Gibson.com is pleased to present “The Gibson Classic Interview,” where we open our archives and share with you interviews we’ve done over the years with some of the world’s biggest artists. This week, we revisit a 2008 interview with Jimi Hendrix sideman Billy Cox.
“I look at my relationship with Jimi Hendrix as destiny,” says bassist Billy Cox. “It was meant to be, and to a greater or lesser extent I had no control over it.”
What Cox did control with Jimi was one of the biggest bottom-end sounds in rock and roll history. It’s all over the phenomenal Band of Gypsys ? one of the most thrilling live performances ever caught on tape ? and helped power Jimi’s Gypsy Suns and Rainbows band through their epic closing performance at 1969’s Woodstock festival. Add to that Cox’s contributions to a series of posthumously released Hendrix albums including Cry of Love, Hendrix in the West, and Rainbow Bridge ? which, like Woodstock, all paired Cox with original Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell.
From Oct. 15 to Nov. 7, Cox and Mitchell will reunite alongside a stellar assemblage of guitarists as part of the third annual “Experience Hendrix” tour, a celebration of Jimi’s life and music presented by Gibson. There’s a full line-up of dates, players and ticketing information at http://www.experiencehendrixtour.com/.
Cox’s history with Hendrix goes back well beyond the fruitful final year of the guitar genius’ life, which yielded a series of epochal recordings and live performances. They first met in 1961 on an Army base on the Tennessee/Kentucky border, where Cox was immediately transfixed by Jimi’s style. So, when we got together with Billy for this interview on a sunny early October morning in Nashville’s Centennial Park, that’s where we began.
You met Jimi when you were both stationed at Ft. Campbell?
That’s right. I heard him playing through the open window of Service Club Number One and it was something the human ear hadn’t heard. I said, “That’s incredible.” And the guy I was with said, “Sound like shit to me.”
I went in and introduced myself to him and said I played a little upright bass, and I checked out the Danelectro he was playing. We started jamming and we formed a group and became very close. We were playing King Curtis, Booker T., Motown ? the songs of that era.
We were gigging on base at all the functions. We practiced all day every day. We would play all over Clarksville, Tenn. ? the Elks Club, the D.A.V. hall ? until we got a regular job at the Pink Poodle. After a year we went to Indianapolis. Then we came back to Clarksville before moving to Nashville. We did steps and everything. We had a lot of energy!
After about a year playing in Nashville Jimi grew restless because he knew the light of destiny was shining upon him. He went out on the road backing various people, and he’d always get stranded and I’d have to send money for him to get back.
Finally he called me from New York and said Chas Chandler from England had discovered him and he was going to London to be a star. He asked me to come with him. I said, “Jimi I’ve fallen on hard times. I’m renting an amp. I got a bass with only three strings.”
He said, “Okay, I’ll make it and send for you.” Two-and-a-half years later he sent for me.
Was he different at that point? He’d become a huge star with the Experience before he broke up that band and brought you on board.
No, not at all. I said, “Jimi, you made it. You can hire the best bass player in the world.” He said, “That’s why I called you.” It was the best compliment I’ve ever had.
We did Woodstock, formed Band of Gypsys, did a world tour. It was fast.
And when we were in New York we’d go into the studio every night at about 8 o’clock and come out at about noon the next day. Out of that came Cry of Love, Rainbow Bridge, Hendrix in the West … maybe 10 albums worth of songs. So it was incredibly positive.
How did you get your monster bass tone ? that huge perfectly sculpted bedrock bottom ? on albums like Band of Gyspys and Cry of Love?
A lot of bass players try to play guitar. And my advice to them is to go play guitar. Bass is supposed to hold that bottom down and hold it together. Every so often you might do a solo and then step back.
My influences were James Jamerson with Motown and a lot of jazz players ? Ray Brown, Dr. Ron Carter, and Wes Montgomery’s brother Monk Montgomery. Monk was the first electric bass player I ever heard and I bought everything he recorded. He was a big influence.
I pretty much played my Fender bass through whatever amp I could get.
When I got with Jimi it was Marshalls, but prior to that it was Gibsons, Fenders … Whatever was available. To me, the sound is all in the touch and the approach. I use more preamps and gadgets now than I ever did with Jimi. These days I’m playing through a great new Epiphone bass.
I’m not picky about my amps as long as the speaker cones are solid. I started playing back in the days when cones were paper-thin and if you hit the low E hard you could bust them. In the ’70s speakers got better.
Who was your favorite drummer to play with in Jimi’s band: Buddy Miles in Band of Gypsys or Mitch Mitchell?
I love playing with both of ’em. Buddy and I had the same roots in R&B, so I felt that. Mitch came from a jazz perspective, but I was into that, too. Last year Mitch and I played in England with Gary Moore. Whooo … Mitch played just like he was still in his twenties.
What makes these tribute concerts to Jimi on the “Experience Hendrix” tours special for you?
Well, there’s old friends ? me and Mitch ? getting back together again to do what we do best. That’s great. And we’re playing our music. For a long time I didn’t want to play Hendrix music. When Jimi died I lost my friend, I lost my job. It was heartbreaking. I had a bitter taste in my mouth for four or five years. Then a close friend told me, “Look, all these other musicians are playing Hendrix music, but you’ve got a license to play it.” I realized he was right, so now I get to utilize my license.
With Band of Gypsys and Buddy, and later ? especially when you were jamming ? with Mitch, you were creating gigantic funk grooves as a platform for improvisation in a way nobody else had conceived of before. Did it feel like you were standing in the eye of a sonic hurricane at times?
Sometimes me, Jimi and Mitch would be so far out there playing I’d think, “Uh, uh. This is gonna collapse.” Then all of a sudden ? wham! ? we’d be locked up again like magic. Often I’d be the guy just trying to hold down that bottom. And Jimi, whew, he could go anywhere.
What was the most mind-blowing experience you had with Jimi?
Woodstock. We had never dreamed of playing in front of that many people. [Attendance of the original festival is estimated at 450,000. – Ed] When we came around the back of the festival stage, Jimi opened up the little curtain and said, “Oh my God!” Mitch passed around this little bottle of Blue Nun wine, and Jimi said, “See all those people out there? They’re sending us energy. And we’re gonna send it back at them.” And that’s what we did.