Tuesday, 15 March 2011
Interview with Billy Cox: 18th august 2005
Billy Cox was an old army buddy of Jimi Hendrix when they were both playing in various bands together. Following Noel Redding's exit from the Experience in the summer of 1969 following a concert in Denver. Billy Cox was the first person Jimi rang. Following the Denver gig Jimi's next gig was to headline at a music festival being held in Upstate New York in August 1969. That festival was the Woodstock Festival, which as history has dictated has become possibly the most famous music festival ever held.
For the Woodstock appearance Jimi expanded the band that included Billy on bass, Mitch Mitchell on drums Juma Sultan and Jerry Velez on percussion and another old musical friend Larry Lee on guitar.
This band played Woodstock under the banner Gypsy Sons and Rainbows. Following this gig the band played one more concert, a benefit in Harlem New York.
Billy Cox would go on with Jimi to form The Band Of Gypsy's alongside drummer Buddy Miles although this band would prove to be short lived and Jimi with Billy Cox and Mitch Mitchell would soon return to the name The Jimi Hendrix Experience until Jimi's death in September 1970. Billy Cox however does hold a rather unique place in the musical history of Jimi Hendrix in that he was the only other musician other than Jimi to play in the Experience, Gypsy Sons And Rainbows and The Band Of Gypsy's
Jon Kirkman spoke to Billy Cox at his home in America on the eve of the release of the new Jimi Hendrix At Woodstock Deluxe Edition DVD about his time with one of the finest guitarists in popular music
Jon Kirkman Let’s have a chat about the DVD that is coming out (Jimi Hendrix Live At Woodstock). I have been lucky enough to see a preview of the live footage although I haven’t seen all the extras that are going on it yet. Less than a week ago we celebrated the thirty sixth anniversary of Woodstock. What are your thoughts on looking back to that particular concert?
Billy Cox It has to be one of the most memorable concerts I have ever done.
JK It must have been almost a trial by fire for you. I know you were playing with your friend Jimi Hendrix but it was a pretty big gig to kick off with.
BC It was a humongous gig. I have been asked what is the greatest and most memorable concert that I have ever done and I always think Woodstock – which it was.
JK You had obviously played with Jimi before earlier in the sixties but the Experience came to an end after a concert in Denver when Noel Redding left the band. Were you asked to play with Jimi before or after Noel left?
BC I was in the studio doing some work with Jimi trying to help him with his creative faculties – putting songs together, because that is what we did. We would have these little patterns, little bit parts that we would put together to make songs. It was always fun.
JK Whenever I have reviewed anything that Jimi has recorded and released, I always said that there was never anyone who played guitar like Jimi Hendrix before he came along and since he has died. There have been plenty who have tried but none have been like him.
BC No, they emulate him and duplicate him but none have been like him.
JK What was it for you personally that made you admire Jimi as a musician?
BC I think it was destiny. We were both young and to cut a long story short, he was rehearsing in a rehearsal room and I went in and introduced myself. I heard something in the playing that was quite unique yet it was in an embryonic stage; it had not quite developed. I knew what it was going to sound like when it developed and I wanted to be a part of that.
JK There were a great many people who played with Jim Hendrix. He was a player really; music was his life wasn’t it?
BC That is what we did, we didn’t bowl or fish or kill animals, we played. It was our hobby and our living.
JK He was a pure musician, not just great on the guitar. Someone said to me once that he was probably one of the best bass players he had ever played with as well.
BC He was so good on bass, I saw him complimenting many a thing with his bass playing. In fact, if you look at Mitch’s book, he played bass on the first two albums because Noel couldn’t spend a lot of time in the studio. They were young and didn’t have a lot of money so to make time and make it effortless, Jimi played bass on those first two albums and Noel would learn it later on.
JK Let’s look at the Woodstock gig. I read in Mitch’s book his comment about it being great having a band with percussionists in if percussionists can count. If they can’t count however you’re in trouble. He thought that the band was in trouble. Having watched the footage, although it is a pretty big band and they can sometimes deteriorate if you don’t have the same mind set, but the playing is very strong at Woodstock.
BC Overall it was excellent as far as I was concerned. Yeah there were mistakes here and there but overall it was a great concert.
JK That makes it more real if there are mistakes surely.
BC Sure it does.
JK Jimi was a perfectionist but he wanted reality rather than perfection sometimes.
BC That’s right.
JK How long after Woodstock was it decided that you and Jimi would put together the Band of Gypsy's? When Jimi introduces the band at Woodstock he said that they were Gypsy Son and Rainbows but we’re nothing more than a band of gypsies.
BC That was just a figure of speech. However it came later in a contractual agreement that the guy said he did not live up to and he asked his close people to see if they could help and they refused so I said hey that's what I'm here for let’s do what we gotta do. But Buddy Miles Jumped on a wagon so ultimately the Band of Gypsy's formed. It wasn’t for a long-term thing but to help Jimi out of a contractual agreement. I think he was being sued for 15 million dollars he didn't have 15 million dollars so we gave them an album.. So that is how that came about.
JK Even though it was something that came about to help Jimi out of a contractual bind, something very strong musically came out of that.
BC It did, a statement.
JK Although there were a lot of statements made at the time, Jimi must be up there with the best of them in making musically statements, not only in the sixties but also of the twentieth century.
BC Yes most definitely.
JK The band Gypsy Son and Rainbows that played at Woodstock, was it deemed to be a long-term thing? I know you played another gig shortly after in Harlem. Was it just a case of let’s see how this goes?
BC Yes it was. Jimi wanted to make some changes and he couldn’t quite make his mind up about how he wanted to do it. It was decided for him by getting rid of certain people. Then it worked well for those two jobs and after that we disbanded. Later on, the Ed Chalpin deal came up Jimi talked to me about it. He said, “Listen, here’s what we gotta do.” Buddy Miles was always hanging around in the studio and offered to help. So it came about like that.
JK There has been a lot of material released since Jimi’s death and includes material that the Band of Gypsy's recorded in the studio. Was it ever planned to record a studio album with them or was it just the live.
BC Not really, we couldn’t get it all together. There was too much interference at that particular time. Some people did not want that to be.
JK There are a lot of people who are critical of the management, not such much Chas Chandler but Mike Jefferies. A lot of people think he had an agenda of his own.
BC He did, like so many people do so it was unfortunate.
JK Ultimately, do you think that bothered Jimi?
BC Yes. I think that if people had just let him go and not bothered him with the business end, the music could have been one hundred percent better.
JK Here we are talking thirty-six years after the event of the concert of the sixties and people are still talking about it, the guy, his musicianship and his talent – and yours of course because you were a part of it.
BC I have a prepared statement if you want to hear it.
“One cannot separate the music from the festival itself for they were both magical. The people and the entertainers co-existed in a spirit of oneness. I consider myself blessed to have played at the party of the millennium.
The jury is still out on the DVD; I have not heard it or had anything to do with the compilation of it or production. But I know what I was a part of on stage and that was good music. At Woodstock Jerry Velez, Juma Sultan, Larry Lee, Mitch Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix and Billy Cox were on the stage for close to two hours. The group was tight because we were well rehearsed and we were all in one accord. Jam Back At The House showed the cohesiveness of the group. At Woodstock Jimi and I knew we were witnessing his "Sky Church" concert. "Sky Church" was a vision that Jimi had shared with me when we were first reunited in New York.”
"Right here I am going to give you a little musical trivia: I am the only man that can say that he played with the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Band of Gypsy's and was at Woodstock with Gypsy, Son and Rainbows. The music that Gypsy, Son and Rainbows made at Woodstock is standing the test of time even thirty-six years later."
JK Do you think that, although the only people who can really say they actually saw the concert and took part in the concert were able to really physically experience it, that people could get a little piece of it from the DVD? That has got to be a good thing.
BC That would be a good thing. It would take you back in time. You can experience a little bit of what we experienced.
JK As well as taking you back in time, the thing about Jimi Hendrix music is that it is very current.
BC When I say, back in time I am referring to the concert but the music will always be current because it was a spiritual music. I gave a speech at the university in Indiana and the flavour was that every now and then a spirit slips through the portals of time into this reality and blows our minds. Jimi Hendrix was one of those spirits who slipped through the portals of time. Every now and then they come through and we respect and we admire what they do for us, whether it be poetry or music or painting or what have you. Every now and then these spirits are permitted to slip through and Jimi was one of them.
JK There are a few people who would agree with that and many would cite Miles Davies and John Coltrane in there as well.
In terms of preparation for Woodstock, how much rehearsal did you need? I presume it was just playing together and getting to know each other as musicians really.
BC That’s right. We did quite a bit. The dining room and living room area was set up with amps and drums for rehearsal and we were serious about what we were doing. However there was time to fool around and go on horses and motor cycles and have a good time with our lady friends. But there were also times when we buckled down and got serious with the music and we did that very willingly. There was a positive attitude.
JK The time following Woodstock probably saw Jimi busier than ever in terms of starting his recording studio Electric Lady Studios. There was the Band of Gypsy's and then you; Jimi and Mitch Mitchell played a lot of gigs in the last twelve months of Jimi’s life.
BC When we were not on the road we were in either the Record Plant or Electric Lady; towards the latter part we were in Electric Lady. That is what we did. Music was such a part of our lives; it was our hobby and then our business. So that when we weren’t out on the road we were in the studio almost every night.
JK There seemed to be at the end of Jimi’s life another era coming to a close. Jimi looked set to be moving on and looking ahead to the next stage of what he was going to do. Would you agree with that?
BC Yes, all artists grow; creative artists have to grow and so that was what Jimi was doing. A lot of people didn’t agree with him but it is inevitable in life especially with true artists.
JK Many people of course were very sad when Jimi died, not only for the loss of a human being but in terms of his artistry. There are always going to be people who will talk about what might have been. That’s natural when someone as talented as Jimi dies.
BC That’s true you always want to think about what could have been but he left us with good music, 108 songs that we can sit back and relax with and enjoy.
JK You must have some incredible memories of your time with Jimi although it must be tinged with a certain amount of sadness not least because you are not playing with the guy and having lost a friend.
BC Like anybody else, it has the same effect. There was a long-term effect on us because we were band mates he, Mitch and I and we had hopes dreams and long-term aspirations to do things in the future. All of a sudden one day it stopped. We had to gather our energies together and go into other directions.
JK The DVD is due to be released shortly. It is an incredible performance.
BC It is going to be good, yes and in fact there are six songs that were never on the original album and they are Foxy Lady, Message to Love, Hey Joe, Spanish Castle Magic Lover Man and Hear My Train. Then they added Isabella, Voodoo Chile(Slight Return), Star Spangled Banner, Villanova Junction, Purple Haze and Jam Back at the House and it is going to be incredible.
JK They have also sequenced it as it was at the gig because the previous released had just been cherry picked hadn’t it?
BC Yes they had but this is going to be the full compilation and man, it is going to be great.
JK Well it is great talking to you today Billy and from all the great Jimi Hendrix fans I have just got to say thank you for everything you did as part of Jimi’s band. Jimi will never be forgotten.
BC No he will not be forgotten even two or three hundred years from now. I told Mitch that he and I will grow old but Jimi will always be twenty-seven years old.
JK That is a great thought. Billy you are a gentleman and it has been wonderful to speak to you and appreciate the time you have taken to talk to me.
BC My Great Pleasure Jon. Thank You.
© Jon Kirkman Rockahead/CRR 2005 and 2011
Jimi Hendrix Live At Woodstock can be ordered fro Amazon: