Wednesday, December 28, 2011
The Last Gypsy: Bassist Billy Cox Part I
It sounds like crap, Cox’s friend said. But Cox heard something different. Something he liked.
He went inside to meet the guitarist, who five years later would become famous under the name Jimi Hendrix.
Their friendship began with the two playing the so-called “Chitlin’ Circuit” in the South and Midwest during the early 1960’s. They went their separate ways for a while after Hendrix was discovered by Chas Chandler of the Animals.
But eventually Hendrix called his old buddy and the rest is music history. Cox was with the band that played with Hendrix in August, 1969 at the famous Woodstock concert. Then the two joined with drummer Buddy Miles to form the short-lived but pivotal power trio Band of Gypsys. The concerts performed by the group over New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day from 1969 to 1970 were once dubbed by Rolling Stone Magazine as one of the ten greatest of all time.
Now 70 years old (he’s a year older than Hendrix), Cox lives in Nashville, where he keeps busy with both his more current projects and with representing the legacy of the music he created with Hendrix, who is still considered by many the most important and influential rock guitarist who ever lived.
Leading the New Band of Gypsys, a group featuring Byron “Showman” Bordeaux and Vincent “In the Pocket” Fults on guitars and Gary “Freight Train” Skipper on drums, Cox has released Old School Blue Blues, a collection of traditional blues songs, some with a rock edge that heralds back to his time with Hendrix.
“I wanted to reiterate what it was all about,” Cox reportedly said to the online magazine Hollywood Today in explanation of the duplication.
The only surviving member of either the Jimi Hendrix Experience or Band of Gypsys, Cox has played with the Experience Hendrix tribute tour and will do so again in 2012. Earlier this month, he was part of a panel that discussed Hendrix at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles after a screening of the movie Blue Wild Angel: Jimi Hendrix at the Isle of Wight. Cox played with Hendrix at that concert, held in England about three weeks before the guitarist’s death.
Cox also keeps busy with his video production company, which produces blues and gospel shows.
Cox was born in Wheeling, WV. His father was a Baptist preacher and a mathematics teacher and his mother was a classically-trained pianist. His interest in music received a boost during his teen years after his family moved to Pittsburgh and he came into contact with a number of jazz musicians. He reportedly discovered he liked the sound of the electric bass after trying other instruments.
His early partnership with Hendrix led to them forming the King Kasuals band, which played regularly at the Del Morocco, a popular Nashville club, as well as on the road. The two musicians continued to support each other’s careers over the years, with Cox once recommending Hendrix for a recording session with famous Nashville disc jockey Bill “Hoss” Allen (Cox talks about that in the upcoming interview) and Hendrix suggesting that Little Richard hire Cox as a bassist. (Cox could not do it. He also talks about thatin the interview).
Cox also gave creative support to Hendrix, whose up-front style frequently put him at odds with the bands he played with during that early part of his career.
When Hendrix went to Europe in 1966, he asked Cox to come along. When the bassist said he had other obligations, Hendrix told him he would achieve success and contact him again. After the dissolution of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Hendrix kept his promise, and this time Cox accepted.
Cox was with Hendrix when the guitarist played his famous rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" at Woodstock.(There's a story about that in the interview too.)
Cox has played with other noted musicians, among them Sam Cooke, Slim Harpo, Joe Simon, Charlie Daniels, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, Etta James, Gatemouth Brown, Maxine Brown, Nappy Brown, Patti Labelle, Freddie King, Earl Gaines, Wilson Pickett, Little Milton, Johnny Taylor, Earl Gaines and Betty Davis. More recently, he has played with the band Gov't Mule.
He has also worked with gospel performers such as Sister Edna Galva Cook, Brother Joe May, Shirley Ceasar, the Brooklyn All-Stars and the Consolers.
We’re presenting our interview with him in two parts. In the first, we ask him about his new album Old School Blue Blues and about a curious little trick he and Jimi Hendrix played to get more practice time while in the Army. And that’s not all:
BBP: I heard the new CD. Tell me how it came together.
Cox: It came together because my wife and I, we’re around the same age and we realize that the stuff that we grew up with, which was blues—the real authentic down-home blues—we don’t hear it anymore. We’d take our trips, we’d have a lot of CDs of early traditional blues and we listened and we liked it. So we decided to kind of come out of the area that we were known in. But you know, if you stop and really look at it, all Hendrix was playing really was loud blues. “Voodoo Child,” nothing but blues, blues changes. “Red House.” But we went back to the roots of it all and we had fun doing this and we had a lot of people on board who felt the same way we did. The title song is “Old School Blues.” Blue Blues.
Cox: I know that no one can really fill Jimi Hendrix’s shoes. But I’m looking for guitar players that have the deep soul feeling and are able to project it out. That’s basically what I’m looking for when I’m looking for guitar players. I have two with the group now that are pretty good. But then sometimes I will venture out and play with other groups from time to time. But I love those kind of guitar players who feel it from inside and the only way I can define it is, I can hear it. It’s like when I first heard Jimi Hendrix at the service club at Fort Campbell. I was a young kid, he was making mistakes, he wasn’t quite there, he was in his infancy musically and I turned to the guy next to me and I said “Man, that’s pretty unique isn’t it?” He said “It sounds like a bunch of crap to me.” So I went inside and introduced myself because I knew that there was something there. And that something is what I look for in guitar players.
BBP: During that period a lot of people were hearing Hendrix and they just thought, just like your friend did, that it was basically noise. I mean, Hoss Allen….
Cox: I got a story about that. We went over to (a studio used by Hoss Allen). When they weren’t cutting their artists on the roster, then the general public could utilize the studio. So we go over and cut the stuff. We got ready to do it, and Hoss says “Billy do you know any guitar players?” I said “Yeah I know a guy who could probably do that for us.” So I called Jimi Hendrix in, along with Johnny Jones. And he started playing, and on the one track after Hoss had played it back, he came in and said “Man I don’t know if I can use this guy. He’s just too doggone loud.” Thirty-some years later Hoss said, “Billy I’ve got those 16 tracks of those sessions that we did and had Jimi Hendrix on.” He said “Dammit I believed I erased ten million dollars!”
BBP: Oh my God!
Cox: He had taken Jimi off because he had said he was a little too loud.
BBP: Wow! Wow! Hindsight is definitely 20-20…
Cox: …I tell you…
BBP: Yeah, that’s something else. But what were you hearing? Because it’s amazing that all of these other guys were kind of dismissing him as weird or freakish or whatever, and you actually heard something in him. How do you explain that?
Cox: I heard the future. I heard the genius. I heard the…it’s just going to take him a while to develop. And I saw him put 25 years in a guitar in five years, because it became a night and day affair.
BBP: Now I understand during that time, you and he kind of had this thing that you did to get more practice time in while you were in the army. Eventually they caught onto you but you kind of pulled it off for a while. Do you remember how you did that?
Cox: They never got onto me; I did it until I got discharged. What I did was (laughs) I don’t know if you have time to hear this story, but…
Cox: We used to practice and play down at the service club and this Special Services, I don’t know if they have that division now but they were guys who kind of took care of the service clubs, made sure paperwork was done, made sure the cleaning crew got in, and then they had the people who were paid by the USO who came in later in the day to open it up. So I knew the one guy, Ron, who was fixing to get discharged, so I go to his commander and I said “Look Colonel, Ron’s fixing to get discharged, and I’d like to have his job down here that he’s got.” “Well, you’re an airborne man,” he says. “You can’t be on jump status to get this job. But if there’s some way you can terminate your jump status, I’d be glad to have you.” So I went to a sergeant in my outfit who got things done. I says, “Look, what would it cost me to get terminated out of jump status and moved over to the Special Services?” So he came back about a week later and said “It will cost you fifty dollars and two fifths of Canadian Club.” So I terminated my jump status and I wound up over in repo detachment where everybody is dispersed. So I heard the first day: “Thompson, Germany!” “Harrison, Vietnam!” etc. Next day, the same thing. The third day he said “Cox, Special Services!” I knew I had pulled it off! So my job was to get up about eight or nine o’clock—it was a different type of regiment in the detachment I was with in the USO and Special Services, so we knew we had a cleaning crew that came down at nine o’clock. So I had up to that time to get there. And I’d get there, and they’d clean up. Meanwhile I explained it to Jimi, so after he had formation—(laughs) he was just a mere peon, I think maybe he had one stripe, no one even really looked for him—well he wound up walking down to the service club and after my clean-up crews, we would rehearse all day long. We did that up until the time I got discharged.
BBP: And they never caught on to you?
Cox: No they didn’t.
BBP: Wow. That’s amazing. Now I remember reading at one point that Hendrix, when he was playing with Little Richard for a while, that he actually invited you to join the band.
Cox: Yes. Here in town, when I finally got to Nashville, I had a place on Jefferson Street. So we’re all sitting out and talking and we look up and there’s this Silver Eagle coming down the street. See, most of the time Jimi—he’d go out, call me from Chicago, “Man, I got with this group and I’m stranded.” Twenty bucks would get you from—heck, maybe 35 or 40 dollars would take you from New York to LA in that day and time in the sixties. But I’d get the money up and he’d come back and play with the King Kasual Band, then he’d go off, get stranded someplace else, and he’d come back. But this time, he had left for about three months. It was the longest he had left, and I looked up and here’s this silver Eagle coming down the street, and out jumped—pulled right up in front of my house—out jumps Little Richard. And the neighborhood just went crazy. Little Richard came up to me and said, “Uh, you must be Billy Cox. Jimi has said a lot about you. Get your stuff and let’s go. I need a bass player.” I said, “Well sir, I’m with this group, and I have to give them at least a week or two week notice. I can give them a week’s notice.” He says: “Oh I need a bass player now. You gotta come now. You know who I am?” I say: “Yes sir, I know who you are, and I respect you and your music, but, you know business is business.” So he says: “Okay, Jimi, I can’t convince him.” Jimi shook my hand, and they got back on the bus and that was the last I saw of him until he called me to go to Europe. He said: “there’s this guy who saw me in the (Greenwich) Village and he wants to take me to Europe and make me a star.” But at that time I had a publishing company and I was producing groups. And he said: “this guy’s going to take me to Europe and make me a star and I told him about you.” And I said: “Jimi, I’d like to come. I said, but uh, right now…” I just gave him some off-the-wall excuse because I knew intuitively that there’s the possibility that I could have been a hindrance. So I gave him a little off-the-wall excuse. So I didn’t go. And then later on he called me, he says “Okay, I’ll make it, and I’ll send for you.” And that’s just what he did, about two-and-a-half years later.
BBP: Do you regret not going then?
Cox: No. Not really.
BBP: What were you doing during that period he was in Europe?
Cox: I had a publishing company, and then a recording studio was in the back, so I produced a lot of R&B. And I was having fun doing it and made a little bit of money.
BBP: And I guess you were working with some pretty well-known artists at the time.
Cox: Well at that time locally, we had a lot of good local southern artists that were doing some things. And then after all I was working also on the “Night Train” show. And then one weekend out of the month we would go to Dallas, Texas to record “The Beat,” (a Dallas-based television program). I had a partner who took care of the business when I was not able to be there.
BBP: I see. Tell me a little about how you connected with him again. It happened around 1969 after Noel Redding left the band, right? And you guys were up in upstate New York with Juma Sultan and there were other musicians with you. The band I believe was called Gypsys…
Cox: “Gypsys, Sun and Rainbows” or something of that nature. Well, he finally got the telephone call to me. He said: “Man, I really need you, I need you to come up.” See, when we rehearsed, we came up with a lot of riffs. Some people call them patterns. We had fun with these patterns, hooking them together, making songs and a lot of times we’d say: “Man, if we put this on record, they’d lock us up.” Because it was ahead of its time, the stuff that we were doing at that particular time. So he knew that we had a kindred spirit musically. And then after all we played at the Del Morocco here, forty-five minutes on, fifteen off. We did that year-in and year-out. And then we did the other gig; when we went down to Printer’s Alley and the various places here in Nashville, it’s always 45 on, 15 off. So we got a chance to not only play, but a lot of times we practiced on stage.
BBP: Wow. And I understand also when Hendrix played “The Star Spangled Banner,” you were kind of playing the first five or six notes, and then you stopped.
Cox: Yeah. Intuitively I knew that something was wrong with this picture because he just all of a sudden just went there and then I had to stop and say “Wait a minute.” Something told me “Just stop playing and let him have it.” No one else was playing but me and him. And I stopped and what an incredible solo!
BBP: Yeah, yeah, you see it in the movie Woodstock. I mean it’s just amazing. Well, tell me how Band of Gypsys came together. You were trying to help him out of a lawsuit.
Cox: .... So he told me about it and I says: “Well look, let’s give them something. I don’t know what we can give them. We’re musicians, and you got a name.” He says: “Well, I don’t have the money.” And I said: “Well, you might not have the money, but like I say, we’ll give him something.” And so finally he came up with (the idea to) give them this album, and that was me and him on board, and then finally Buddy Miles—Mitch (Mitchell) was in England—so Buddy told him: “Look, we’re friends, and our friendship’s not about money, so let’s do it. Let’s give them this thing we discussed.” So we rehearsed for a couple of weeks, and lo and behold, we did two gigs New Year’s Eve and two gigs New Year’s Day. That was the Band of Gypsys.
BBP: Was it hard, that format? What was it like playing bass for him?
Cox: I played bass with him most of my musical life at that time. I mean we were in the service, we went to Clarksville and lived there. We were playing in the clubs. We went to Indianapolis and lived there, played in the clubs, came back to Clarksville, played in the clubs, came to Nashville—so my association with Jimi Hendrix had been a very musical brotherhood for a long time. I didn’t look at him like everybody else looked at him. He was my partner, and a cool guy. So we were musically hooked at the hip, if you might say that.
BBP: Yeah, I got that impression. And did he play bass himself?
Cox: Yeah he played bass. In fact, one reason why he called me, he’s the bass player on (thinks for a minute) “All Along the Watchtower.” Jimi played bass on “All Along the Watchtower.”
BBP: Did you show him things?
Cox: Yeah. He showed me things and I showed him things. I mean he was very good at the bass.
Anyone seeking more information on Cox should check out his website at:
http://www.bassistbillycox.html Anything for Beldon's Blues Point, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, join our site! Represent!