“At some point,” said Grillo, “you realize something’s wrong.”
Grillo had been researching a biography about Hampton and had grown familiar with the theater of the absurd in Hampton’s work.
Bruce Hampton (foreground) and the Hampton Grease Band performed at the Atlanta Pop Festival in 1970 in Byron, Georgia. The band included Glenn Phillips (guitar), Jerry Fields (drums), Mike Holbrook (bass) and Harold Kelling (guitar). Courtesy of Bill Fibben
That book, “The Music and Mythocracy of Col. Bruce Hampton: A Basically True Biography,” with cover art by Flournoy Holmes, will be published next month by the University of Georgia Press.
Grillo’s book is the first biography of one of the most outlandish, creative and influential musicians Atlanta has produced in the last 50 years.
His subtitle hedges its bets because searching out the facts about Hampton was a challenge for Grillo, or anyone dealing with a man who continually reinvented himself and his colleagues, donning and rejecting new names and histories like accessories. “Hyperbole was his second language.”
But Grillo realized, in that moment at the Fox, that Hampton’s actual life and his onstage death were going to outstrip anything that fiction could produce.
Jerry Grillo, seen here at an outdoor stage near his home in Sautee Nacoochee, is the author of a new biography of Atlanta musician Bruce Hampton. Photo: April Swing
Hampton had suffered a massive heart attack. He would be pronounced dead several hours later at a nearby hospital. The show ended with “the most surreal moment of a surreal life,” Grillo writes. It was “poetic and horrifying, tragic and triumphant.”
To sum up that life, Grillo has gone the extra mile to get close to the truth about Hampton, speaking with more than 100 of Hampton’s friends, fellow musicians and family members. He has collected a quilt of stories, some of which contradict each other. (Hampton might have met Frank Zappa in 1966, or ‘67, either on the streets of Greenwich Village or in a coffee shop, during a conversation about avant-garde composer Krzysztof Penderecki, or after greeting Zappa with the Dada-ist non sequitur “Grease!”)
Grillo traces Hampton’s career, from his first musical ventures in Harold Kelling’s band the IV of IX in 1965, to the Hampton Grease Band, a group that started out playing blues covers, then mutated.
Among other things, the Grease Band invented the idea of playing free concerts in Piedmont Park when guitarist Glenn Phillips discovered that an electric outlet in the pavilion was live.
A new era dawned, with free concerts every weekend featuring the Grease Band, the Allman Brothers Band, the Grateful Dead and others.
Jerry Grillo's biography of Bruce Hampton features cover art by Atlanta's noted graphic artist Flournoy Holmes, who has fashioned album covers for the Late Bronze Age, the Allman Brothers Band, Kansas and Widespread Panic, among many others.
Credit: University of Georgia Press
Credit: University of Georgia Press
Darryl Rhoades, later founder of the Hahavishnu Orchestra, saw the band play at the Catacombs in that period and tells Grillo his first impression of Hampton was “He can’t sing, but he can yell really well.”
The band gained a huge following in Atlanta by performing constantly, and by turning their shows into theatrical free-for-alls. Bruce would gargle peanut butter, tape himself to the mic stand, climb walls and swing from the ductwork.
The Grease Band’s personnel featured many stellar performers, including keyboard and horn player Michael Greene, who went on to become chairman of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, and chief of the Grammy Awards.
Greene was in the band in May 1972, when the Grease Band opened for John McLaughlin and Mahavishnu, at the Sports Arena. During that performance, the Grease Band included an extra who wielded a chain saw at the side of the stage.
Many years later, Greene was talking to McLaughlin backstage at the Grammys, and Greene asked McLaughlin if he remembered the guys in Atlanta with the chain saw. “God, I hated those guys,” McLaughlin told him.
Grillo, who collects many such anecdotes, points out that more than 40 years later McLaughlin had “gotten over his disdain” sufficiently to guest star with Hampton’s Aquarium Rescue Unit in its final tour.
Duane Allman became a big fan, convincing Capricorn Records chief Phil Walden to sign the Grease Band. Walden sent them to Columbia Records for their debut — and only — album.
The legendary double album “Music to Eat,” full of polyrhythmic 11-minute jams and screamed poetry, became purportedly the second-worst-selling item in the Columbia catalog, but later turned into a collector’s item. The Grease splattered.
Afterward, Hampton tried comedy, professional wrestling, driving a tour bus, bookkeeping, while starting a series of follow-up bands: the Hampton Geese Band, the New Ice Age, the Late Bronze Age and others.
Though his instrumental skill was rudimentary, he continued to attract top-flight musicians. In 1978 and 1980 he put out two jazz-inflected albums, “One Ruined Life of a Bronze Tourist” and “Outside Looking Out,” winning fans in unlikely places.
Zappa said the former was his favorite album in 1978. Robert Palmer gave the latter a glowing review in The New York Times.
Did these endorsements propel Hampton to wealth and fame? No. This is partly because he continued to disassemble and reassemble his bands to pursue his restless ideas and partly because those ideas were so discombobulating.
What Hampton accomplished in the 1990s defied the odds. Still pursuing his own muse, he attracted, as usual, a cast of virtuosos, including Jimmy Herring on guitar, Matt Mundy on mandolin, Jeff Sipe on drums and Oteil Burbridge on bass, to form the Aquarium Rescue Unit.
Hampton had a knack for finding young gifted musicians. Derek Trucks, who became one of the greatest slide guitar players since Duane Allman, began sitting in with Hampton when he was12 years old. Courtesy of Ron Currens
Credit: Ron Currens
Credit: Ron Currens
Grillo argues persuasively that this was not just Hampton’s apex, but a rock ‘n’ roll apex. They were tight, smooth, lyrical, jaw-dropping, but also willing to fling themselves into space and risk re-entry.
The ARU began playing summer festivals with such improvisational bands as Phish, Blues Traveller, Spin Doctors and Widespread Panic. The phenomenon was called the H.O.R.D.E. tour and the ARU, the most obscure of the groups, in terms of national recognition, became the favorite among the fellow musicians.
Hampton had turned into the godfather of the jam-band scene. In the third act of his theatrical life, Hampton found that the world was singing his tune.
Grillo works at Georgia Tech, writing about biomedical engineering. “It does melt my brain,” he said. Writing about Hampton was a nice escape. “I worked in journalism for many years, and every now and then, you want to scratch that phantom limb.”
The first time he met Hampton and heard him play was around 2006, when Grillo and his wife volunteered at an outdoor music festival near his home in Sautee Nacoochee in northeast Georgia. He began working on the book, with Hampton’s cooperation, as a side project in 2011. Hampton’s death in 2017 briefly paralyzed him, but other musicians urged him to finish it.
Many of those musicians came up through the Col. Bruce boot camp, and they credit Hampton for teaching them an approach to music that borders on the spiritual.
Slide guitarist Derek Trucks of the Tedeschi Trucks Band first sat in with the Aquarium Rescue Unit when he was 12 years old. He was onstage with Hampton in 2017, at Hampton 70, and watched his mentor collapse.
“Not to glorify it,” he told Grillo, “but what a...beautiful way to go. He was surrounded by his friends — his kids, we were his kids. And all this love. That’s a rare thing. Awful as it was, it was pretty amazing, and a part of me will never recover from it.”
NUGGETS ABOUT COL. BRUCE HAMPTON
He was in no less than 10 bands in his career.
His band The Late Bronze Age performed in the 1983 movie “Getting It On.”
Hampton helped start the 1990s H.O.R.D.E. tours.
He was the voice of a talking potted shrub in the TV show “Space Ghost Coast to Coast.”
He appeared in the movie “Sling Blade” in 1996.
He starred in Mike Gordon’s 2001 film “Outside Out.”
Then Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal presented Hampton with the Governor’s Award in The Arts and Humanities in 2012.
Hampton made a cameo in the music video for “Blockbuster Night, Pt. 1” by Run the Jewels in 2014.