You want to talk failure?
Col. Bruce Hampton may well be the single most important figure in the history of rock music in Atlanta. And
You want failure? He helped form the first significant rock group in Atlanta, the Hampton Grease Band, in 1968. Before long, they were playing free concerts in Piedmont Park with the Allman Brothers Band and eventually signed a deal with Columbia Records. Their first, and only, album -- 1971's Music to Eat -- became infamously known as the label's second-worst-selling release in history -- just above a spoken-word yoga record.
Failure? Try living out of your car during the 1980s because your music isn't earning you a living, even when one of your albums is being lauded on the front page of the arts section of the New York Times. Col. Bruce added it up once -- he made approximately $28,000 ... the entire decade.
The Colonel shares those experiences because he wants to remind me that we all fail. In fact, he encourages failure. Failure is not only a teacher; it denotes that something meaningful was attempted. His eyes are piercing, and his voice reassuring.
"It's OK to fail, man," he says, "if you're reaching for the impossible."
COL. BRUCE HAMPTON isn't so much a person as he is an experience. On the night we meet, we sit at a barroom dining table and things are a little quiet before one of his musicians pipes up and asks, "Have you guessed his birthday yet?"
The Colonel feigns exasperation. "Well, now you've gone and ruined it," he replies. He borrows my pen and scribbles on a piece of paper that he then turns over. He asks me to pick two numbers between one and 10. I pick three and seven.
His voice is deep and melodic, and it rises and falls with dramatic pauses. He tells me to imagine I've found a key in the parking lot. Is it old or new? (Old.) What kind of key is it? (Skeleton.) With a flourish, he turns over the piece of paper and holds it up. Everyone at the table reads in unison what he'd written: three, seven, old, skeleton.
They break into laughter. I know it's a parlor trick. I once tailed a guy known as "Mystery," one of the world's greatest pick-up artists, and he used it on women all the time. Mystery said the most common answers are seven, then three. So I played along with the Colonel.
But a few minutes later, Col. Bruce turns back to me. His eyes are suddenly big, huge -- and when they're like this it's almost scary because it's like a cartoon character going bug-eyed -- and he points at me and exclaims, "Libra!"
He's wrong, but he's almost right: My birthday is one day removed from Libra. "No?" he says. "I know, Scorpio! Oct. 24!" This time, I'm simply stunned. How did he do that?
The Colonel has just taken me through the rite of initiation into his world -- a place where what's out is in, what's in is out, and everything else is what it isn't. Where, when you come to a fork in the road, you take it.
It's a place he calls Zambiland. Welcome to it.
SUNLIGHT SUDDENLY SPRINGS into the darkened bar as the side door swings back. A foot steps in to prop it open. A hand pushes through a heavy Vox amplifier. The Colonel's thick mop of silvery hair appears behind it, and he finally steps inside lugging a guitar and a carry-on bag.
He is a bear of a man -- 6 feet tall and stout -- and he walks with a limp because of a bad back. He's dressed as though he inherited Oscar Madison's wardrobe, oblivious that his blue, plaid shirt is only partially tucked into his brown slacks.
Tonight, he and a group of musicians will perform in the Atlanta Room, a small space downstairs at Smith's Olde Bar. If 50 people came in, most of them would have to stand. But this gig really has nothing to do with the size of the crowd. Col. Bruce is working himself back into shape after a heart attack and angioplasty last spring.
"It changes you 100 percent. Your values become really valuable. Time is quick now," says the man who once co-wrote a song called "Time Is Free," still a concert staple. "It's made me realize how fragile life is."
His band is anchored by guitarist Jeff Caldwell and Motown veteran Ike Stubblefield on organ and piano. Col. Bruce barely knows the rest of the musicians he'll perform with tonight, but they certainly know of him.
They primarily know him as the founder of the Aquarium Rescue Unit, one of the first of the second-generation jam bands. In fact, he is widely known now as the father of the jam-band scene.
But it was through the Hampton Grease Band almost 40 years ago that Col. Bruce helped create the rock scene in Atlanta. Because there were no clubs where bands could play in the city when the group formed in 1968, the Hampton Grease Band began to perform free concerts on Sunday afternoons in Piedmont Park for the burgeoning hippie population. After a couple of months, the Sunday-afternoon jams took on legendary status when they began featuring another new group that was based out of Macon: the Allman Brothers Band.
Like the Allmans, the Hampton Grease Band featured two lead guitarists and long, improvised jams. But the Hampton Grease Band had the Colonel and back then, the Colonel was as "out" as "out" can get.
Some nights, he'd "gargle" peanut butter while the guitarists played their solos. There was often a VW bug parked onstage (when it wasn't parked in the living room of the band's communal house). The group once opened a show for Fleetwood Mac and Col. Bruce decided that he was going to play a new instrument: a gas-powered chainsaw. "We had it miked and figured out it sawed in the key of D," he says. "So we played every song in D, and I'd take solos with the chainsaw."
Columbia Records released the band's only album in 1971. Not only did the album not sell, but top Columbia executives disliked the album so much that they fired the A&R guy who had signed the group. "The band was on fire, it was full bore," says the Colonel. "But there were no tunes for the masses to grab on to. It was all experimental."
Then he says something that is so odd and paradoxical that it's completely Zambi. "Personally, I've always felt I'm 30 years behind the times, or else 22 years and three months ahead," he says. "We were somewhere in between the 30 years behind and the 22 ahead."
ONCE THE MUSICIANS who will perform with him tonight sit down in the dining room at Smith's and place their food orders, they begin to quiz the Colonel. "I heard you knew Zappa," one says.
"Oh, yeah, I knew Frank really well," Col. Bruce says. It's a storyteller's voice, sweet and melodic, and distinctly Southern, and his hands liberally punctuate his sentences. "We'd gone up to New York in '67. One day around noon, we were sitting in a coffee shop called the Tin Angel. I was this conservative guy from Atlanta, probably 17 years old, and I see this guy with long hair walking around in his pajamas and I just went 'Wow!' My friend and I were talking about this really obscure Polish composer named Krystof Penderecki. Zappa overheard us, came over, and he invited us over to his house because he had some Penderecki records.
"After that," he continues, "we'd meet him every night at 6 to eat dinner, then we'd get together after his show and go back to his house and stay up all night."
The Colonel holds them in rapt attention as he talks about how the trips to New York in the summers of his youth served as musical fact-finding missions. "You'd see Jimi Hendrix for 50 cents," he says. "He would play this place about the size of a table, with all his equipment. You had to wear earplugs and your stomach would shake from the sound."
Someone looks at his watch. "Is it time?" Col. Bruce asks.
THE COLONEL LEARNED the blues from a woman who was born a slave. Her name was Liza Mae Williams, and she worked for the Colonel's grandparents when he went to live with them on Myrtle Street near Piedmont Park. His grandfather was Col. W.A. Cunningham, who was the fifth generation of that family to graduate from West Point. He later served as the head football coach of the Georgia Bulldogs from 1910 to 1919.
Col. Bruce wasn't born Bruce Hampton at all; he was born Gustov Berglund III in 1947. His birth mother became ill, and he went to live with his grandparents, where he and Liza Mae slept in the servants' quarters in the basement of the house on Myrtle Street. "She was in her 90s, and I'd hear her sing all these incredible songs," he says. "I can't remember the songs, but I can remember the flavor of them. They were like field hollers. She was from Biloxi, Miss., born in 1860. And she was born a slave, an actual slave."
He was later adopted by his aunt, and his first name was changed to Bruce. "She married a guy named Hampton and I thought, that's more my name than Berglund," he recalls. His mother was later institutionalized because she had multiple sclerosis (it turned out later that she was misdiagnosed) and she died when he was 16.
He lost himself in the music that Liza Mae had sung to him as a child. He would drive his mo-ped down to Auburn Avenue to the Royal Peacock club to see his heroes: Bobby "Blue" Bland, Otis Redding, James Brown, B.B. King, Albert King. Sometimes, a friendly maitre d' would sneak him in; after a while, the musicians began to recognize him and would usher him inside.
"I was only 16," he says. "I'd lie under the stage with a little mirror so I could watch them; sometimes I'd hide behind the curtain off to the side. And guess how many white people were there? But who cared? I'd park my mo-ped outside on Auburn Avenue, with no lock. And it'd be right there when I came back out."
THE COLONEL BOUGHT his first guitar from a neighborhood kid in Decatur. The kid was named John Huey, and he grew up to be president of Time, Inc.
He was so close to Duane Allman that he can recount in detail the late guitarist's amplifier modifications. He got to know Billy Bob Thornton in the '70s, when Thornton was a drummer in a band from Arkansas called Los Tres Hombres; 20 years later, Thornton created a character based on Col. Bruce in his breakout 1996 film Sling Blade, and then had the Colonel play the role.
The Colonel once played regular poker games with Newt Gingrich and touch football with Stan Kasten, who went on to become president of the Braves and the Hawks. He regularly sat next to Zell Miller at Braves games, and they'd chat away about baseball and bluegrass. RuPaul was once his roadie.
"You've got to live a life," Col. Bruce says. "I don't think I've ever lived my life; 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."
Yep, totally Zambi.
THERE MAY HAVE been a time when Col. Bruce roamed the stage like a hyperactive kid on espresso, but he has transformed into an elder statesman, a bluesman even. At Smith's, he sits on a cushioned barstool on the stage, playing a guitar with intricate carvings on the front and back that look like the work of a primitive artist. The band hits a slow, J.J. Cale-like groove on a song that he first heard nearly 40 years ago, when he saw blues legend Bukka White perform in a tiny club in Memphis. "Well, I'm walkin' kind of funny, lawd," the Colonel sings. "Feel I'm fixin' to die."
His voice is scratchy, and it sometimes struggles to stay in key. And yet it has a resonance that is deep and emotional. When Ike Stubblefield takes his first solo, Col. Bruce leans back and his face locks into a grimace. It is relaxed yet intense, as though he's entered a sanctuary where his soul finds peace.
The set is brief, maybe 45 minutes, and when he's finished, I ask the Colonel about his guitar.
"Albert Collins gave it to me, man." He chuckles. "But that's a story that really takes about an hour to tell."
Zambied again. Once I recover from that, I tell him I meant the carvings.
His eyes light up like a cat lying in wait. "A witch doctor did that," he replies.
"Yes, a witch doctor who sailed over from Fiji," he says. "We were on the H.O.R.D.E. tour as the Fiji Mariners [his post-ARU band] and this witch doctor from Fiji comes over to travel with the tour. And he asks me if he could carve my guitar." The Colonel laughs again. "I mean, this was a legitimate Fiji witch doctor. What am I going to do, say no?"
"I've always had to do this, and doing what I like to do has cost me in the material world," he says over dinner one night. "To me, music is all about intention. You have to play for the cause. Music today sounds like it was built in a shopping center. The problem is the church is out of it, that emotional pull is gone. I just wish something would come along that scared me, spirit-wise, something so completely new that it makes you go, 'What was that?'"
The Colonel and I are alone at the table and he suddenly looks at me, hard. "Why don't you play anymore, man?"
Even though the Colonel knows I used to be an active musician and that I've barely touched my guitars in five years, he doesn't know the story behind it. The question stuns me and I stumble for an answer. "I had a panic attack onstage one night ... I don't know."
But I do know. I can't forget. I had walked onstage with my acoustic guitar and sat down. With no warning, I suddenly became aware: aware that everyone was looking at me, aware that my left hand was starting to shake out of control and, above all, aware that a paralyzing fear had seized me. I managed to finish my set, but it was as if a part of my essence had been snatched away before I'd even perceived the threat. The joy was gone and afterward, I packed away my guitars.
The Colonel's voice slices through my memory. "That's good, man," he says. "It shows you give a damn. Good! When you're up onstage, you're naked and if you weren't scared, then I'd be worried. I get panic attacks all the time. It's nothing."
But for me, it's everything. And when the Colonel starts to tell me why failure is good, why it is important, why you can't grow without failure, it's as if he's caused a shift in the unrelenting weight of that memory. Then comes the most startling sentence of all: "Come out some time, man. Sit in with us."
COL. BRUCE REMAINED an Atlanta cult figure until the late '80s when he founded the Aquarium Rescue Unit, the closest he's come to commercial success.
The ARU was born out of the Colonel's regular Monday-night gigs at the Little Five Points Pub (now the Corner Tavern) where he performed in the late '80s with a rotating group of musicians. Jeff Sipe (better known to ARU fans as "Apt. Q-258," the apartment number of radio evangelist Prophet Omega) was the regular drummer. Then Oteil Burbridge, a friend of Sipe, became a fixture on bass. They performed under a different moniker every week, most of which had to do with Arkansas. One week, the band would be Col. Bruce Hampton and the Arkansas Travelers. Another week, it would be the Arkansas Tourists or the Arkansas State Birds. But whatever the name, the music swung and Col. Bruce's gig at the Pub became the hip place to be on Monday nights in Atlanta.
The next musician to enlist was the Rev. Jeff Mosier, known for the bluegrass show he hosted on WRFG-FM. Mosier was walking with a friend past the Pub one night in 1989 and saw on the marquee: "Col. Bruce Hampton and the Arkansas Florists." Mosier's friend told him Hampton was a legend. Mosier nodded and said, "Well, then we'd better go in and meet him."
Admission was 89 cents.
"We met and he guessed my birthday, and guessed that I was born on my dad's birthday," Mosier says. "I didn't know whether to run or stay. I guess my curiosity kept me there." A few days later, Mosier put an electric pick-up in his banjo and joined up.
The band was eventually rounded out by a mandolin player named Matt Mundy, and a young guitarist named Jimmy Herring, who had heard about the Colonel's talent for reading minds and putting together hot bands. "I was pretty enamored of him before I ever played with him," Herring says. "Everybody said, 'You've got to come play with Col. Bruce.' And I'd heard stories about him going around naming people's birthdays."
The final piece was a percussionist named Larry Jones, whom Col. Bruce immediately dubbed "Count M'Butu" the first time they met. The memory still unnerves Jones -- M'Butu happened to be the name of the family he had lived with when he went to Africa to study drumming, and there was no way the Colonel could have known that.
It marked the birth of the band that would finally put Col. Bruce on a national map -- more than 20 years into his music career. "It was just a magical time," Mosier says. "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."
Col. Bruce reined himself in; he pulled back the wild antics and focused on setting up a framework to exploit the musicianship that surrounded him. And he let the blues that he first heard as a child from Liza Mae inform his music.
The success of the ARU was, in most ways, completely incongruous and totally unexpected. When the band formed, guitar solos and long jams were about as hip as beanie caps -- Madonna ruled the charts and the synthesizer was the instrument du jour. But the Colonel had tapped into something: a burgeoning second-generation "jam band" movement in the tradition of the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead that included Widespread Panic in Athens, and Phish, Blues Traveler and the Spin Doctors in the Northeast.
Phish would come to the South and open shows for the ARU and Widespread Panic; then the Southern bands would go up north and open for Phish. Eventually, they combined with Blues Traveler and a few other bands in 1992 for a tour they called the H.O.R.D.E. (Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere), and they were all suddenly playing in front of 3,000 people. When both Widespread Panic and the ARU had landed recording contracts from Atlanta's Capricorn Records by 1991, the jam-band tours grew exponentially. The annual H.O.R.D.E. tours lasted until 1998 and eventually included such groups as Dave Matthews Band, Gov't Mule, Sheryl Crow and Béla Fleck.
Col. Bruce quickly became the Yoda of that scene. During the ARU set on the H.O.R.D.E. tours, all the other band members would gather around the stage to watch and soak up his influence.
"He impacts our lives every day in every way," John Popper of Blues Traveler has said. "I don't see an end to the impact. So really, it's not an impact anymore, it's seepage."
"You know what that's about?" Jeff Mosier asks, referring to the whole Zambi phenomenon. "It grew out of the movie Being There and the Chauncey Gardner character whose simplicity is mistaken for enlightenment. It turns out that Oteil Burbridge was in that movie; he played this street punk. And his character's best friend was R. Keller. Ricky Keller was one of Bruce's dearest friends and produced some of his albums."
The inspiration for the word Zambi comes from Joe Zambie, a longtime friend whom Col. Bruce has mythologized into a Chauncey Gardner-like character named Zambi. And Zambi has become a secret code for all the musicians who have performed with the Colonel.
Zambi is Col. Bruce and Col. Bruce is Zambi.
"Bruce had to project himself onto somebody and it happened to be Zambi," says Mosier, who now fronts the jam band Blueground Undergrass. "He's not full of shit, and yet he is. The truth is in the paradox. I really can't compare him to anyone. You don't find many people who are true individuals, and he is. He's truly like no one else.Just look at all these musicians who have played with him or been influenced by him."
The list is extensive. There's Bobby Lee Rodgers, co-founder of the Codetalkers. John Bell of Widespread Panic refers to Col. Bruce as "my pappy." Derek Trucks attributes much of his advanced musical education to the Colonel. "I definitely wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for the Colonel," Trucks has said. "He always seemed to be there at the right time with the right record or the right book. He'd say, 'You're 15 now, you're ready for this.'"
At one point, the front line of the Allman Brothers was Jimmy Herring and Trucks on guitar and Burbridge on bass, and they joked that they were the "leftover Hamptons"; Trucks and Burbridge are still with the Allmans, and Herring is now the lead guitarist for Widespread Panic.
It's both a blessing and a curse that he has never tasted commercial success. "Really, success spoils anything that's pure," Herring says. "But Bruce is a success. My god, just look at everyone he's touched. He's touched all of us in deep ways."
A FEW WEEKS later, Club 29 in DeKalb County is packed to the rafters. Dave Schools from Widespread Panic sits in for a couple of songs, and R&B legend Bernard "Pretty" Purdie perches behind the drum kit. And then Herring shows up around midnight and takes the stage.
The prerequisite barstool is on the stage, but it's hidden in the shadows. The Colonel stands tall and moves to the beat as he plays guitar. He walks to the mic stand and it falls over. At first, it seems like an accident but then the Colonel expertly catches the base with his foot and tips it back up into his waiting hands. The band locks into a groove behind him and the crowd is jammed in close to the stage. He goes all bug-eyed for a moment, and his head starts to shake as if his finger is stuck in an electrical socket. Then he sings the ARU staple: "I'm afraid of people/Who don't think rasslin' is real/And I'm afraid of people/Who don't believe in the moonwalk/I am basically frightened."
The Colonel is back. An enthralling documentary by filmmaker Tom Lawson -- Basically Frightened: The Musical Madness of Col. Bruce Hampton -- is making the rounds of independent film festivals and will be screened in Atlanta later this year. His new band, the Quark Alliance, performs steadily and he plans to play at least a couple of times a month with the ARU.
After the set, we chat; I have my own good news to tell him -- I had walked onstage and played guitar for the first time in five years, and remembered why I'd fallen in love with music in the first place. "My brother invited me to sit in with him at his club," I say. "No pressure; there were only about 2,500 people."
The Colonel laughs. "Yeah, I know," he says. "My neighbor saw you. She told me all about it." Then he smiles. "She said you were great."
Scott Freeman talks with Col. Bruce Hampton in our podcast [mp3].
See the Col. Bruce Hampton online image gallery, click here.
For more on Col. Bruce Hampton, check out:
The Basically Frightened movie website. www.basicallyfrightened.com.
The Colonel's official website. www.colbruce.com.
The Colonel's myspace page: www.myspace.com/colbrucehamptonret.
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