By Alan Sculley
---- — The guitarists that come together for the Experience Hendrix tour to play the music of Jimi Hendrix obviously all share a love and admiration for the great late guitarist.
Billy Cox brings something to the show that no one else onstage can offer: the perspective of having known and played with Hendrix himself.
Now 72, the famous bassist is the last surviving member of Hendrix’s two bands: the final lineup of The Jimi Hendrix Experience and the Band of Gypsys.
Cox met Hendrix when the two were in the Army and stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky., in 1961.
One day, a group of soldiers had gone to see a John Wayne movie and were returning to base when Cox heard Hendrix playing guitar.
“He was trying to do some things, but he wasn’t quite getting there,” Cox said in a phone interview. “Something about this playing, I just couldn’t explain it. So I turned to the guy standing next to me, and I said, ‘That’s pretty unique.’ And he says, ‘That sounds like a bunch of crap.’ And I think to the human ear, it did. But I wasn’t listening with the human ear.”
Cox introduced himself to Hendrix.
“I told him, ‘You know, I play a little bit of bass.’ And he said, ‘Go turn your service card in and check out, and let’s do some jamming,’” Cox recalled. “I did that, and one thing led to another. We looked at each other, and we started grinning and just laughed because we knew we had locked into each other.”
After being discharged, Hendrix and Cox formed a band that toured throughout the Southeast until 1964, when Hendrix decided to move to New York. Two years later, he was discovered by Chas Chandler, who took Hendrix to London and made good on his promise to make the guitarist a star.
Cox remained in touch with Hendrix as the guitarist rose to fame. When Hendrix split with bassist Noel Redding in 1969, the guitarist called on Cox to be his new bassist.
The first major gig that Cox played with Hendrix was Woodstock in 1969. Cox remembers the feeling of amazement that he, Hendrix and drummer Mitch Mitchell felt when they first saw the size of the crowd from a room in a loft on the festival grounds.
“Jimi pulled the curtain back and looked, and his eyes were big as quarters,” Cox said. “But in his wisdom, he said, ‘You know what, these people are sending a lot of energy up to the bandstand. So what we’re going to do is we’re going to take that energy, absorb it musically and send it right back to them.’ We went out and we stayed onstage almost two hours, I think an hour and maybe 48, 51 minutes or something of that nature. And that’s what we did. We took that energy and sent it right back to the crowd. And it was incredible.”
In the studio, Cox played numerous songs that Hendrix recorded up to his death on Sept. 18, 1970. Some of those songs grew from riffs and ideas they had explored together after the Army. Cox remembers what Hendrix said back then.
“A lot of times, we’d be eating strawberry upside-down cake and Coke or whatever, and he’d look at me and he’d say, ‘You know, if we put this on wax, on a record, they would lock us up,’ because I think it was so far ahead of its time,” Cox said. “So when he called me in (in 1969), he said, ‘You remember some of that stuff?’ I said, ‘I remember all of that stuff.’ I played it for my own amusement. Therefore, you got songs like ‘In From the Storm,’ ‘Dolly Dagger,’ ‘Freedom,’ songs of that nature that we put together from these riffs that we used to play with all the time.”
Now those final songs released after Hendrix’s death, as well as many of the tunes Hendrix released during his lifetime, make up the repertoire of the Experience Hendrix concerts, a tour that has grown from a five-day outing in 2004 to one that now visits about 20 cities most years in the spring and fall.
This spring tour will feature guitarists Buddy Guy, Zakk Wylde, Jonny Lang, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Eric Johnson, Doyle Bramhall II, Dweezil Zappa, Cesar Rosas, David Hidalgo, Eric Gales, Mato Nanji (of Indigenous) and Malina Moye, with Cox and former Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble drummer Chris Layton forming the rhythm section.
Past shows, which run more than two hours, have drawn rave reviews, and Cox feels the performances embody the “true spirit of Jimi Hendrix.”
“People just love it because they can feel us, the spirit onstage,” Cox said. “I tell anyone, if you like Jimi Hendrix’s music and came up with it, you’ve got to see the Experience Hendrix tour, because it will set you back on your heels.”
Coming up at the Casino Ballroom
Experience Hendrix: Today. Sold-out.
Volbeat: Friday, May 9. Sold-out.
Buckcherry: Saturday, May 10. $25-$30.
Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience: Tuesday, May 13. $26-$46.
Joe Bonamassa: Friday, May 16. Sold-out.
The Monkees: Thursday, May 22. $35-$76
Steel Panther: Friday, May 23. $26.
Rusted Root and The Wailers: Friday, May 30. $23.
Billy Idol: Tuesday, June 3. $60-$65.
Cheap Trick: Thursday, June 5. $30-$66.
Dark Star Orchestra: Friday, June 6, and Saturday, June 7. $26.
Fitz & The Tantrums: Sunday, June 8. $19.75.
Everclear, Soul Asylum, Eve 6 and Spacehog: Wednesday, June 18. $28.
George Thorogood and The Destroyers: Friday, June 20, and Saturday, June 21. $29-$50.
Happy Together Tour 2014: Friday, June 27. $30-$60.
Pat Benatar & Neil Giraldo: Wednesday, July 2. $33-$56.
Badfish! A Tribute to Sublime: Saturday, July 5. $19.
* All shows are at 8 p.m. For tickets, visit www.casinoballroom.com.