When: July 28 2005
Where: Phoner from Cox’s home in Nashville, Tennesse
What: The powers-that-be was releasing yet another Hendrix compilation/re-issue/do-over/shuffle it around package. This particular project was the complete performance of the guitarist at Woodstock. As you all must know, Jimi played there with a makeshift band that contained only drummer Mitch Mitchell from The Experience. The rest of the players were people the left-hander had met in his various travels.
The DVD had been released in September 2005 and this interview must have taken place just a month or so after that. What I remember about speaking with Billy was how angry he was. He had moved to Nashville, Tennessee to find work as a bassist but I guess not a lot of sessions had materialized. I had heard this same complaint from Bob Babbitt
, the former Motown
bassist who had succeeded legend James Jamerson
. Apparently, everyone thought that Nashville would be an easier market to break into than Los Angeles or New York but apparently they were wrong.
So, Cox was angry about not finding work in that country city. And he was somehow mad because his entire career had been defined by his work with Jimi – the appearance at Woodstock (that was a marginal performance at best), and his astounding playing on the Band Of Gypsys CD with Buddy Miles on drums.
Unbeknownst to many, Billy Cox was the bass player who accompanied Jimi Hendrix at the now legendary Woodstock performance held in 1969. Many people still think that Jimi was on stage with the Experience band – bassist Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell – but this is not true. Well, not entirely true. Mitch was on drums but it was Billy Cox, old Army buddy, on the Fender bass. In addition, Jimi was surrounded by a pair of percussion players and a second guitarist.
Additional footage of that August 1969 performance has now been unearthed, revealing several songs never been seen including "Foxey Lady," "Message to Love," "Spanish Castle Magic," "Hey Joe," and "Lover Man." The new DVD is titled Jimi Hendrix: Live At Woodstock and there is a bonus DVD titled A Second Look featuring new camera angles and new 5.1 and 2.0 stereo soundtrack mixes by longtime Hendrix engineer Eddie Kramer.
Here, bassist Cox, living in Nashville, Tennessee, takes us along on a trip back in time to a perfect moment in musical history, to a 3-day show on the grounds of a man called Max Yasgur – a little gathering called Woodstock.
UG: What are your feelings about the new Hendrix at Woodstock DVD that is coming out? You must feel proud to be part of this.
Billy Cox: I haven’t seen it.
In general, how do you feel about a new DVD being released that reveals Jimi’s entire set at Woodstock? As well as all of the other bits that will be on there.
It’s good. I think the general population has seen all that was done and everything that was played has already been on CDs and LPs. But it’s good that they have unearthed some songs that were never heard before. And that’s good. I don’t know which songs they are; I haven’t seen it, I haven’t heard it. People have just been telling me. Musicians are the last ones to know. I don’t run anything, I’m just a humble peon. I don’t mean to be sarcastic but I don’t even know what’s gonna be on the thing. No one has taken time to (tell me). This is quite premature to have me be interviewed on something that hasn’t been released yet?
You’re right, it hasn’t been released yet but regardless, you were there and a very important part of this upcoming DVD.
It is a little strange but whatever; I’ve been known for talking out of turn. So I’ll just shut up.
We’re going to go back in time now, Billy. How did Jimi approach you to play the Woodstock show? Had the Experience officially broken up by this time?
(Note: Electric Ladyland, the third and final album with the original Jimi Hendrix Experience was released in America on October 16, 1968; the Woodstock concert was held on August 17, 1969, and during this time, Hendrix was supposed to have parted company with bassist Noel Redding).
Well, as far as we were concerned, it was just another gig. And in fact as far as America and the world knew, it was just another gig. However, it became a phenomenon because at that particular time there was nothing else to do and people from the west coast, the east coast, and even some foreigners said, ‘Hey, there’s this place up in Woodstock, they’re gonna have a gig.’ And to show that it was quite spontaneous was the fact that Michael Lang (promoter) and them, the crowd was not controlled. They could have made extra money, had they known. No one could have anticipated the crowd that was there. In fact, Woodstock set precedents as far as festivals go. And then I’m thinkin’ a lot of the festival organizers from that time on realized what they were up against and how to do this and they profited from the mistakes that were made at Woodstock. But Woodstock, as far as we knew, was just gonna be a gig, just another show. It didn’t mean anything.
So, you had been working with Jimi for a while at that point when the Woodstock show came up? Again, had the Experience actually broken up by this time?
Oh, I don’t know, you’re taking me back, man. Well, they had obligations; they never did break up if you look up the terminology. Noel (Redding, bassist) just left; that wasn’t a breakup, I just replaced Noel.
Had you played shows before Woodstock with this lineup with Larry Lee (second guitarist) and Mitch Mitchell and the percussion players?
Uh, not as far as I was concerned, no. We had done a few jobs at The Salvation (club), A Place To Play (club), a few other places. You’re taking me back so far, I don’t even think about these things. You’re taking me back almost 40 years. But anyhow, we played some other gigs but officially I think Woodstock was the first official job.
Did you know Larry Lee very well before playing with him at Woodstock?
"Jimi was a composer, a genius, a futureman, and no one understood, no one would go along with what he wanted to do."
Well, you know, Larry and Jimi were very close friends, they palled around together a lot in Nashville. And when we got there (Woodstock), Jimi figured he was gonna make a big statement on this and there were some people he wanted with him. Other people didn’t want him (Larry), but he wanted him. Jimi was never …. I don’t need to get into it.
Did you specifically rehearse that set that appears on the DVD? Did you and the other members know the songs and all the changes?
Yeah, at a house up in Woodstock; we were there for a month and we all rehearsed to get ready for the festival.
I think most people believe who weren’t at the concert that Jimi was just playing with a trio. The footage available on Jimi Hendrix: Live At Woodstock focuses mainly on him and only occasionally features the second guitarist or the added percussion players. Did Jimi ever talk to you why he wanted to expand the band? And in particular, why he wanted to bring in a rhythm guitar player?
Yeah, Larry Lee was a good friend of his; in fact, Larry Lee helped him get his theory together musically. And so he had me look for Larry, we took a little break and found him and got together. Jimi wanted to go into a direction that no one wanted (him) to go into. After all, this man was a composer, a genius, a futureman, and no one understood, no one would go along with what he wanted to do. This included management and some other people and I don’t think they saw the vision that he saw. In fact, you know the music changed from the time I got with him because he wanted to get into some little heavier stuff. “Foxey Lady” and “Purple Haze” was lightweight but he knew he had to do something (at Woodstock).
Then, were some of the jams the band played at Woodstock representative of the direction he wanted to go into? Particularly the “Woodstock Improvisation” and “Villanova Junction” jams?
Yes. Musicians and artists always come to a point in time where there’s growth and Jimi was growing at that time. And I think those around him and those who listened to and liked his music – other than the fans, the fans were waiting for something new and different – but those people around him who had control did not understand about the artistical growth that was happening with him at that point in time. They tried to stifle it. Oh, man, the Jimi Hendrix legacy is probably … don’t get me into it (Cox utters this last phrase in a very frustrated type of voice).
At the rehearsals, did Jimi and Larry actually work out guitar parts? Or was Larry simply there to provide a simple rhythmic backbone?
Yes, as you can hear on the Woodstock album, it came together real nice. It worked very well together and on top of that they were friends. That has a lot to do with playing especially when you’re in a band or in a group. That had a lot to do with then and a lot to do with now and probably will be for the future, when you’re creating and you’re in a group that’s playing music that has any meaning, it’s best you be friends with one another. And you like and enjoy playing with one another because that reflects in the music.
On ‘Jam Back at the House,’ if you listen really carefully there are parts here where you can hear sections when the two guitarists play sections of orchestrated guitar harmonies.
‘Jam Back at the House,’ yeah. He (Jimi) was into modes, you know, and we went back to a lot of classical; you could hear a lot of things that were classical things as far as we were concerned. Maybe other people might not call it that but you know, a lot of movement, and modes, and things.
What was it like playing with Mitch Mitchell?
He was a good drummer. In fact I just him in the past couple of weeks. Mitch was a good drummer specifically because of the fact that he was jazz oriented and he had the R&B origins. So, he was a good all-around drummer; I enjoyed him.
So you really locked in with Mitch as a rhythm section?
Oh, yeah, as you can hear on The Cry Of Love album, Hendrix in the West, War Heroes, and the various things that we did. Buddy (Miles) was a right on, gut-bucketeer R&B so I got along with both of ‘em, I really did.
Your playing on the Band of Gypsys album was remarkable.
(It was) fun.
And what about the gear you used at Woodstock? Can you remember what you were running through?
I’m not a gear-head so you’re talkin’ to the wrong man. You give me a good amp and if it’s a good amp, I’ll play. Even to this day, I don’t use a lot of processors and a lot of gadgets and wah-wahs and I don’t believe that’s necessary for a bass. Only when you want some special effect or something.
But the gear that we used at Woodstock, I had two Marshall stacks; at that time a Marshall was 50-watt or something (more likely 100-watts). That’s all I had.
And you were using a Telecaster bass?
Yeah, it was a reissue Telecaster. They reissued it (Cox probably means issued) and did it again in 1969 (the year of the concert). They took the design they had in 1960, and ’61, and ’62, and did it again in 1969. So it was a 1969 bass.
Had you been playing Telecaster basses prior to the Woodstock concert?
No, I just got it and bought it because I could buy it. And I wanted to try it out, I tried it out and it was pretty good. It wasn’t nothin’ I’d write home to mom about. It was a decent bass but the pickups were a little, just (Cox doesn’t complete the thought but he is about to say inadequate or underpowered) … it was a good bass.
What was it like playing with the two percussion players, Juma Sultan and Jerry Velez? Did that help reinforce the feel of the rhythm section?
I came from that era, I came from that time period when congas and bongos and rhythmatic modes were interjected into the music by various (instruments). And I enjoyed that.
Talking about some of the specific songs in the set, did you know that Jimi was going to launch into the “Star Spangled Banner” after “Voodoo Child?”
No, and if you would listen to the Woodstock (DVD), you’ll hear him starting off (Cox sings the first three notes of the anthem) and I was right with him as a bass player. And then something dawned on me, says, ‘Wait a minute, this ain’t supposed to be, we didn’t rehearse this so let’s fade out.’ So I faded out and then let him continue. But impromptu is always good.
So you believe, then, that for Jimi it was just a spur of the moment creation?
"Woodstock, as far as we knew, was just gonna be a gig, just another show. It didn’t mean anything."
Just spur of the moment, yeah. It was a feeling and he had a lot to say. He wasn’t a political, per se, individual, but he said a lot in that song. He felt an awful lot.
Was it difficult at all learning Jimi Hendrix’s songs? When you listen to his music and the arrangements the band played at Woodstock, you realize that a lot of his songs were actually quite complex harmonically.
No, that was my school. After all, we were in the service three years together, we played three or four years after we got out of the service. We left the service at the same time so, I was used to him, I was used to his type of music. I could have played it forever. If he gave me a dollar a night, I would have taken it if I could have survived. Because that was a part of me, he was a musical part of what I was about.
Since you touched on it here, could you speak a little about meeting Jimi in the service and how you came to play with him?
I just met this guy and … I’m trying to write my little book, too, and I don’t want to disclose a whole lotta things. I met him in the military and we became the best of friends and then we formed a group in the military.
What was the name of that band?
King Kasuals, K-A-S-U-A-L-S.
And you could sense in this young solider that there was a special talent here?
Intuitively I knew that. I was supposed to have done my three years in the Army and back to the University of Pittsburgh like everybody else does and get an education and take care of my family. I knew intuitively that this was my future. I didn’t know how, when, where, or by what means, but I knew that we were locked in. He knew it too and man, we just practiced and practiced night and day. It was a religion.
And you worked a lot with Jimi in those early days?
Was there ever talk of you becoming a part of The Experience in place of Noel Redding?
Jimi called me (because) we had separated for a minute. He knew that … if I get into this thing, it’s going to take three hours to do this thing. But let me condense it. We were here in Nashville, Tennessee, and him and me would go out with Gorgeous George or another group, and he’d call me and say, ‘I’m stranded in St. Louis.’ I’d send him the money. At that time, a bus ticket was $20, $25; you could ride across the United States for $35 or $40. And he’d come back and I’d put him in this group, get him in the group I’m with. And then finally he said, ‘Man, this other guy is talkin’ about goin’ somewhere.’ But he was reaching for his destiny. He knew that eventually destiny was calling him but he just didn’t know how. So he went with this one guy and called me from New York City. He said, ‘Billy, this guy is gonna send me to Europe and make me a star and I told him about you.’ At that time, I had fallen on bad times; I said, ‘Jimi, I’m renting an amp and I have 3 strings on my bass and my hip was tied in a square knot.’ He said, ‘That’s alright, I’ll make it and then I’ll send for you.’ It took him a couple years but he did.
Had you ever listened to any of the Experience records to hear not only what Jimi was doing but what his rhythm section was like?
Yeah, I heard all his stuff.
Were you moved at all by what Noel was playing?
As Mitch stated in his book (The Hendrix Experience) what happened was, Jimi would go in the studio and cut the bass parts. That was Jimi on bass. That’s why he sent for me, he got tired of playing bass and lead and everything. And then Noel would learn them later on because he didn’t like to rehearse. You’ve got to read Mitch’s book and you’ll become more knowledgeable about the intricate parts of Jimi Hendrix and how the stuff was put together. That was basically Jimi on bass; in fact he played practically all the bass in the studio. I don’t want to talk about anybody; me and Noel became the best of friends before he passed but I don’t think his head was into that music 150%. It was a little difficult for him to really project that thing because after all he didn’t come up under that type of music. But anyhow, Jimi would go in the studio; it would be simpler, easier, and he’d knock it out, and he’d (Noel) would learn it later.
When you look back at the Woodstock appearance, how does it stand up for you as a musical performance?
It was a good performance. We had rehearsed enough where we had learned each other, we had learned the parts, we knew where to go. I don’t think we had, we could have practiced a little harder, but it was a good performance.
“Fire” was really performed at a breakneck speed.
You know, he did that on every gig. If you go back and listen to live performances of Jimi Hendrix, all those ‘Fires’ were way up there. I don’t know why he did that but he did it constantly on all the ‘Fires.’
At times, it actually sounds like Mitch Mitchell is trying to keep up with Jimi in order to do those fills and everything that were such a trademark of that song.
Mitch still sounds the same today.
Your playing on ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)’ really comes through on the DVD. Had you played with trios before and consequently did you understand the role off a bass player in a three piece?
Well, Jimi and I, when we played in all our little groups, we never had a keyboard and we never had another guitar so it always was a trio. Every now and then we’d have a saxophone and then sometimes he might have another guitar player. So, he learned to play, and it’s strange to say this, the rhythm and the lead, too. He could do that, it’s crazy how he did that. So he really didn’t need another guitar player.
Which is exactly why seeing a second guitar player on stage at Woodstock was so strange. As we mentioned, I’ll bet anyone who wasn’t at the show to see Larry Lee up there on second guitar, believes that there wasn’t a second guitar player.
And I think Larry Lee thought, ‘Jimi doesn’t need me, man, he’s playing all that stuff by himself.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, he sure is.’ And I said, ‘But we can hear you too, Larry.’
On ‘Purple Haze,’ after the last verse, the song goes into that short ascending section over the A – C – D changes and then fades out over the solo changes (F# D E). On the DVD, though, Jimi goes into those changes but the band misses the cue. Do you remember this? Jimi looks over at the group and he doesn’t seem too pleased.
No, not really. We stayed on stage two hours. That two hours was a blur. If you listen to that album, you count the minutes off on that album; it’s almost close to two hours. But we didn’t notice the time, we enjoyed the camaraderie of the other musicians, and we enjoyed just looking out in the audience and seeing this city of different people doing different things. It was a great time. So two hours went by in little or no time as far as we were concerned. And we were hyped up too due to the fact that we were on stage and they were sending the energy to us and we were sending the energy back to them.
(Note: By the time of Hendrix’s performance early Monday morning, many of the crowd of several hundred thousand had already left the site and some reports maintain that the band may have played in front of as few as 25,000 fans).
And wasn’t Jimi’s performance delayed because of the rain and bad weather?
Yeah, it was something, I don’t know, it was.
And you actually closed the show?
I don’t know, I didn’t wait around. I mean I don’t mean to be sarcastic but we just went up, we played.
Eddie Kramer remixed this new DVD and was Jimi’s engineer as you well know. How well did you know Eddie?
"I met him in the military and we became the best of friends and then we formed a group in the military."
Did I ever meet Eddie Kramer? Me and Eddie Kramer worked night after night after night. Now you forgot I’m on Cry of Love, Rainbow Bridge, Hendrix in the West, War Heroes … me and Eddie Kramer sat up every night together. Yeah, because we worked at the Record Plant (New York) and then when they finished Electric Lady, we went down to Electric Lady and we’d do that every night. While a lot of people were out partying and having a good time, doing drugs, taking vacations, we were in the studio, man. Just that little bottle of time that Jimi and I were together, a couple of years, I mean professionally, there was a lot of material. I mean there was whole gobs of material we put together. And then you see who produced it? Eddie Kramer. So we were there. Did I know Eddie Kramer? Hell, yeah, I knew Eddie Kramer. Probably one of the best producers/engineers of this century. I don’t think really his greatness has been discovered; they just shoved him off and put him in some corner somewhere. I think he needs to be out or his name should be out front; he should be doing more things. Just like I said, I worked with him night after night after night and I know his capabilities and he’s a great producer.
Did you actually see Eddie at Woodstock?
Yeah, he was there at Woodstock. I saw a lot of people at Woodstock. After all, we all were a little nervous, apprehensive, and we saw a lot of people and we didn’t see a lot of people, you know?
Did you get a chance to see any of the other bands perform?
Joan Baez, I think she went on before. You’re taking me back 35 or 40 years.
I know that but this is what the story is about. And it’s good to go back there.
It’s not good to go back because I’ve had some bad experiences and things I don’t even want to remember. But I’ve forgotten, I really have forgotten, because after all we weren’t on the ego trip. We were there basically to support Jimi Hendrix and that’s what my main job was; that’s how I looked at it. And to make sure everything went right. You know, a lot of people go, ‘Well, what were you guys wearing? Did you wear your grey shoes or your blues shoes? What was the second song you played?’ Man, musicians don’t get into that bullshit. Sometimes the fans do but as musicians we forget what key … people come to me all the time and go, ‘What key was that third song in?’ I don’t know, I know what the normal key was. ‘What kind of shoes did Jimi have on?’ Man, I don’t know. Whatever.
Was this the sort of the inaugural step of what Jimi saw the Band of Gypsys becoming?
The first step? Well, the Band of Gypsys was not supposed to be. You don’t know this legacy; you need to go back and read about this thing. The Band of Gypsys was not supposed to exist but it existed simply because of a contractual agreement that Jimi had signed and was fixin’ to be sued for $15million. He didn’t have the $15million so from that time the inception of the Band of Gypsys came about. And then Buddy Miles joined because he couldn’t find any other help. You don’t want money from your friend, you want to help your friend.
I ask that question because even though the announcer says, “Ladies and gentlemen, the Jimi Hendrix Experience,’ when Jimi comes on stage he’s quick to say, ‘We got tired of the Experience.’ And he introduces the band as the Gypsy Sun and Rainbows band.
Gypsy Sun but he didn’t call it the Band of Gypsys.
But then at one point in the show he does say, ‘But you can call us a Band of Gypsys.’
That’s what gypsys do, musicians are gypsys. It had nothing to do with forming a group that was gonna be called the Band of Gypsys.
Another project you worked in, having nothing to do with Hendrix, was when you performed at the 2004 Fuji Rock Festival in Japan. You played with Shigeo Nakano, a Japanese guitarist who often went by the name of Shigeo Rollover? Could you please talk about this concert?
No, I didn’t. I played at the Fuji Rock Festival and the guitar player’s name was Andy Aledort. He’s the guy I played with. Some Japanese guy wanted to play but Mitch refused to play with him because he was a clone. The only person on stage with me and Mitch was Andy Aledort. It was incredible; we had standing ovation after standing ovation. And that’s why Mitch and I should be out there playing every week. But we’re not …
Interview by Steven Rosen
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