The Tommy Bolin Story

[Excerpts from the text of the booklet from the 1989 box set "Tommy Bolin - The Ultimate...". Text written by Simon Robinson. Transcribed by Bill Jones in August 1994]

By Simon Robinson

Back in 1982 I wrote a piece about the guitarist Tommy Bolin for an English rock magazine. I don't do a lot of work for the music press, finding it difficult to write unless I'm really interested in the subject. Tommy Bolin was a man whose music had touched me and I hoped to communicate a little of how I felt about his work to others, perhaps in the process turn them on to his recorded legacy. His music was too good for him to remain forever the man who replaced Ritchie Blackmore in Deep Purple, which, for better or worse, was how he had come to be regarded by many people. The initial response I has from the article was gratifying, but what impressed me more given the ephemeral nature of periodicals, was the fact that I continued to get correspondence about it years later, indeed I still do. As a result, I began adding coverage of Tommy Bolin's career to the pages of the Deep Purple magazine which I edit, and making photos, lyrics and other material available for the loyal following which Bolin continued to inspire. If I have any qualification for writing the sleeve notes for this album, those are they.

Thomas Richard Bolin's recording career was packed into just seven years, an awfully short time in which to generate such an impact that his work is still influencing rock guitarists today. His childhood was spent in Sioux City, Iowa, where he was born on August 1, 1951. Tommy was something of a late starter in the music field, although with his close knit family all interested in music to some degree, it was probably inevitable that he would find an outlet for his energies by turning to one instrument or another.

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Whilst being involved in such prestigious projects as [Billy Cobham's] "Spectrum" was great for the ego, a couple of days work here and there wasn't about to pay all the bills. Fate was about to take a hand in the shape of guitarist Joe Walsh. Walsh was at the time leading his own group, Barnstorm, but had previously been with THE JAMES GANG, where he had established himself as a player of some note, giving the band their early successes in the process. He left them to strike out on his own in 1971 and had been replaced by Domenic Troiano. Despite two albums, Troiano and the rest of the band failed to gel, and by 1973 the group were casting around for a replacement. Walsh, who had heard Bolin's work in New York, and, Tommy claimed later, probably feeling guilty for nicking musicians he had been about to work with, called the James Gang up and gave them Bolin's number.

A few weeks later, Bolin was airing them the roughs of his work on "Spectrum". Though impressed, they pointed out that this was hardly what they were about. "That's okay," replied Tommy, "I like to play rock and roll too." Fifteen minutes into the audition he had the job. It was August 1973, Troiano left to join The Guess Who and by October The James Gang had a new album, "Bang," in the stores. That they could commence recording so quickly was due entirely to Bolin, who had been busy writing over the last couple of years. The James Gang took one listen to his material and went with it - no less than eight of the nine songs on the album carried his name. The ability to write was probably the deciding factor in Bolin joining The James Gang, and the "Bang" album is well recommended both for the songwriting and the quality of Tommy's guitar playing. The opening track for example, a classy rocker called "Standing In The Rain", beginning with a rapid fire guitar intro using the Echoplex effects unit he was so fond of (and which was to become one of his trademarks).

If the album showed Tommy rocking with a vengeance, it also demonstrated the other side of his character in the gentle, melodic and haunting work on "Alexis", which also found Tommy singing lead on an album for the very first time. It was his insistence on working with such material and his ability to pull it off convincingly that for me began to mark him out from other rock guitarists, many of whom are frightened of letting the macho image slip for a moment... Bolin was justifiably proud of the track and tried to press it for a single release, only to be turned down by the others. It was perhaps the first hint of discord. The James Gang hit the road, but despite an act based largely round the new album, and a lot of flashy stage effects, it soon became clear that there was a lot of hard work ahead were they to regain the ground lost since Walsh's departure.

In the band's non-touring moments, Bolin found it hard to keep still, and often reverted back to his old stomping grounds to get together with musical friends for an evening or two of loose jamming. Tapes from the time include Bolin taking tracks like "Stratus" to new heights, with some remarkable playing in the company of a band called The Good Rats.

Back in the James Gang, the initial cooperative atmosphere soon soured. The band were not particularly close-knit, and Tommy quickly tired of the routine and especially the fact that the group appeared not to appreciate his contributions anymore. "Miami". their second album together, was released in July 1974 and showed quite clearly that he was losing interest, with a lot of the material failing to spark. Even so, a couple of the tracks showed real merit, particularly "Spanish Lover", which once again featured Tommy on lead vocals. Elsewhere his guitar playing continued to set standards, with the marvelous introduction to side two, titled "Praylude", being especially good. Indeed, the album brought forth the comment back in England from one Ritchie Blackmore, who explained to his interviewer that he thought Bolin was one of the few American guitarists at the time doing anything interesting.

Tommy stuck it out for a few more months. He finally quit in October 1974, shortly after guesting on a track called "Rollin' In The Rockies" from Rainbow Canyon's debut album, and done as a favour to James Gang drummer James Fox who was producing the project.

Tommy wanted a change and moved this time to Los Angeles where over the next few months he spent his James Gang royalties on "crazy stuff" and auditioned singers. He'd made up his mind that this time round he would do his material how he wanted it. The project was interrupted for two more sessions, the first for Dr. John (The Night Tripper") who brought Tommy in to work on his "Hollywood Be Thy Name" album, though Tommy's work was later re-recorded by others. Then in December he got a call from jazz drummer Alphonse Mouzon, putting together a new album. "Mind Transplant", issued early the following year, trod the same ground that Billy Cobham had covered with "Spectrum" Despite that, Bolin, who appeared on four tracks, turned in some particularly sonic guitar work - the playing on "Snowbound" being especially noteworthy. ALPHONSE MOUZON'S MIND TRANSPLANT actually made it out on the road for a few shows to promote the album, but after a while Tommy went back to work on his solo ideas.

Atlantic Records, with whom he had worked in connection with the James Gang and Billy Cobham, finally offered him a solo deal at the suggestion of Cobham himself, and Bolin sat down to plan his first solo album. His idea was to do a side of vocal numbers and a side of more experimental instrumental material. The project was moving along nicely when Atlantic began to make what Tommy saw as unnecessary suggestions about who they wanted to produce the album. After a disagreement with Cobham, Tommy backed out and instead decided to record a set of demos to hawk around to other record companies. Using various friends from his Energy and Zephyr days, Bolin booked time at the Beach Boys studio. It was at their suggestion that he gave up the search for a vocalist and handle the chores himself, with members of the Beach Boys offering advice on technique.

These tapes were produced to a high standard, and show how carefully he had approached the whole project. Whilst this retrospective [the box set] is designed to cover his existing recording career, the inclusion of one track from those demos titled "Brother, Brother" was felt appropriate. Later to turn up on his solo album as "People People", this acoustic tryout shows how meticulously Bolin prepared all his material at the time. On hearing the tapes, Nemporer Records, a jazz label established by John McLaughlin's manager Nat Weiss, offered him that cherished solo album contract. It was April 1975, Tommy got himself a manager and signed. In proof of the old adage that it never rains but pours, Tommy was to be offered another contract within weeks of signing the first.

A few blocks away from where Tommy was living in Los Angeles, Deep Purple were anxiously searching America for him. A phenomenally successful rock band, best known in America for the success of "Smoke On The Water" which had, in 1974, helped them become the top selling album artists in The States, Deep Purple were at the time sans guitarist. Ritchie Blackmore, who along with drummer Ian Paice and organist Jon Lord, co-founded the band back in 1968, decided during recording of his own solo album that he would be happier pursuing a career outside of Deep Purple, and had quit in April 1975. While feelings within the remaining members of the band were mixed, they eventually decided to pick up the pieces and find a replacement. Each assembled a list of possible guitarists, and it was David Coverdale who added the name of Tommy Bolin to his, as a direct result of hearing the "Spectrum" album. Ever since his semi-pro days, Coverdale had been an avid album listener, borrowing when he couldn't afford to buy, and sitting up late at night listening to a wide variety of music. It was during one such session that Jon Lord received a phone call. Coverdale had rediscovered the "Spectrum" album, and having remembered Bolin vaguely from the James Gang days, he convinced Jon Lord that this was the guy.

Trouble was, nobody knew how to get hold of the man, and it was one of Deep Purple's roadies who finally located Tommy Bolin, living not far away in Malibu, and he was duly invited down for an audition. Jon Lord never forgot the experience. "He walked in, thin as a rake, his hair coloured green, yellow and blue with feathers in it. Slinking along beside him was this stunning Hawaiian girl in a crochet dress with nothing on underneath. He plugged into four Marshall 100 watt stacks and ..." And the job was his. He impressed them, and they impressed him. "What did I tell you, what did I tell you?" was all Coverdale could manage as Tommy put his guitar into gear. Over the next three weeks, they jammed together nearly every day, while he and Coverdale got nearly half an album's worth of songs together. The managers worked out a contract between Tommy and the band which allowed him enough free time to work on his own projects and pursue his own career outside Deep Purple, who were looking to take things a little easier from then on anyway.

While Deep Purple began to gear up for a return to action, Tommy Bolin went off to tape his solo album during May and June. He'd been so impressed by Deep Purple skills as musicians that he initially hoped to have them help him record it but this proved difficult to organise, though Glenn Hughes managed some backing vocals, and Jon Lord was seen in the studio at one point. In the main Tommy fell back on his circle of friends, people like Jan Hammer, Bobby Berge, Stanley Sheldon, along with a few special guests, including Genesis drummer, Phil Collins. At first he planned to use Mike Finnegan doing the vocals, but in the end he opted to handle them himself. Having finished recording his solo album, Bolin joined up with the rest of Deep Purple in July to begin serious rehearsals for their next album and the following tour. The album was recorded over in Germany in August and while that was being mixed, he took the time out to oversee the final mixing of his own album, though due to mix-ups this was put back until the beginning of October, leaving Tommy just four days to get himself over to Hawaii to start tour rehearsals with Deep Purple. Both it and the Deep Purple album were in the stores toward the end of the year, and while the contrast between them could hardly have been greater, both were fine pieces of work.

I have to confess that at first, Deep Purple's "Come Taste The Band" came as a shock. In the past whilst the band's vocalists and bassists had changed at regular intervals, the underlying sound had remained very recognizable. With Blackmore gone, it suddenly seemed very different and at first I, and many other fans, didn't like what had happened. A young American upstart taking over just wasn't on. The album received mixed reviews, and failed to match the success of earlier releases.

Slowly however the album's qualities began to emerge; the superbly energetic performance couldn't be ignored for long. Here was a band obviously enjoying what they were doing. Then the strength of the material, which was at times breathtaking, simple but powerful hard rock. "Comin' Home", "Lady Luck", or the brilliant "Love Child" - which evolved from a riff Tommy picked up from an old Joe Walsh number he'd had to do onstage with the James Gang - were all outstanding. "Gettin' Tighter" featured here was probably one of the best tracks, bassist Glenn Hughes handling the vocals, and helping to move the band towards extreme funk rather than hard rock at times. Tommy tackled slide, lead and twin rhythm guitars to produce the barrage of guitar magic which permeates the number. As a complete contrast came "Owed To 'G'" (the G in question being George Gershwin), an instrumental which evolved from a jam between Bolin and Lord, and which allowed Bolin to slowly build his layered guitar work from a gentle start to an exciting crescendo. "Jon and Glenn were going to call their half "Gersh" and I was going to call my half "Win"" Tommy recalled with some amusement later.

Bolin's own album "Teaser" took a more leisurely course, but turned out to be an equally fine and even more diverse musical outing. He'd been waiting a long time to lay some of his own material down, but the delay had been worth it. The performances range from the slightly more aggressive riffing of the title track itself, "The Grind" and the instrumental "Homeward Strut", to the more melodic and downright romantic feel of songs such as "Savannah Woman" and "Dreamer". Somehow Bolin managed to generate a special mood or feel with each individual track, his technique able to keep up with whatever he turned himself to.

Perhaps if they hadn't issued the solo album in such close proximity to the Deep Purple set, giving people time to get used to the new guitarist, "Teaser" would have done better. As it was the marketing relied heavily on using his position in the band to sell it, and the plan backfired to a certain extent.

By the time the two albums were in the stores, Deep Purple were warming up with shows in Australia before getting serious with a tour of Japan, one of Deep Purple's strongholds. It was here the band first became aware of Tommy's heroin problems. A bad fix had left Tommy's left arm weak, and for most of the shows he was unable to play with his usual dexterity. The Japanese record company insisted on releasing a live album from the tour, but the "Last Concert In Japan" recording did the group no favours whatsoever.

America, where the band opened in January 1976, saw things improve for a time. Tommy felt more sure of himself, enough to quip to one journalist, "If someone yells out for Blackmore I'll throw them a card printed with his name and address!" Back in front of an audience he knew, Tommy played well and some shows were really exciting. Although they relied heavily on old numbers, Tommy had been able to introduce "Wild Dogs" and other pieces from "Teaser" into the set, and generally the burden of having stepped into another guitarist's shoes wasn't felt so much. Efforts were made to keep dealers away from Tommy, but even so it wasn't all smooth sailing. Another problem surfaced which was Glenn Hughes' realization that Tommy Bolin was a player he could really relate to musically, and the two struck up a friendship. Their musical ideals however were at odds with what the rest of the group saw Deep Purple doing and this began to cause friction.

In Britain, where rock audiences had caused a five date tour to sell out in days, all the problems within the band seemed to come to a head. As Ian Paice explained, Bolin was a guitarist who needed a little time, a little indulgence from a crowd, in order to build himself up. Despite warnings from the group that English audiences were not renowned for giving people that breathing space, as well as explaining about Blackmore's immense following, and the need to really prove himself, Tommy really couldn't come to grips with the British crowds. I'll never forget their final show in Liverpool, where left alone to do a solo spot before an expectant crowd, Tommy just dried up. As he floundered on the huge stage, a lone fan dashed down one of the aisles screaming encouragement - "Come on Tommy, you teaser!" The P.A. blew his cries away and the over zealous bouncers bundled him back to his seat. The cries for Blackmore grew in strength.

While I can now appreciate the situation, at the time I was angry and sad. As Coverdale left the stage at the end of that last show, he did so in tears. It was all over barring the official announcements.

Deep Purple dispersed and Tommy Bolin returned to America where six weeks later he was back on the road with THE TOMMY BOLIN BAND, promoting his solo album. Headlining the smaller venues, supported by Sailor, the relief after the trials of the Deep Purple tour must have been enormous. Sadly though, the erratic nature of his performances with Deep Purple continued. He'd slay the crowd one night, and have them leaving in droves the next. Depressed by the departure of a long-standing girlfriend he also hit the bottle and the final dates were cancelled when he lost his voice altogether.

In July the demise of Deep Purple was made official, and Tommy Bolin disappeared into the studio to begin work on his second solo album. According to the musicians assembled for the recording, Tommy was often completely out of it during the sessions, and this probably accounts for the elaborate plans for a double album (including new material, some re-recordings of songs like "Alexis" and a bunch of live songs from the June tour) being abandoned. Only drummer Bobby Berge remained of his old musical retinue.

When "Private Eyes" finally emerged in September 1976 it was just a single album containing all new material. Given Bolin's condition at the time, it is still a fine piece of work; one can only guess at how it might have sounded had he tackled it as thoroughly as the first. Once again the variety of musical styles was widespread, from the gentle exquisite love song "Hello Again" up to the exciting fuzzed riffing of "Post Toastie" The latter was a lengthy track edited down from a take almost twice as long, and ironically warned of the dangers inherent in a life-style Tommy himself was fast succumbing to.

With the album's release, Bolin reassembled his band and began touring in earnest, debuting at the Roxy in Los Angeles. No less than four lineups are known but the basic nucleus remained Bolin himself on guitar and vocals (though for a time Robert Plant was being rumoured for the band), Norma Jean Bell on saxophone, known for her work with Stevie Wonder and Frank Zappa, and Mark Stein on keyboards, late of Vanilla Fudge. Both of them had helped out on "Private Eyes" Bassists and drummers came and went, including for a time Tommy's brother Johnny behind the kit. The band's set now took in both albums but judging from reviews Tommy was still having problems putting in reliable performances night after night. Financial problems were also beginning to make themselves felt - both his drug problems and the cost of keeping a band on the road were rapidly eating into advances.

Despite that, Bolin was still in demand for sessions work, helping out (along with former Energy player Tom Stephenson) on Moxy's first album during the year. He also patched up his differences with Billy Cobham and in early November the pair of them began work on what they hoped would be yet another ground breaking album, this time adding an element of funk to the jazz rock of "Spectrum" Tommy also sat down with Glenn Hughes to discuss the possibility of forming a group together, and the two of them had some preliminary jams to see how things might develop.

After this break, THE TOMMY BOLIN BAND returned to the rock and roll arena, with a burst of live work designed to take them up to Christmas. As a way of easing the financial burden, the band were going out as a support act to people like Robin Trower - who made himself arrive in time to catch Bolin's set every night - playing larger venues. Reportedly Tommy had cleaned himself up to a large extent and the shows, with Max Gronenthal on keyboards, were better because of it. The band arrived in Miami at the beginning of December with a few days break prior to a show there. Unable to resist temptation Bolin went on a binge. He recovered in time for their show at the Jai Alai Fronton Hall on December 3rd, where they were supporting Jeff Beck. The set went down a storm with a lengthy version of "Post Toastie" climaxing the performance. Backstage Bolin and Beck posed for a picture after which Tommy returned to his Miami Beach hotel with his girlfriend. Late that night, he passed out; fearful of adverse publicity no doctor was called and, as he seemed to come round, roadies put him back to bed. Around 8 am the following day, Saturday, December 4th, his girlfriend saw that he was looking much worse and finally an ambulance was called, but Bolin died before it arrived. Cause of death was later identified as multiple drug intoxication. He was 25 years old.

The news made its way around the world, I heard it over the radio as I stood on a rainy street in Manchester. I'd only been familiar with his music for a year and it was to be a while before it really came home to me what a loss it was. Across the globe in Japan, Ritchie Blackmore, touring with Rainbow, dedicated a song to his memory.

Six days later Tommy Bolin was buried back in Sioux City. His girlfriend flew over from England to place on his finger a ring she'd been saving for him, a present from a roadie. It had been on Jimi Hendrix's hand the day he died.

Today, many years after Tommy Bolin's last three major works were issued, they still sound as good today as they ever did - if not better. That ability to help make such timeless music is what marked Tommy Bolin as someone special, and why so many people remember him with such fondness. The albums also showed a grasp of music which few rock guitarists ever achieve, especially so early on. If as many can learn from his mistakes as are influenced by his recordings then his legacy will be doubly worthwhile.

Simon Robinson

Dave Hodgkinson 13 August 1995.

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