Experience played on the festival’s final night has become one of the defining moments in rock history.

The Hendrix legend truly began in Monterey

Jimi Hendrix sets his guitar on fire on stage at the Monterey Pop Festival on June 18, 1967 in Monterey, California. | Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

By spring ’67, McCartney had seen more than enough of Hendrix to know he could knock out any festival crowd. One famous moment came just a few days after the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (May 26), in what would be a warmup for the Experience before Monterey.

That night, Hendrix played the title track to Sgt. Pepper’s with McCartney in the audience at London’s Saville Theatre. Realizing Hendrix had learned the song in a day or two for that show, McCartney later described the performance as one of the greatest honors of his career.

In Monterey, Hendrix went even bigger. With The Who delivering a blistering set — complete with the destruction of their instruments — before him, Hendrix knew he needed something the festival-goers would never forget.

After playing circles around Pete Townshend on the guitar, Hendrix played his own ace-card: He lit his guitar on fire in the center of the stage. Needless to say, it was a moment everyone has talked about since.

Later that summer, the Experience’s debut album went all the way to No. 5 on the U.S. charts. Looking back, McCartney was glad he’d put the word in for his departed friend. “Jimi was great,” he said, in the understatement of the century.

Also see: The Classic Line Jimi Hendrix Had About Bob Dylan’s Voice