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Q&A with Billy Cox
When the Jimi Hendrix tribute concert Experience Hendrix starring Keb’ Mo’, Buddy Guy, Dweezil Zappa, Jonny Lang, and Kenny Wayne Shepherd tour hits the Fox Theatre March 10, veteran musician Billy Cox will be on hand to tame the young lions in the all-star lineup. The seventy-year-old bassist is the only surviving member of the late guitar god’s trio Band of Gypsys.
Photograph by Steven C. Pesant/©Authentic Hendrix LLC
Is it true that Jimi Hendrix only formed Band of Gypsys as a money-making venture to satisfy the terms of a recording contract? Jimi was being sued for $15 million because he had signed a previous contract with a record producer. Jimi was business-savvy but he was still an artist first. His business side wasn’t quite where it should have been. So we made the live album to help him out. To me, that’s what friends are for. We recorded it to try and help him out of a mess.
So, basically, the groundbreaking blues and rock act Band of Gypsys, studied by a generation of guitarists, was formed as a fundraiser? As a fundraiser. You bet. [laughs] Ain’t that something?!
Were you guys nervous standing backstage at Woodstock waiting to go on stage with Jimi in 1969? There was a curtain for the bands to look out from. [Drummer] Mitch Mitchell looked out at the crowd and said, “Oh, my God!” I looked out and said, “Whoa!” Jimi looked out and told us, “OK, there’s a lot of people out there. But have you noticed that they’re sending a lot of energy up to the bandstand? Let’s take that energy and utilize it and send it back to them.” That was Jimi’s wisdom and that’s exactly what we did.
On the “Woodstock” album, sharp-eared listeners claim they can hear your bass on the first five notes when Hendrix unexpectedly launched into “The Star Spangled Banner” but then you decided to lay out for the rest of the tune. Why did you make the decision to stop playing? Easy. It wasn’t on the set list! We had rehearsed a repertoire and we played that repertoire. We were up there a long time too, like an hour and forty-eight minutes or something. And then, Jimi just starts playing “The Star Spangled Banner”! At first I thought, “OK, I know it, let’s do it.” And then all of a sudden something told me, “You better lay out of this one, Billy!” And what an incredible decision that was. Jimi was one of a kind. It was his moment there.
In 2010, after decades on the shelf, a series of unreleased recordings you guys made together came out via the album “Valleys of Neptune.” What are your impressions of those sessions forty years on? I’m really glad the material is finally out there. For years, I had been wondering what happened to those tracks. There were humongous stacks and stacks of material created. At one point in time, [the record label] told us, “You know, you guys are using up too much time in the studio. It’s getting too expensive.” They didn’t realize music was not only the way we made a living, but it was our hobby too. We didn’t hunt, fish, or bowl. We used that time to create. It paid off too since here we are forty years later, and there’s still stuff in the vaults to release from that time.
In author David Henderson’s authoritative 1978 Hendrix book, “‘Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky,” he describes your bass playing as “a steady and consistent, yet creative, bottom presence.” How difficult was it to maintain the bottom of the music and to resist taking those flights of fancy with Hendrix when he would solo? It was very tempting, but I realized someone had to be Earth when Jimi became Space. And Jimi became Space a lot. Someone had to keep things grounded. That was my job and I enjoyed it. I enjoyed giving that support. It wasn’t about me, it was about the group and it was about the leader, Jimi Hendrix.
On your new album “Old School Blue Blues,” you pay tribute to Hendrix and drummer Buddy Miles, your late Band of Gypsys bandmates with the song “Last Gypsy Standing.” How daunting is it for you to be the last member of the trio to carry on that legacy? That song just tells the complete story of what happened and what we were all about. We had a lot of fun. I’m proud of what we did. At his heart, Jimi Hendrix was a bluesman. But instead of playing through one small amp like the old blues masters, he did it through walls of amps.
You shot the new album’s cover at Miss Kitty’s Place in your hometown of Nashville. Miss Kitty’s Place looks like quite a joint. Yes, sir, it is. Miss Kitty’s is on [Hermitage] Avenue in Nashville, Tennessee. It’s one of those small, what you might call a dive, chitlin circuit places. The bandstand can only accommodate maybe a guitar player. In the summer, in the back, there’s a picnic area where they serve barbecued ribs, fish, and chitterlings. It’s really the last of the chitlin circuit places in our area. I’ve been known to poke my head in there on occasion too!
*EXTENDED VERSION OF THE INTERVIEW THAT RAN IN OUR MARCH 2012 ISSUE