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Buddy Miles - a Blue Collar Tribute
By Mick Polich - 03/19/2008 - 02:17 PM EDT

Groove drummer. Tremendous  r n’b singer. History – maker in pop music with the Electric Flag and the Band Of  Gypsys. Prison convict. “California  Raisin”. Big. Black. Beautiful.

Buddy. Buddy Miles.

By now, every one who follows the ‘old-school’ players of the 1960’s thru the 1980’s has heard of the passing of Buddy Miles, drummer/singer/ composer, working with everyone from “Wicked” Wilson Pickett to helping create the persona of the infamous “California Raisin” commercials of the 1980’s. I found out about Buddy thru Hendrix, of course – the classic “Band Of Gypsys” live album with Jimi and bassist Billy Cox (whom Miles ended up playing music with again in the reformed “Return Of The Band Of Gypsys” a few years ago…). I learned to appreciate Buddy’s solid groove drumming and soulful, bluesy tenor on that “Gypsys” CD – music I used to consider as a ‘stopgap’ record in between the Experience One and Experience 2 bands.

Truth is, it took me awhile to cotton up to Buddy – yeah, I knew he was a part of what I considered an essential part of my musical history, but when I was a kid, listening to the “Gypsys” album, Buddy’s background vocals threw me a bit ( I think more than one reviewer used the term’ caterwauling’ in describing those vocals back then). Well, not only his back-up vox, but even his lead vocals were THERE, man – there were ‘black’ vocalists, and then there were BLACK vocalists, and Buddy – he was a big, Afro-haloed, BLACK vocalist. Truth is, it scared my 10 year old, little Iowan white-boy ass quite well.

Plus, I missed Mitch Mitchell on drums for Jimi – I missed his Elvin Jones-inspired fills and energy: I just thought Mitch was a better musical fit who understood Hendrix’s musical needs better……

Well, let’s dribble for the fast break up the mid-1970’s: as every kind, gentle reader of this blog might guess by now, I was cruising into downtown Des Moines in the old man’s ’69 GMC pickup, cash in hand, seeing how many records I could purchase at the record shop ‘cribs’ –  Peeple’s, Co-op, Music Circuit, or Music Factory - then sneak those suckers back home pass my stepmother to gleefully explore the sonic treasure within the depths of the Vinyl Groove God. As fate would beam down upon me, I happened to see a copy of a Hendrix import album on the Polydor label that I didn’t own (by then, I was awash in Jimi ‘bootleg’ collecting, owning a lot of stuff YEARS before the Hendrix estate rounded up all those bootleggers, confiscated the tapes, and threw away the lock and key on the whole damn bid ‘ness to release the stuff on their own label. Glad the money was supposedly going to the right sources, but hell, that just takes all the underground FUN outta the whole process, ya know?). The album was called “Loose Ends”, and contained a treasure-trove full of unreleased studio stuff – because the two areas I was exploring with ‘Jimi music’ was one, any live or studio stuff between 1965 thru 1967 which would showcase the transformation of ‘Jimmy Hendrix’, r n’ b guitarist, to “Jimi Hendrix, ROCK GUITARIST GOD” – then two, any cool, unreleased, ‘secret stuff’ that some foreign, obscure label would be able to ‘sneak’ past Jimi’s main label, Reprise. Oooh baby, did this have some gems - a Dylan tune, “Drifter’s Escape”, “Burning Desire”, “Blue Suede Shoes”- yeah, palie, we gonna have a party!

Well, I got the goods home past the guards – dad and stepmother – and laid the platter down on my Zenith turntable, and put the needle on. “Blue Suede Shoes”…. it was an unedited studio take… Jimi,  Billy Cox on bass, and Buddy Miles on drums. Well, the cool thing about this take was that it took the group about 10 minutes to decipher what Jimi wanted on the tune for structure and feel, especially from Buddy on drums:

“No, no, no, not like that! Only cymbal and snare, cymbal and snare! Real old-time…”

Well, the beginning of the take was semi ‘real old time’, but once the band kicked into the first verse past the intro, “Blue Suede Shoes” had a funk-filled life of it’s own (and Elvis was probably wishing that he could have gotten that BLACK with that bad boy, baby!).

THAT’S the moment when I thought Buddy Miles was a great drummer – the kick drum tone, the greased backbeat, the THWAP of the snare as he cracked it on beats two and four – it was damn solid, and I decided I had no BUSINESS AT ALL not giving this dude a break, because at that time, I had barely picked up the guitar to start my dickin’ around on it, and what RIGHT did I have to judge BUDDY MILES?

From that point on, I followed Buddy’s career peripherally – always knew he had one hit (“Them Changes”), a couple of albums, another live album with Santana. Then… Buddy goes to prison (stealing clothes out of Nudies? Drug charges?). Buddy forms prison bands, boasting when he gets out, “Yeah, I could show Jimi Hendrix a thing or two!” Sacrilege, dude – SACRILEGE!!! I didn’t know about him getting the California Raisins t.v. commercial gig – wow, so he spins that off into a couple of albums? Lose a fortune, gain a fortune…..

One of my former guitar instructors, Don Archer, sent a personal experience, via e-mail, that he had with Buddy Miles, so I’ll let Don pick up the slack on our Buddy stories from here:

“I first met Buddy Miles during the summer of 1966. I was playing with organist Sam Salomone and drummer Craig Kelly (then know as the Sam Anthony Trio) at a club in Omaha (Buddy’s birthplace) called Patrick’s Lounge. Patrick’s was near 32nd and Lake Streets in Omaha, not far from the famous Allen’s Showcase, which was on 24th and Lake Streets.”

“We always played a Saturday afternoon jam session at Patrick’s and one Saturday, Buddy came in and asked to sit in and jam with us. This was long before anyone knew who Buddy was. Craig let Buddy sit in finally, and about halfway through the first tune, Buddy broke the head on Craig’s snare drum! It was a brand new head that Craig had just put on the snare that morning. Buddy was a very heavy-handed drummer and breaking snare drum heads was a habit with him (so we were told). Craig would never let Buddy sit in again after that…..”

“When we took a break, Buddy came and sat with me, and we got to know each other pretty well. We were both what some folks call “king-size” men, so we had that in common. Whenever he came up to Patrick’s, we always hung out together when on breaks. We were to become close enough friends that ultimately, I visited him on Sundays at his home and had many Sunday dinners with he and his mother. She was a very sweet and gracious lady, and the three of us always had a good time together.”

“In those days, Buddy was usually so poor that at times he couldn’t afford a new pair of drumsticks. He didn’t own a car, or have transportation of any kind. He would get around Omaha by bumming rides from friends.”

“It wasn’t long into my friendship with Buddy that we discovered that we had a mutual love for pinball machines and coffee. On many, many nights after the gig at Patrick’s was over, we would ride down to the Omaha Greyhound Bus depot. They had one of my all-time favorite pinball machines in the lounge there. I believe the brand of it was Williams.

It was a baseball game, the kind that threw a pinball at you and there was a metal bat that you swung with a handle on top of the machine. Some years before, I had learned a little trick with that bat.”

“There was a home run slot in the upper outfield of the machine and if you could manage to put a pinball in that slot, you would immediately win ten free games. The trick was to swing the bat before the ball was pitched, and you could hold the bat steady in the swing position so that when the pinball hit the bat, it would stop and slowly rolled toward the end of the bat. If you timed it just right, you could hit the free game slot. I had gotten good enough with that trick that I could hit that slot nearly every time.”

“It wouldn’t take long and we’d have one hundred or more free games to play. So, Buddy Miles and I spent many a late night in front of that machine playing baseball and drinking coffee. We had a lot of laughs and drank a lot of coffee – usually until the sun came up.”

“Of course, Buddy spent a lot of time at the aforementioned Allen’s Showcase Lounge, because Paul Allen quite regularly brought in some big-named r n’ b and jazz groups. One of those groups was the famous Wilson Pickett. One night during one of Pickett’s shows, his drummer suddenly walked off the bandstand and quit the band. There was quite a scene for a few minutes until suddenly, Pickett grabbed the microphone and asked the audience if there was anyone out there who could play drums. Buddy jumped on the stage, and the rest is history.”

“Buddy became Pickett’s regular drummer for quite awhile, and during that time he met and made connections with all the right people in the music business who eventually helped make him the star that he was to become. I could not have been more pleased at his success. He deserved it! He is missed!”

Don’t you just love stories like that? Man, sakes o’ Friday, what would we do without the passing - along of stories and lore in our lexicon? Thanks so very much, Don!

I have one final observance on Buddy: for years, I’ve been listening to the famous “Band Of Gypsys” live album – on album, cassette, and CD. Back about 14, 15 years ago, Capitol Records issued “Band Of Gypsys 2”, with most of the material eventually ending up on the Experience/ MCA label as the “Live At The Fillmore East” double-CD. One song that caught my attention on that first go-round was “Stop”, which I found out was performed, maybe written by soulman Howard Tate (who is currently enjoying a resurgence in interest for his music and performances). Lately, since Buddy’s passing, I’ve been listening to the Gypsys version of “Stop” quite a bit – Buddy’s gutbucket vocal, backed up on vox by Billy Cox and Jimi, the old-school r n’ b groove, and of course, Jimi’s indelible stamp on the whole thing with his cosmic, souped-up rock/ country – blues fills and rhythm guitar that lent credence to the whole shebang on New Years Eve and New Years morning, 1969 and 1970.

Buddy Miles NEEDED to be in that band at that time, even if for one album, and a scattering of studio recordings……

Do yourself a favor: grab a favorite beverage, hit iTunes, the Jimi Hendrix or Buddy Miles websites, and download or buy a CD with Buddy’s blood in the groove – the Electric Flag, Wilson Pickett, Hendrix, the Santana/Buddy Miles live album, Buddy’s solo albums, heck, give the ol’ ‘California Raisins” CD’s a spin. It’s Buddy – a total soul singer, drummer, composer who definitely made his mark in music world….

Thanks, Buddy – pass easy through “them changes”, my friend…. 

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