Talk to bassist Billy Cox today for even just a few minutes, and his passion for playing music becomes readily apparent. But in 1970, reeling from the death of longtime collaborator Jimi Hendrix, Cox was ready to give up music for good.
“I lost my best friend; a lot of negative things happened, and I was at the age when I wasn’t really prepared mentally for a lot of disappointments,” Cox said during a recent phone interview from his home in Nashville. “But I grew physically, spiritually and musically since that time.”
According to Cox, it was the spirit of the music that persuaded him to continue performing.
“I used to hear the elder statesmen of music tell me, ‘Once a musician, always a musician,’ ” Cox said. “The music wouldn’t let me retire. You never retire.”
Experience Hendrix 2008
WHO: Buddy Guy, Jonny Lang, Robert Randolph, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Brad Whitford, Eric Johnson, Hubert Sumlin, David Hidalgo, Cesar Rojas, Mitch Mitchell, Billy Cox, Chris Layton, Mato Nanji, Eric Gales, Bernard Allison
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: The Palace Theatre, 19 Clinton Ave., Albany
How Much: $81.50, $61.50, $51.50
More Info: 465-3334, www.palacealbany.com.
Cox, now in his 60s, is still performing the music he made with Hendrix at clubs in and around his hometown, and also nationally with the Experience Hendrix tour. The 2008 version, which heads to Albany’s Palace Theatre on Thursday is the largest Experience Hendrix tour yet, encompassing 19 shows across the U.S.
“We try to give the fans their money’s worth, and try to touch their spirit in the name of Jimi Hendrix,” Cox said.
The tour was initially conceived as a one-off show in September 1995, when Hendrix’s father, James “Al” Hendrix, founded Experience Hendrix, L.L.C., to oversee his son’s legacy. The first show, dubbed the Jimi Hendrix Electric Guitar Festival, was held at the annual Bumbershoot Arts & Music Festival in Seattle. In 2004, the Experience Hendrix tour included three West Coast dates; last year, the tour hit the East Coast with seven shows.
“The celebration can only get bigger because of the energizing musicians and fans that have kept the spirit alive,” Cox said.
For all these tours and one-off shows, Cox has been involved, along with Jimi Hendrix Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell. The two were members of Hendrix’s backing band during his final years, playing behind the guitarist at Woodstock and in the studio during the recording of what would have been Hendrix’s follow-up to 1968’s “Electric Ladyland.” Cox, who was also bassist for the Hendrix-led Band of Gypsys, didn’t need to re-familiarize himself with the songs much at all.
“I never really got away from them,” Cox said. “I have a local group, we do a few sets and do Hendrix songs, and I still have my CDs and my albums that I keep around, and play them and get refreshed with them. It’s a part of my life.”
The tour is now organized by John McDermott and Hendrix’s half sister, Janie Hendrix.
Among other returnees to this year’s tour is blues guitarist Buddy Guy, a notable influence on Hendrix. Other guitarists of note who are new to the bill include Howlin’ Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin, Aerosmith axman Brad Whitford, Jonny Lang, pedal steel player Robert Randolph, Eric Gales and Eric Johnson.
“I’m looking forward to playing with Eric Gales; to me, he’s probably one of the greatest guitar players east of the mighty Mississippi,” Cox said. “Eric Johnson, I’m looking forward to playing with him also, he’s also a magnificent player. Quite a few of them will be on the tour.”
Cox knows a thing or two about playing with great guitarists. He met Hendrix in 1961, while both were in the U.S. Army, stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky. After hearing Hendrix play guitar at a club on the base, Cox introduced himself and the two began jamming together. For Cox, the meeting was a stroke of fate.
“I’ve often said that everyone’s life is predestined, and that was destiny, something I didn’t walk away from,” Cox said. “I heard him playing and I joined him.”
Cox’s influences at the time included bassists such as Ray Brown, Charlie Mingus and Wes Montgomery’s brother, Monk Montgomery. According to Cox, he immediately clicked with Hendrix.
“We started jamming, we looked at each other, and bang,” Cox said. “We got along very well together; we had the same likes and dislikes.”
The two formed an R&B group, the King Kasuals, after leaving the Army, touring throughout the South before Hendrix relocated to New York City. As many fans know, Animals bassist Chas Chandler discovered Hendrix there, and relocated Hendrix to England to assemble power trio The Jimi Hendrix Experience. After Cox turned down an invitation to join the group, guitarist Noel Redding claimed the bass spot.
But by 1969 The Experience had broken up, and Hendrix, looking to form a larger band, teamed up with Cox once again, as well as Experience drummer Mitchell, guitarist Larry Lee and percussionists Juma Sultan and Jerry Velez. This band performed at Woodstock in 1969 before breaking up, with Hendrix and Cox forming Band of Gypsys with drummer Buddy Miles. Mitchell was soon back in the fold, however, and this is the band Hendrix played with in his final years.
The trio spent much of its time in 1969 and 1970 recording songs for the follow-up to “Electric Ladyland,” with a good part of the sessions winding up in a posthumous construction of the album, “First Rays of the New Rising Sun,” released in 1997.
Search for perfection
Often, the band would spend entire nights in Hendrix’s studio, Electric Lady.
“Jimi was a perfectionist when a lot of people just wanted to get done and get out of there,” Cox said. “A lot of times, we would go into the studio at 8 in the evening and come out the next day at 12 in the afternoon, still energized, and that energy and creativity was what we put into the music. He became a perfectionist and taught me to be a perfectionist in the studio.”
Despite the seriousness of the sessions, the band found time to have fun.
“Sometimes, our friends would come, and we’d go to Studio B and jam,” Cox said. “Johnny Winters, Stephen Stills in the studio, and some unknowns, and we would just play and have fun playing, get renewed with our energy. . . . After all, we did all this when we were in our 20s; that’s an age where you never get tired.”
It’s also the age of many of the fans who head out to Experience Hendrix shows. Cox, who compared Hendrix to classical composers Johannes Brahms and Ludwig van Beethoven in terms of musical impact, said he is happy with the response the tour has gotten in past years and looks forward to this year’s shows.
“Incredibly, over 50 percent of the fans who ask for autographs are 13, 14, 15, or 20, 23 years old,” Cox said. “It’s been two generations since Jimi and I were there, yet his music is so fresh, it transcends generations because of the creative form that he did. He was an incredible genius at arranging. We’re sold out everywhere we go, and that makes me really feel good, to be a part of a music that has lasted this long.”