While stationed at Fort Campbell Army base in Kentucky, Billy Cox was surprised to hear someone playing guitar inside a service building.
Curious, Cox walked into the building, where a young Jimi Hendrix was noodling on a six-string.
“I couldn’t resist going into this little practice room at the service club and introducing myself,” Cox remembered. “I had played upright bass in the high school symphony.”
Hendrix was still a few years from guitar god status — this was 1961, after all. But, Cox said, he could sense talent in his fellow soldier.
“He was in his infancy when it came to playing,” said Cox, who would eventually perform with Hendrix in his Band of Gypsys and the Jimi Hendrix Experience. “But even with that I sensed a kindred spirit to that music.”
Fifty years later, Cox still feels a connection to Hendrix’s music — and still plays it regularly in the Experience Hendrix Tour, which stops at the Avila Blues Festival on May 29.
In the three decades since Hendrix died, stories about the rock legend abound. But Cox is now the only living member of Hendrix’s bands.
“I miss everybody,” Cox said, adding: “It’s good that I’m still around.”
The Experience Hendrix tour gathers several well-known musicians, who perform Hendrix tunes. This year’s tour includes musicians Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Jonny Lang, Brad Whitford of Aerosmith, Keb’ Mo, guitar virtuoso Steve Vai and members of Living Colour and Los Lobos.
While Cox was with Hendrix at the very beginning, others on the tour weren’t even alive when Hendrix was performing.
“I try to place myself being there at the time he came out, in the midst of all the music that was happening at the time,” Jonny Lang told The Tribune last May. “It must have been like, ‘What on Earth is this?’ When you sit down and listen to the stuff he does, it’s just out of control.”
While Hendrix wasn’t that impressive when Cox first met him, he inspired Cox to return to the bass he had given up before joining the military.
“We formed a group,” Cox said. “I gave up my position and went and got another position so we could have the opportunity to rehearse. Then I think he got discharged a month before I did, and we decided not to go home. We decided to pursue music.”
The two were members of the King Kasuals, an R&B band. And they both supported other well-known acts.
“He had to get that experience behind him in order to become the Jimi Hendrix that he was,” Cox said. “He played behind the Isley Brothers, Little Richard. We did some gigs behind Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson, played behind The Impressions. This had to be. He had to get all the genres of R&B in order to become who he was. He had to become quite knowledgeable. And it didn’t just jump out overnight —he had to study this thing.”
And he was a quick study, Cox recalled.
“I saw him developing his signature sound onstage and on a daily basis,” Cox said. “I saw him put 25 years in the guitar in five years.”
Before Hendrix became a successful solo act in the States, he went to Europe, leaving his buddy Cox behind.
“Before he left, he said, ‘I want you to come. This guy who discovered me wants to take me to Europe, and I told him about you,’ ” Cox recalled. “But I told him, ‘I’m renting an amp, have three strings on a bass, and the fourth is tied in a square knot. I don’t even have the money to get there.’ And he said, ‘Well, that’s OK—don’t worry. I’ll make it and I’ll send for you.’ And that’s what he did. It took him 2-1/2 years, but he did.”
Hendrix’s bass player in Europe — and on many of his big hits with the Experience—was Noel Redding. But as Hendrix worked to downplay his signature showmanship, he changed bands, replacing Redding with Cox and drummer Mitch Mitchell with Buddy Miles. That lineup played behind Hendrix at Woodstock.
“I think that stands out as the highlight of my musical career,” Cox said. “Simply because I had never — Jimi had never, no one onstage had ever — played in front of that many people.”
More recently, Cox’s bass lines could be heard on the 2010 posthumous release of “Valleys of Neptune,” which featured 12 unreleased Hendrix tunes. Even though Hendrix died young — he was just 27 when he drowned on red wine and his own vomit —his constant presence in the studio resulted in many recordings, Cox said.
“It was a way of life — something he loved,” Cox said. “We didn’t bowl, we didn’t hunt, we didn’t fish. I rode motorcycles sometimes, but that’s what we did. We had thousands, not hundreds, of hours of tapes in the can. Because when we were not touring, we were in the studio recording because that’s what we loved doing. That was our hobby, our livelihood and our sport.”
Reach Patrick S. Pemberton at 781-7903.