Take a healthy dose of psychedelic rock, add a pinch of Stax, and you get “Them Changes,” a Buddy Miles composition that manages to rock and funk out at the same time. Although primarily known as a drummer, Miles was also an accomplished songwriter, guitarist, and singer, and remained an unfairly underrated musician and vocalist until his 2008 death.
Born in 1947, Miles picked up the drums at age nine, eventually playing for Ruby & the Romantics, the Ink Spots, and the Delfonics. In 1966, he joined Wilson Pickett’s touring band, and was discovered by guitarist Mike Bloomfield (formerly of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band), who asked him to join his new group the Electric Flag. They recorded one album, but Bloomfield and other band members left the band in 1968. Miles took center stage, released one more album with the new lineup. But he soon departed the struggling band, taking the horn section with him. Newly christened the Buddy Miles Express, the group attracted an incredible mentor: Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix produced their first album, 1968′s Expressway to Your Skull; in return, Miles played on the legendary Electric Ladyland disc. After producing one more Buddy Miles Express record, Hendrix disbanded his own backing group, the Experience, in 1970. Subsequently he asked Miles to join his new group, the Band of Gypsys, and they recorded one album together. For this record, Miles presented Hendrix with an original composition: “Them Changes.” As the video below demonstrates, Hendrix took an aggressive rock stance on this version, although that distinctive bassline and Miles’ bluesy vocals remain. Hendrix’s typically impressive solo becomes the centerpiece of the record, and no horns are present.
Miles shortly thereafter left Band of Gypsys, which later disbanded. But he made an impressive comeback as bandleader, when he released his seminal work Them Changes in 1970. Remade for the album, the title track retains some of its original rock influences, but incredibly soulful horns (courtesy of the Memphis Horns) inject a jolt of pure soul into the tune. Miles’ slightly raspy but bluesy vocals are mixed in the foreground this time, and that funky bassline resonates even more than on the Band of Gypsys recording. The lyrics borrow directly from the time-honored blues tradition of the “my baby left me” theme, but “Them Changes” hardly resembles a lament. Even though his girlfriend leaves him alone, “It’s all right/You know what I mean/All right” he confidently chants, the Stax horns blaring behind him. Miles sings in a rhythmic manner, interweaving with the steady beat: “She had me runnin’/She had me ridin’/She had me runnin’, hiddin’, ridin’, runnin’” he sings, almost imitating the high hat. Sure, he has clearly suffered in the relationship: “Every time she stepped out on me/She didn’t know how I feel, yeah” he wails—but the ebullient tempo suggests that he’ll soon get over his emotions. The guitar solo echoes the original recording in its use of the wah-wah pedal, but it does not serve as the central focus on the record. Instead, it’s the shuffling rhythm, that memorable bassline, and Miles’ voice that elevate the track to classic status.
Despite this incredible song, Miles never became a huge sensation. From late 1971-1972 he toured with Carlos Santana; their live album Carlos Santana & Buddy Miles! Live! sold well. But personal problems hampered Miles’ career, and remained relatively obscure until 1986. The vehicle responsible for his comeback? Incredibly, the California Raisins ad campaign. He sang lead on “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” in the oft-aired commercial; the Temptations-like, claymation Raisins proved so popular that the “group” recorded two albums and starred in their own Christmas special. Miles sang on these projects, which led to a reunion with old friend Santana. After briefly serving as lead vocalist of Santana’s group, a collaboration with Bootsy Collins followed. Miles released a few albums in the 1990s and early 2000s and continued touring. Unfortunately congestive heart failure led to his death at age 61. For more information on his life, visit AllMusic’s Buddy Miles page.
Miles may be gone, but his influence remains; “Them Changes” has reached classic rock and soul status, and several artists have covered the tune. Perhaps the most unusual version comes courtesy of Bobby McFerrin, who performed an all-vocal reinterpretation of the song on his 1988 Simple Pleasures album. But Miles’ original performance remains the gold standard for this funky tune, and demonstrates how rock and soul can blend together to create memorable music.