Buddy Miles was one of the most influential funk/rock drummers of the 1970s. Best known for his collaborations with Jimi Hendrix and Billy Cox in the group Band of Gypsys, Miles was a versatile collaborator and composer appearing on more than seventy albums and working with such funk, jazz, soul, and rock artists as Carlos Santana, Stevie Wonder, David Bowie, and Bootsy Collins. Miles took part in the psychedelic rock movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and his unique style, blending funk, soul, jazz, and rock, served as a major inspiration and influence to his contemporaries and later generations of musicians.
George Allen Miles Jr. started playing drums in his youth and was given the nickname "Buddy" by his family, in tribute to legendary jazz drummer Buddy Rich. He was born in Omaha, Nebraska, where his father, George Miles Sr., a jazz bassist who had worked with prominent musicians including Duke Ellington and Count Basie, was touring with his original jazz combo, the BeBops. Miles's father groomed him to become a professional musician, allowing his son to sit in with the BeBops to learn how to play in a group setting. By the time he was nine years old Miles was appearing with his father in live performances, and within a few years he was performing with the band regularly.
Miles's natural skill on the drums caught the attention of other performers in Nebraska, and he spent a few years sitting in with other soul and jazz groups, making a name for himself as a working musician. By his early teens Miles was touring with, among other acts, the Delfonics and Rudy and the Romantics.
Rose to Fame during the 1960s
In 1967, while Miles was living in Chicago, Illinois, and performing with Wilson Pickett, guitarist Mike Bloomfield, formerly of the Butterfield Blues Band, approached Miles and asked him to participate in an innovative musical project. The band, called Electric Flag, was a blend of soul, rock, blues, and folk, and also featured Barry Goldberg on keyboards, Harvey Brooks on bass, and singer Nick Gravenites. Electric Flag debuted at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 before releasing its first album A Long Time Comin' the following year. Miles, who was known for his eccentric dress including sequined American flag shirts and a buoyant afro, developed his personal style and stage persona during his time with Electric Flag.
Shortly after the release of the group's debut album, Electric Flag began to disintegrate due to conflict among the members. Though Miles continued to record with the band in later incarnations, he turned his attention toward alternate projects, including his own band, the Buddy Miles Express. The Buddy Miles Express released a debut album, Expressway to Your Skull, in 1968, to critical acclaim.
In 1967 Miles began working with guitarist Jimi Hendrix, with whom he became acquainted in Toronto, Canada, in 1964 while both men were working as side musicians for other bands. Hendrix had recently become one of the rising stars of the psychedelic rock community with his band, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and remained in contact with Miles, occasionally performing on stage with Electric Flag. Hendrix produced Buddy Miles Express's 1969 album Electric Church, and Miles performed on Hendrix's recording, Electric Ladyland.
Played with Jimi Hendrix
Hendrix disbanded the Experience in 1968, and he, Miles, and bassist Billy Cox formed Band of Gypsys, a short-lived project that released only one album, which was self-titled and recorded live at the Fillmore East in New York City over several nights during the New Year's holiday in 1969-70. Band of Gypsys is widely regarded as one of the first all African-American rock bands, and their album became one of Hendrix's most popular live recordings.
Some weeks later, while the band was performing at Madison Square Garden, Hendrix suffered a breakdown on stage, bringing an early end to the performance. Manager Michael Jeffrey fired Miles shortly thereafter, and Miles later told reporters he believed that Jeffrey had slipped Hendrix LSD before the concert to undermine the group's performance because Jeffrey did not want to manage Hendrix in an all African-American group. Miles went as far as to tell reporters, according to his obituary in the Independent, "One of the biggest reasons why Jimi is dead is because of that guy."
The band's single album was released in 1970 and made it to the top ten charts in the United States and in Europe. Miles continued collaborating with Hendrix until Hendrix died of a drug overdose in September of that year. The song "Them Changes," which Miles wrote for Band of Gypsys, became his signature song and a standard for blues rock artists of the era. Miles re-recorded the song and used it as the title of his 1970 release with the Buddy Miles Express. In 1971 Miles recorded a live album with Carlos Santana, which featured a new version of "Them Changes" and was the first of several collaborations with Santana during the 1970s and 1980s.
Relaunched Career after Time in Prison
In 1978 Miles was arrested and jailed for grand theft auto and for stealing from a clothing store in Hollywood, California. He served seven years in prison, first at the California Institution for Men at Chino and then at San Quentin State Prison, and formed bands in both institutions, performing for groups of inmates. "When I went to prison, nobody put me in prison but Buddy Miles, OK?" Miles told Rick Koster in the Dallas Observer in 1997. "I paid for it; I served my time."
After his release from prison in 1985 and a brief stay at a halfway house, Miles resumed his work as a musician, adding further collaborations to his resume, including performances with David Bowie, Eric Clapton, and Stevie Wonder. In 1986 Miles was chosen by the California Raisin Advisory Board to be the singing voice behind the animated character "Buddy Raisin" in a series of commercials advertising the state's raisin crop. The commercials were enormously successful, largely due to the advent of new claymation technology. Miles's rendition of the Marvin Gaye song "I Heard It through the Grapevine," which appeared in the first commercial, led to the release of four spin-off albums, including two compilations of hit R&B soul songs and a Christmas album that accompanied a 1988 television special starring the Raisins.
Though Miles enjoyed three lucrative years as part of the California Raisins campaign, he also continued recording and playing with other artists. He served as a vocalist for the 1987 Santana album Freedom and collaborated with Bootsy Collins for the 1992 Hardware album Third Eye Open.
In the early 1990s Miles created another incarnation of the Buddy Miles Express and released a new album, Hell and Back, in 1994, which featured covers of some of his work with Hendrix but with more modern, updated sound production. Miles's work during the 1990s and early 2000s was only moderately successful, but he was able to expand his recording repertoire. The 2002 album Blues Berries features Miles performing a number of blues standards set to minimal accompaniment. Miles reunited with Billy Cox for a Band of Gypsys reunion in 2004, and released an album with Cox in 2006.
At a Glance …
Born George Allen Miles Jr. on September 5, 1947, in Omaha, NE; died February 26, 2008, in Austin, TX; son of George Miles Sr. (a musician).
Though he was suffering from congestive heart failure, a disease that claimed the lives of several of his family members, Miles continued making live appearances until 2007. Some of the proceeds from his performances and album releases were used to support charitable organizations, including disaster relief for victims of Hurricane Katrina and the Children's Craniofacial Association. Though his failing health ultimately prevented him from performing, Miles's contributions to music made a lasting impression. According to his official Web site, the night before Miles passed away in February of 2008, a friend called him from Madison Square Garden to let him listen, through a cell phone, to Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood performing a cover of "Them Changes." When asked in an interview in Seconds in 1995 how he wanted to be remembered, Miles replied, "People say I'm the baddest drummer. If that's true, thank you world."
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Expressway to Your Skull, Fontana Hip-O Select, 1968.
(Contributor) Jimi Hendrix Experience, Electric Ladyland, Reprise, 1968.
Electric Church, Mercury, 1969.
We've Got to Live Together, Mercury, 1970.
Them Changes, Universal, 1970.
Band of Gypsys, Capitol, 1970.
Live, Mercury, 1971.
Message to the People, Mercury, 1971.
Booger Bear, Columbia, 1973.
Chapter VII, Columbia, 1973.
All the Faces of Buddy Miles, Columbia, 1974.
More Miles per Gallon, Casablanca, 1975.
(With Carlos Santana) Freedom, Columbia, 1987.
The California Raisins Sing the Hit Songs, Priority Records, 1987.
Sweet, Delicious, & Marvelous, Priority Records, 1988.
Christmas with the California Raisins, Priority Records, 1988.
Hardware, Third Eye Open, Rykodisk, 1992.
Hell and Back, Innerrhythmic Found, 1994.
Miles Away from Home, Hip-O Records, 1997.
Blues Berries, Ruf, 2002.
Band of Gypsys Return: Billy Cox and Buddy Miles, Experience Hendrix, 2006.
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Cohen, Jonathan, "Hendrix Drummer Buddy Miles Dies at 60," Billboard Online, February 27, 2008, http://www.billboard.com/bbcom/news/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1003716707 (accessed May 30, 2008).
Gallo, Phil, "Drummer Buddy Miles Dies at 60," Variety Online, February 27, 2008, http://www.variety.com/article/VR1117981528.html?categoryid=16&cs=1 (accessed May 30, 2008).
"Hendrix Drummer Buddy Miles Dies," BBC News Online, February 28, 2008, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/7268440.stm (accessed May 30, 2008).
McCulley, Jerry, "Them Changes: The Big Life of Buddy Miles," Gibson Online, March 4, 2008, http://www.gibson.com/en-us/Lifestyle/Features/Them%20Changes_%20The%20Big%20Life%20of/ (accessed May 30, 2008).
Sweeting, Adam, "Buddy Miles: Rock Drummer Who Graced the Stage with Hendrix in His Heyday," Guardian Online, February 29, 2008, http://music.guardian.co.uk/obituaries/story/0,,2260921,00.html (accessed May 30, 2008).
—Micah L. Issitt
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