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Col. Bruce Hampton 5/2017

May 1, 2018 – Bruce Hampton (born Gustav Valentine Berglund III was born on April 30, 1947 in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Hampton first popped onto the music scene in 1967s, fronting the avant garde, Delta blues-influenced Hampton Grease Band in Atlanta Georgia. The band became a staple on the infamous Peachtree Street Strip, which rivaled Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco as a hippie hub. The Grease Band soon became known for its over-the-top performances. A good portion of this came from Hampton himself, who liberally broke rules with boundary-pushing sensibilities years before punk rock and Andy Kaufman. And thanks to the Grease Band’s impromptu performances in Piedmont Park, it opened the door for acts including the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band to take the stage in the urban green space.

Although the Hampton Grease Band’s sole album, 1971’s “Music to Eat,” went on to achieve cult status as the second worst selling album in Columbia Records history,  the band broke up in 1973.

While Hampton continued with a solo career, recording and performing for the next 15 years he also formed several other bands including The Late Bronze Age, The Quark Alliance, the Stained Souls, Arkansas Tourists and Pharaoh Gummitt. 

Asked about what this name represented he said: “It was 1961 and we were taking a streetcar; Atlanta had electrical streetcars back then. We were in Buckhead and this old farmer guy jumped on. I was 14 and we were going downtown. The guy was saying, “I got to do some bidness, some pharaoh gummit bidness.” We didn’t know what he was talking about. About two blocks from our stop, he said, “Tell me when we get to the pharaoh gummit.” And we finally realized he was talking about the federal government building.

By the early 1990s, Hampton formed the Aquarium Rescue Unit, and with its blend of progressive rock, jazz and funk, this band finally eclipsed the popularity and recognition found by the Grease Band some two decades earlier. Hampton soon became an esteemed elder statesman on the jam scene, with acolytes ranging from R.E.M., Widespread Panic to Blues Traveler. In 1992, Hampton and company helped create the H.O.R.D.E. Tour, the jam band answer to Lollapalooza.

Whether you love or hate jam bands like the Grateful Dead, Phish, and the String Cheese Incident or their crunchy, 45-minute-long guitar noodlings, you’ve got Col. Bruce Hampton to thank. Known as the “grandfather of the jam band scene,” Hampton tirelessly played with lots of bands, including the Quark Alliance, the Late Bronze Age, and the Hampton Grease Band in the Jam Band circuit.

Although the Aquarium Rescue Unit disbanded in 1997, Hampton continued to lead a variety of outfits, from the Fiji Mariners to the Codetalkers and Madrid Express.

Hampton is probably also known to most people as Morris, the uncomfortably odd singer-poet in the movie “Sling Blade.” His signature scene was reading aloud a poem that included the line “Baking the cookies of discontent / By the heat of the Laundromat vent.” His friend Billy Bob Thornton, who received an Oscar for the script in 1997, wrote the character specifically for Hampton.

But within musical circles, he’s also known as a Yoda-like figure for some of the greatest living guitarists: Derek Trucks, Warren Haynes, Oteil Burbridge, Jimmy Herring, Tinsley Ellis, A.J. Ghent, much in the same way as Alexis Korner and John Mayall over in England provided launching pads for guys like Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton.

He also performed voice-over work (he played a talking plant in an episode of the Adult Swim series Space Ghost Coast to Coast). His later film work includes the 2012 documentary “Basically Frightened: The Musical Madness of Colonel Bruce Hampton.

From October 2016 on, he’d been performing at the Vista Room in Decatur near Atlanta, where he’d been booked for a weekly residency, which he considered a beautiful opportunity to ease into retirement after years of 300 plus gigs on the road.

Atlanta's Bruce Hampton
Bruce with Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks

His many friends, collaborators, and fans converged on Atlanta’s historic Fox Theatre on May 1, 2017 for “Hampton 70: A Celebration of Col. Bruce Hampton.” Staged the day after Hampton turned 70, the all-star jam session celebrated the man and his music. As a teenage guitar wizard (at the time 14 years old) Taz Niederauer showed off some tasty licks, Hampton fell to his knees, resting his arm on a speaker on stage. Niederauer and members of Blues Traveler and Widespread Panic played Bobby Bland’s “Turn on Your Love Light” while totally unaware that Bruce Hampton’s light literally had just gone out.

It’s impossible to sum up the life of Col. Bruce Hampton (Ret.) in a few sentences. It’s a life filled with many things that seem too outlandish, too absurd, to be true, and yet they are. He’s Zelig (Woody Allen’s 1983 movie), turned up several notches.

Here’s a small sampling. He learned about blues music from a woman who was born a slave. He bought his first guitar from a neighborhood kid named John Huey, who grew up to be the editor in chief of Time Inc. As a teenager visiting New York City, he was befriended in a coffee shop by a guy clad in a bathrobe, who turned out to be Frank Zappa. He was so close to Duane Allman that he can recount in precise detail the late guitarist’s amplifier modifications. In the 1970s, the Colonel became friends with a drummer from Arkansas who later decided to turn to movies; that would be Billy Bob Thornton. Hampton once played weekly poker games with a college professor named Newt Gingrich and touch football with Stan Kasten, who later became president of the Atlanta Braves and Hawks and just bought the Los Angeles Dodgers with Magic Johnson.

RuPaul was once his roadie.

“We were making $92 a week and sleeping in one room,” Hampton once said during an interview. “After two years we got two rooms and we were so ecstatic we had a celebration. There were five of us in a Chevrolet van with 400,000 miles on it. How we did it, I’ll never know, but I never had more fun or made greater music than I did during that run.”

This podcast interview was done less than 4 weeks before Bruce passed. Lots of laughing, lots of topics and music born out of the Delta Blues. The live song at the end shows the quality of his work.

In a 2014 interview the essence of Bruce Hampton became a bit more exposed by his answers:

What do you think your legacy is going to be?

Number one, as I say in the movie, I take what I do serious; I don’t take myself serious. That’s a tough one to answer. You’ve got to take yourself damned serious to answer that.
I’ve always been the minor league coach, I think. I don’t want to get out “there.” It’s all fallen — no, collapsed — into place. You’re actually born into this business. The music business is the harshest thing you could ever be in, it’s a nightmare, and I was thrown into it when I was 16 years old. Some 50 years later, I wake up each day and go, “Gosh, what am I going to do when I grow up?”

If you try to put your destiny on another path, try to get an altered destiny, you’re going to be in serious trouble. And I’ve tried. I’ve done a hundred other things — you know, I’ve seen the future of rock ‘n’ roll, and I’m not it. [Laughs.]

“It took me a little while to understand: to do is to be,” Hampton says. “It continues. I’m very lucky to have done it.” But you’ve got to follow your destiny. I had no idea what I was going to do. I was just walking around, eating and going to school. And someone asked me to come be in a band, and that started it. I knew I was going to do it, and that was it.

Col. Bruce Hampton (Ret.) may not have been a legend on a global scale, but in Greater Atlanta Georgia he was, both as a musician and as a career coach for some of the world’s greatest guitarists. Col. Bruce Hampton was a child at every age; he was the man who tested whether you were truly paying attention to the truth.”

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