Coxy's Biggest Break: The daytime TV star's rich history with hip-hop

Coxy's Biggest Break: The daytime TV star's rich history with hip-hop

Coxy, the mild-mannered bloke at the centre of the Australian travel show, actually had his big break years prior, in rap music.

Ah, Coxy’s Big Break: the warm cup of tea of the 5:30 time slot. 

It was like Getaway, but good; like Postcards, but personalized. It was what you got when you turned your TV on just a little early, keen for whatever it was that chased that not-quite-evening stretch. It was in this strange television purgatory – not daytime, but not primetime – that the universally congenial Geoff Cox carved out his space in Australian screen culture. In his impressive 11-year run, Coxy took his full-bodied ‘stache on a world tour, letting the entirety of Australia join as he tried his hand at prospecting, scaling outrigging, officiating Las Vegas weddings, trying Polyenisian fire twirling, and playing didgeridoos in the red centre

There was something quietly gratifying about watching Coxy explore an unending procession of totally unrelated tourist traps, his distinctly Australian folksiness thrown into experiences many his age would consider too newfangled, too tough and too exotic. There’s something refreshing in not only his openness on national television, but his seemingly normal life off-screen: Geoff Cox has incurred no controversy over the course of his long career, unlike disgraced figures such as Don Burke and Rolf Harris. In the age of Big Break, Coxy was Australian television’s most iconic everyman. In the ages prior, however, Cox was a prodigious musician with a storied career and a strange, surprising place in hip-hop history.

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It’s only now that I’m older that I realise there’s more to Coxy than meets the eye. A young Geoff picked up the sticks at fifteen, quickly becoming an experienced drummer schooled in rock, jazz and latin. He took that passion professional in ‘67, starting out alongside Ross D. Wyllie on ATV music programs Uptight and Happenin’ 70, all the while gigging “six nights a week at The Village Green” in Mulgrave as a part of the Keith McKay Trio. “We were making so much money, and we were having such a good time,” he told Wendy Stapleton on Wrokdown in 2016.

Uptight put Coxy in close contact with big bands of the day, most notably The Twilights and The Groop, and it was his rapport with Twilight’s Glen Shorrock and Groop’s Brian Cadd that saw his star rise. The Keith McKay Trio supported Axiom – Shorrock and Cadd’s supergroup – in October 1969, and in 1972, aged just twenty-one, Cox became a member of the Bootleg Family Band, a collection of dependable industry figures brought together to furnish Cadd’s label of the same name.

Cadd, having written Little Ray Of Sunshine as a member of Axiom in 1970, continued to find success with his independent venture: Ginger Man was the seventh top-selling Australian single of ‘72, and his three solo records released through Bootleg were all national hits, buoyed by some similarly successful singles. Coxy played the drums on all of them. They travelled to the States in ‘75, playing on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert and The Midnight Special, but the trip was short-lived – they’d apparently secured the wrong visas, and were back playing in Warrigal Road by the weekend.

The Family Band also saw in-house work on records from Kerrie Biddel, Stephen Foster and Mississippi, and Cox himself sat in for a swathe of records outside the label. He himself lays claim to having played on “28 or 29” gold records, all recorded at Armstrong Studios in South Melbourne, and Coxy, Cadd and the rest of the Bootleg Family Band even cropped up in Alvin Rides Again, the 1974 sequel to absurdly successful Aussie sex comedy Alvin Purple. The group had a groundswell of experience but little chance to direct it, and so in 1976, after Cadd moved to the States, the sessionists rechristened themselves Avalanche and recorded a self-titled LP of their own.

It’s hard to verify, but Coxy claims to have toured Australia and New Zealand with a pre-disco Bee Gees, and in 1978 – after Bootleg act Mississippi returned from the UK and became Little River Band – he toured with that act throughout North America and Australia, covering for Derek Pellicci, who’d suffered severe burns from a barbecue accident. He even found time to take a trip to South Africa with Cliff Richards before he took a step back from his music career. 

Even as the kit took a backseat, Coxy was good at finding his way onto the airwaves. In 1979, he started a tenure at The Roxy Hotel in South Melbourne, his “Coxy from the Roxy” bumpers a radio staple throughout the ‘80s, and he soon took on another long-lived job as a radio presenter on 101.1 FM. Coxy joined Postcards in the late-’90s, and after five years, he finally got his Big Break. It endeared him to audiences nationwide, many of whom had likely enjoyed his anonymous drumming in years gone by: they’d appreciated it alongside Cadd, they’d appreciated it through his work as a session musician, and though few were aware, they’d appreciated it on some of NYC’s most essential hip-hop joints.

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Geoff Cox, drums, in Alvin Rides Again (1974)

It all comes back to Avalanche, the Cadd-free successor to the Bootleg Family Band. That quartet never matched the impact of their once-omnipresent outfit, who graced screens, stages and soundwaves in support of their founder’s fame. What they lacked in popular success, they more than made up for in experience, the tight instrumentation lending itself to the similarly honed arrangements. 

Bermuda Triangle finds the quartet in a comfortable hard rock groove, not dissimilar to the then-ascending AC/DC, whilst Annie proves a take on the lovelorn soft-rock of the ‘70s. Overnight Sensation is a foray into funk; Spark in the Dark channels Queen, then having just broke out with A Night at the Opera; and Closer To Love lean into poppier conventions. The 1976 record produced three singles – Wizard of Love and Sweet Baby Brown Eyes prior to release, and Landslide subsequently– and Coxy and Clive Harrison moved on from the group soon thereafter. A few releases with a new lineup ensued, but the group soon split, and Avalanche was no more. 

Their story could’ve very easily ended there, and for the better part of twelve years, it seemed as though it had. The record mulled about in collections, spun around on turntables and commemorated a longstanding musical fraternity, but somewhere in the borough of Queens, that artifact was collecting dust in a cluttered crate. In some twist of fate, the record ended up in the hands of Marlon Williams, a radio show offsider and fledgling producer known as Marley Marl.

An indelible artist coming into his own, Marl sampled Coxy’s beat from Overnight Sensation for Kool G Rap & DJ Polo’s Butcher Shop. That track, included on the soundtrack to the 1988 film Colors, came as one of the duo’s first releases, and it was issued as the b-side to the hugely successful Road to the Riches later that same year. The sample stayed with G Rap and Polo, even when Marl didn’t: Streets of New York, their classic 1990 single, found Large Professor, G Rap and Anton Pukshansky putting Coxy’s break to use yet again.

If that second flip made an impact, it took a moment to be felt. The Beatnuts incorporated the drums from Overnight Sensation into 1992’s Chi-Ali vs. Vanilla Shake, opening the floodgates for 1993 invocations from Onyx, Fat Joe and Ed O.G. & The Bulldogs. The momentum pushed into the next year, in which Redman, Hard 2 Obtain and an Illmatic remix made use of Coxy’s drumming, but no single sample vaulted Coxy to the forefront of hip-hop like the year’s final flip. Geoff Cox appeared on The Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready To Die.

The What is a standout for an important reason: it’s the only joint on Biggie’s nineteen-track debut to feature another emcee. Method Man, the breakout star of the Wu-Tang Clan, was the veteran in the mix, having appeared on his group’s record a year earlier, and though Biggie has gone on to eclipse his fame, no clear winner emerges from the lyrical duel. Instrumentally, The What is the handiwork of producer Easy Mo Bee, and key to that sonic stage is the crisp breakbeat that makes the laidback cut lurch forward. It might just be the most iconic and pervasive cadence Geoff Cox ever played, miring the would-be travel show host deep in the dusty streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant. 

Let it be known that B.I.G. coined “Biggie Smalls is the illest” to the sound of Coxy’s snare, and there’s a real possibility he knew as much. Big shoots out an allusion at the close of his last verse – “excuse me, flows just grow through me / like trees to branches, cliffs to avalanches…” – that, taken alongside his rapport with Easy Mo Bee, suggests he might’ve known a little about the samples at play. 

That wasn’t the end of it, either. Definitive though a Biggie spot maybe, Overnight Sensation continued cropping up on tracks into the early 2000s, most notably alongside a newly-independent Kool G Rap, the ever-informative Poor Righteous Teachers and a truly surprising 2001 trio: Lord Tariq, Jay Z and Nas. In the midst of hip-hop’s most legendary beef, Coxy’s kit ended up on a totally unsanctioned collaboration between the ‘90s superstars, one assembled from a previously-unreleased Nas verse and a largely forgotten Shaquille O’Neal song. Coxy was on that one too – clearly, he’d be a formidable pick for ‘six degrees of separation.’

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The performer-turned-presenter has been a bit quieter since the sun set on his Big Break, foregoing those more prominent media roles for a return to his musical beginnings. He reunited with Brian Cadd and the Bootleg Family Band, and they released a record, Bulletproof, in 2016. “It was mostly about getting back together with the actual Bootleg Family Band again,” said Cadd in an interview with On With The Show. “We decided to go into the studio for a few days and see what happened. The original vibe returned almost immediately and it was just like 40 years ago, Coxy still telling the same jokes he told back in 1973. It was funny and lovely.”

That experience – writing, recording and touring with his old outfit – speaks to the passion that runs through the group, with Cadd a persistent performer despite entering his eighth decade. The same can be said for 69-year-old Coxy, who recently played a 2019 New Years Eve gig with his own band, Coxy & The Roxy Boys.

As for his hip-hop history, I’m not even sure Coxy himself is aware. It’s a strange achievement, but an achievement all the same, precipitated by both chance and skill: the playing is the draw, but the discovery isn’t assured. In the hands of Marley Marl, the man “who figured out how to sample,” Coxy’s musicianship broke into a whole new sphere and took on a whole new importance in an unlikely scene. It took a little longer than the title suggests, but Overnight Sensation might just be Coxy’s biggest break of all. 

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