Of all the musicians who joined guitarist Jimi Hendrix in his bands, only one is still alive — bassist Billy Cox. As part of the touring Experience Hendrix show, Cox sees nightly that the late guitarist still has plenty of fans of all ages. And, he said that Hendrix is just as relevant to 21st-century listeners as he was in the ’60s.
“Simply, it’s because he wrote in the now. Bach, Handel, Miles, Coltrane ... those artists, and that’s just to name a few, all wrote in the now,” Cox said in an interview in February from his home in Nashville. “That is a talent, but it’s also a creative spirit that is fueling that type of writing. If you write in the now, your music will never get boring.”
Hendrix’s timeless music returns to Reno for a show on Feb. 25 at Reno Ballroom. Joining Cox at the show are guitarists Buddy Guy, Zakk Wylde, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Jonny Lang and Dweezil Zappa.
All of these acclaimed musicians are paying tribute to Hendrix, whose one-of-a-kind guitar work and peace-and-love lyrical slant were standouts in the psychedelic rock era of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Among his best known songs are “Purple Haze,” “Foxy Lady,” “Little Wing,” “Castles Made of Sand” and “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).” His super-charged cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” even became the arrangement that its author used for many years during live shows.
During Experience Hendrix, Cox is first seen introducing the show with Janie Hendrix, Jimi’s sister and CEO of Experience Hendrix, who is now in charge of the guitarist’s musical legacy. From that point, Cox plays on various numbers as the musicians mix and match to play Hendrix’s tunes.
“We have the great John McDemott (as show producer), and I wouldn’t have his job for anything,” Cox said. “He pairs these groups of musicians together like he’s a virtuoso conductor.”
Of all the artists on the show, Cox singled out blues legend Buddy Guy as someone he loves to jam with during the night. He did say, though, that the entire evening is amazing.
“It’s the concert event of the year, the guitar event of the year. All of these guys cut their eye teeth listening to Jimi’s numbers,” he said.
Cox said that he doesn’t have to prepare too much for the shows, although the 1970 song “Freedom” is one where you need to concentrate.
“You have to stay up on that one,” he said. “It’s not a song where you can haphazardly play. That’s a pretty challenging song.”
Starting in the Army
The story of Cox and Hendrix is one of the more intriguing parts of the late guitarist’s legend. They met when both were in the Army in the early ’60s, according to Cox’s official bio. They struck up a friendship when they both realized they were musicians, and after both were discharged they played together in R&B bands throughout the Southern U.S.
“When Jimi was 19 or 20 years old, there I was in the military playing with him,” Cox said. “We were at Fort Campbell, just these young kids who got together and the rest is history.”
Eventually, Hendrix struck out for New York City and eventually London, England, while Cox continued to play with touring bands or on recording sessions in the South.
In 1969, three years after he made his fame, Hendrix asked Cox to be a part of a new group called the Band of Gypsies. Merging Hendrix’s distinctive style of guitar playing with more soul and blues influences, the two men and drummer Buddy Miles played four live shows in NYC, which were released in 1970 as “Band of Gypsies” and have been reissued in various forms since. The most famous song from this group was “Machine Gun,” an incendiary anti-war epic that captured the Vietnam era.
Cox said that the Band of Gypsies sounded so diverse because the three musicians got along so well. “There were no negative vibes,” he said. “We all really came up in music at the same time, and we didn’t have a limit on how we played and what we played. We had complete freedom.
“Creating is a spiritual thing. It cannot be directed. To be spiritual, you multiply; it never divides. So, we took it in that spiritual way and I think our music became very unique because of it. It was on the borderline of reggae and hard rock and the blues. We took all of those genres and put it together our own way.”
The four shows over two days that became the Band of Gypsies only public showcase are still memorable to Cox. “Everything flowed so free and easy,” he said. “I noticed from the first one-to-20 rows, it was all people standing there, or sitting there, in awe. Half of the people just had their mouths open, probably thinking, ‘What the heck is that?’ We blew their minds. And we enjoyed it all too. It was not an effort, it was a pleasure.”
Being at the peak
Cox was also part of the final phase of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, along with the guitarist’s longtime drummer Mitch Mitchell. His work included some classic Hendrix festival shows, including Woodstock, the Isle of Wight and Atlanta Pop.
In those final days of the Experience, Cox said that the Isle of Wight show was the most memorable one for him.
“We had almost twice as many people there than at Woodstock,” he said. “From the stage, we had no idea it was that humongous. The sound was almost deafening when people were clapping and hollering.”
“All of those gigs, including Woodstock, I was just a young man in my 20s and I was on cloud nine. It was so great after playing the chitlin’ circuit and those dives and what you had to do in order to hone your craft ... now we were really at the peak of it all.”
After Hendrix’s death in September 1970, Cox continued to play sessions and lead bands, including several groups that pay tribute to Hendrix’s music. He also records and releases his own music from his own studio, often working with his wife, Brenda. He’s also been a mainstay of the Experience Hendrix shows since their beginning.
“This music is really in my blood and my system,” Cox said. “I do a lot of session work still, and when I’m not doing that I have the Billy Cox Band of Gypsies Experience, so I really stay up on my act. I still really enjoy it all. I told my wife (Brenda) that even though I’m getting old (he’s age 77), I don’t know when I’m going to stop playing. I’m having so much fun.”