The Buddy System
George “Buddy” Miles, who died at age sixty on February 27, was born eclectic. He got his nickname from his idol, jazz drummer Buddy Rich, with whom he shared a stage as a teenager. His father, George Sr., was a bassist who played with Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Charlie Parker. Buddy joined his dad’s band, the Bebops, at the age of twelve. Over the next several years he played behind the Ink Spots, the Delfonics, Ruby and the Romantics, and Wilson Pickett.
It was while Miles was with Pickett that he was spotted by guitarist Mike Bloomfield and tapped for the drum chair in the blues-rock horn band The Electric Flag. Electric Flag’s 1968 debut album, A Long Time Comin’, is a masterpiece which rises to the conceit of its vision—to be “An American Music Band,” an amalgam of genres from rock to soul to country to jazz to blues. It wouldn’t have succeeded without Buddy Miles.
And that wasn’t even the best band Buddy Miles was ever in. That would be A Band of Gypsies, the trio that also featured Jimi Hendrix and Billy Cox. Buddy was no sideman there. He contributed much to its injection of funk into rock, as much with his singing and writing as with his powerful drumming. He also played on Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland and had some fine moments with Carlos Santana.
Buddy Miles recorded a long string of solo albums and not one of them is fully satisfying (not even his greatest hits album is devoid of filler, for Chrissakes). But that doesn’t mean they aren’t good—most of them have thrilling peaks of roadhouse R&B heavily spiced with rock elements and Buddy’s rock-flavored singing, in which he used sheer force of will to overpower the mic.
Why was his own output so uneven? Maybe it was because he had small recording budgets and was in a hurry. Maybe it was because he never resolved the tension between being the drummer and being the vocalist/leader (at one point he had his drums and vocal mic set up at the front of the stage while another drummer played in the back). Maybe it was just that, like so many artists, his reach exceeded his grasp.
That yin and yang continued as he made some excellent music in the 90s, doing blues covers on some projects and working with Bootsy Collins on others. Music was such a part of him that when he wound up doing time at Chino and San Quentin he formed inmate bands. In his last few years Miles, who always expressed a strong social conscience in his music, became a crusader against youth violence, insisting that “we all are one.”
That’s a part of his legacy, as well as a sprawling career that can lead a listener into almost all the musics of America. The only time I saw Buddy Miles offstage he was eating cheesecake at the café in the Fillmore West, hanging out with anyone who would have him. He wasn’t performing that night, he was just checking out a bill that was, like him, very eclectic.
Buddy Miles is said to have died of natural causes. But, as is true for most artists in the richest country on earth, he never had health insurance. His family had to send out an appeal on the Internet to raise the money to bury him.
Rock & Rap Confidential / 2008