Billy Cox could hear the crowd five miles away.
It wasn’t a constant roar. But echoes from the music and massive free-lovin’ crowd gathered in Bethel, New York, for Woodstock blew in through the house that Jimi Hendrix and his band, including Cox on bass, had been rehearsing in for several weeks before the festival, Cox says. The night before delivering their festival-closing set, which weather delayed until around 8 o’clock in the morning, the group stayed at a friend’s house nearby before heading to the festival. By then the estimated crowd of 400,000 had reportedly dwindled to around 40,000, still quite a few more than Cox and Hendrix played to in their Chitlin’ Circuit days.
“[Drummer] Mitch [Mitchell] took the curtain, pulled it aside, says, ‘Oh my God,’” says Cox of taking the stage. “After I saw these people — oh, wow. Jimi, he says, ‘Man, they’re sending a lot of energy up to the bandstand. So what we’re going to do, we’re gonna grab some of that energy and send it right back to them.’ And that’s just what we did.”
Hendrix’s Woodstock performance 50 years ago, including his famous rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” that Cox had no idea Hendrix would play, became a defining moment for the festival (if not a generation), and certainly for Hendrix’s legacy. Decades later, Cox continues to serve that legacy, anchoring the Experience Hendrix Tour, a recurring tribute run that kicks off its most recent leg Oct. 1 at the Paramount Theatre.
“It’s more spiritual than anything else,” Cox says of playing his close friend’s music after all these years. “I miss Jimi more as the years go by.”
A roving concert attraction for more than a decade, the Experience Hendrix Tour assembles a rotating cast of musicians — all “Hendrix aficionados,” Cox says — to pay homage to the Seattle-born guitar god’s music in various configurations. This year’s lineup features blues greats Buddy Guy and Taj Mahal, guitar virtuoso Joe Satriani, Johnny Lang, Dweezil Zappa, Dug Pinnick of Kings X and more. Backed by Hendrix’s estate, the tour has roots in an all-star tribute set organized for the 1995 Bumbershoot with Cox; George Clinton and the P-Funk All Stars; Noel Redding, the original bassist for the Jimi Hendrix Experience and others.
“There was a lot of energy,” Cox says of that ’95 show. “In fact, whenever we do come to Seattle, the energy’s quite different from other cities because that’s Jimi’s hometown.”
Years before Hendrix became a star, he and Cox met while serving together in the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division stationed in Fort Campbell, Kentucky. After leaving a movie one rainy night, Cox took cover at the doorstep of a nearby service club, where soldiers could rent instruments and studio space at no cost.
“I was standing outside, trying to wait for the rain to stop,” Cox says. “The window was up a couple inches in this one section. Next thing, I hear this guitar player. [It was] in his early stages of guitar playing; he wasn’t quite fluid with it. However, I noticed there was something unique about it.”
Cox introduced himself and the two started jamming, soon forming a band — first the Sandpipers and later the King Kasuals — and playing around nearby Clarksville, Tennessee. After being discharged in the early ’60s, they landed a house band gig in Nashville, where Cox is currently based, and worked the Chitlin’ Circuit, a network of clubs featuring black performers during the Jim Crow era of racial segregation. “We made a good living at it,” Cox says. “That was the early days of R&B and blues, and those little hamlets that we visited, that Chitlin’ Circuit was a 150-mile radius, so we were working constantly in those little dives and dens.”
Three years older than Hendrix, Cox says he handled the booking and some of the business aspects Hendrix notoriously didn’t have a knack for, taking somewhat of an older brother role in their relationship. On several occasions, Hendrix would hit the road as a backing member for touring artists and after getting stranded in various cities Cox would send him money to get back to Nashville. Hendrix would later return the favor.
After moving to New York City and connecting with Animals bassist-turned-manager Chas Chandler, who lured Hendrix to London where his career exploded, Hendrix invited Cox to join him. Unable to foot the travel bill and worried he’d be more of a “hindrance rather than an asset,” Cox declined, though Hendrix promised he’d send for him once he made it.
Following the deterioration of the original Jimi Hendrix Experience lineup, Hendrix recruited Cox to play in his band, eventually forming the short-lived Band of Gypsys with drummer Buddy Miles roughly a year before Hendrix’s death in 1970. “I really appreciated what he did,” Cox says. “It changed my life.”
Half a century later, Cox is helping keep his Army buddy’s music alive on the Experience Hendrix Tour, maintaining that Hendrix’s body of work is as relevant now as it was then.
“When you think of a saxophone, who do you think of? John Coltrane. When you think of a trumpet, who do you think of? Miles Davis,” Cox says. “When you think of a guitar, who do you think of? Jimi Hendrix. … That’s how I see him.”
Experience Hendrix tour, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 1; Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine St., Seattle; $45-$125; 800-982-2787, stgpresents.org