Music & Clubs

Voodoo Blues

The Santa Cruz Blues Festival takes Hendrix back to his roots
FROM THE BEGINNING: Bassist Billy Cox once played with Jimi Hendrix in a band called King Kasuals.

BILLY COX has been playing Jimi Hendrix's music on and off for five decades, since the two of them served in the army together as teenagers and formed their first band. Cox was there with Hendrix onstage at Woodstock, and played bass in the Band of Gypsys and the reunited Jimi Hendrix Experience, right up to the guitar legend's last-ever concert 12 days before his death in 1970.

Since then, besides his own solo albums, session work and stints in other bands, Cox has continued to play Hendrix's music at tribute shows, on tour and on record. After playing with perhaps the greatest guitarist of all time, he's worked with countless others around the world. And he's come to one conclusion.

"There are two kinds of guitar players," says the 69-year-old Cox by phone. "The ones who will admit they were influenced by Jimi Hendrix, and the other ones who will not admit they were influenced by Jimi Hendrix."

Only one of those types, incidentally, will be welcome onstage at the Santa Cruz Blues Festival this year, when the "Experience Hendrix" tour is the headlining attraction Saturday. "Experience Hendrix" features Cox as well as a diverse array of guitarists and other artists who are secure in their Hendrix influence. Performers include Steve Vai, Jonny Lang, Kenny Wayne Sheperd, Keb' Mo', Living Colour, David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas of Los Lobos, Aerosmith guitarist Brad Whitford, Ernie Isley of the Isley Brothers, Stevie Ray Vaughan drummer Chris Layton, Luther and Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi All Stars, Indigenous guitarist Mato Nanji and others—all performing Hendrix's music.

What Hendrix did to inspire so many musicians across all genres could fill countless books, and of course, it has. But as the only surviving member of both the Jimi Hendrix Experience and the Band of Gypsys—he calls himself "the last voodoo chile standing"—Cox is uniquely qualified to sum it up.

"He took the guitar, and rock music, to another level. He threw the rulebook out the door," says Cox. "And even today, 40 years after he made his transition, he reaches out through generations and transcends cultural boundaries."

When he heard Hendrix play back at Fort Campbell in Clarksville, Tenn., he already had a sense of this. Cox had played bass in high school, but he'd never thought he'd do it for a living. He and Hendrix put together an R&B band called the King Kasuals, and started playing on what was known in the South of the late '50s and early '60s as the "chitlin' circuit," because the venues that would book the regional tours of African American artists also served soul food.

"I met him when he was 17, 18 years old, and I was about the same age. When I first heard that music, I was attracted to the sound," remembers Cox. "He was in his early embryonic stage, and trying to get it all together, but I sensed intuitively my destiny."

Even then, Hendrix was possessed by his singular devotion to making music, a relentless drive that allowed him to write over 100 songs and produce hundreds of hours of recordings—many of which have yet to even be released—in a span of less than four years from 1966 to 1970.

"We didn't bowl, we didn't hunt, we didn't fish. We rehearsed," says Cox of the early years. "Music was not only our living on that little chitlin' circuit, but it was our hobby also. A lot of times in rehearsing, we would come up with some crazy riffs—he called them 'patterns.' He'd look at me and say 'if anybody ever heard us play these, they'd lock us up.' Those riffs got into songs like 'Dolly Dagger.'"

What fed their passion was the blues. With Hendrix so inseparably identified with rock music, it may be hard for some to understand how the "Experience Hendrix" show fits into a blues festival. But Cox has no doubt how much they were influenced by the blues.

"About 150 percent," he says. "You listen to 'Red House,' you listen to 'Voodoo Chile,' that is the blues. That was a part of our culture. There was always Howlin' Wolf, always Albert King. After all, we were in the South. We were down in Clarksville and Nashville, and when you walked into a little food joint, that's what was on the jukebox. B.B. King. Elmore James."

Blue From Birth

Janie Hendrix, Jimi's younger, adopted sister, says even before that, the future rock legend grew up with the blues at home.

"A lot of Jimi's roots are blues," she says. "That was what my father was listening to during that time period, because it was really a time to be singing the blues, when it was a struggle to make ends meet. The 45s and albums that were in my dad's collection were really heavy blues, and that's what Jimi was listening to."

Still, one of the guiding principles of her brother's music, to her, is the way he blended all types of music into something undefinable.

"Jimi's genre is the Hendrix sound," she says. "It's not rock, it's not blues, it's not jazz—it's a combination of everything. He once said that if you try to peg him as one genre of music, it frustrates you and it frustrates him."

After a protracted, tangled legal battle, the Hendrix family won back the rights to Jimi's music in 1995. One of the first things they did was to establish the "Experience Hendrix" series of tours. As CEO of the family business (also called Experience Hendrix), and emcee of the shows, Janie has learned that no two tours are alike, and she never knows exactly what to expect.

"You've got Corey Glover from Living Colour, running out into the stands or climbing up on the monitors. He's crazy, but he's a lot of fun. And then you have Kenny Wayne—when he plays 'Voodoo Chile,' it's just so amazing. It's almost like an electrical storm. And you have Ernie and Billy telling their stories. So you have all this incredible talent onstage, and all this incredible energy," she says.

When it came to adapting the "Experience Hendrix" tour for the Santa Cruz Blues Festival—the first time it'll be performed in such a setting—there were a few adjustments to be made. For one thing, the length of the artists' sets (usually three songs or so) had to be cut down, since the day's performances also feature Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, as well as Jackie Greene and Mia Borders. (Sunday features Boz Scaggs, Tower of Power, Dave Alvin, Tommy Castro and Chris Cain.)

But one person who never had any doubt that the show would work for the Blues Festival is festival organizer Bill Welsh. It didn't hurt that Hendrix is one of his all-time musical heroes.

"He was one of the first artists I ever saw. I was 14. I got my buddy's parents to drive us," recalls Welsh. The impact that show—as well as the two other times he would see Hendrix perform—had on him can't be understated.

"He was just overwhelming," says Welsh. "It was magic to watch. It opened my eyes to something I had never seen. It was the thing that got me hooked on what I do today."

It's one more story of how Hendrix has influenced the way that we see music. After all, there are really only two types of music fans: the ones who will admit they were influenced by Jimi Hendrix, and the ones who won't.

Santa Cruz Blues Festival

Saturday: Mia Borders, Jackie Greene and Trombone Shorty, plus Experience Hendrix

Sunday: Chris Cain, Tommy Castro, Tower of Power, Dave Alvin and Boz Scaggs

11am-7pm, Aptos Village Park $65/day

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