Jimi Hendrix: Star Power
For the first time ever, Jimi Hendrix's rhythm section - drummer Mitch Mitchell and bassist Billy Cox - get together to discuss Jimi's legendary Woodstock performance.
It is a typically beautiful early summer day in downtown Nashville, Tennessee. As I sit in the exquisite lobby of the five-star Hermitage Hotel, beneath the intricately detailed and expansive stained glass ceiling, the 97-degree weather has given way to a torrential downpour, the likes of which have not been seen since the Great Flood. Seated on the Louis XIV–style couch in front of me are Mitch Mitchell and Billy Cox, the trailblazing rhythm section that laid the foundation beneath legendary rock guitar genius Jimi Hendrix during the last 16 months of his incendiary career. Mitchell is without question one of rock’s greatest drummers, his unique, propulsive virtuoso style exemplified on masterful Jimi Hendrix Experience tracks like “Hey Joe,” “Manic Depression,” “Purple Haze,” “Spanish Castle Magic,” and “1983…(A Merman I Should Turn to Be).” Billy Cox, best known for his bass work with Jimi in the Band of Gypsys, was one of Jimi’s first musical comrades: the two met while stationed in the army at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, in November 1961, and they immediately struck up a strong, lifelong musical relationship. “We found that we had a lot in common,” Cox says of meeting Hendrix, then a 19-year-old guitarist. “Right away, I heard something in his guitar playing that captivated me. I knew this was a guy I wanted to hook up with.” They immediately formed a band and, one month later, moved in together in Clarksville, Tennessee. By 1963, Hendrix had hit the road as a backup guitarist for the likes of Little Richard, Ike and Tina Turner and the Isley Brothers. When his big break came in 1966 via producer/Animals bassist Chas Chandler’s invitation to go to Europe and form his own band, Hendrix reached out to Cox, who was unable to make the commitment. Within a month, Hendrix had signed on Noel Redding as bassist and Mitchell as his number-one drummer. As fate would have it, Cox and Mitchell did eventually get to play together behind Hendrix, making their debut as a rhythm section at the legendary Woodstock Music and Arts Festival, on August 18, 1969. While the festival has taken on mythic proportions over the years, Hendrix’s performance at Woodstock has never been accorded the attention given to much of his recorded output. That situation has been rectified with the new two-disc DVD Jimi Hendrix: Live at Woodstock Special Edition (Experience Hendrix), which restores the guitarist’s performance with loving care. All of the existing footage of Hendrix at Woodstock is presented uninterrupted, re-edited and in its original performance sequence. The set gives fans a chance to view previously unavailable performances of “Foxey Lady,” “Message to Love,” “Hey Joe,” “Spanish Castle Magic” and “Lover Man.” Best of all, the soundtrack includes 5.1 and 2.0 soundtracks mixed by Eddie Kramer, Hendrix’s original engineer. Among the numerous DVD extras are new interviews with Woodstock promoter Michael Lang, Mitchell, Cox, and Hendrix band members Larry Lee and Juma Sultan; privately shot and never-before-seen blackand- white video of much of the guitarist’s Woodstock performance; a Hendrix press conference filmed at Frank’s Restaurant in Harlem on September 3, 1969, two weeks after Woodstock; and Eddie Kramer’s recollections of recording the entire festival. Although Mitchell and Cox fell out of contact after Hendrix’s death, they hooked up again in recent years. Today, the camaraderie between them is undeniable. “Billy and I reconnected about four or five years ago,” says Mitchell, “and I am so grateful. We have such a nice comfort zone together, both personally and on a musical level. We push each other in a really nice way, and that’s what I think musicians need from each other. That’s what we are here for. I am lucky to have such a good friend as Bill.” GUITAR WORLD Your first gig together was at the mother of all rock festivals, Woodstock, in 1969. Bill, when did you first hear from Jimi about joining back up with him? BILLY COX We had hooked up in Memphis, Tennessee, in April of ’69, and Jimi told me he wanted me to come up to New York to be his bass player for some recording sessions. So a few weeks later [in early May], I flew to New York and we immediately began working on new songs together. He was overdue for another album at the time; the latest thing that had come out was Smash Hits, a greatest-hits package. Jimi didn’t have much new music prepared, so there was a lot of work to do. Jimi and myself— sometimes along with [drummer] Buddy Miles and sometimes with Mitch—sat down and began putting new, fresh rhythmic patterns and riff ideas together in order to create some new songs. GW You and Jimi spent a lot of time jamming and performing together while in the army and afterward, when you lived together in Tennessee in 1962 and 1963. Did any of these song ideas date back to those days? COX Actually, some of these things did date back to our earlier days together. We revisited these things and added new ideas to them. Our routine became this: I’d go over to his apartment in the morning, we’d practice for half the day, eat some lunch, and then practice and write for the entire rest of the day. GW Were the two of you working creatively from the start? COX Definitely. We always had fun when we played together. Playing music was the thing both of us liked doing more than anything else. We didn’t play golf, we didn’t bowl, we didn’t go fishing— we played music. It was our hobby, but it was also our profession. We loved doing it. The more time we spent together, the more in sync we got, and all of the new songs started to come together. GW Even though you were writing with Jimi in his hotel room and recording in the studio, Noel Redding was still the bassist for the live shows, correct? COX Right. I wasn’t officially in the group yet. Jimi was fulfilling his commitments with the original Jimi Hendrix Experience at that time. I was helping Jimi get his head together and find his new direction. MITCH MITCHELL It was a strange time, a bit of a weird transition period, really. Actual fact, Noel [Redding] was trying to get his band Fat Mattress together—which Jimi liked to refer to as Thin Pillow!—so they could open shows for the Jimi Hendrix Experience. It was a bit of a con game: he was trying to get paid twice for the same gig, playing guitar with his own band and then playing bass with ours. This used to really peeve off Jimi. GW It’s been well reported that there was a lot of tension in the Experience between Jimi and Noel. Jimi was starting to use other musicians – bass players among them – and had also recorded many of the bass parts on the JHE recordings himself. Plus, Noel wanted to write more for the group. MITCHELL There was a variety of issues. If Jimi and I presented anything in, say, a Motown style to Noel, he’d react negatively. At the time, the only music Noel listened to was two albums by the Small Faces. The Small Faces were great, but that’s not where our heads were at. Noel had no knowledge of [legendary R&B/soul bassist] James Jamerson or the guys that played with James Brown. The bigger problem was that he had no interest, either. Billy, on the other hand, was a bassist; he had put the work in on the instrument. Noel, God rest his soul, had no interest in the bass as an instrument. GW In the early part of ’69, it seemed that things were good within the original Experience trio: the January performance on It’s Lulu [U.K. TV variety show] was excellent, and the Royal Albert Hall show on February 24, 1969, is considered by some to be the best show the Experience ever played. MITCHELL The Lulu show was fun. If you are asking my opinion, though, the second Albert Hall show was adequate, and the first show [February 18] was absolute crap! You see, there were management things going on that drove us crazy. [Jimi’s manager] Mike Jeffery had put together a package show with us, the Soft Machine, the Eire Apparent and a few other bands, depending on the venue, plus this film crew led by Jerry Goldstein and Steve Gold. These film guys were costing us an arm and a leg; they were in our way, and they were incompetent in that they couldn’t record or film anything adequately. Consequently, the first Albert Hall show was a disaster. With the Experience, we had done a festival show at Devonshire Downs [called “Newport ’69” at San Fernando Valley State College, June 22, 1969] and we played like shit, frankly. We were getting paid a lot of money for this gig [reportedly $125,000, the largest fee ever at that time], and we had become so wrapped up in our financial situation that all we could think of was the amount of money we were making per minute. Jimi was so disgusted that he had the balls to go back two days later and play with Buddy Miles for free, to try to save face. In a way, the second Albert Hall show was similar in that we knew we had to make amends for the first show.