Billy Cox has been playing Jimi Hendrix’s music on and off for five decades, since the two of them served in the army together as teenagers and formed their first band. Cox was there with Hendrix onstage at Woodstock and played bass in the Band of Gypsys and the reunited Jimi Hendrix Experience right up to the guitar legend’s last concert 12 days before his death in 1970.
Since then, besides his own solo albums, session work and stints in other bands, Cox has continued to play Hendrix’s music at tribute shows, on tour and on records. After playing with perhaps the greatest guitarist of all time, he’s worked with countless others around the world. And he’s come to one conclusion.
“There are two kinds of guitar players,” says the 69-year-old Cox by phone. “The ones who will admit they were influenced by Jimi Hendrix, and the other ones who will not admit they were influenced by Jimi Hendrix.”
Only one of those types, incidentally, will be welcome onstage at the Santa Cruz Blues Festival this year, when the “Experience Hendrix” tour is the headlining attraction Saturday. “Experience Hendrix” features Cox as well as a diverse array of guitarists and other artists who are secure in their Hendrix influence. Performers include Steve Vai, Jonny Lang, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Keb’ Mo’, Living Colour, David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas of Los Lobos, Aerosmith guitarist Brad Whitford, Ernie Isley of the Isley Brothers, Stevie Ray Vaughan drummer Chris Layton, Luther and Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi All Stars, Indigenous guitarist Mato Nanji and others—all performing Hendrix’s music.
What Hendrix did to inspire so many musicians across all genres could fill countless books, and of course it has. But as the only surviving member of both the Jimi Hendrix Experience and the Band of Gypsys—he calls himself “the last voodoo chile standing”—Cox is uniquely qualified to sum it up.
“He took the guitar, and rock music, to another level. He threw the rulebook out the door,” says Cox. “And even today, 40 years after he made his transition, he reaches out through generations and transcends cultural boundaries.”
When he heard Hendrix play back at Fort Campbell in Clarksville, Tenn., he already had a sense of this. Cox had played bass in high school, but he’d never thought he’d do it for a living. He and Hendrix put together an R&B band called the King Kasuals and started playing on what was known in the South of the late ’50s and early ’60s as the “chitlin’ circuit,” because the venues that would book the regional tours of African American artists also served soul food.
“I met him when he was 17, 18 years old, and I was about the same age. When I first heard that music, I was attracted to the sound,” remembers Cox. “He was in his early embryonic stage, and trying to get it all together, but I sensed intuitively my destiny.”
Even then, Hendrix was possessed by his singular devotion to making music, a relentless drive that allowed him to write over 100 songs and produce hundreds of hours of recordings—many of which have yet to even be released—in a span of less than four years from 1966 to 1970.
“We didn’t bowl, we didn’t hunt, we didn’t fish. We rehearsed,” says Cox of the early years. “Music was not only our living on that little chitlin’ circuit, but it was our hobby also. A lot of times in rehearsing, we would come up with some crazy riffs—he called them ‘patterns.’ He’d look at me and say, ‘If anybody ever heard us play these, they’d lock us up.’ Those riffs got into songs like ‘Dolly Dagger.’”
What fed their passion was the blues. With Hendrix so inseparably identified with rock music, it may be hard for some to understand how the “Experience Hendrix” show fits into a blues festival. But Cox has no doubt how much they were influenced by the blues.
“About 150 percent,” he says. “You listen to ‘Red House,’ you listen to ‘Voodoo Chile,’ that is the blues. That was a part of our culture. There was always Howlin’ Wolf, always Albert King. After all, we were in the South. We were down in Clarksville and Nashville, and when you walked into a little food joint, that’s what was on the jukebox. B.B. King. Elmore James.”
Blue Like Me
Janie Hendrix, Jimi’s younger, adopted sister, says even before that, the future rock legend grew up with the blues at home.
“A lot of Jimi’s roots are blues,” she says. “That was what my father was listening to during that time period, because it was really a time to be singing the blues, when it was a struggle to make ends meet. The 45s and albums that were in my dad’s collection were really heavy blues, and that’s what Jimi was listening to.”
Still, one of the guiding principles of her brother’s music, to her, is the way he blended all types of music into something undefinable.
“Jimi’s genre is ‘the Hendrix sound,’” she says. “It’s not rock, it’s not blues, it’s not jazz—it’s a combination of everything. He once said that if you try to peg him as one genre of music, it frustrates you and it frustrates him.”
Janie is the CEO of Experience Hendrix, which besides being the tribute tour is also the name of the company that controls the rights to Jimi’s music. She’s in charge of releasing the material in the vault.
Like his musical legacy itself, the story of the fight to control it could fill volumes. The Hendrix family, headed by Jimi’s father Al Hendrix, waged a long battle after Jimi’s death to get the rights to his music. In 1995, they finally did.
“My father once said when we lost our rights, that he lost Jimi during those years. And that it would never happen again,” says Janie. “It’s like regaining your child and making sure that you take care of him and nurture him, and make sure the world hears what he’s left us.”
But the fight didn’t end there. When Al Hendrix died in 2002, he left control of the family business to Janie and her cousin Robert Hendrix. They were sued by Jimi’s brother Leon Hendrix, who claimed his father’s 1998 will was bogus, the result of Janie and Robert taking advantage of Al in an attempt to write him out. In 2004, a judge found this claim groundless and left control of the music with Janie and Robert and Experience Hendrix. In a partial victory for Leon and other family members angry about how Al’s will was administered, however, the judge took some financial control of the family’s trusts and companies away from Janie and Robert.
And the legal battles continue, including a lawsuit by the Hendrix estate seeking to be named the rightful owners of recordings from two 1969 shows at Royal Albert Hall.
However all the lawyering might look from the outside, Janie says Jimi’s legacy is a deeply personal issue for the family, and for her.
“When I was 6 years old, Jimi made a promise that he would always take care of me. And I promised him I would always take care of him,” says the now-49-year-old Hendrix. “I didn’t imagine that he wouldn’t be here, but I am fulfilling that promise.”
One of the first things the family did after taking over Hendrix’ legacy in 1995 was to partner with Seattle’s Bumbershoot for the first “Experience Hendrix” tribute concert. The original members of Hendrix’s bands were approached, including Cox, as well as bassist Noel Redding and drummers Buddy Miles and Mitch Mitchell.
“That was the first time since Jimi’s passing that they had come back together,” says Janie. “That was really like a homecoming for all of us.”
After the show proved a success, “Experience Hendrix” developed into a series of tours, with major artists taking time off from their own tours and recording to take part. As emcee for the show, Janie says no two tours have been alike, though she always expects the unexpected.
“You’ve got Corey Glover from Living Colour running out into the stands or climbing up on the monitors. He’s crazy, but he’s a lot of fun. And then you have Kenny Wayne—when he pays ‘Voodoo Chile,’ it’s just so amazing. It’s almost like an electrical storm. And you have Ernie and Billy telling their stories. So you have all this incredible talent onstage, and all this incredible energy,” she says.
All of the artists have their stories about how Hendrix influenced them personally. Janie has been hearing those her whole life, though she says she will never get tired of them. Perhaps the most notable came from one of the few artists as iconic as Hendrix himself, Bob Dylan.
“Dylan had called my father 10 years after Jimi died. But he said he was ‘Bob Zimmerman,’ [Dylan’s real name], and of course, my dad didn’t know who Bob Zimmerman was,’” she remembers. “He said, ‘I am so sorry, Mr. Hendrix, I wanted to call you, but every time I picked up the phone I couldn’t do it. I would break down in tears, because Jimi meant so much to me. The way he played ‘All Along the Watchtower,’ now I play it the way he did.”
Later, Dylan ended up meeting the Hendrix family when he performed in Seattle.
“We sat on the stage and were basically serenaded by him,” says Janie.
When it came to adapting the “Experience Hendrix” tour for the Santa Cruz Blues Festival—the first time it’ll be performed in such a setting—there were a few adjustments to be made. For one thing, the sheer number of artists and length of their sets had to be cut down, since the day’s performances also feature Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, as well as Jackie Greene and Mia Borders.
“You try to be fair,” says Hendrix. “All the artists want their time. If they’re playing three songs and one song gets shaved off, it just has to be fair. No, actually they’re all professional. They all work very well together, and whatever works well for the concert, they’re right there for us.”
“It’s a great group of guys to work with,” says Cox. “All of the egos are left outside. Everyone gets along. We have fun, and the music is our guiding force. It enables us to have the brotherhood and the friendship that we do have.”
Interestingly, one person who never had any doubt that the show would work for the Blues Festival is festival organizer Bill Welsh. He simply asked them to include more blues artists for this date, although the diversity of the show is also one of his favorite things about it.
“It definitely crosses the genres of music,” he says. “But it also blends it all together. It makes it just about the music.”
However, Welsh has an ulterior motive, as well: like Ray Charles, who Welsh brought to the festival in 2003, Hendrix is one of his all-time musical heroes.
“He was one of the first artists I ever saw. I was 14. I got my buddy’s parents to drive us,” recalls Welsh. The impact that show—as well as the two other times he would see Hendrix perform—had on him can’t be overstated.
“He was just overwhelming,” says Welsh. “It was magic to watch. It opened my eyes to something I had never seen. It was the thing that got me hooked on what I do today.”
It’s one more story of how Hendrix has influenced the way that we see music. After all, there are really only two types of music fans: the ones who will admit they were influenced by Jimi Hendrix, and the ones who won’t.
EXPERIENCE HENDRIX AT THE SANTA CRUZ BLUES FESTIVAL is Saturday, May 28 following performances by Mia Borders, Jackie Greene and Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue. Sunday, May 29 features Chris Cain, Tommy Castro, Tower of Power, Dave Alvin and Boz Scaggs. Music 11am-7pm both days. Aptos Village Park, Aptos. No parking onsite; shuttle provided from Cabrillo College. Tickets from $65/day or $120/both days, available at www.santacruzbluesfestival.com.