Buddy Miles died of congestive heart failure on February 26, 2008 at his home in Austin, Texas. Big in every way—body, style, sound, and spirit—his is a legacy that won’t soon be forgotten.
During the ’60s and ’70s, in an era when rock music was expanding boundaries, minds, and more than a few wallets, Miles was the living symbol of a curious rock dichotomy. In the midst of a music boom largely fueled by a half-century of black man’s blues, actual African-American rock musicians were very few, and even farther in between. As the drummer with the massive, trademark sculpted afro was to claim in many an interview, an all-black rock group like Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys wasn’t just an oddity to some, but a perceived threat—especially to Hendrix’s perpetually maneuvering management.
Indeed, despite having a close friendship and long professional association with the legendary guitarist—or possibly because of it—Buddy was fired from the band by Jimi’s handlers just weeks after their New Year’s eve ’69/’70 Fillmore East shows yielded the successful Band of Gypsys album. “It had to be a racial thing,” Buddy speculated in a late ’80s interview. “I think it had to scare them because of the political aspect at the time.”
Yet the massive drummer’s gifted musicianship seemed as genetically ingrained as the color of his skin. George Allen Miles, Jr. was born in Omaha, Nebraska on September 5, 1947. Father George Sr. was a professional musician, a veteran sideman who’d played upright bass for many stars of the day, including gigs with Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Dexter Gordon, and Charlie Parker. The younger Miles took up the drums as a boy and began sitting in with his dad’s local jazz ensemble, the BeBops, at the tender age of 12. Such was the youngster’s skill on the skins that his aunt dubbed him “Buddy,” in honor of legendary drummer/bandleader Buddy Rich.
By his teens Miles was on the road with popular R&B acts like Ruby and the Romantics, the Delfonics, and Wilson Pickett. It was a mid-’60s Brooklyn gig with the latter that would spur the then 20-year old drummer to enter the rock world, thanks to an invitation from guitarist Mike Bloomfield to join his Chicago-based blues-rock ensemble, the Electric Flag. Powered by Miles’ thundering rhythms, the short-lived quintet—“the best band I ever played in,” Buddy later boasted—made their debut at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival and recorded the well-received A Long Time Comin’ album before the original line-up splintered. He briefly carried the Flag before forming his own band, the Buddy Miles Express.
The drummer’s fearsome chops and bigger-than-life persona garnered him many admirers during the era, not the least of whom was James Marshall Hendrix. The two had initially crossed paths in Toronto in 1964, while both were still working the R&B circuit. “He was playing in the Isley Brothers band and I was with Ruby & the Romantics,” Miles recalled to Hendrix biographer Johnny Black. “He had his hair in a ponytail with long sideburns. Even though he was shy, I could tell this guy was different. He looked rather strange, because everybody was wearing uniforms and he was eating his guitar, doing flip-flops, and wearing chains.” Their friendship soon yielded a professional association as well. Hendrix occasionally jammed on-stage with the Electric Flag and eventually produced the Buddy Miles Express, while the drummer played on sessions for Electric Ladyland.
“A lot of people have given me personal high praise as a drummer from my work with Hendrix,” Buddy said in a 2000 interview. “And that’s not to exclude Mitch Mitchell, because I think he’s a hell of a drummer and did a hell of a job with the Jimi Hendrix Experience—but by comparison, it is different worlds. The public was led to believe that [the Gypsys] broke up because I was uncooperative and this and that. As far as I’m concerned, the live album we did speaks for itself. It’s one of the most popular live rock albums ever made.”
The Gypsys would also produce what became Miles’ oft-recorded signature song, “Them Changes,”
showcasing a voice as big and powerful as his drumming. “My favorite was Otis Redding without a doubt,” Buddy once said of his vocal influences. “I listened to Sam Cook and Ben E. King, Chuck Jackson, Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett—even before I started playing with him.”
After his departure from the Gypsys, Miles did more solo and session work, hooked up with Carlos Santana for a high profile live album, and joined Electric Flag again for a less successful reunion. But the drummer’s often edgy lifestyle also spurred more than one brush with the law, eventually landing Buddy in prison for long stretches of the late ’70s and early ’80s. Undaunted, the drummer formed prison bands and made the best of it. “When I went to prison, nobody put me in prison but Buddy Miles, OK?” the musician said forthrightly in 1997. “I paid for it; I served my time. Now I chose it that way, so fine and dandy. OK. That’s the reason I say I learned something from [being in prison]. Because freedom is the ultimate. Period.”
Once while a prisoner in jail, Wilson Pickett & his Band came to perform for the inmates. Buddy was called up to the stage and, instead of going to sit behind the drums, he grabbed a guitar and began wailing on the instrument. When asked why did he never tell anyone he could play guitar, he famously commented, “Nobody asked me.”
Perhaps the strangest twist in Miles’ long, storied career came in 1986, when he provided a soulful rendition of Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” for a wildly successful California Raisins television ad campaign. Two related albums of soul covers—with Buddy now embodied as a singing claymation raisin, as well as a reunion with Santana on 1987’s Freedom. Miles continued to work with various local musicians and engage in occasional Band of Gypsys-related revivals before his rapidly deteriorating health slowed him to a standstill.