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Danny Cox On Civil Rights, Music And An Unexpected Kansas City Homecoming

Paul Andrews
Danny Cox performs at the recordBar once a month, but not all Kansas Citians know his history.

The first time Danny Cox visited Kansas City, it was not a pleasant experience.

It was 1963, a year before the Civil Rights Act banned racial discrimination in public places, and Cox was a nationally touring musician arriving for a show. When he walked in the door at the Muehelbach Hotel, the clerk told him that black people couldn't stay at the Muehelbach.

Though the word he used for "black people" was not quite so polite.

Most of Cox's fellow musicians and road crew were white, but they refused to stay in a place where their vocalist wasn't welcome.

"So we all left and went over to Kansas City, Kansas and it used to be an old Holiday Inn there that overlooked the three rivers. They welcomed us with open arms," Cox recalls. "We saw the difference between a slave state and a free state."

It was a devastating first encounter with Kansas City, Missouri, but Danny Cox has had a special relationship with Kansas City, Kansas, ever since.

In fact, that's exactly where the 72-year-old musician lives today.

He writes commercial music jingles — including the hilarious Grasspad's High On Grass tune — and frequently performs in children's plays while recording albums and holding down regular gigs at the Record Bar and Pilgrim Chapel. 

But the Kansas City icon has a wild back story. It's taken him onstage with the likes of Ray Charles and Jefferson Starship and earned him regular appearances on popular television shows. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was a four-performance run at Carnegie Hall.

"I remember walking back up to the dressing room past these pictures of all these incredible people that had been there, just in this daze. And the guy came back and got me and says, 'Hey they want you for an encore.'"

As he remembers it today, he still shakes his head in disbelief.

Growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio in the 1940s and 1950s, Danny Cox was raised in a world where lynching was a terrifying reality. 

"When I was a kid, your life was a block," he says. "Racism was rampant. People were being hung."

He read Jet and Ebony magazines, which published photographs of lynchings that you wouldn't see elsewhere. As a boy, seeing those images, what he felt was "total anger."

His family set an example of standing up to injustice.

When he was about nine years old, his older sister, Margaret, was brought home from her Catholic school by the Mother Superior, who reported that Margaret had refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance. Cox's mother asked her daughter why she'd refused, and Margaret said she didn't think there was liberty and justice for all in a segregated America. Her objection, she said, was lying. Mrs. Cox sided with her daughter.

She also called her son in sick when, as a teenager, he attended Civil Rights protests. As Cox remembers it, his mom would call the school and inform them that her son would be in jail that day.

In all, he went to jail four times.

His interest in music came late, by today's standards. After attending prep school in Cincinnati, his plan was to attend art school for college. His best friend planned to attend Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. There was always music in his home, where he discovered his father's jazz records and sang in a church choir, but it was strictly for fun. 

The summer before Cox and his best friend were set to leave for college, they got to talking about these people they'd heard about called "beatniks." They supposedly wore berets and recited poetry. Wanting to see some beatniks up close, they went to a coffee shop.

There happened to be an open mic that night.

They got up and sang some of their protest songs, just for fun. When they were done, the coffee shop manager asked them if they wanted to come back and perform on a regular basis. They sang at that coffee shop all summer. Cox's friend went on ahead to college as planned, but Danny was hooked.

Credit Paul Andrews

Thirty years had gone by before he looked up and realized he'd become a musician.

Cox made a name for himself as a folk musician. Pete Seeger had started a craze called a hootenanny, or folk music gathering. He was putting them on nationally, and Cox decided to throw a local hootenanny in Cincinnati. He put on two events that sold out in his hometown before taking the event to other towns in Ohio. Those sold out, too. As Cox's Hootenanny Folk Tour traveled further and further from Ohio, Cox became a known figure in the folk circuit. He played six shows in St. Louis and four in New York, at Carnegie Hall.

His 1974 album Feel So Good was a huge hit. The songs on that album sound more funky than folksy, but the lyrics are intensely political and come straight from the protest song tradition, despite their danceable beats. The song Hot Down In Chile, for example, is all about the death of Chilean president Salvador Allende. But it's impossible not to get down and get funky to that tune.

Cox had been all over the world, including a seven-year stint making music and raising horses in Mexico, before he returned to Kansas City, this time to live. He was lured here to work for the Good Karma production company, which operated out of Kansas City at the time.

In his time in Kansas City, he's been instrumental in the lives of two legendary music venues: the Vanguard Coffeehouse at 43rd and Main in the 1960s, and the Cowtown Ballroom on Gillham in the 1970s.

Credit Paul Andrews

Nowadays, he's a father of ten and now a grandfather, too. He lives in a house his children built with their own hands when his previous home burned to the ground in a devastating fire. He plays a monthly gig at the Record Bar, which he treats as a family reunion. He takes the stage early in the evening, before things get too rowdy, and all his grandkids come and have fun. 

Music has gone back to being a family thing for Cox, which is just how it started.

Portrait sessions are intimate interviews with the most interesting people in Kansas City. Each conversational portrait is paired with photographic portraits by Paul Andrews.

People don't make cameos in news stories; the human story is the story, with characters affected by news events, not defined by them. As a columnist and podcaster, I want to acknowledge what it feels like to live through this time in Kansas City, one vantage point at a time. Together, these weekly vignettes form a collage of daily life in Kansas City as it changes in some ways, and stubbornly resists change in others. You can follow me on Twitter @GinaKCUR or email me at gina@kcur.org.