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Jon Lord, Interviews
The Highway Star


The short unhappy life in Deep Purple of Tommy Bolin, Smokin Guitarist and Rock and Roll Casualty. 

When Ritchie Blackmore quit Deep Purple in April 1975, it almost certainly meant the band was kaput. Blackmore had almost single-handedly defined the Deep Purple sound, and any substitute guitarist would have been deemed an insult to both the band and its fans.

But practically by a stroke of luck, Deep Purple did find a guitarist whose brilliant style would make Blackmore's absence a lot easier to handle for the band's fans. A relative newcomer to the rock scene, Tommy Bolin was best known as a member of the James Gang. But it was his playing on Billy Cobham's Spectrum that opened the door to Deep Purple.

"When Ritchie left, I wanted to discontinue the band," says Jon Lord. "But one day, David Coverdale showed up at my house in Malibu with two bottles of wine and, with great eloquence, persuaded me to carry on. I felt that Ritchie was the heart and soul of the band, and I wasn't ready to back down from my decision. But then David said, 'I want you to hear something,' and he played the Spectrum album. I was blown away and utterly entranced by this guitar player."

A Deep Purple roadie tracked down Bolin, who was also living in Malibu, and invited him to audition for the band. "This glorious young man walked in with red and green hair and this beautiful wide, friendly grin," recalls Lord. "on his arm he had this stunning woman who was wearing one of those crocheted dresses and absolutely nothing underneath. Tommy plugged in, we jammed , and boy was it good! This guy could really play. But it was a totally different style of playing from Ritchie. It was untutored. His technical ability came from within. But he was like the little girl with the curls: when he was good he was very, very good, but when he was bad he was horrid."

Bolin recorded only one studio album with Deep Purple, Come Taste The Band. While Come Taste The Band fully displayed Bolin's impressive playing the album received a lukewarm reception from fans. Things were even worse when the band went on tour in support of the album. "We did this disastrous Far Eastern tour," says Lord. "I discovered that Tommy had a rather serious drug problem, and, probably as a result of that, something had happened to him. I'll never know what it was, but it caused him great difficulty in playing . Then one of our trusted helpers, Patsy, was murdered in Jakarta, Indonesia. It appeared that he had fallen down an elevator shaft, but we knew that he was murdered. We did two nights in Jakarta where, so we were informed, we would be playing to about 20 to 25 thousand people a night. But the first night we played to about 90,000 people; the next night we played to over 100,000. It was after that first night that Patsy was murdered. The promoter never paid us. He took all the money and had us deported. He had our tour manager, one of the roadies and our bassist, Glenn Hughes, locked up on suspicion of murder."

After that disaster, Deep Purple returned to America for a tour that went much more smoothly. "Tommy seemed to be able to cope with all the problems he had when he was on home ground," says Lord. "On occasions he played absolutely sublimely. But then we went to Europe and he didn't do so well? By the time we reached the U.K. he completely lost it. It was not entirely his fault. There was some opposition from the British fans to seeing their favorite British group with an American guitarist. He won them over on a couple of nights, but usually he ended up shouting at the fans. On the last concert of that particular run, in Liverpool, Ian Paice and I met backstage and decided to quit the band. About 10 minutes later, David Coverdale came into my dressing room and told me that he was leaving. I informed him that there was no band to leave. It was a rather ignominious end to what had been a wonderful few years."

Although the breakup of the band had seemed inevitable for some time, Bolin felt guilty about the events that led to its demise. Fortunately, he had a burgeoning solo career to focus on, and with the albums Teaser and Private Eyes he was finally starting to gain recognition for his own efforts, without any excess baggage from his former bands. Unfortunately, his moment of recovery was extremely short-lived. After playing a show with Jeff Beck in Miami, Florida, Bolin died from a drug overdose. He was only 25 years old.

"I was 3,000 miles away, sitting in a restaurant, when the news came on the radio that Tommy had died," says Lord. "I was devastated, although I must admit that I was not surprised. That was the path he had chosen. I had never seen anybody do to themselves what Tommy did to himself. I just wish he had someone around him who would have held his hand. Sometimes I feel guilty that we didn't do more. But I'm not sure what we could have done."

Even Ritchie Blackmore was touched by the news, and that night while playing a show with Rainbow in Japan, he dedicated a song to the late guitarist. "I don't envy Tommy Bolin for trying to take my place in Purple," says Blackmore today. "He was a uniquely talented player and it's unfortunate that he never had the chance to develop with the band the way that I did. His death was an incredible loss, not only for Deep Purple but for guitar fans as well."

By Chris Gill (Guitar World; May 1999; Page 60). Transcribed by Gord Jantzen

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