Sunday, February 5, 2012

Billy Cox: 'Burgh Bridge To Hendrix

Billy Cox from Wikipedia

Ask any old stoner from the Woodstock era, and they'll tell you that Noel Redding was Jimi Hendrix's right hand bass man. Well, that's one hippy that would be wrong.

Redding may have gotten more notoriety as part of the Experience, but Pittsburgh's own Billy Cox knew and played alongside Hendrix longer, and in more bands. He was with Hendrix at both the start and finish of his career and still carries his torch today.

Billy Cox was born with music around him in Wheeling on October 18th, 1941. His dad was a Baptist minister and math teacher while his mom was a classical pianist, and at a young age he played the piano and sax.

His family moved to the Hill while Cox was in his early teens, and it was at Schenley High where he began to master the bass while playing in local bands. Cox was heavily influenced by Pittsburgh's jazz scene, soaking up the local greats performing in the Hill District clubs and the national players passing through town. Then it was off to the Army.

Hendrix and Cox met at the 101st Airborne Division base in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, in 1961 where both were paratroopers. Cox and a bud were walking past Service Club #1 and popped into the hall to get out of the rain. There they heard the 19 year old Hendrix's chords blasting through the air; Cox thought it was great stuff, while his pal covered his ears.

He introduced himself to Hendrix, and soon they were jamming together, becoming great friends in the process. They left the service about the same time, moved a bit down the road to Clarksville, Tennessee, and formed a band called the King Kasuals.

They played gigs on the "chitlin circuit," joking that everyplace they performed had a hole in the wall. Finally settling on Nashville as a home base, the Kings played dates on the Jefferson Street R&B club circuit while getting regular work as the house band at Del Morocco. It wasn't Stax soul that came out of the axes, but prototype funk rock.

Hendrix left Nashville in 1964, moving to Harlem where he worked as a sideman and with his own band The Blue Flames. He was then discovered by Chas Chandler, the Animals bassist, who took him across the pond to Britain and success in 1966. Hendrix didn't forget his army bud, and called him to join him on the trip. Cox begged off, telling him that he only "had three strings on his guitar." Cox wished him well, and Hendrix said that he'd call for him again after he hit the big time.

Broke or not, Cox was working steadily. Between 1962 and 1968, he played on the TV shows “The Beat” from Dallas and Nashville’s “Night Train.” He was a band/session player for Sam Cooke, Slim Harpo, Joe Simon, Rufus and his daughter Carla Thomas, Lou Rawls, Etta James, Jackie Wilson and Little Richard.

Small change, though, compared to Hendrix and the Experience. With Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell, their 1967 debut LP "Are You Experienced" took off, fueled by a riveting show put on by the trio at the Monterey Pop Festival.

But two albums later, the Jimi Hendrix Experience broke up in 1969. Hendrix was tiring of the power trio concept and its limitations (though he would quickly return to it), and put together a new group, Gypsy Suns and Rainbows.

He made good on his promise, calling Cox, who accepted this time. Who sez opportunity only knocks once? Cox joined Mitchell, rhythm guitarist Larry Lee, another Nashville bud who would become the only non-bass guitarist to play with a Hendrix band, and percussionists Juma Sultan and Jerry Velez.

After a handful of club dates, the band had a memorable outing on the last day of Woodstock in front of 200,000 fans. You can hear Cox drop a couple of bass notes in at the start of Hendrix's iconic "Star Spangled Banner" before wisely stepping back. Though Hendrix had played the jam many times before, Gypsy Suns had never rehearsed it, and Cox decided discretion was the better part of valor. He was right.

Hendrix's big band only lasted for one or two more performances, and never recorded. Band of Gypsys with Cox and Buddy Miles quickly took its place.

Cox told Ron Wynn of the Nashville Scene that the funk rock trio came to be because "Jimi had gotten himself into a financial bind with a contract he'd signed that wasn't exactly the greatest. He needed to work and do some things in a hurry that would make some money. So we got together and did the album (the live "Band of Gypsys" recorded on New Year's Eve 1969 at New York's Fillmore East, released after Hendrix's death) and toured...That's the real reason why that band was formed."

Miles left, and Hendrix formed another trio: Hendrix, Cox, and Mitchell. They began recording tracks for Hendrix's fourth studio album at the Electric Lady and toured during the summer of 1970 in America and Europe. Cox dropped out overseas after a few shows, suffering from "nervous exhaustion." The Band of Gypsys cancelled their remaining dates, and Hendrix went off to London, where he OD'ed three weeks later at the age of 27.

Cox heard the news back home in Nashville. He not only lost a guy he considered his best friend, but his career was knocked out of the fast lane, too. He released the 1971 LP "Nitro Junction," did some session work with Charlie Daniels, played club dates and sat in with other artists while operating a pawnshop. But his bass lines were kept alive thanks to the flood of posthumous Hendrix records. As of today, Cox's bass can be heard on 26 different Hendrix releases.

In 1995, Cox, with Experience members Mitchell and Redding, along with Gypsy Miles, began touring as a Hendrix tribute band. In 1999, he formed the Gypsy Sun Experience with Mitchell and guitarist Gary Serkin to keep Hendrix's legacy alive. Cox also leads the annual "Experience Hendrix Tour," which last stopped in Pittsburgh in late 2010, featuring guitarists Steve Vai and Kenny Wayne Shepherd.

In 2004, Miles joined with Cox to record songs from the original Band of Gypsys' album with guitarists Eric Gales, Kenny Olsen, Sheldon Reynolds, Andy Aledort, and Gary Serkin. The tracks, titled "The Band Of Gypsys Return," were released in 2006.

With former Hendrix bandmates Redding, Mitchell and Miles now gone, Cox is the only surviving member of The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Band Of Gypsys. And it's safe to say that he keeps the Hendrix legend alive with the tours and his role as Hendrix historian and promoter.

He co-authored the books Jimi Hendrix Sessions and Ultimate Hendrix with John McDermott and Eddie Kramer. Cox told Rege Behe of the Trib that Hendrix's body of work "compares to that of Beethoven or Brahms or Mozart, a legacy comparable to those of George Gershwin, John Coltrane and Miles Davis." He formed the "New Band of Gypsys" last year. So he does his bit to burnish that legacy, but has quite a bit more to his credit than Jimi's apron strings.

Cox owns a video production company and produces gospel and blues stage shows. He lectures at college music seminars. In 2009, Cox was inducted into Musician's Hall of Fame. In 2010, Microsoft's Paul Allen honored him with a Founders Award. His home state recognized him last year when it enshrined him in the West Virginia Music Hall Of Fame.

He's released two recent LPs of his own work, "Last Gypsy Standing" in 2009 and "Old School Blues" in 2011. Cox also plays on the 1970 Buddy Miles LP "Them Changes" and has collaborated with JJ Cale, Charlie Daniels, Bruce Cameron and Gov't Mule on other discs.

And hey - next time someone tries to pull that Noel Redding stuff on you, just slowly shake your head and ask "Who was that playing with Hendrix at Woodstock again?" Jimi's alpha and omega bass man will always be Billy Cox.

Voodoo Child from the Experience Hendrix Tour at the Benedum in 2010

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