Col. Bruce Hampton
Photo: Unknown
Photo: Unknown

Bruce Hampton: A rebel without a chord

This story was originally published on June 28, 1987.

It's 1964. The IV of IX, a rock band sometimes fronted by Bruce Hampton, is chased out of Tuxedo, N.C., by displeased local citizens with shotguns.

It's 1971. The Hampton Grease Band, fronted by Bruce Hampton, is pelted with bottles and garbage by 12,000 enraged listeners at the newly dedicated University of Alabama stadium.  

It's 1983. The Late Bronze Age, fronted by Bruce Hampton, drives 900 patrons out of a Midtown Atlanta auditorium during a gala inaugural party for the short-lived Video Music Channel.  

It's 1987. Hampton's ensemble once again sends punks and punkettes fleeing, this time from the Nexus Contemporary Art Center.  

Do we note a pattern here?  

If anything, we note that Hampton has been holding his ground lately, putting the audience to the run instead of vice versa. We also note that after 24 years as Atlanta's most pungent performance artist, Bruce Hampton can still move people - toward fear, toward joy or toward the exits.  

"In the Bible, " says Hampton, fingering the frets on his prototype electric mandolin, "it says 'Make a joyful noise unto the Lord.' It doesn't say anything about music."  

Tuneful or not, the 230-pound Hampton has always had an outsize influence on music in Atlanta. This season has witnessed a flurry of activity from "the Colonel, " including the release of his best recorded material to date on the Landslide cassette "Arkansas."  

This year may also bring the reappearance of "Music to Eat." That double album, pressed in 1972, was the only recorded offering from the Hampton Grease Band, a group that played amplified chain saw, slung mayonnaise at its audiences and thoroughly terrorized the Atlanta music scene of the late '60s and early '70s.  

With Hampton as its roaring point man, the Grease Band so dominated countercultural Atlanta that editorials appeared in underground journals entreating local critics to write about somebody else for a change.  

"Music To Eat" was recorded with a $75,000 advance from Columbia Records (some accounts say $100,000) - an astronomical sum for an unsigned band's maiden effort. But much of the money was siphoned off by middlemen, and the record became one of Columbia's most spectacular commercial failures, "the straw that broke the camel's back, " according to a Columbia executive quoted in The New York Times.  

At the same time, the record earned critical plaudits and became an instant collector's item, selling for up to 10 times its original $3.79 list price. Today, 14 years after the demise of the Grease Band, Danny Beard of DB Records is negotiating for the re-release of "Music to Eat" through Columbia's Special Projects subsidiary.  

"It's pumping life into something that's dead, " says Hampton, who nonetheless admits that "the damn thing holds up pretty well."  

Hampton is more interested in "Arkansas, " his first recording in five years. To be released in album form this August by Landslide Records, "Arkansas" is superlative funk and country blues seen through Hampton's perverse logic.  

"Bifocal duster lasso instructor put dramas in a Hudson Hornet, " sings the pseudonymous Col. Hampton B. Coles (Ret.). The tape ranges from the cryptic to the unintelligible, including Hamptonian glossolalia-like "Brato Ganibe": "Caledo, bajatus. Veefo dis i sheer."  

On top of this project, Hampton has perfected his ambidextrous tennis game and soon will publish a book of poetry through Pynyon Press, titled "Seven Men in a Bazooka, Or I Was a Teenage Warehouse." In his 40th year, Hampton is busy making waves, rocking the stodgy Southeastern mind with new ideas.  

He has been an original force here since his earliest days on stage. One viewer remembers the IV of IX's appearance at an otherwise mealy- mouthed 1964 battle of the bands as "the most intimidating piece of art I've ever seen in my life."  

The Grease Band became a kind of icon for a small but devoted following. It was a cerebral antidote to brainless "Southern boogie, " an alternative to the lyrical but unadventurous Allman Brothers and the boneheaded Lynyrd Skynyrd.  

Hampton Grease Band in 1969. That's Glenn Phillips in the front with the V-shaped guitar (next to the guy with the drumsticks). CONTRIBUTED BY BILL FIBBEN
Photo: Bill Fibben

For the panoply of the "The Strip, " a miniature Haight-Ashbury that sprouted on Peachtree between 10th and 14th streets, the Grease Band provided a soundtrack. Hampton and company were the first to perform free in Piedmont Park, and they towed a raft of new bands into existence through force of example.  

After the Grease slid off the scene, Hampton's musical leverage continued, in sometimes greater or lesser strength. One testament to his sway was the creation of Landslide Records, which Michael Rothschild formed essentially to release the initial Late Bronze Age opus "Outside Looking Out."  

"Right out of the box, we got a major review of the record in the Arts & Leisure section of The New York Times, " remembers Rothschild. "We thought, 'My God, a review in The New York Times. We're really going places.' "  

As it turned out, the record and its 1982 follow-up, "Isles of Langerhan, " were cult hits in New York and Atlanta, but neither sold more than 3,000 copies. Hampton did, however, introduce Rothschild to a number of artists who would provide Landslide's other early releases, including guitarist John Abercrombie, pianist Dan Wall, percussionist David Earle Johnson and oboist Paul McCandless.  

"Bruce was usually the person who brought it all together, " remembers McCandless. "He attracted some of the wild men of the town at that point, which a lot of times were the best jazz players." McCandless was a member of such post-Grease Band units as the Hampton Geese Band and the New Ice Age, though he is best known for his work with Ralph Towner in the group Oregon.  

"More than giving directions, Bruce really creates an atmosphere of creativity. . . . And there was a real sense of fun that all the performances had, " McCandless said. "Part of it is being around him, and part of it is the environment that he creates."  

At one time, that environment could be a dangerous place. As a Greaser, Hampton threw tables, chairs and drum sets into the audience, attacked furniture with power tools, gargled peanut butter and appeared unhinged.  

Every follower has a favorite story.  

"Once he winged a cymbal into the crowd, " said Rothschild, with a look of dread. "He could have decapitated somebody."  

At the Catacombs (which has since disappeared), Hampton swung from a water pipe, tearing it out of the ceiling and unleashing a flood. "We started hosing people down, " said Grease Band guitarist Glenn Phillips. "We had a sort of search-and-destroy attitude."  

Hampton reportedly once sang "20,000 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" at a downtown club in one 18-hour stretch.  

Col. Bruce Hampton (far right) with (from left to right) Mike Holbrook, Glenn Phillips, Jerry Fields and Harold Kelling of the Hampton Grease Band. Photo Credit: Bill Fibben

"What I remember Bruce doing was getting the audience to stand up on their chairs and yell absurdities at the stage, " said McCandless' wife, Robin Feld, onetime manager and co-owner of the long-departed 12th Gate club in Atlanta. "I always loved that, because I felt like he brought out something in all of us, that place in all of us, the spontaneous, the absurd, the unrestrained. That was one of his great talents."  

These days Hampton's audience is less endangered. "Probably when I was an angry young man, we tried to repel people, " says Hampton, the mellowing melodramatist. "Now we do what comes natural."  

In his youth, the baby-faced Hampton rebelled against a formidable history that came with the Hampton and Cunningham names. On his mother's side, generations of Cunninghams had acquitted themselves in military careers. Grandfather William A. Cunningham once coached football at the University of Georgia. "He made Ernest Hemingway look like a sissy, " Hampton says.  

Bruce didn't fit that mold. At the draft registration office, he arrived with half his head shaved and several dozen pipe cleaners taped to his skull, seeking a chance to kill for his country. He was given a deferral.  

Neither was he clearly cut out for a musical career. "I thought I was going to be a golfer, then, one night, I got up on stage, " says Hampton, resting at his Virginia Avenue apartment. That night the world lost a hacker with a three handicap and won a "vocal expressionist" who could comfortably narrate Armageddon. "Being on stage is what I'm here to do, " Hampton says.  

While his singing has steadily grown in strength, Hampton has never claimed any ability on the various instruments he plays. "It's just a bazooka, " he says of the mandolin. The bazooka is a fitting emblem for his music: a large, memorable force that can be aimed loosely in the direction of a given target, with satisfactory results.  

Hampton's lack of training never discouraged brilliant musicians such as former Little Feat guitarist Paul Barrere and drummer Sonny Emory from contributing their talents, at no charge, to the "Arkansas" tape.  

"How a person with no real musical knowledge can attract virtuosos . . . is a mystery to everybody, " said drummer and friend Charles Wolff.  

Ricky Keller, a premier session bassist and Hampton's chief musical collaborator, explains, "They always want to play with him 'cause he's Bruce. He's a guru. . . . When you play with him, he pulls stuff out of you that you don't know is there."  

Keller performs with the Late Bronze Age as Lincoln Metcalfe (everybody in the Late Bronze Age gets a new name), and his studio, Southern Living At It's Very Finest, is where "Arkansas" was recorded. He makes a handy living recording jingles, but Keller says he bought all the recording equipment, first and foremost, to document Hampton.  

"I have to pay for all this junk, " he says, explaining his commercial work, "but if I could do anything I wanted to, I would just play for Bruce." Keller was a straight-arrow beach-music type, touring extensively with the Tams and the Drifters, before he met Bruce and mutated. "Somebody once told Bruce, 'You took a nice boy like Ricky and ruined him, ' " said Rothschild.  

Many are the decent and trusting souls that have been altered by a Bruce Hampton show.  

Scenes from the Late Bronze Age, live:  

At the Nexus Theatre in March, Hampton plays the theremin, dueling with Atlanta Symphony oboist Debra Workman. He leads the rest of the band into a cacophonous crescendo, repeating one favorite phrase 128 times. He signals a head-snapping segue into "Jack the Rabbit." The volume loosens bridgework.  

In August 1986, during the swan-song shows in the now-defunct Moonshadow Saloon, Hampton staggers like an electroshock victim, pulls furiously at his collar, screams, "I feel like Cleo Laine is entering my body. I feel like I'm returning to forever with Chick Corea." He sings his cycle of Zambie songs: "On a Clear Day You Can See Zambie . . . Zambie in the Sky With Diamonds . . . Zambie Row the Boat Ashore . . . Walking With Zambie."  

Zambie is Joseph E. Zambie II, an Atlanta parasitologist who has achieved immortality through Hampton's songs of praise. While in the Navy, Zambie took an ejection-seat ride that went wrong, propelling him outward at 1,350 gravities. After the two met, Hampton calculated that Zambie must have flown briefly at 10 times escape velocity. Hampton immediately began incorporating tales of Zambie into his act.  

"Bruce seems to have computed that I'm the fastest man in the world, " said the soft-spoken Zambie. "He's just being Bruce. Bruce is a good soul."  

Among the other personalities who have visited Hampton shows are Prophet Omega, Captain Electronic and Dino the dancer, whose real name is Jeffrey McEachin. "He's a master of making strange things happen and then capitalizing on them, " said McEachin, a software engineer by day, a limbo- maniac whenever the Bronze Age plays. "There was one time when the percussion consisted solely of Bubba Phreon drummer Jerry Fields slamming a fire door over and over."  

"I like the image, " Hampton says, concerning his reputation as a wild and crazy guy. "I'm really a mild and lazy guy, but why not have a great stage image?"  

Since his music is usually a negative-cash-flow affair, Hampton makes a living as an accountant for an investigation agency. Well-placed bets on the horses in Birmingham, Ala., keep him in cigarette money.  

"I love blue-collar squalor the best, " says Hampton. "I'm anti- bourgeoisie and anti-matter. Finance doesn't mean anything to me. It always comes when I want it. I can live in a sink."  

This is true, says housemate Myron Monsky, who notes that Hampton sleeps on the couch as often as in the landfill that passes for his quarters. Hampton was once married for nine years and confesses, "The only problem that I ever had with women is that I wouldn't clean up my room."  

Underneath the shambles is a well-organized man. Though he smokes a pack a day, the shad-bellied Hampton can still beat Monsky on the tennis court, and Mons ky teaches aerobics for a living.  

"You'll look at the guy, and you'll say this is not happening, " said Monsky. "He's not even moving around - he's using his left hand to hit most of his backhands." Monsky suggests an explanation for Hampton's ability, pointing to the suspicious similarity between Hampton's profile and that of famous primate Willie B.  

"These two have never been photographed at the same place and time. Does Bruce Hampton have a secret life at the Atlanta zoo?"

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