Henry Kaiser Remembers Pete Cosey

November 8, 2012

ONE OF MY GREATEST GUITAR heroes passed away on May 30, 2012. Pete Cosey is best known for his amazing playing on four ’70s-era double albums by Miles Davis—most notably his genre-shattering live work on Agharta and Pangea. Cosey was a gentle, wise, fierce, and compassionate man. He was also one of the greatest influences on me, as well as many other guitar eccentrics of my generation, including Vernon Reid, Elliott Sharp, and Nels Cline. Cosey was as unique as Jimi Hendrix while in his prime, and he was a hero who challenged you to be yourself and not copy him in any way— except to seek your own personal voice.

Cosey grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, where he used to go into the desert and play through a little amp, his guitar ringing off the mountains, to develop his wide-open sound. He later returned to his birthplace of Chicago, becoming a studio guitarist for Chess Records, and appearing on hundreds of albums by artists such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Etta James. He was also a founding member of Earth, Wind & Fire. In the ’70s, Cosey had a three-foot-long beard, dressed in robes, and drove an old hearse.

Reggie Lucas shared guitar duties in Miles’ band with Cosey from 1973 to 1975, and he recently wrote to me of Pete: “He was a genuine original, sublimely talented, and with roots that seemed to reach the earth’s core. He was a truly great musician, with a laugh as robust and sweet as his guitar playing.”

Cosey worked from a broader palette of guitar colors and musical systems of organization than just about anybody that I can think of. He had dozens of different and completely original guitar tuning systems. He rarely played in standard tuning.

Back in 1973, I went up to Pete after a Miles show in Boston, and he kindly spent 30 minutes showing me how he managed his many pedals, and combined them in unusual ways. He showed me how he plugged his cord halfway into a BossTone fuzz to get some of the crazy sounds that folks only get with a ZVex Fuzz Factory today. In 2009, after I subbed for a health-troubled Pete in the Miles from India project, he told me he remembered our talk from 1973, and that he regretted getting rid of that old BossTone. I told him I bought one immediately after he showed me his trick, and, the next day, I brought that old pedal of mine to Pete and passed it back to him. You almost never get to show gratitude to your ancestors that way. Thank you, Pete. I will always miss you.

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