By KYLE LOVERN
MATEWAN - Growing up in the small hamlet of Newtown nestled deep in the mountains in rural Mingo County, Rocky Isaac never dreamed he would one day be drumming for a rock and roll icon.
However his travels and musical talents eventually led him to recording sessions with famed guitarist Jimi Hendrix.
Although Hendrix died in September 18, 1970, at the young age of 28, he was one of the most famous rock guitarists, singers, and songwriters in history. And though his career spanned only four years, he is widely regarded as one of the most influential electric guitarists in the history of popular music.
Isaac attended old Red Jacket Junior High School and then went on to Matewan High School where he played in the bands at both schools. His family moved to Williamson the first semester of his senior year and then moved deep into the tough urban area of Washington, D.C. for his last semester back in 1962. It was quite a culture shock for a teenager from southern West Virginia.
"The first job I got out of high school was at the Library of Congress and I met a guitar player," Isaac said. "His name was Fred Long from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. He told me he had a little band up in Pennsylvania and why didn't I come with him. Soon I started driving up with him."
"The first thing I said to him 'I'm better than your drummer'," Isaac said with a sly smile.
"Within about four or five weeks, I went from playing a couple of songs with the band to taking the drummer's place," he added.
"In October of 1963 to June of 1964, we were playing seven nights a week at Georgetown in Washington," said Isaac. "We had the best little rock band around."
Eventually his friendship with that guitar player introduced him into the rock music world. It was the 1960s and Isaac admits he got into that "scene" like most musicians did.
The band later played up in New York, which was only a 200 mile drive up the east coast. "Our band broke up and I started switching bands. I went from band to band - four or five different bands," Isaac recalls.
He eventually started playing for a band called the Cherry People. "We went to New York and got a recording contract," he remembers. "We got with producer Jerry Ross." He had produced some hit songs. "We did an album and had a top 40 song on it - on the Billboard charts."
Isaac said he was not pleased with the band despite the success they had. "I was trying to get out of the recording contract we had with Ross," he recalls. "I happened to be at a place called 'Steve Pauls Scene' in New York City. It was a club where people who had been in groups, but were in transition and were trying to put another group together. They all met at this place."
"I happened to be there and in walked Jimi Hendrix," Isaac recollects. "We had a road manager and his name was Al Marx. He had worked with MCA records. He was a fellow that could talk to anyone. It was easy for him," Isaac related. "He had an outgoing personality."
"He went up and was talking to Jimi," Isaac recalls. "He came back and said he wants to talk to you Rocky."
"I said about what?" Isaac recalls. "He wants you to record with him this morning. It was already about 3:00 O'clock in the morning."
"I looked at Al and thought he was putting me on," Isaac said. "I joked that I would kill him if he was lying to me. So I went up there and then I got to record with him that night."
Isaac said he wasn't pleased with his effort, but "he asked me if I would like to come back and do another session," Isaac said. "Of course I said yes!"
"I never thought that would happen," Isaac said, because he was hard on himself and didn't feel his playing was up to standards.
The year was 1970 and the Mingo County native recalls it was in April.
After a night off, and a trip back to Washington, Isaac and the guitar player went back to New York for another recording session with the iconic rock guitarist. "He got us a hotel room and scheduled a recording session," he remembers.
"I did 14 songs in all with Jimi," Isaac said. "So far four of them have been released."
"It would have never happened if it weren't for Al (Marx)," Isaac said.
Eventually he hit the road and played in bands that warmed up for the great B.B. King, Ted Nugent and Edgar Winter at concerts in the early 1970s. He said it was a thrill to meet King.
"He (Hendrix) and B.B. King were two of the nicest people I have ever met in my life," Isaac said of the famous musicians. "They were generous and would do anything for you."
He got back with the Cherry People in 1971 and played some gigs. He also played with the group Orleans, who had the hit "Still the One."
"Those were wonderful times," he recalls.
He said many times the club owners would lock the doors and he would have jam sessions with many of those he rubbed elbows with in the music world. "I got to play with Edgar (Winter) and Rick Derringer. They were just super to be around."
In 2010 a rare Jimi Hendrix song recorded over 40 years ago was released. It was titled 'Bleeding Heart', from the album People, Hell and Angels. The blues song was originally recorded in April 1969. The studio recording, features Hendrix, bassist Billy Cox and Isaac on drums, but had never been released.
If you read the album (CD) credits, you will see where Isaac played drums on the song "Valleys of Neptune" also.
Not all of the songs he recorded with the famed rock guitarist were released, but Hendrix's sister Janie has been working on getting some of those older recorded songs released.
Isaac moved back to the Tug Valley area last year. He still likes to play and jam. He has been to Time Recording Studio located in Buskirk, Ky., which is owned and operated by local musician L.E. Simpkins, who is also a Matewan High School graduate. But Isaac said he is happy to be back home and living in the Tug Valley.
"People who grow up here don't know the gift they have," Isaac said, about growing up in Mingo County. "We had great teachers and music classes."
"Everywhere I go, I always find a band or someone to play with. My cousin had told me about L.E. after I moved down here," Isaac said. After missing each other a few times, the two local musicians finally met last year. Although, like most families, people have their own lives and it is difficult to find time to get together and play or record.
"At the end of August in 1970, I went to see him in concert in Philadelphia," Isaac said of Hendrix. "That is the last time I saw him. The next thing I heard a friend came to his town house in Virginia and gave him the news.
"It didn't really hit me real hard until a couple of weeks later," Isaac said. "It was a great loss."
"I was fortunate to have gotten to play with him," Isaac concluded of his time with Hendrix.
Kyle Lovern is the news and sports editor for the Williamson Daily News. He can be contacted at 304-235-4242, ext. 2277, by e-mail at klovern@HDmediallc.com or on Twitter @KyleLovern.