WHEELING – Growing up in Wheeling helped Billy Cox develop a love for music.
When he set out as a young man to experience the world, he didn’t realize that music would become a defining aspect of his life. He had no idea the many musical influences from his Ohio Valley youth would lead him down a path that helped write one of the most electrifying chapters in the history of rock and roll.
But that is exactly what happened.
Cox is a bass player – the bass player who held down a solid musical foundation at the bookends of legendary guitarist Jimi Hendrix’s storied career.
Music was a common bond that led Cox and Hendrix to become fast friends as young soldiers at Fort Campbell, Ky. From then on they played in bands on the club circuit early in their careers in the mid-1960s. Not long after Hendrix left for Europe to find fame and returned to explode onto the world’s stage as the premier guitar virtuoso, he called on Cox to rejoin him for new musical ventures.
Hendrix was at the height of his career and had become one of the biggest rock stars in the world when he reunited with Cox. With his longtime friend behind him, Hendrix would solidify his title as arguably the greatest rock guitar player who ever lived.
Cox was by his side for the rest of the surreal journey, playing with Hendrix during his legendary performance at Woodstock and taking the stage with him in front of some of the largest concert audiences ever.
While Hendrix’s rise to superstardom came while playing with the trio known as the "Jimi Hendrix Experience" – a group that would eventually take its spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – it was his chemistry with Cox that allowed the already trailblazing guitarist to venture into new musical territories. Rock historians have maintained that with Cox, Hendrix was able to freely improvise, push the boundaries and break new ground through musical experimentation.
"It was a pleasure and a privilege to play with such a humongous talent," Cox said of Hendrix, "and he was a true friend."
They were just opening this new chapter of Hendrix’s career, working in the studio and playing on the road in Europe, when the journey was cut short by the star’s sudden and untimely death in 1970.
Today, Cox is the last surviving musician with whom Hendrix spent a significant time collaborating. At age 72, Cox continues to work in the music industry and continues to share the timeless music that Hendrix pioneered.
"Every generation has its music," Cox said. "But some music just stands the test of time."
In 2009 Cox was inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville, and in 2011, he was inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame. In 2010 he was the recipient of the Experience Music Project’s Fourth Annual Founder’s Award for his work in preserving Hendrix’s music and legacy.
"I’ve had a great career, and I still have a great career," Cox said. "but the highlight was working with Jimi Hendrix."
The Early Years
William Cox was born on Oct. 18, 1941 in Wheeling. His father was a minister at Macedonia Baptist Church. His roots both in the Wheeling area and in the world of music came primarily from his mother’s side of the family, which hailed from the Ohio Valley.
"My mother was a classical pianist," Cox said. "I was exposed to Brahms, Haydn, Mozart, Liszt, Gershwin a lot of classical music at an early age. I also had two uncles who played saxophone."
Cox attended the Lincoln School just before the dawn of desegregation. He lived and went to elementary and grade school during an era when downtown Wheeling was still in its bustling heyday, and the nation was celebrating a victorious end to World War II.
"I remember a lot about Wheeling," Cox said. "It’s my hometown. I had a good upbringing there. It’s left me with a lot of memories."
Cox said he vividly recalls visits with relatives in Wellsburg and sites around the 12th Street and 14th Street neighborhood in downtown Wheeling.
Headquarters for a wide-reaching radio audience, Wheeling was a true country music mecca at the time – playing second fiddle only to the Grand Ole Opry.
"We lived not far from the WWVA Jamboree," Cox said. "There was an entrance where the guys in the bands would go in, and we would hang out there sometimes. So country music was among my fist musical influences – classical, gospel and country."
But as a curious boy with a passion for music growing up in Wheeling, Cox said he had to wire together a crystal radio set to be able to pick up broadcasts by WLAC in Nashville, which in a pioneering move around 1950 began airing late night rhythm and blues shows.
"That’s how I discovered R&B," Cox said.
By his early teens, his father, the Rev. James Cox, was reassigned to serve a church in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. The family relocated there, and Cox continued his musical discoveries through high school. He played in the school orchestra, was exposed to a wealth of jazz at the local clubs and was introduced to the instrument that would become his signature – the electric bass.
Upon graduating high school and enlisting in the army in 1961, Cox had no idea the bass would become part of his destiny. But he came to Fort Campbell, Ky. armed with a rich musical background forged in the Ohio Valley, and that experience put his life on a course that would help blaze a path into rock and roll history.
Music Through the Window
Cox was on base at Fort Campbell when one night he and a couple of fellow enlisted men coming from a movie theater took shelter from the rain outside of Service Club No. 1.
"There was a window that was up a little bit, and we could hear a guitar being played," Cox said. "I asked a fellow if he could hear that, and he said ‘yeah, it sounds like a mess.’ But I heard something that sounded pretty good, so I went in and introduced myself."
Inside, Cox found a paratrooper – a fellow member of the 101st Airborne Division – with a guitar in hand. He was Private James Marshall Hendrix, a young man from Seattle who had a similar background and similar passion for music. Cox told Hendrix that he had played bass back in high school, and Hendrix explained that servicemen could show their ID cards to check out musical instruments while on base, so they decided to jam.
Fast friends with a common love for music, Hendrix and Cox were discharged from the army a short time apart. By 1963, they moved to Clarksville, Tenn. together and scraped for gigs in clubs.
"We wanted to get out and make due," Cox said. "All we had was each other, and we didn’t want to starve to death. So we played."
The pair formed a group called The King Kasuals, later relocating to Nashville and touring dives on the "chitlin circuit" – a string of venues in the Midwest, southern and eastern states that welcomed African American entertainers at a time of lingering racial segregation.
"The ‘chitlin circuit’ that we played was a group of clubs within about a 150-mile radius of Nashville," Cox said, noting that the venues harbored the growing roots of R&B and fed their patrons – and the musicians – soul food. "Lots of fish and chicken."
After The King Kasuals, Cox settled in Nashville while Hendrix continued to hone his skills on the circuit, playing a supporting role for everyone from Sam Cooke to Wilson Picket, Slim Harpo and Jackie Wilson. Hendrix expanded his travels to New York and beyond, landing a role as guitarist for The Isley Brothers in 1964 and for Little Richard’s band in 1965.
Over the course of those couple of years, Hendrix was mostly out on the road paying his dues and mastering his craft, but would still touch base with Cox on occasion.
"Jimi was always back and forth. He’d call and say something like, ‘I’m stuck in St. Louis,’" Cox recalled. "So I’d help him out. At the time, $20 could get you a ride halfway across the U.S. He’d stay and play around town for a while, then he’d take off again. This had to happen four or five times."
Cox said one day his quiet Nashville neighborhood was shook up when a fancy Silver Eagle tour bus made its way down the street and pulled up in front of his house. Out jumped Little Richard with Hendrix behind him.
"Little Richard came right up to me, shook my hand and said ‘you must be Billy Cox. I need a bass player. Grab your stuff,’" Cox recounted. He respectfully declined the sudden and unexpected offer, telling the famous musician that he had prior commitments and simply could not just pick up and take off.
While Hendrix was on the road, he continued to hone his skills on the guitar, developing an elaborate style that included stunts like playing with his teeth and holding the guitar behind his head and between his legs. This flamboyant, spotlight-stealing showmanship is what by many accounts got him fired from Little Richard’s band.
The next time Cox heard from Hendrix was in 1966. Cox said Hendrix told him he had met someone (Chas Chandler of the Animals) in New York who was taking him to England to make him famous.
"He asked me to come with him," Cox said. "I told him I had three strings on my bass, and the fourth string was tied in a square knot. I didn’t even have enough money for a bus ticket to New York at the time."
Cox thanked Hendrix for the offer, but again declined. He said Hendrix told him he would come back for him after he broke into the big time.
"He sure did," Cox said. "It only took about two and a half years."
Giving Peace a Chance
While Hendrix was rubbing elbows with rock and roll’s elite like Eric Clapton, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, Cox continued working in the states. He played bass on a regular basis for the TV variety show "Night Train" in Nashville and on the syndicated show "The!!! Beat" with Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown in Dallas.
From late 1966 to early 1969, Hendrix recorded three landmark albums and established a reputation as a groundbreaking guitarist, elevating himself to worldwide superstardom, but the double-edged sword of fame began to take its toll on his inner circle, and Hendrix was seeking a change.
In mid-1969, Cox got the call. This time, he didn’t say "no."
"My first job with him was at Woodstock," Cox said. It was a departure from the power-trio setup of The Experience. The newly formed group behind Hendrix consisted of Mitch Mitchell on drums, Cox on bass, Larry Lee on rhythm guitar, and a pair of percussionists – Juma Sultan and Jerry Valez. "We were the last artists to perform."
Woodstock’s "Three Days of Peace & Music" was notoriously plagued with periods of torrential downpours and organizational challenges that derailed the original schedule of performances. Hendrix was the headliner, originally scheduled to close the show on Sunday night. But the schedule got pushed back so far that Hendrix and crew didn’t take the stage until after 8:30 a.m. Monday.
Cox said he and Mitchell peeked out at the Woodstock crowd before they took the stage. It was the biggest crowd he had ever seen at the time. Mitchell had only jammed with the new lineup a couple of times since joining them a few days prior, and it was Cox’s first major gig with Hendrix since he became a superstar.
Obviously, they were a little nervous, Cox indicated.
"But Jimi had years of wisdom in his young mind and body," Cox said. "Our creator blessed him with that. He said, ‘look, the crowd is sending a lot of energy onto that stage.’ He said we were going to take that energy and send it back to them. That’s how we saw it, and that’s what we did for the next two hours."
The freestyle performance was hindered by tuning and sound issues, but it included Hendrix’ legendary solo rendition of the "Star Spangled Banner," which has been described as one of the most monumental moments in rock history.
Cox said he played the first few notes of the patriotic number with Hendrix, but since they hadn’t rehearsed it as a band (Hendrix had actually performed it live several times before the Woodstock gig), he dropped out and let Hendrix do his thing.
The group had been staying and rehearsing in a rented house in upstate New York in the weeks leading up to Woodstock. Although they were introduced as The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Hendrix declared the name of the new, expanded band as Gypsy Sun and Rainbows. On the Woodstock recordings, he also referred to the band as "Sky Church."
Cox went on to perform with Hendrix on popular television shows like the Tonight Show and the Dick Cavett Show, and at festivals and concerts around the world for more than a year after Woodstock. The lineups would be called everything from The New Jimi Hendrix Experience to the Cry of Love band, but the Hendrix group for which Cox was best known – the name that stuck – was the Band of Gypsys.
The new power trio of Hendrix, Cox and drummer Buddy Miles did some studio work late in 1969 and recorded a live album during a four-set, two night stand on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day 1970 at the legendary Fillmore East in New York City. The "Band of Gypsys" live release was the only live recording released while Hendrix was alive. The short-lived power trio played a disastrously short set at Madison Square Garden, then disbanded.
Cox went on to play with Hendrix and Mitchell in the United States and in England, including the biggest shows he and Hendrix would ever play.
The summer of 1970s second Atlanta International Pop Festival and the Isle of Wight Festival in England both drew between 300,000 and 600,000 people. Cox said the set at Isle of Wight was at night, so they couldn’t really see the sea of faces in the crowd, just specks of light from lighters and fires started in spots throughout the huge crowd.
Cox returned to the United States after the band performed at the Open Air Love & Peace Festival at the Isle of Fehmarn in Germany on Sept. 6, 1970. Hendrix returned to London where he had an apartment. On Sept. 18, Hendrix was found unresponsive after failing to wake up at a girlfriend’s apartment. He reportedly had taken sleeping pills and drank wine the night before. The coroner’s report stated that he had apparently died from asphyxiation, choking to death after vomiting in his sleep while intoxicated.
He was 27.
Carrying the Torch
For years after Hendrix’ death, Cox has continued to carry the torch of the pioneering music they shared. Many of their studio recordings that had been in the works before Hendrix’ untimely death as well as recorded live concerts have since been released.
Cox went on to play bass with a number of renowned musicians, touring with the Charlie Daniels Band and doing both session and live work with a who’s who of musicians from Little Richard to Lou Rawls, Etta James and others.
Today, Cox owns a video production company in Nashville and works with various blues and gospel shows. He has continued to perform with his own band, keeping Hendrix’s spirit alive.
Cox also has maintain his ties with the Hendrix family and their company, which maintains the rights to his music and oversees the management of his legacy to this day. In recent years, Cox has topped the bill along with a myriad of other famous musicians – including many of the world’s best guitarists – for regular collaborations on the Experience Hendrix Tour, an all-star tribute to the music of Jimi Hendrix.
"It’s a chance for everyone to clap their hands, stomp their feet and have a good time," Cox said, noting that he was currently preparing for this year’s tour, which kicks off March 8.
The bill for the 2014 Experience Hendrix Tour includes Cox, along with Buddy Guy, Jonny Lang, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Bootsy Collins, Zakk Wylde, Dweezil Zappa, Eric Johnson, Cesar Rosas and David Hidalgo of Los Lobos, Chris Layton of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Double Trouble, Ana Popovic and others.
Area stops on the 2014 Experience Hendrix Tour include shows on March 19 at the Clay Center for the Arts & Sciences of West Virginia and March 20 at the Benedum Center in Pittsburgh. For more information, visit www.experiencehendrixtour.comwww.experiencehendrixtour.com.