Fixin’ to die: Col. Bruce Hampton 1947-2017
With all of the madness and mayhem Atlanta’s avant-garde rock provocateur inspired, even he would’ve been surprised by his final act
The news isn’t that Bruce Hampton died — it’s that he lived. He lived in a world of sorrow and pain and made the best of it. He lived in a world unfair and unforgiving, and he thrived. He looked adversity in the face, and he laughed. To quote one of his song lyrics, he was “basically frightened,” and conquered that fear by embracing the unknown. Welcoming it. Fighting fire with fire. Not letting the bullshit get in the way of the bullshit.
When Hampton collapsed onstage at the Fox Theater May 1, with him fell a cornerstone of the Atlanta music scene. For five decades — from his earliest days on stage with the Hampton Grease Band (the seminal Atlanta band marks its 50th anniversary this month) to his final minutes as “The Colonel” at the end of “Hampton 70: A Celebration of Col. Bruce Hampton” — Hampton embodied all that was creative, original and truly unique in Atlanta music.
Though often compared to Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart, mainly for his weirdness and out-there theatrics, the comparisons don’t really hold up. Zappa was a satirist; Beefheart dealt more with the abstract. Hampton was a surrealist, presenting the truths of life and the absurdity within. A singular talent, his own man — with snatches of all the greats stolen and patched together in a mosaic of madness and mayhem — Hampton, an avant-garde avatar, pushed others as he had been pushed.
There had been other Atlanta-based bands playing original music that pre-dated the Hampton Grease Band — Little Phil and the Night Shadows and Wayne Logiudice and the Kommotions immediately come to mind — but none had captured the zeitgeist of the city as the Hampton Grease Band did. The musical embodiment of Atlanta’s hippie movement, they were the first to play Piedmont Park when they realized how easy it was it to host an electric band performance in the park — all they had to do was plug in; the city never turned off the electricity to the pavilion outlets.
In an article dated October 13, 1969, in The Great Speckled Bird, Atlanta’s original alternative newspaper, Miller Francis, Jr., one of the first local journalists to chronicle the nascent Atlanta music scene, asked Hampton, “What’s ‘Grease?’”
Hampton responded without hesitation. “It’s a concept of music. It’s a concept of life ... See, our main ambition in life aside from growing a bosom on top of our heads is to die on stage and when we die on stage that will be when we ultimately reach Grease.”
Yet, it’s what Hampton says next that tells the tale of the legacy of the Hampton Grease Band. “People are scared of us around here and they don’t let us play much. What they’re really afraid of is that, if they listen, they’ll find out that they’re really as much of what we’re playing about as we are. We try to be as honest as possible. It’s complete sincerity. There’s no put-on, no stage act.” Reflections in the mirrors of embarrassment.
Having established themselves on stage, graduating from Piedmont Park where a then-fledgling Allman Brothers Band would open up for them, to the Atlanta International Pop Festival, where hundreds of thousands witnessed their musical mayhem, the Hampton Grease Band, while not typical of the jam scene fostered by their contemporaries the Allman Brothers Band and the Grateful Dead, was certainly appreciated by many of the same fans with their long improvisational instrumentals and twin-guitar attack. Cementing a deal with Columbia Records, the HGB released Music To Eat, a two-record set before such rock albums were the norm, in 1971. Rather than drawing in fans to the band’s madness, songs like “Halifax,” “Hey Old Lady,” “Six” and “Evans” alienated even more people, especially those working for the label. The events surrounding the album’s release are now the stuff of legend, securing each band member — guitarists Harold Kelling and Glenn Phillips, bassist Mike Holbrook, drummer Jerry Fields and, of course, Bruce Hampton — a place in rock ’n’ roll history. Music To Eat was claimed to be the label’s second worst-selling record up to that point, bested only by a yoga record or Moondog’s self-titled 1969 release, depending on who’s telling the story.
As Hampton fled what he felt to be the stranglehold of the Hampton Grease Band and its legendary status — “I don’t live in the past, man. I live in the now” — he recreated himself over and over. He did so using pseudonyms: Jasper Armstrong, Horace Gammett, and Hampton B. Coles (Ret.) among them. During a brief attempt at stand-up comedy, he settled on the latter, a name he continued to use when music once again permeated his performances.
There were also the ever-changing band names and personnel line-ups.
There was the Hampton Geese Band, the New Ice Age, the Stained Souls (with guitarist Tinsley Ellis), the Late Bronze Age, the Aquarium Rescue Unit, the Fiji Mariners, the Codetalkers, the Quark Alliance, the Madrid Express and many other groups where he allowed the musicians what he was afforded in the Hampton Grease Band: complete freedom, the chance to go “out,” to express themselves without fear or limitations. Part rabble-rouser, part authority figure, part showman, part shaman, Hampton had an innate ability to draw out the best in people, whether musicians, writers, artists or others with a creative spark. He saw the glow and fanned the flames.
It was the years immediately after the Hampton Grease Band that, it could be argued, Hampton was his most creative, fine-tuning his stage persona and musical approach. While the Geese Band and the New Ice Age were more jazz-oriented —anchored by guitarist Karl Ratzer, multi-instrumentalist Billy McPherson, Bill Hatcher, and keyboardist Dan Wall — they got “out” there, taking their inspiration from Leon Thomas, Oliver Nelson and John Coltrane. It was that period — and especially the Monday night residency at the Bistro on West Peachtree Street — which bore the “Theater of Embarrassment” and heard him urging one half of the audiences to squawk like chickens and the other half to honk like moose. Attempts to achieve “Grease,” as earlier explained, became reaching gradients of “Butt-Level Consciousness.” Some nights Hampton might blurt out the performance reaching only “Butt-Level Consciousness Four,” while other times, when the energy level on stage was high and the audience was caught up in the rapture, he would stop, usually mid-verse, and proclaim, “Butt-Level Consciousness Eight!” This was also when musical staples of his later shows — like Gene McDaniels’s “Compared To What” and his then-collaborator David Earle Johnson’s “Time Is Free,” plus his own reworking of traditional spirituals like “Working On A Building” and “Fixin’ To Die” — took shape.
When hippies had turned into punks, and the counter-culture of peace and love was thrown aside for anarchy and nihilism, Mr. Hampton B. Coles (Ret.) released One Ruined Life (Of A Bronze Tourist) in 1978. The album saw Hampton gigging more, and not long after, the Late Bronze Age had solidified with the nucleus of Coles (Hampton) and Ben “Pops” Thornton (Billy McPherson). They signed a deal with Michael Rothschild’s Landslide Records, and Outside Looking Out was released. With a rhythm section of Lincoln Metcalfe (Ricky Keller) on bass and Bubba Phreon (Jerry Fields) on drums, this version of the Late Bronze Age released Isles of Langerhan (sic), before splintering, and a star-studded, varied cast of musicians joined Hampton for the recording of Arkansas. It was during this era that Hampton discovered and formulated the concept of Zambi, named in tribute to his close friend Joseph E. Zambie. A state of heightened awareness, supreme knowledge and egoless existence, Zambi was the Hamptonian extension of Butt-Level Consciousness, and, of course, its predecessor, Grease. Though Hampton may have chosen not to keep the songs from Music To Eat in his repertoire — performing them in their entirety only once, 33 years after the Hampton Grease Band’s break-up for a one-off reunion show at the Variety Playhouse in 2006 following HGB guitarist Harold Kelling’s death — he was constantly referring back to the band’s initial concept, Grease, albeit by other names.
Hampton has been eulogized as a jam band musician, as the godfather of the jam band scene, and indeed, even lauded as the inspiration for the genre.
But it wasn’t until Hampton B. Coles (Ret.) transfigured into Col. Bruce Hampton that he started to enjoy the recognition that led to his being feted at the Fox Theater for “Hampton 70: A Celebration of Col. Bruce Hampton” for the his 70th birthday.
In the late 1960s through the 1970s, Phil Walden’s Capricorn Records was the recording home of southern music stalwarts the Allman Brothers Band, Hydra, Cowboy, Sea Level, and the Dixie Dregs before filing for bankruptcy in October 1979. Undaunted, Walden resurrected the label in the early 1990s, first signing the Athens-based Widespread Panic and then Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit, both of which had released albums on Landslide.
Four Capricorn albums and many H.O.R.D.E tours later, Hampton had transmogrified into “The Colonel,” and the second generation of jam bands, as exemplified by Widespread Panic, Blues Traveler, Phish, Leftover Salmon and others, genuflected at his feet while he dispensed sage advice and musical knowledge like the Grand Buddha he started to resemble as he aged and his physique became more rotund.
Hampton had a knack. He could guess your zodiac sign and birthday within minutes of first meeting you. A Taurus, born April 30, 1947, he was rarely wrong, and when he was, he would guess 364 more times until he got it right. Such tricks — and they were tricks, as Hampton was a master magician of life, able to turn things inside out and right side wrong until they were right again — were his calling card, his way to introduce himself, to feel comfortable in an uncomfortable situation. For all his bravado and larger-than-life gestures, Hampton seemed a shy man; insecure, too, always deflecting attention from himself to those around him. It’s why he surrounded himself with great musicians, and nurtured them to excel beyond their own expectations, to take the spotlight off himself. No eye contact.
Hampton had many circles of friends, and his sphere of influence had more rings than Saturn. He was everyone’s best friend. If your universe revolved around Bruce, his revolved around yours at the point in time your paths crossed. He had a way of making every person he met feel special, that all of his energy was focused on you, and by your sharing being in the moment together, you could do no wrong.
And that’s how he lived his life, whether on stage or holding court at one of the many weekday lunches at out-of-the-way Chinese restaurants on Buford Highway, or accidentally running into you on the street or in a parking lot.
Was Hampton a musician’s journey agent, or just the man behind the curtain like the Great Wizard in The Wizard of Oz? It depends on who you ask. And each person has a different answer. Whether artistic expression was gained by individuals through their association with Hampton, or whether, like Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Lion and the Tin Man, they each already possessed what they were looking for, doesn't matter. Hampton’s legend was solidified by those feeling his gravitational pull.
Having given the likes of Jimmy Herring, Oteil Burbridge and the Rev. Jeff Mosier their wings — and having nurtured Derek Trucks at an early age, bringing the guitarist into the fold before he was even a teenager — Hampton enjoyed his new position as cosmic mentor. His repertoire became the standards he had originally played with the Hampton Grease Band — and even earlier in The IV of IX with guitarist Harold Kelling — before the Hampton Grease Band had written any of its own material — among them, “There Was A Time,” “Fixin’ To Die,” “I’m So Glad” and “Turn On Your Love Light” (the very first song he ever sang on stage) — sprinkled among displays of exceptional musicianship by whoever joined him for that particular performance.
It was those songs, along with “Yield Not To Temptation,” “Don’t Go Into That Room” and the paean to the Omniverse, Sun Ra’s “Space Is The Place,” he chose to perform at the celebration of his life, where he was joined on stage by such a diverse group of musicians as members of the Allman Brothers Band, Widespread Panic, Blues Traveler, Phish, Leftover Salmon and Tinsley Ellis, along with Peter Buck of R.E.M. and Drivin ’N’ Cryin’s Kevn Kinney.
When it came time for Hampton to go out, the stars aligned and took him in a way even he couldn’t have imagined, surrounded by friends, family and the many generations of musicians he had influenced. Having finished a verse of “Turn On Your Love Light,” Hampton motioned for the young guitarist Brandon “Taz” Niederauer to step forward for a solo. Bowing down on bended knee in front of the boy, Hampton fell forward into his legendary final act. During a night of exaltation with everyone else on stage reaching the Zambiescence of a joyful noise, Bruce attained Grease as the band played on.
A friend, a mentor, an inspiration to many, Hampton was an outrageous individual trying to make sense of an outrageous world.