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.
But Billy Cox brings something to the show that no one else on stage can offer: the perspective of having known and played with Hendrix himself. Now 70, 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.
“People just love it because they can feel us, the spirit on stage,” Cox said of the tour. “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.”
In the studio, Cox played on numerous songs Hendrix recorded up to his death, some of which grew from riffs and ideas they had explored together.
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 annually in the spring and fall.
The show March 29 at Wichita’s Orpheum Theatre will feature guitarists Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Eric Johnson, Taj Mahal, Brad Whitford (of Aerosmith), Dweezil Zappa, Mato Nanji (of Indigenous), Robert Randolph and the Slide Brothers, with Cox and former Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble drummer Chris Layton forming the rhythm section.
The shows – which run more than two hours – have drawn rave reviews, and Cox feels the performances embody the “true spirit of Jimi Hendrix.”
“I always think of the good times,” Cox said in a phone interview Tuesday as he reflected on the Jimi Hendrix he knew. “I never think of any negatives or anything. It was always a good time, because he was a good person. He was a giving person. He was a creative person. He had all these good attributes. And if there’s a heaven, I’m sure he went there.”
Hendrix died in 1970, just a little more than three years after he had burst onto the worldwide rock scene with the album “Are You Experienced.”
Of all of the musicians that were in Hendrix’s bands, Cox had the longest association and friendship with Hendrix. The two were in the Army and stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky., in 1961 when their paths first crossed.
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 (Hendrix) was trying to do some things, but he wasn’t quite getting there,” Cox said. “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.
“I immediately went in and introduced myself to him,” Cox said. “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.’ 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. There, 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, and when Hendrix split with bassist Noel Redding in 1969, he called on Cox to be his new bassist.
The first major gig Cox played with Hendrix was Woodstock in 1969. Cox remembers the feeling of amazement 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.’ ”