Col. Bruce Hampton, 1947-2017
Of course that’s how he went out. Of course it was. Of course Col. Bruce Hampton would go out with his boots on, standing onstage at the Fox Theater in Atlanta at his own 70th birthday concert with three or four generations of jam-rockers, fronting a musical army that featured Derek Trucks, Warren Haynes, Jimmy Herring, and at least a dozen others. Of course it was at the tail end of a four-hour show, of course it was the final encore, and of course the song the band was playing when Hampton left us was “Turn on Your Lovelight.”
Col. Bruce Hampton was, in a certain sense, the grandfather of modern jam-rock, maybe even more than Jerry Garcia. He explored the very farthest reaches of the genre with a succession of oddly named groups, from the Hampton Grease Band to the Aquarium Rescue Unit to the Fiji Mariners and beyond. He played guitar like an alien who stumbled upon the instrument, meaning that he essentially invented his own six-string language and melded with a fearless sense of musical curiosity with a deeply felt sense of Southern roots music, whether it be bluegrass or gospel.
He would also play with just about anyone, just about any time, and shared his knowledge and spirit with a lot of the Upstate’s music scene. Here are some of their reflections on the Colonel and the long shadow he casts over their music, not to mention his uncanny ability to name a person’s astrological sign, and in some cases their birthdate, upon meeting them.
“I worked with Bruce from 1999 until the last Aquarium Rescue Unit show at the Orange Peel a year or two ago. I road-managed for the Codetalkers and some ARU reunion shows. I have a lot I could say about the man, but I’m just overwhelmed at the moment. I first met him at Gottrocks when I introduced myself as a budding music journalist. I wasn’t one, just had high hopes. He took me on the road and gave me a crash course in Music University: Everything from how to deal with shady promoters to how to drive a van. Eventually, with the Colonel’s blessing I moved on to a paying gig with Dark Star Orchestra. He taught me everything I know and I will miss him greatly.” —Matt Reynolds, Tour Manager, Dark Star Orchestra
“I was able to play with Bruce on four separate occasions, and I was scheduled to hit the road with him next week. Even though I was a just a sub, he took the time to ask about my life. He knew I was engaged, and even though he never met Kelsey, he would often ask about her. At the second gig I played with him, he mentioned that he was feeling tired and was looking forward to going home. Yet after the show, a line of people had formed right at the stool he was sitting on stage. He greeted every single one of those folks, shaking hands, smiling for photos, signing autographs, until we were the only people left.” — Samuel Kruer, bassist, Darby Wilcox & The Peep Show
“I first met the Colonel at the old Pour House in West Ashley, where he played with regularity with The Codetalkers. He loved astrology and had a penchant for guessing your sign and sometimes even your exact birthdate. When we met, he pegged me as an Aquarius right off the bat. I asked him how he guessed correctly. He said, ‘I once had a lover that was an Aquarius. I can spot’em from a mile away!’ I’m not sure if that was a compliment or not. He was a kind man who brought the element of ‘weird’ to the stage like no one else could. Godspeed.” —Emily McSherry, lead singer, The Frankness
“The first time I worked with Col. Bruce, I was intimidated by him because he was a living legend, but moments after meeting him, he guessed my birthday and made me feel like a friend. Col. Bruce, you are missed by us all. Keep on rocking wherever you are.” —Will Thornhill, drummer for Psycho Psycho and Peace Center Production Technician
“The Colonel is gone, and we Southern music-collecting mortals and concert-goers have lost a great spirit and a visionary friend. Nothing says New South like Col. Bruce Hampton, and nothing says Col. Bruce more than playing his own 70th birthday concert at a packed Fox Theatre in Atlanta with his friends and then collapsing onstage during the last song. Sad and beautiful. Classic Bruce.” —Gene Berger, owner, Horizon Records
“Bruce connected with so many people from all walks of life, be they icons, actors, activists, athletes, friends, or fans. He’s forever put his mark on countless musicians on their journeys in his own mystic shamanic kind of way. He will be forever missed and we will be forever grateful. —Charles Hedgepath, guitarist, bandleader, and co-owner, CHASS Productions
“I played with Bruce for two and a half years and lived with him for two of those years.We probably did 225 shows together. Playing with him was always an adventure; he was a different movie every 30 seconds, and you never knew what was going to happen. The guy had some kind of electricity inside him, and anybody that knew him knew that. We used to always say, ‘Don’t let him use your phone,’ because you would get it back and the No. 2 key wouldn’t work anymore. There was a time when we played seven straight shows up the East Coast, and every night when Bruce got on stage, within 1-5 minutes the power would go out. He had a thing with electricity. True story.” —Gregory Hodges, guitarist