Cohen Offers Blues, Boogie-Woogie, and Better Days
"I remember many times, sitting in his dressing room, playing guitar together," says David Bennett Cohen of Local 802 (New York City), referring to Jimi Hendrix, whom he sometimes shared concert bills with back before the guitar legend rose to superstardom. The two first met at the Monterey International Pop Music Festival in 1967, Hendrix's first major American appearance. "He was just the most amazing musician and guitar player. He could do blues things that would blow me away," Cohen recalls.
Although Cohen may have been jamming on his guitar in the dressing rooms, it was his keyboard skills that brought him to the stage with the psychedelic rock band, Country Joe and the Fish.
As a kid, Cohen never could have imagined himself in that role. He remembers that he "hated every minute" of the piano lessons that he was forced to take. On the other hand, when he discovered the guitar around age 12, he describes it as "a love affair."
"All through high school, my days would follow a very particular routine," Cohen says. "I would get home from school and I would play my guitar for six hours. Then, I'd do 15 minutes of homework and go to sleep. I was driven."
Cohen eventually returned to the keys after catching a television performance by boogie-woogie pianist Meade Lux Lewis. "It changed the way I thought about the piano," he says. "But, of course, there were no teachers in that day that were teaching that kind of music, so I learned from listening to records, watching people, and imitating their licks."
Living in New York City, Cohen became a part of the Washington Square music scene. Then, when he moved to California in the mid 1960s, he fell into the budding, counterculture music scene in the Bay area. It was there that, quite by accident, his blues piano style got him noticed. "There was a club called the Jabberwock, and all of the musicians used to hang out there," Cohen remembers. "There was an old beat-up piano in the corner, and every now and then I'd sit down and bang away. But I wasn't serious about it."
But the band Country Joe and the Fish took him seriously. When the group decided to add an organ to its mix, Cohen was the first choice. Of course, I had never played organ in my life," Cohen says. "The only organs I had ever seen were these big intimidating things in churches, and I thought I could never play that instrument!"
Still, he accepted the offer, and found that he was able to learn on the job. "I didn't know what to do, so basically I took my guitar licks and used them on the organ. …