Nov 19 2021
Interview by Frank-John Hadley.
FROM THE VAULT. This classic interview with legendary bassist, Billy Cox was conducted by Frank-John Hadley during an April 1999 in-person visit with Billy Cox at his “Capitol Jewelry” pawn shop in Nashville, TN. It was first published in the September/October 1999 edition of Experience Hendrix Magazine.
It’s been thirty years since Billy Cox shared a stage with Jimi Hendrix, but he believes it was a matter of destiny, that it was fate that led him to his music, and his personal and professional relationship with Hendrix.
Just a mile off the parkway leading to the Nashville airport sits a large white building emblazoned with a sign that reads “Capitol Jewelry.” This is where proprietor Billy Cox spends most of his afternoons. Like many folks in Music City, Cox is unerringly gracious and polite. He’s also articulate and thoughtful, with a spiritual bent.
It was clear as the interview progressed that Cox, however, was uneasy fielding detailed questions about the glorious music he once played alongside friend Jimi Hendrix. Many planned questions, then, were discarded as the talk flowed informally and spontaneously.
EXPERIENCE HENDRIX: Billy, you’re originally from where?
BILLY COX: Way back, my family moved from Wheeling [West Virginia] to Pittsburgh. My brother still lives there. He teaches at the University of Pittsburgh.
EXPERIENCE HENDRIX: You’re from a family of musicians?
BILLY COX: My mother was a concert pianist, but she played piano in church. That was my influence, listening to Brahms, Handl, Beethoven, Mozart, and Liszt. I had two uncles; they both played saxophones. One used to pinch-hit for Lionel Hampton and Duke Ellington because he was a good saxophone player. He’s passed on now. He was an excellent musician. I saw my mom one time, when I was a kid, play with my uncles, and they made beautiful music.
EXPERIENCE HENDRIX: What was your first instrument?
BILLY COX: I started off on the violin, then the piano. Then I got in the marching band and played the saxophone about three years. Finally, I moved to Pittsburgh and played trumpet and saxophone. All that time I was never getting satisfaction out of the instruments. It was just something that was in my soul and in my spirit that I knew I was supposed to play, but I never did get a hold to it. Finally, when I was going in my senior year in high school, I was walking down the street late after band practice at school. I went by a place where they had various bands. I heard the resonance of this bass all through the air and I told my buddy, ‘That’s it! That’s it!’ I ran down to the club I would have made a good sprinter at that time and it was Lloyd Price’s band playing. The bass was pumping out personality. I introduced myself to the bass player when they took a break. That was the first electric bass that I ever saw.
EXPERIENCE HENDRIX: You took formal lessons?
BILLY COX: I was in the symphony. I got kicked out a lot because I liked to play pizzicato [hums several plucked low notes] and we had a teacher that was strictly for the arts and he liked to have the bass players to play with their bows.
EXPERIENCE HENDRIX: Were you listening to jazz bass players on records?
BILLY COX: Yes. Charlie Mingus was one of my early influences, along with Ron Carter and Ray Brown. Paul Chambers lived down the street, but he stayed on the road a lot because at that time he played with Ray Charles. All these guys were very big influences on me.
In the early ’60s, I couldn’t afford a bass. I tried to get a bass and lost one to a pawnshop because I was washing dishes and had those little menial jobs you have to have, unfortunately. So I waited till I got in the military to buy my first bass. A friend of mine had an electric bass. I kept it more than he did. [laughs] It didn’t belong to me.
“We met in the army. I think if we stop and settle ourselves down, every person has a destiny in life. I think if you get focused, sometimes it’ll come clear to you. So, I think Jimi knew his destiny and I knew my destiny.”~ Billy Cox
EXPERIENCE HENDRIX: You met Hendrix at Fort Campbell in Kentucky. You and he shared a passion for music that set you apart from the other paratroopers?
BILLY COX: We met in the army. I think if we stop and settle ourselves down, every person has a destiny in life. I think if you get focused, sometimes it’ll come clear to you. So, I think Jimi knew his destiny and I knew my destiny. We did it! It took years and there were trials and tribulations, which all led up to that destiny in life.
EXPERIENCE HENDRIX: Tell me about the band you and Hendrix had early on?
BILLY COX: The [King] Kasuals is the band we had here in Nashville. We did covers. We left Ft. Campbell after we did that stint there. We got discharged. We played a lot in Clarksville [Tennessee] and we wound up stranded in Indianapolis. Stories, stories, stories.
Then we came back to Clarksville and then some club owners here came and got us and we started playing here in town.
EXPERIENCE HENDRIX: Any thoughts on Hendrix’s early musical influences and his reportedly wild stage antics with the King Kasuals? Was it something like T-Bone Walker playing behind his back and doing splits in the’40s and’50s?
BILLY COX: Hendrix was a sponge. You listen to his music and you hear country & western. You hear Curtis Mayfield and you hear B. B. King and you hear Albert and Freddie King. You hear Chet Atkins. You hear a collage of guitar players. T-Bone Walker was one of his influences along with 150 others.
EXPERIENCE HENDRIX: You chose to stay in the Music City rather than accompany Hendrix on the road as a sideman for various R&B stars. Why was that?
“Destiny was calling, but at that point of time he didn’t know how he was going to project this plan to the masses so he did the best he could.”~ Billy Cox
BILLY COX: That’s a long story. Jimi hit the road one, two, three, four, five, six, seven times, and each time I would go and talk to the [bandleader]. There’s something about what he’d say; I don’t think it’s cool to go with him. So Jimi’d go out and, two months later, he’d call me and say, “Hey, man. I’m stranded in St. Louis.” So I’d send him the money and he’d come back. Then this other [R&B star] would come through town so we’d go talk to him. And the guy’d say, “Well, I can’t give you a guarantee, dada dada dada.’ So, I’d say, “I don’t want to fool with him.” I was a little more stable but [Hendrix] knew I was very supportive of what he was all about and what we were really about.
Destiny was calling, but at that point of time he didn’t know how he was going to project this plan to the masses so he did the best he could.
Finally he called me and told me that this fellow [Chas Chandler] had discovered him and was going to take him to England and make him a star. Jimi said, “I told him about you, so come to New York.” I told him: “Jimi, I’m doing so bad now and I’m renting an amp.” I said, “I’ve got three strings on my bass, the fourth is tied in a square knot.” He says, “Ok, I’II go ahead and I’II make it enough for you.” And that’s what he did. You see, what had happened prior to that, he had come through Nashville when I was living on Jefferson Avenue. I was out on the porch in the summertime and I saw this [car pull up] and out jumps Little Richard and he and Jimi came over. Richard said, “Hey, man, do you know who I am?” I said, “Yeah, man, I know who you are.”
He said, “Well, Jimi told me about you. Come on, pack your stuff and come on the road with me!” I said, “Look, mister, I don’t care if you are the Shah of Iran! I’ve got to give this band at least a week’s notice!” He said, “Well, you missed the best opportunity…
EXPERIENCE HENDRIX: With Hendrix gone, you stayed busy with music here?
BILLY COX: Uh huh, I was working and then I joined Johnny Jones’ group. We did a lot of things. We did the Night Train show here that came on every Saturday night on Channel 5, and then we traveled to Dallas, Texas, one weekend out of the month to do [TV show] The !!!! Beat Oh, we had a lot of work. We were probably the #1 black R&B band in the city.
EXPERIENCE HENDRIX: You crossed paths with [Texas music legend] Gatemouth Brown…
BILLY COX: All of them, everybody at one point in time. When that band disbanded, it showed how dynamic the band was. The horns wound up being the Muscle Shoals Horns. The drummer went with Joe Tex. We all dispersed in our various directions.
EXPERIENCE HENDRIX: Almost thirty years ago to this day you received a phone call from Hendrix. What did he have to say?
BILLY COX: He wanted to go in a new direction. He said, “Man, can you please just… [Cox’s voice trails off] It’s a long story how I got the telephone call and all that. I went and then he said, “I’m going to set things up for you.” By now, I was in New York and we were working on new things and a new spirit came into play we did a lot of stuff!
We would go in the studio at 8:00 in the evening and come out the next day at noon. People wonder how do you do it. Well, you have to dedicate your life to whatever you’re all about, whether you’re a painter or a ballplayer or whatever. You have to be serious and you have to love this thing no matter if it’s greater than you love yourself. If you can’t sacrifice, then you’re going to be mediocre.
EXPERIENCE HENDRIX: Was there a special vibe present in the studio? Did you have any inkling that Hendrix felt he’d been boxed in creative-wise and needed to forge ahead in that new direction?
BILLY COX: [sighs] I think he was boxed in by too much business. Either you had to be a creator free to create or you had to be a businessman and stick with the books, pay the bills. I understand they don’t do the entertainers that way now, but I don’t know. Either you create or those other things stifle your creativity. So, when I came on board I didn’t have any of those hang-ups. I was free and he wanted to be free.
I was in [upstate] New York maybe two or three months, a long time before Woodstock. When Woodstock came, we decided to do some other things. Some people weren’t happy with it but we did it.
EXPERIENCE HENDRIX: Like having a larger band?
BILLY COX: Well, when you say larger, we just added guitar and some congas because we liked rhythm. Larry Lee was, in Jimi’s earlier years, his mentor. But Larry felt a little insecure because Jimi had developed into this guitar player of multi-plans. But, anyway, we got a larger group.
“The mind-boggling thing was there were so many people. No one had anticipated so many people being at one festival. There was just a wave, an ocean of people. But it was all good.”~ Billy Cox
EXPERIENCE HENDRIX: Tell me about Woodstock.
BILLY COX: The mind-boggling thing was there were so many people. No one had anticipated so many people being at one festival. There was just a wave, an ocean of people. But it was all good.
EXPERIENCE HENDRIX: The Band of Gypsys. Do you see yourself now as a father of modern R&B?
BILLY COX: Not really. Band of Gypsys came into play because of contractual problems that Jimi had. However, we had complete control and complete freedom to do and play anything we wanted to play. Therefore, without the restrictions that managers, record companies, and people put on creative people, the [nights at the Fillmore] became a very, very good concert. It was a concert that Rolling Stone said was one of the ten greatest ever. I think if managers and record companies would learn to leave the people with creative juices alone and let them create, then we could have better music. But I don’t think they ever learned from that.
EXPERIENCE HENDRIX: Buddy Miles had more of a fatback sound while Mitch Mitchell was more in synch with jazz players like Elvin Jones.
BILLY COX: Buddy can play that. He’s played with jazz artists and I’ve heard him play all the licks but he preferred to kind of lay in the pocket. Mitch calls him a cement mixer. I call him a freight train. The guys who Buddy idolizes are Elvin Jones and Chico Hamilton. Buddy’s been around. Buddy told me the other day; “Man, I left home when my mama let me gig when I was 11 years old.” That’s all right!
EXPERIENCE HENDRIX: Hendrix was going to collaborate with jazz arranger Gil Evans.
BILLY COX: …and Miles Davis. These guys who played jazz and did it for a living heard Jimi’s playing and heard the Band of Gypsys and said, “Hey, wait a minute! What is this?” [laughs] You can’t pigeonhole this group. For a long time we were in Down Beat and in Circus magazine. A b flat is a b flat; f natural is a f natural. It’s just good music and I enjoyed being a part of it.
EXPERIENCE HENDRIX: The songs were always evolving?
BILLY COX: They were always evolving. I was once asked, if Jimi were living today, what kind of music would you be playing? That’s an unfair question to ask me. The intro to “New Rising Sun” is more of a Mozart-type thing, then we went into a nice little rhythmic pattern after that. He just didn’t live long enough, but in the latter days we were getting more into a classical type of playing.
Of course, Mitch came back into the group. Management wanted to regroup the Experience and at one point in time they [Hendrix, Mitchell and Noel Redding] did get together to do a Rolling Stone interview in January of 1970 that never came to light. I stayed with Jimi and we toured Europe as The Experience.
EXPERIENCE HENDRIX: Audiences craved hearing the old Experience hits.
BILLY COX: Well, naturally, the people can only express what they know about and when they heard “In From The Storm,” “Dolly Dagger” and the “Roomful Of Mirrors” they loved them too. In fact, they didn’t realize that there was some new stuff that they had never heard that sounded just as good.
By 1970, Jimi wanted to explore new directions. Growing tired of replaying his hits from 1967 and 1968 over and over again, he wanted to evolve and reach out with new sounds and new songs.
BILLY COX: They (the fans) were looking for pyrotechnics! When Jimi left me that last time, what I did was form a publishing company up on Music Row [in downtown Nashville] and I had a good relationship with the landlord and I had a recording studio out back. I was building up my catalog gradually and all of a sudden when he called me, I just dropped everything. I said, “Hey, my buddy needs me,” so I gave stuff away and sold stuff.
“[I miss] everything [about Jimi]. This is like a guy who is one of your best friends. You tell him everything and you go out and party and laugh and have a good time with. He was that type. We had a good time.”~ Billy Cox
EXPERIENCE HENDRIX: What do you miss most about him?
BILLY COX: Everything. This is like a guy who is one of your best friends. You tell him everything and you go out and party and laugh and have a good time with. He was that type. We had a good time.
BILLY COX: People ask me who was the better drummer, Mitch or Buddy. First of all you can’t pigeonhole these guys. Buddy’s a bad ass. Mitch is a bad ass. I like playing with both of them because they’re good. If they’re good musicians, I like playing with them. Musicians who aren’t that good, they don’t spark that thing in me.
EXPERIENCE HENDRIX: Who’s the better jazz bass player, Charles Mingus or Paul Chambers? [laughter]
BILLY COX: They had different styles but they’re both good. [pauses] It was fun and I enjoyed that stint with Jimi. I just wish it could have lasted forever.
EXPERIENCE HENDRIX: Someone told me you’ve been doing some gospel projects.
BILLY COX: I’ve done everything. I play with a group called Bob Holmes & the Jazz Excursion. I play in church. I play country. I played with Charlie Daniels for a year-and-a-half. Music is music. I love music. I gravitated toward it when I was very young and I think music is an integral part of all our lives whether we play an instrument or a radio. When doctors are bringing us into the world they’ve got music and when we’re dying somebody’s singing or playing something so we can’t get away from it. It’s here. [laughter]
EXPERIENCE HENDRIX: What do you like to listen to?
BILLY COX: Anything that is good. Bluegrass, if it’s done right … pop, jazz, rock, blues, the whole thing. You can’t limit yourself and say, “Well, I just like that music.” I hate to hear people do that to themselves because they miss the experience of music and living.
EXPERIENCE HENDRIX: What do you think of the music industry today?
BILLY COX: [Shakes his head disapprovingly] Where is the creative source of what music is all about?
We can’t hear it anymore. Someone has stepped on the creativity. Why? Why can’t we hear new ideas? I’ve heard some rap artists who have taken what we’ve done and sampled it. But that’s been done, we’ve done that. Where are we going? Where are we headed?
EXPERIENCE HENDRIX: Jazz, blues and rock right now generally draws on tried and true musical formulas.
BILLY COX: We’ve heard that. Rehash. Creativity happens everyday, every hour. So where is it? I haven’t heard anything refreshing on the radio in a year-and-a-half. Give us creative music!
EPILOGUE. Since this interview was first conducted in April 1999, Billy Cox has joined the Experience Hendrix Tour and has made more than 225 concert appearances over the past two decades throughout the United States, Canada and England. In 2006, recordings with Buddy Miles were featured on the album The Band Of Gypsys Return. In 2009 Billy released Last Gypsy Standing which he followed up with Old School Blue Blues (2011) and Unfiltered Billy Cox in 2014. Billy has also appeared in numerous Jimi Hendrix films including Blue Wild Angel: Jimi Hendrix Live At The Isle Of Wight (2002); Jimi Hendrix: Electric Church (2015); and most recently in Music. Money. Madness: The Jimi Hendrix Experience Live In Maui (2020) among many others. In 2009 Billy was inducted into the Musicians Hall Of Fame and received the Founders Awardin 2010 from the Experience Music Project (now MoPOP) in Seattle. For latest updates on Billy Cox, please visit his website.
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