Colonel Bruce Hampton was a close and cherished friend. He changed my life, and brought immense goodness and richness into my world, and he did that same thing for far more people than he could ever count. I’ve never met anyone in the music business as universally beloved, or as trusted, as the Colonel. My standard joke was that Bruce was best friend to about four percent of the world’s total population, and the other 96 percent simply hadn’t had the chance to meet him yet.
My memory goes back to the time I had to quickly put together a long-form story on James Brown in the days following his death in 2006. I called the Colonel and explained my task, hoping he might have a couple of leads. He called back a couple of hours later and told me that Jabo Starks, who played drums for Brown at his peak, would be waiting for my call at a nightclub in Florida. “Call him at 5:08,” he said. “Here’s the number. You can catch him before he eats dinner.”
By late in the afternoon, the Colonel had set me up with over a half-dozen Brown intimates: musicians who played with him, two of his music directors and even his former tour manager. Every single one of them started off by telling me, “I haven’t talked to anyone from the press about James, and I’m only talking to you because of Colonel Bruce.”
I was in the audience Monday night at the Fox Theatre when so many of the people whose lives he influenced showed up to pay tribute to him and to celebrate his 70th birthday: John Bell, Jimmy Herring, Dave Schools and Duane Trucks of Widespread Panic, Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeshi, Warren Haynes, Peter Buck, Chuck Leavell, Tinsley Ellis and nearly 50 other musicians.
The sold-out crowd at the Fox was on its feet for the entire show, which stretched over four hours and was filled with magical moment after magical moment: Colonel Bruce coming out on stage with a buttoned suit jacket to kick the concert off with James Brown’s, “There Was A Time”; Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes and Chuck Leavell doing a majestic version of The Allman Brothers Band classic “Jessica”; octogenarian pianist Johnny Knapp — who played with Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday — grinning as he tapped out “Happy Birthday” during his first solo as the Colonel sheepishly stood beside him.
Then there was the grand finale at around 11 p.m. when the Colonel ambled back to the stage, picked up his white Gibson SG guitar and launched into one of his trademark songs: “Basically Frightened.”
A few songs later, as he performed the encore, he collapsed on stage and was pronounced dead at Crawford Long Hospital about an hour later.
Colonel Bruce never saw the level of commercial success that many of his acolytes reached. Derek Trucks is a guitar legend now, thanks to his work with The Allman Brothers Band and the Tedeshi-Trucks Band. But he fell under Hampton’s wing as a fledgling guitarist at the age of 12. “He always seemed to be there at the right time with the right record or the right book,” Trucks said in the 2012 documentary Basically Frightened. “He’d say, ‘You’re 15 now, you’re ready for this.’”
Jimmy Herring has also found considerable fame with Widespread Panic. “Really, success spoils anything that’s pure,” he told me a few years ago. “But Bruce is a success. My god, just look at everyone he’s touched. He’s touched all of us in deep ways.”
JOSEPH CAMPBELL LIKED TO say that following one’s bliss is the key to a rich and meaningful life.
In that regard, Colonel Bruce Hampton had a leg up on the rest of us; he found his bliss as a young child courtesy of Liza Mae Williams, the black woman who helped raise him and sang to him the songs she’d learned as a slave in Mississippi. “She was in her 90s, and I’d hear her sing all these incredible songs,” the Colonel told me. “I can’t remember the songs, but I can remember the flavor of them. They were like field hollers. She was from Biloxi, born in 1860. And she was born a slave, an actual slave.”
He fostered his bliss as a teenager when he’d ride a moped from his home on Myrtle Street over to the Royal Peacock club on Auburn Avenue to see his heroes: Bobby “Blue” Bland, Otis Redding, James Brown, B.B. King. Even though he was white and underage, a friendly maitre d’ would sneak the Colonel into the shows; later, the musicians in those bands — such as Starks, who was then playing drums with Bobby Bland — got to know him and would usher him inside.
The Colonel began to seek out his bliss when he got up on stage in high school with a band and sang; he said recently the first song he ever performed was Bobby Bland’s landmark “Turn On Your Love Light.”
But finding bliss does not come without challenge, particularly when it leads one down unconventional paths. When his first band played a dance at their high school, things got so crazed on stage that the chaperones turned the lights on and told everyone — in particular, the band — to go home.
He led the Hampton Grease Band, Atlanta’s first rock band of note, which formed in 1968. Because Atlanta had no clubs where bands could play, the group began to set up on Sunday afternoons in Piedmont Park and play free shows for Atlanta’s burgeoning hippie population. After a few months, they were often joined by another new group based out of Macon: The Allman Brothers Band.
The Hampton Grease Band was eventually signed to Columbia Records and released an audacious double album, Music To Eat. The opening track was a 19-plus-minute experimental opus. It was later said to be the label’s second-worst-selling album in history, above only a spoken-word yoga album.
After that, he played around with being a pro rasslin’ manager and stand-up comedian. But music remained his bliss, even though it was an often harsh mistress. In the 1980s, he recorded an album that was lauded on the front page of the arts section of the New York Times. At the time, the Colonel was living out of his car. He told me he’d added it up one time and figured out he made $28,000 — the entire decade.
“Personally, I’ve always felt I’m 30 years behind the times, or else 22 years and three months ahead,” he once told me. He thought the Hampton Grease Band was “somewhere in between the 30 years behind and the 22 ahead.”
BUT TO DISCUSS THE COLONEL’S music only tells the most public part of the story. He was one of the last real “characters.” We had that discussion many times, how our homogenized culture no longer tolerates people who were once beloved as eccentrics, who embrace and celebrate the absurdities of the world.
For example, we would never meet for dinner at 7 p.m. or 7:30; he always set the time at 6:58 or 7:37. Those conversations were often epic, ranging from baseball and baseball trivia (he was an expert on the old Atlanta Crackers minor league baseball team and had an extraordinary memory for detail) to music to sports trivia to politics. He could guess peoples’ birthdays with uncanny ability: he guessed mine five minutes after we met.
He would joke about how he had multiple birth certificates, each with different birth names — which is a true story. He was actually born Gustav Berglund III in 1947. When his birth mother became ill, he went to live with his grandparents on Myrtle Street near Piedmont Park. His grandfather was Col. W.A. Cunningham, who was the fifth generation of the family to graduate from West Point, and later served as the head football coach of the Georgia Bulldogs.
His mother was institutionalized after being misdiagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He was later adopted by his aunt, and his first name was changed to Bruce. When his aunt married a Hampton, he took that name. The “Colonel” prefix was a play on his family’s West Point background.
His eccentric side came out on stage, especially in the early years. When the Hampton Grease Band opened a concert for Fleetwood Mac, the Colonel brought a chain saw out on the stage. “We figured out that it sawed in the key of D,” he said in words that were spit out through a hearty laugh. “So we played every song in D, and I’d take solos with the chain saw.” Then he pounded the table with the palm of his hand and laughed even harder at his youthful craziness.
Other nights on stage, he’d “gargle” peanut butter while the guitarists soloed. He’d lie on his back to play the saxophone. He would go into his pro rasslin’ persona, based on “Classy” Freddie Blassie with the catchphrase, “You pencil-necked geeks!”
The Colonel called such antics “going out.” It was performance art, and there were times when he was as “out” as “out” can get. But it was mostly tongue-in-cheek, exaggeration for effect. He loved to laugh, and he was quick with one-liners. He corralled all his sayings into a pseudo-religion he called “Zambi-ism,” named after a close friend, Joseph Zambi.
“I take what I do seriously; I don’t take myself seriously,” he responded recently when I asked him what he thought his legacy would be. “That’s a tough one to answer.” Then he gave a big laugh. “You’ve got to take yourself damned seriously to answer that question.”
COLONEL BRUCE HAD A ZELIG-LIKE ability to be at exactly the right place at exactly the right time.
Like the time when he was 17 and went with a friend to experience New York City. They were sitting in a coffee shop one day around noon, discussing the obscure Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, when a guy with long black hair clad in a bathrobe walked in. He overhead their conversation, walked over to their table and invited them over to his house because he had some Penderecki records.
That’s how the Colonel would meet and become good friends with Frank Zappa.
He bought his first guitar from a neighborhood kid named John Huey, who grew up to be president of Time, Inc. He got to know Billy Bob Thornton in the ’70s when Thornton was a drummer in a band from Arkansas. Twenty years later when Thornton got his break with the 1996 film Sling Blade, he created a character based on Hampton and then had the Colonel play the role.
The Colonel once played a weekly poker game that included Newt Gingrich, then a professor at West Georgia College. He played touch football with Stan Kasten, who would go on to be the president of the Atlanta Braves and Atlanta Hawks. RuPaul was once his roadie.
“You’ve got to live a life,” he liked to say. “I don’t think I’ve ever lived my life. I feel I’ve had a soul rotation, I’m living someone else’s life. I’m an accountant trapped in somebody else’s body. And no complaints. I act like I’m crazy, but I am.”
IT WAS THE AQUARIUM RESCUE UNIT (ARU) that brought the Colonel back into the spotlight beginning in the late ’80s. The band began to come together when Hampton started to play every Monday night at the Little Five Points Pub. Jeff Sipe was the regular drummer, and then Oteil Burbridge came in on bass. Jeff Mosier began to play banjo with them, and then came mandolin player Matt Mundy, percussionist Count M’Butu and a young guitarist named Jimmy Herring.
“It was just a magical time,” Mosier once told me. “Great art is created when a tradition is broken. Bruce is the greatest permission-giver. He expects, and allows, those around him to completely be themselves without judgment.”
At first, there was a lot of goofiness associated with the band; they were “out” — Sipe would have his drum kit spread out all over the stage, and Burbridge would sometimes dress in a miniskirt. But the band quickly grew serious and began to go “out” in musical terms, with long jams that were inventive and different every night. “We knew it was magic, all of us,” the Colonel told me. “When Matt and Jimmy got in the band, we knew it was ‘the deal.’ We never had a bad set. We didn’t have a bad two minutes. If the chemistry is right, every night is great.”
ARU built on the legacy of The Allman Brothers Band with its use of long, improvised jams. The band got a record deal with Capricorn Records, released a stellar live album (with ex-Allman Brother Chuck Leavell sitting in on keyboards) and began to play shows with other bands that were exploring similar themes — Widespread Panic, Phish, Blues Traveler. In 1992, ARU became part of the first H.O.R.D.E. (Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere) tour and suddenly began to build a national audience. The annual H.O.R.D.E. tours continued until 1998 and eventually included such groups as the Dave Matthews Band, Gov’t Mule, Sheryl Crow and Béla Fleck.
Colonel Bruce quickly became the Yoda of those bands, and he found himself in a new role: the elder statesman passing on his knowledge to a new generation of musicians.
“I FEEL SO DIFFERENT TODAY,” Jeff Mosier told me yesterday. “It feels like a big hole just opened up in the world.”
Mosier was one of the musicians who performed at the “Hampton 70” celebration Monday night. The concert — which was organized by Duane Trucks, Kevin Scott and Matt Wilson — was an event worthy of its honoree. The show sold out in less than an hour, and there were no long soliloquies about Colonel Bruce, just four hours of nearly nonstop music from more than four dozen top musicians. “Bruce was always about ‘the hang,’ as in hanging out,” said Mosier. “That concert was the ultimate ‘hang’ in the ultimate room in the ultimate city with the ultimate musicians. I felt lucky to have been a part of it.”
When the Colonel returned to the stage late in the show, he performed several of his signature songs: “Basically Frightened,” Sun Ra’s “Space Is The Place,” “I’m So Glad” and eerily, now, “Fixin’ To Die,” based on the Bukka White classic about the fear of impending death that the Colonel had adapted into his own.
There was a short break before the Colonel returned for an encore: “Turn On Your Love Light.” The Colonel remembered it as the first song he’d ever performed on stage. Now, it was to also be his final song. As 14-year-old guitar prodigy Brandon “Taz” Niederauer played a solo, the Colonel walked over to him and began to bow up and down in reverence. Then he collapsed to his knees. At first, everyone thought he was being playful, being the Colonel.
An hour later, he was gone.
“I was standing with him right before he walked back out on stage,” said Mosier. “I even took a picture of him. Bruce always said he would die on a rainy Tuesday. He died on a stormy Monday. And today, I just felt like I wanted to see him so bad.”
Duane Trucks, in a Facebook post, talked of how he’d moved to Atlanta from his hometown of Jacksonville in the hopes of playing with the Colonel. And he wound up doing just that for a number of years before he took over the drum chair in Widespread Panic.
“What we thought we were planning as a birthday celebration ended up being the most poetic farewell imaginable,” Trucks wrote. “Actually, it was unimaginable. As is everything with him. Now we say our goodbyes to him, but he will never be gone. He lives in every note played by the thousands of musicians he inspired. He lives in every conscious thought of those he enlightened with his wisdom. . . . Thank you, Bruce. Thank you for the eyes to see and ears to hear.”
I TALKED TO TINSLEY ELLIS last night, and he reminded me of a quip that the Colonel liked to use: “Other than that, how did you enjoy the play, Mrs. Lincoln?”
“I thought of that today,” Ellis said. “I probably heard him say it the first time 35 years ago, and he’d pull it out about every five years. I think he was saying the most important thing is the art. You’ve got to work the play, or the music, as good as you can because you may not be here tomorrow. And that the work is ultimately what people are going to remember.”
Ellis also sees the poetry in the Colonel’s farewell. “To me, it was the greatest all-time concert of my life,” Ellis said. “Bruce gave us the greatest gift of his lifetime, even at the very end. Last night was his greatest gift to us. I think we’ll eventually look back and see the beauty of it.”
I take heart in those words. I imagine sitting at dinner with the Colonel again, listening to him tell that tale about himself and his farewell concert. Then he slaps the palm of his hand up and down against the table as he joyfully laughs. “Nobody could make that up,” he exclaims through his rolling laughter. “Nobody! It was perfect!”
On Monday night, Colonel Bruce Hampton was surrounded on stage by people he dearly loved. He was doing the single thing he loved the most in front of 4,600 people who were there to celebrate his life. He died in his bliss.
We should all be so fortunate.