It could be argued — and convincingly at that — that Jimi Hendrix is the most iconic guitarist in rock history, given the fact that his legacy lingers even today.
From his early beginning as a hired hand behind Little Richard and King Curtis on the so-called “Chitlin Circuit” of the Deep South to his eventual breakthrough in the U.K. where he was immediately inducted into the rock royalty of the time, Hendrix redefined the essence of electric guitar and re-imagined it in a wholly unexpected context. In so doing, Hendrix became an essential artist in the progressive progression that captured the collective imagination and mindset of both artists and audiences in the late ‘60s, while in the process serving up such groundbreaking albums as “Are You Experienced?,” “Axis: Bold As Love” and his unequivocal masterpiece, “Electric Ladyland.”
Although he passed away prematurely (a drug overdose at age 27) after completing only three studio efforts with his band, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, his legacy lives on nearly half a century after his death, inspiring new players who continue to be swayed by his genius and the remarkable music he left behind.
Evidence of that can be found in the dozens of unearthed live and studio recordings sanctioned by the Hendrix family trust, as well as the Experience Hendrix Tour, a traveling tribute featuring some of his most skilled disciples performing his music with the verve and dedication he instilled early on. After originating from a single performance at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2000, the Experience Hendrix Tour has averaged at least one outing per year ever since, although this year’s extravaganza promises to be the biggest bonanza yet, featuring a virtual who’s who of famous guitar slingers who rotate on and off stage while paying homage to Hendrix’s music.
A veritable all-star revue, it includes guitar great Joe Satriani, blues legend Taj Mahal, Ernie Isley of the Isley Brothers, Frank Zappa’s son Dweezil Zappa, Dave Mustaine of Megadeth, blues greats Jonny Lang and Eric Johnson, renowned drummer Kenny Aronoff, David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas of Los Lobos, and, perhaps most notably, the one man who actually knew Hendrix personally and played in his various bands, bassist Billy Cox.
Although Cox had no part in recruiting the musicians and putting together the tour — which comes to Knoxville’s Tennessee Theatre on Saturday — he’s been a key participant since the very beginning.
Hendrix and Cox first met as Army buddies when they were stationed together at Fort Campbell, Ky., in 1961. They reconnected seven years later when Hendrix phoned and asked Cox if he was interested in joining the Experience following tensions between him and his original bass player, Noel Redding.
“I was surprised,” Cox said, speaking on the phone from South Carolina during the fourth date of this year’s tour. “He had come to see me play one night, and after that, I thought he’d be on his merry way. It was good to see him after all those years when we were paying our dues as starving musicians.”
By that point, Cox was immersed in a career of his own, overseeing a publishing company and enjoying a steady gig as part of the house band for a pair of R&B-oriented television variety shows in Dallas and Nashville, where Cox currently lives. He said he was initially uncertain whether he should accept his old friend’s offer. Nevertheless, he agreed to go to New York and work on some sessions.
“He helped with my bass playing,” Cox said. “We’d work on some songs, and he’d come up with what he would call ‘patterns,’ but what I would call riffs. He’d put them together, and we’d make instrumentals out of them. He’d combine a fuzz bass and a wah-wah pedal, and that’s all he’d need.”
Although Cox made a few contributions to the “Electric Ladyland” sessions, he made his official debut with Hendrix as a member of the newly formed group Gypsy Sun and Rainbows, performing at the famed Woodstock Festival in Upstate New York. Although that band dismantled soon after, Hendrix recruited drummer Buddy Miles for a reconstituted trio he dubbed the Band of Gypsys. An eponymous live album, recorded at New York’s Fillmore East on New Year’s Eve, 1969, became their sole recorded offering, and that was only done to fulfill a legal obligation to one of Hendrix’s former managers. A second collection of tracks recorded at the concert was released in 1986, some 16 years after Hendrix’s demise.
Cox appeared on a number of other posthumous releases as well. He also continued to tour with Hendrix in a new version of the Experience that included the group’s original drummer, Mitch Mitchell.
Of all the albums issued after Hendrix’s death, Cox cites the first of the series, “Cry of Love,” as the best representation of what the guitarist had envisioned for what would have been his next studio effort.
“We spent a lot of time in the studio,” Cox said. “Sometimes we’d do 150 takes on a single song. So here we are, 50 years later, and there’s still a lot of music left in the can. He was a perfectionist. Most of the time he’d redo an entire song because of a single mistake that he made or I made or the drummer made. We’d do the same song over and over.”
Cox said that Hendrix’s insistence on perfection was one of the factors that frustrated Noel Redding and motivated him to leave the band. However he also said that he and Hendrix enjoyed working in the studio and coming up with new ideas.
“We loved the magic of recording,” he recalled. “We wanted the music to represent us, so we took pride in what we were doing.”
As the only living member of any of Hendrix’s official ensembles, the 79-year-old bassist naturally considers himself at least partially responsible for continuing the guitarist’s legacy.
“I enjoy having the opportunity to play the songs I was a part of, and even some songs I was not a part of,” Cox said. “I sometimes have the opportunity to talk to people after the show, and it’s obvious they adored Jimi and his music. People always want to know what kind of guy he was, and I tell them, he was a great person.”
That said, Cox also acknowledges that Hendrix was far from an ordinary individual.
“He was also a genius, and geniuses sometimes have strange personalities,” Cox said. “Strange, not in a weird way, but in a way that makes them a little different. But he was my friend and a great human being, and sometimes I look back and still feel grief over the loss. There are a lot of great memories, and some memories that weren’t so great. But you can’t linger on the negative. You have to dwell on the positive.”