Buddy Miles: Between Rock and Hard Spots
A guy like Buddy Miles, who plays at the Galaxy Theatre on Tuesday, can be intimidating even over the phone. He’s a huge man with a scowling face, a prison record and a reputation for being surly. He’s also one of the great unsung heroes of rock history, a drummer and singer as ferocious as a hurricane, but we’ll get to that part in a minute.
When I called his hotel at 11 a.m. one day last week for a scheduled interview, there was a pause of nearly five minutes before the desk person came back to inform me, in a voice that bordered on terrified: “No one seems to want to wake him up.”
I called Miles’ longtime manager, Robert Fitzpatrick, to see if he could help. Fitzpatrick called back a few minutes later and said, sighing, “I guess Buddy and the guys had a pretty wild party last night. Give him 15 or 20 minutes and then call back. He’ll talk to you this time.”
For those 15 minutes, I felt like the school geek about to confront the playground bully.
As it turned out, Miles wasn’t mad at me for waking him up and in fact turned out to be one the most interesting interview subjects one could ask for. Still, I ended up feeling lucky to have never played in a band with him--although he has played with everyone from Wilson Pickett to Jimi Hendrix to Carlos Santana to Bootsy Collins to Slash.
Miles was born 50 years ago in Omaha, and by age 12 he was drumming in his bassist father’s jazz group, the Bebops. By 16, he was in demand as a session player and sideman, touring with regional R&B; groups and drumming on recordings for the likes of the Delfonics, the Jaynettes, the Ink Spots and Ruby & the Romantics. By 1967 he was on the road with soul icon Pickett, who was at the peak of his powers.
“Sometimes he was a great asshole,” Miles said of Pickett. “He got drunk, he gambled, he cussed people out, he would fine people for little or no reason at all. He just had to let you know he was in control at all times.”
Miles went on to say that despite all that, he has the “greatest respect” for Pickett as a musician. But after only a few months of gigging with the man, he was ready for a change.
The change came when he was spotted at a Pickett gig by guitarist Mike Bloomfield. A veteran of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” sessions, Bloomfield was considered America’s answer to Eric Clapton.
Bloomfield recruited Miles along with singer Nick Gravenites, organist Barry Goldberg, bassist Harvey Brooks, tenor saxophonist Peter Strazza, baritone saxophonist Herbie Rich and trumpeter Marcus Doubleday and formed the Electric Flag. The group debuted at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and would burn nova-like throughout its brief existence.
Based in San Francisco, the Flag was a pioneering fusion of rock, blues, jazz and R&B--the; first rock band to use a horn section (Blood Sweat & Tears and the Chicago Transit Authority were hot on its heels). But the Flag never got its due. Its lack of renown, even today, is just one of many indignities that Miles feels he has suffered, none of which he is shy about venting.
“It was the premier rock band, the first supergroup in the United States,” Miles said. “It’s about time Mike Bloomfield and the Electric Flag started getting our props. It really makes me mad and sad that we didn’t get higher accolades outside of San Francisco.
"[Promoter] Bill Graham tried to censor how I chose to dress. He tried to make fun of it. But the Electric Flag were the founding fathers of rock brass as far as I’m concerned.”
With the Flag falling apart around him in 1968, Miles formed the first edition of the Buddy Miles Express, which would come to be a handle for whichever group of musicians he was using from album to album.
“Expressway to Your Skull” from 1968 and “Electric Church” from 1969 are Miles in top form as a drummer, singer, composer and multi-instrumentalist. The music is audacious, in-your-face, psychedelic proto funk. Listening to these albums today, one realizes that Miles was having ideas that were worlds ahead of their time. Perhaps too much so: The records bubbled around the bottom end of the charts and went largely unnoticed.
In 1970, Miles hooked up with longtime running partner Hendrix to form the Band of Gypsys with bassist Billy Cox. Hendrix had produced some tracks on “Expressway,” Miles had played on Hendrix’s “Electric Ladyland,” and the two had known each other since the early ‘60s when they’d been on the same R&B; circuit.
The Band of Gypsys played a darker, bluesier, blacker music than the Jimi Hendrix Experience had; it was akin to Muddy Waters on barbiturates and acid, playing through a stack of Marshall amps. Many Hendrix fans bemoaned the demise of the Experience, while others took the band as a racial-political statement (Hendrix’s sidemen in the Experience had been white Englishmen; his fellow Gypsys were black).
There was trouble within the band; during one notoriously disastrous gig at Madison Square Garden, Hendrix walked offstage. But the Gypsys’ sole recording, a live album released in 1970, stands up with the best of Hendrix’s work.
“It was Hendrix’s finest moment,” Miles said, “but you’d never know it to hear the way people talk. A lot of people said Jimi didn’t like the Band of Gypsys, and that’s absolute [nonsense]! The Band of Gypsys gave him a chance to understand what his musical theory really was, what his roots were about.
“Mitch Mitchell [of the Experience] was a great drummer, but he never contributed anything to Jimi. I listened to Jimi at Woodstock just this morning and it sounded so bad and distorted it just blew my mind. With the Band of Gypsys, we never had that problem. I was co-leader, and I’m a perfectionist. A lot of people might not like my attitude, but I get the job done.
“Me and Jimi were so tight, are you kidding me?”
But Miles feels he hasn’t been paid fairly for the work he did on albums with Hendrix.
“And the Hendrix family better beware, because I’m gonna get my compensation.”
When the Band of Gypsys broke up, Miles resumed his solo career, scoring a mini-hit with “Them Changes” in 1970. In 1972, he recorded a live album with Carlos Santana--creating another bad memory for himself.
“You have to understand that Carlos Santana is a great person and a great musician,” Miles said. “But it’s a case of playing for all the wrong reasons as far as I’m concerned. You don’t have to put other people down when you play. You don’t have to control people. Carlos Santana tried to make me stand on x’s and wouldn’t let me move around. . . .”
Miles continued releasing solo albums but clearly was spinning out of control by the late ‘70s. He was convicted of grand theft and auto theft in 1978 and wound up serving terms in Chino and San Quentin. He now believes that it was meant to be, that he wasn’t cut out for the pressures of being a bandleader.
“It was a responsibility that I got frustrated with. I don’t like having to make all the decisions. I got enough problems just trying to keep my [self] together. That’s a lot of the reason I got into trouble. I put myself in prison because I was bitter, didn’t give a damn anymore. I’d been living in L.A., going crazy, outlaw, drugs. But in a roundabout way it was probably best for me. I know I put myself in there. It was the best thing that could have happened to me.”
Shortly after his release from prison in 1985, Miles found himself singing lead in the California Raisins commercials. The California Raisins even released three albums, including the platinum-selling “California Raisins Sing the Hit Songs.” It is no small irony that for all the distinguished music he has made over years, Miles enjoyed his biggest success as a corporate Claymation character.
In 1994, he was back fronting a new Express, this one featuring funk bass legend Bootsy Collins and guitar hotshot Steve Salas. The group’s “Hell and Back” album sold poorly but got great reviews. But--surprise--Miles doesn’t have much good to say about it.
“I didn’t like working with [producer] Bill Laswell,” Miles said. “I don’t like working with creepy people. That’s all I really have to say about that.”
He currently is on the road with yet another Express, this one featuring guitarist Rod Cohen, organist Mike Leach, bassist Charles Tomes and alternate drummer Kenny Moutenot. Miles is not signed to a label but seems unconcerned. In closing the conversation, he summed up his philosophy:
“I’ve jammed with Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Peter Greene, John Mayall. Look, I’ve jammed with every blues and rock legend--B.B., Albert and Freddie King, Albert Collins, Buddy Guy--who is another distasteful [person] if you ask me. Some of these guys get their heads stuck up [in dark places] when they get a little bit of stardom and everything. It might sound like I’m bitter, but I’m not.
“I’m just saying you gonna be what you gonna be, you gonna do what you gonna do. You play your music the best you can. But when you turn around and start thinking you’re better than anybody, you can [forget it]. I’ve got a lot of friends I’ve made over the years and I’ve got a few enemies, too, but I don’t worry about any of it.”
* The Buddy Miles Express plays Tuesday at the Galaxy Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana. GTO and Smuggler’s Point open. 8 p.m. $17. (714) 957-0600.