News Column

Former Hendrix bassist Billy Cox headlining Live on the Levee

August 21, 2014

By Zack Harold, Charleston Daily Mail, W.Va.

Aug. 21--West Virginia has a long history with gypsies.

There's a town in Harrison County named for the nomads, and Martinsburg is the home of a cable reality show called "Gypsy Sisters."

And then there is Wheeling-born bass player Billy Cox, who calls himself "the last gypsy."

The West Virginia Music Hall of Fame inductee will headline this Friday's Live on the Levee concert at Haddad Riverfront Park.

Cox, 72, is not Roma. And while he roamed around a lot as a kid, that was only because his father was a Baptist preacher.

Cox did not become a gypsy until his 20s, when he joined a band featuring his old friend Jimi Hendrix.

Their first performance would go down in popular music history.

Hendrix is gone now, of course, and so are most of the musicians he worked with.

Everyone except the last gypsy.

Cox was born and raised in Wheeling. He moved to Pittsburgh when he was about 15 after his father took a church there.

His mother was a classical pianist.

"As an embryo, I guess I heard Brahms, Mozart, Liszt and Gershwin. As a kid I used to sit up under her as she played these beautiful classical songs."

His uncles were proficient jazz trumpet and sax players.

"When Duke Ellington and the various bands would come in the Wheeling area, they would always call them."

Cox's godmother taught him how to play piano, and he later picked up the violin and saxophone. But he never connected with those instruments the way he would electric bass.

"I think we all have a destiny in life. My destiny was not violin or piano or the saxophone," he said.

He was heading home from basketball practice one day when he heard a deep rumbling coming from the local Shiner's hall.

"I was moved by that, I dropped everything and ran down to Syria Mosque."

R&B singer Lloyd Price was performing. The deep rumbling came from his band's electric bass guitar, a relatively new instrument at the time.

Cox was transfixed. He sat outside the venue until the band took a break and approached the bass player.

He asked about the instrument. It was an early Fender Precision bass with a blonde finish. The bassist let Cox try it out.

He fell in love immediately, but Cox would have to wait years before he got a bass guitar of his own.

In the meantime, he joined his high school's symphony and began playing the upright bass.

The symphony director expected bass players to use bows. But anytime the band took a break or the director was working with another musician, Cox would be in the back plucking the strings.

It eventually got him kicked out of the symphony. He gave up the bass after that.

Cox would not start playing again until he was in the Army, stationed in Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

One night, while coming back from a movie, Cox and some buddies ducked into a service club to get out of the rain.

"I heard this young man playing a guitar. I told the guy next to me, 'That's pretty unique.' He said, 'It sounds like a bunch of crap.'"

But Cox knew better.

"I was listening to my destiny," he said.

After the gig, Cox went up and introduced himself to the guitar player. His name was James Marshal Hendrix but his friends called him Jimmy.

"We clicked. We said 'Let's get a group together,'" Cox said.

They recruited fellow serviceman Gary Bellaire as the group's drummer. "Billy Cox and the Sandpipers" began performing around the military base playing cover versions of Booker T and the MGs, Ventures and Beach Boys hits.

Cox and Hendrix kept the group together after they were discharged from the Army, eventually changing the band's name to "The King Kasuals."

They rented a house together and began playing at venues around Clarksville, Tennessee.

They moved to Indiana for a time -- and nearly starved to death, Cox says -- before landing a steady gig at a club in Nashville.

Hendrix stayed with the band until 1964 when he relocated to New York City.

He spent a few years playing on the R&B circuit there, backing up acts like The Isley Brothers and Little Richard. Then, in 1966, he had a chance meeting with Linda Keith, the girlfriend of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards.

Keith and Hendrix quickly became friends. She connected him with former Animals bassist Chas Chandler. Chandler became Hendrix's manager, flew him to England and helped him form the band that would become The Jimi Hendrix Experience.

Noel Redding played bass for the Experience until the group disbanded in 1969.

Hendrix immediately formed a new band called Gypsy Sun and Rainbows, and asked his old friend Billy Cox to play bass.

Cox's first gig with "Jimi" Hendrix was in upstate New York, at a music festival called Woodstock.

"That was incredible. It was a city of peace, harmony and the counterculture at work," Cox said.

Standing backstage, Cox remembers drummer Mitch Mitchell peeking through the curtains.

"Mitch looked out and said 'Oh . . . my . . . goodness.'"

Cox peeked, too. He saw thousands of people, waiting in the mud to see what Jimi Hendrix would do.

Hendrix was undaunted, however. Cox still remembers the pep talk he gave the band before heading onstage.

"He said 'You know what? You see those people out there? They're sending a lot of energy to the bandstand. We're going to take that energy, utilize it and send it back to them.'"

The band played for an hour and 50 minutes.

"We did every song we knew," Cox said.

Toward the end of the set, after the band finished their big hit "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)," Hendrix launched into a new song he was working on.

It was a hard rock version of "The Star Spangled Banner."

Hendrix pulled out every weapon in his arsenal of distortion and feedback effects, invoking the chaos of a battlefield with bombs whistling through the air, sirens and explosions.

He even worked in a few notes of "Taps" near the end.

The unorthodox rendition caused some controversy. Some people thought Hendrix was being disrespectful. Others thought it was just noise.

Now, music critics see Hendrix's take on the national anthem as a cultural touchstone. The country was in turmoil, dozens of soldiers were dying every day in Vietnam and Hendrix captured it all in a four-minute song.

Cox said he knew the performance was something special from the first few notes.

"You will hear, I started the first five or six notes. Something told me, 'You'd better stop.'"

Cox toured with Hendrix through the rest of 1969 and 1970. He played with Gypsy Sun and Rainbows, which later became Band of Gypsys.

Hendrix then decided to reform The Jimi Hendrix Experience but with Cox on bass, not Redding.

Cox was there for the Fillmore East performances that would later be released on the "Band of Gypsys" album.

He also played with Hendrix during his famed Isle of Wight appearance in the early hours of August 31, 1970.

A little over two weeks later, on Sept. 18, Hendrix died of asphyxiation. He was 27.

Cox went on to play for the Charlie Daniels Band, then began doing studio work in Nashville. He got into film and video production and played with groups around town, but didn't do much touring.

He said many people forgot about Jimi Hendrix in the years following his death.

"At that point in time after Jimi had passed, he was just a dead, drugged out rock star."

Then, in the mid-1990s, Hendrix's sister Janie took over the late musician's estate.

She got in touch with Cox and some of her brother's other collaborators and began booking small "Experience Hendrix" shows.

The shows quickly gained in popularity and eventually became full tours. Then the tours began getting bigger and bigger.

Now, Cox is sharing the stage with legendary guitarists like Buddy Guy, Zakk Wylde, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Eric Johnson.

There are two "Experience Hendrix" tours each year, one in the spring and one in the fall. The next one begins in September with stops in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Texas, Oklahoma and California.

"It's great to know I was part of a music that wasn't a one hit wonder," Cox said. "It never gets old.

"The music he wrote is always in the now. It transcends cultural boundaries and reaches down generations."

Billy Cox is doing his own music, too.

He has just completed a new record, "Unfiltered Billy Cox," featuring songs he wrote with his wife, Brenda.

"We write about love and things that we see and things that we know," he said.

He said he would mix in some of those songs to his Live on the Levee performance, along with Hendrix covers and blues tunes.

Fellow West Virginia Music Hall of Fame inductee John Ellison (writer of the hit song "Some Kind of Wonderful") will serve as the opening act, performing at 6:30 p.m. with local soul band The Carpenter Ants.

Cox and his band will take the stage at 7:30 p.m.

Visit www.liveontheleveecharleston.com for more information.

For more information about Billy Cox or to purchase his new album, visit www.bassistbillycox.com.

Contact writer Zack Harold at 304-348-4830 or zack.harold@dailymailwv.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ZackHarold.

___

(c)2014 the Charleston Daily Mail (Charleston, W.Va.)

Visit the Charleston Daily Mail (Charleston, W.Va.) at www.dailymail.com

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Source: Charleston Daily Mail (WV)


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