It was pouring rain the day Billy Cox met Jimi Hendrix.
“I was on post in the Army, and I was coming from a theater,” he said. “We all ran for cover, and I wound up on the doorstep of Service Club number one, along with some other guys waiting for the rain to stop.”
Cox, who headlines Live on the Levee Friday night, said from where he was standing, he could hear music coming out of the window of one of the club’s practice rooms.
The bassist turned to one of the other soldiers next to him and said, “This guy has potential.”
The enlisted man told him, “Man, it sounds like a bunch of mess to me.”
Cox, a Wheeling native and West Virginia Music Hall of Fame member, said he didn’t know it at the time, but he was listening to his destiny.
In the years that followed, Cox played in one Hendrix band after another. He was an early member of The Jimi Hendrix Experience, played with the Band of Gypsys and was part of the guitar legend’s final trio, Cry of Love.
They were friends for almost 10 years and that friendship began on that day in the rain when Cox heard Hendrix practicing inside the club.
The 74-year-old said, “I went inside, introduced myself, checked out a bass at the service club and we started jamming. The rest is history.”
Some of it, Cox said, is cloudy.
In the 44 years since Hendrix’s death, he’s become an icon remembered as much for the counterculture he was part of as for the music he made.
Cox said he and Hendrix came from very traditional backgrounds. They’d been raised by parents who taught them discipline, self-respect and a sense of obligation.
“We were young, and we were patriots,” he said. “We were taught to want to do well in life.”
Hendrix, Cox said, worked hard, played night and day and squeezed 25 years of guitar experience into five years.
“He wanted to be famous,” Cox said. “He saw that he was worthy, even when a lot of people didn’t.”
Cox also said not to believe everything you heard about Hendrix’s drug use.
“No, that’s what they pinned on him. He wasn’t a druggie. That was just publicity, like in the tabloids.
“Bad publicity is as good as good publicity if it makes people talk.”
Some of the claims Cox has heard about his friend over the years are unbelievable.
“Injecting heroin in his eye-balls? Puh-lease. Putting LSD under his headband? Come on.
“But rumors are great. They keep a legend being a legend, I guess.”
After Hendrix died in 1970, reportedly of a drug overdose, Cox stayed busy with his own solo work and as a sideman for other performers. In 1993, Hendrix’s family gained controlling interest in his music and contacted his former bandmates about doing a tribute concert with some notable guitarists sitting in.
“The following year, we did two shows,” Cox said. “The next year, we did five. It just escalated up until we’re doing 24, 25, 26 dates a year and have a full-fledge ensemble.”
Some of the people Cox has shared the stage with are the best guitarists in the world. Even the 74-year-old sounded impressed.
He said, “We’ve had Steve Vai, Ernie Isley, Eric Johnson, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, you name it — great musicians who are aficionados of Jimi Hendrix.”
Cox said it’s been great playing with them, and he enjoyed being part of the Experience Hendrix tour when it came to Charleston in March.
“It was such a great crowd,” he said.
This time around, Cox won’t being playing only Hendrix music, but it will figure heavily into his show.
“A little old stuff, lots of Hendrix. It’ll be fun,” he promised.
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