Reflecting back on Jimi Hendrix’s career, one marvels at how productive and creative he was in a short span of just a few years.
By the time Hendrix formed Band of Gypsys with long-time pal Billy Cox and drummer Buddy Miles, he was moving in a different direction stylistically, shaking the foundation of his artistry and fulfilling his hungry quest for continual musical evolution and exploration.
The music he wrote and performed with Band of Gypsys demonstrated his forward-thinking creativity. The band impressed most in a live setting, allowing the trio to stretch out, going on expansive musical adventures combining fiery, virtuosic playing and pure passion — and with a sense of unlimited freedom.
Out now is Machine Gun: The Fillmore East First Show 12/31/69, a new record showcasing a previously unreleased show, chronicling the first of the guitar legend’s four shows at Bill Graham’s hallowed New York City venue.
We caught up with Billy Cox about the Band of Gypsys days and all things Hendrix.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Having played with Jimi for many years in his pre-fame days, can you characterize the musical chemistry you had together?
Billy Cox: We were brothers musically. We just jelled from the very beginning. I met him at Fort Campbell and I was drawn to his playing almost like he was a Pied Piper. I was coming from a theater and it was raining and I wound up on the door of this service club and the window was up about a couple of inches. I heard this guitar coming through the window and it was a little amateurish, but I sensed something about it. So I turned to the guy next to me and said, “That’s pretty unique playing” and he said, “it sounds like a bunch of mess.” (laughs)
So he was listening with the human ear and I was not. I walked in and introduced myself and told him that I played upright bass in the high school symphony but I wasn’t that good. He said, “Well, they’ve got electric basses and you should check them out. By the way, my name is Jimi Hendrix.”
And I said, “My name is Billy Cox” and that’s how we first met. So I checked out a bass and an amp and we started jelling and the next thing we got a drummer and from there it’s history.
Who were the musical artists you both connected over?
Billy Cox: Well, it’s the ones that were playing R&B and the music of that day. That’s people like Booker T and The MG’s and even Elvis Presley. Little Richard and all the groups of that day and time.
How about Curtis Mayfield’s band, the Impressions?
Billy Cox: Yeah, well in fact we did a tour with the Impressions. They heard us and then the manager said, “They need a bass player and an extra guitar with Curtis” and they took us on the so called chitlin circuit tour that lasted a couple of weeks.
How did playing the chitlin circuit with Jimi shape him as a guitar player and stage performer?
Billy Cox: It really helped him. He was practicing for the world at that particular time. I dropped many a pick and made many a mistake but he knew who he was and where he was going.
Fate is a card you are dealt at birth but destiny is what you do with those cards.
But also along with that you need grit, and that’s the power of passion and perseverance. He took that and utilized it. I saw it on a daily basis. They say it takes 24,000 hours to be proficient with an instrument and I saw him do that in almost five years ‘cause it was a night and day affair.
You were able to witness what you described as ‘somewhat amateurish’ playing when you first met him to eventually becoming someone who had a real magic playing his instrument.
Billy Cox: Yeah, that’s right ‘cause he was born and destined to play a guitar.
In terms of Jimi’s career arc, where do these Fillmore East 12/31/69 shows land in terms of the music he was creating and the music he was looking to create later on?
Billy Cox: The Band of Gypsys laid out a blueprint for others to follow and evolve from. Our band fused jazz, blues, classical and R&B. It’s too bad politics got in the way but the Band of Gypsys was a group about growth, evolution without ego or interference. Just playing together as musicians in harmony, loving each other and loving the music and being motivated to express the music.
Tell me about the December 31st, 1969 Fillmore East shows.
Billy Cox: We had two shows New Year’s Eve and two shows New Year’s Day. We didn’t know what to expect from the audience and the audience didn’t know what to expect from us, but from the time we hit that first note, they were in awe. You had Jimi Hendrix, a drummer who had been with the Electric Flag and Wilson Pickett, and I was the new kid on the block. We decided that we couldn’t do any songs that had already been released. We wanted to give them something different. So we went at the project in a joyous, creative posture and ultimately developed the repertoire of the Band of Gypsys.
What’s the story behind “Changes”?
Billy Cox: We had rehearsed “Changes” and a few others for Buddy (Miles). All of the songs we performed had been rehearsed. We didn’t look at it as Buddy’s part of the show. We were all there to give. We were all there to help and material went on whether it was written by Jimi or not.
How did Jimi feel the shows went?
Billy Cox: After the gigs were finished, Jimi was quite relieved. We felt the concerts went well. I might add that in previous gigs with the Experience he had used a fuzz face [tone control pedal] and a Wah-Wah pedal, then at Woodstock he used a fuzz face, Wah-Wah pedal and Uni-Vibe, but at the Fillmore East he used a fuzz face, Wah-Wah pedal, Uni-Vibe and Octavia and it was incredible. In fact you could hear all of it kicking in on “Machine Gun.” It was incredible.
There were people in the audience with their mouths open.
“Machine Gun” was one of Jimi’s latter day classics and the performance of that song on the new Fillmore East ’69 album is stunning, tell me about that key song.
Billy Cox: Let me take time to quote this. I might not agree with a lot of Miles Davis’ personal ideas but I do agree with him about all his musical knowledge because I respect him and admire his musical excellence. Here’s what Miles Davis had to say about the Band of Gypsys and Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun” which is the title track of this release.
Miles said, “It’s that GDMF ‘Machine Gun.’” That’s what he said when he was questioned about what he heard in the music of Jimi Hendrix. Then Miles said this, it’s in his autobiography, “the best he sounded to me is when he had Buddy Miles on drums and Billy Cox on bass.” So we jelled as a group, we jelled as a group as individuals and like I stated before we were a group about growth.
“Machine Gun” is one of the highlights of the work that we did with Jimi. I think it included a lot of other music in that particular song. It was a great song. We were headed toward creating something that a lot of groups had not done before. “Machine Gun” is the song I listen to the most on this collection because you hear me and Buddy in the background doing those harmonies and sometimes we were so tight that we sounded like one voice. Jimi was at his peak and he was playing so good and that gave us inspiration. So for me “Machine Gun” is a very monumental track on this release.
With the Band of Gypsys, was there a concerted effort on Jimi’s part to pull back from the theatrics of old and place more focus on the music itself?
Billy Cox: That’s absolutely right. He had to concentrate on that music because the music required more technique than just laying back and being able to move around and do theatrics. Now of course he did let go on some songs like “Lover Man” and “Changes” and maybe “Izabella” but when it came down to “Power of Soul,” “Machine Gun,” Burning Desire” and songs of that nature that we did at the Fillmore East in ’69 he had to start playin’.
Did he express any worry as to how that more reserved stage presentation would be received by his fan base?
Billy Cox: We ever discussed any of that kind of stuff; we knew we knew where he was coming from. So he didn’t speak about that kind of stuff but he did with the promoter of the Fillmore shows, Bill Graham. I think Bill called him out on his showboating at one show and the next set Jimi came out and didn’t do any theatrics. Some things went down backstage and Jimi said to Bill, “How’d you like that?” On that second show he went out there and he nailed it. That was really great.
You were also part of Jimi’s band, Gypsy Sun and Rainbows which famously backed up Jimi at Woodstock. Why didn’t that unit last longer?
Billy Cox: Management problems, not the group. Everybody got along. But I didn’t think management were ready for that group; it was too political. If the business guys would let musicians be musicians then the music would change and the music would be great. But the problem is sometimes business gets involved and interferes, “let’s do it this way or let’s do it that way.” And they’re not musicians. They’re not enlightened; they are not spiritual. So that’s unfortunately how that happens sometimes.
Jimi’s Woodstock appearance is regarded as a musical and cultural landmark. Stripping away the mythology about the Woodstock festival, does that show deserve its legendary status?
Billy Cox: It was a magical experience simply because even though it was the last day of the festival and Jimi was the headliner, if you look on the left hand side in the film it looks like a lot of people had left but that’s not completely true, everyone merged center stage to catch this great artist Jimi Hendrix was at that point in time.
Is it true that Jimi’s performance of “The Star Spangled Banner” was something he surprised the band with?
Billy Cox: Oh yeah. If you listen to the Woodstock CD, you’ll find that the first five or six notes of that song I joined in there with him ‘cause I was on him like glue. I started playing and then I said, wait a minute, you better lay out son ‘cause this is unexpected and you don’t know what is gonna happen.’
So you’ll hear me play the first five or six notes and then I laid back and saw one of the greatest renditions of that song that I’ve ever personally heard.
How did Jimi feel about his performance?
Billy Cox: Oh yeah, he was very happy, he thought we played great.
Did you see any of the acts perform at Woodstock?
Billy Cox: No, not really. We were too busy preparing for our performance. We were practicing at a house about eight miles from there. Of course, we could hear when a lot of the groups went on, like Sly & the Family Stone. So we never got to see any of the other artists perform because we were too busy practicing and trying to work on our parts and the songs that we had put together. We spent the night close by and we went out that morning and boom we were onstage at Woodstock. I didn’t see any of the groups I did hear some of them playing in the distance.
When was the last time you spoke with Jimi?
Billy Cox: Three days before he passed. He was upbeat and said, “We’ve gotta get into the studio on Friday man, I’ve gotta finish up some of those words.” He knew I was feeling sick and said, “I know you might not be up to it” and I said, “I’ll be there” and that was a Monday and then Wednesday I got the call that he was gone.
As for Jimi’s future musical exploits, many surmised he would have ventured into jazz. Did you have any discussions about his future musical projects and can you venture a guess as to what he would have tackled?
Billy Cox: There were a lot of areas we got into and a lot of things on tape and people may listen to but they don’t know what they’re listening to. However, we were into jazz. In our early days, we played behind strippers; well, at that time they really weren’t called strippers, they were called shake dancers. They didn’t take all their clothes off. A lot of the shake dancers were very particular about the songs that we played.
So we played songs like “Misty Moonlight in Vermont,” Harlem Nocturne,” songs of that nature. So we weren’t just one-dimensional musicians. Then a lot of times Jimi would listen to classical music, Beethoven, Mozart, Handl, Liszt, Gershwin, all in order to broaden his musical scope. We’d eat strawberry upside-down cake and listen to music like that.
As to what direction he would have gone into, that’s hard to say. As I’ve said, we fused blues, jazz, classical and R&B with songs like “Freedom” for instance. If you listen to those like 24, 48 bars of the song you will hear classical modes in that song and then before that you’ll hear a little jazz.
It’s just a matter of putting things in the proper perspective ‘cause Jimi was never one-dimensional and he hadn’t planned on ever being one-dimensional.
Most of the music he did stemmed from blues because that’s where R&B came from as well as jazz, but classical was a different genre and we included that in our music too.
Hypothetically, if you could meet with Jimi again for one day, what would you like to do with him and what would you tell him?
Billy Cox: Oh, that’s a tough one…that’s hypothetical. I’d just be glad to see him. I’m hoping that he didn’t die and I’m hoping one day I might see him on this plane again. But nevertheless it was a great relationship we had, fused together like brothers.
Back when we first me, I couldn’t go home, my folks had put me out and Jimi couldn’t go home ‘case his father had put him out so when we met each other in the military, we were all each other had for a long time and then finally we met some other friends like Larry Lee and Buddy Miles. They were our same age and the same likes and dislikes with the music but we had a brotherhood, so I lost a brother.