Icons of Rock: Tommy Bolin

Potential is an emotional term. It can be a word synonymous with the excitement of budding possibilities and infinite boundaries – a magic that can only be found at the beginning of love, careers, or anything new. If, for whatever reason, that potential is never realized, that same excitement can erode into a feeling of loss and the dreaded what-could-have-been hangover.

In the entertainment world, unfulfilled potential can also make a legend. Whether it be James Dean or Jim Morrison, dying young has but one perk – the romanticized version of what could have been.

The fans that attended Tommy Bolin’s final live show in Miami on December 3rd, 1976 were unknowing witnesses to a crossroads of potential. The guitarist/singer/songwriter was a rising star, and although he was a former member of both The James Gang and Deep Purple, was still tapping into his enormous talent. That night, opening for Jeff Beck, he tore through a memorable set, which included songs such as “Teaser”, “Wild Dogs”, and the final song he ever played live, “Post Toastee”, which ironically chronicles the dangers of drug abuse. He walked off the stage, wrapped in cheers, and basking in the glow of a stirring performance.

Mere hours later, on December 4th, the 25-year-old died of a drug overdose and all that potential was tossed into the public’s subconscious. The heights that the young prodigy could reach would have to be left to the open skies of the imagination.

Tommy Bolin was a unique talent, a musical harlequin able to seamlessly blend a range of styles from funk to hard rock to reggae and make it all sound cohesive – a versatility that has given him an edge over many of the better known guitar gods. Never one to mimic other guitarists, his style was as diverse as the bands he played for.

After being kicked out of school for refusing to cut his hair, the teenage guitarist had his first taste of success came with the blues rock group, Zephyr. Formed in 1969, with the husband/wife duo of David and Candy Givens, as well as drummer, Robbie Chamberlin, the band recorded two modestly successful albums (Zephyr and Going back to Colorado) before Bolin’s departure in 1971. The record company (the long defunct Probe label) was overbearing during the recording sessions for their self titled debut, forcing the band to redo the songs ad nauseum, and it was during this time that Bolin, as well as the other band members, began their descent into drugs. During this time, he was also introduced to the Echoplex pedal and began to mold his signature sound.

After leaving Zephyr, he formed a heavy metal jazz fusion outfit called Energy. The band was highly experimental and never really caught on, but he continued to refine his ever evolving rapid-fire technique. He was growing as a performer, and not only was he fine tuning his playing style, but also his image. He became more and more flamboyant in appearance and began dying his hair and wearing flashy accessories such as his trademark feather earrings, feather boa’s, and nail polish.

Energy never released an album, but Bolin soon recorded what many feel is the best example of his guitar playing on record, Billy Cobham’s Spectrum. The album is a classic jazz-rock fusion jam-fest, and although he plays alongside such greats as Cobham and keyboardist, Jan Hammer, Bolin’s guitar is the star of the album. The control he displays over his instrument in the album’s opening track, “Quadrunt 4” is nothing short of electrifying. His work on Spectrum would lead to other studio work, such as Alphonse Mouzon’s, Mind Transplant and an unreleased album by Dr. John.

Basking in his newfound notoriety, the young virtuoso left Energy in 1973 to replace Joe Walsh in the James Gang. Tommy Bolin was always a free spirit, and although the James Gang was his first real shot at mainstream success, he never seemed entirely happy with the group’s direction. He co-wrote many of the songs on the two albums (Bang and Miami) he appeared on, including his first lead vocal on the ballad, “Alexis,” but by the time Miami was released, it was apparent he was losing interest. He left the group due to creative differences in 1974.

He then decided to try the solo route, found himself a manager, and began work on his first project, Teaser. The album, a cool blend of rock, jazz, reggae, and the blues, would become the definitive example of his talent. During the recording of the album, Ritchie Blackmore left Deep Purple, and Bolin was contacted for an audition. He accepted the invitation, and a few notes of “Smoke on the Water” would be all it would take for him to win the coveted spot, leading to a whirlwind schedule which saw him record Teaser in Los Angeles before jetting off to Europe to record the Deep Purple album, Come Taste the Band.

Both albums were released around the same time, with Bolin co-writing seven songs on Come Taste the Band, as well as all the material on Teaser. His youth and talent injected a vitality into the British band (who had already seen David Coverdale and Glenn Hughes replace Ian Gillan and Roger Glover), and although the new album wasn’t a classic on par with the likes of Machine Head, it would have been interesting to see what the new line-up could have done, had they stayed together a bit longer.

The resulting tour for Come Taste the Band was a whirlwind of excess that saw Bolin’s substance abuse reach dangerous new heights. Friends and fans began to notice changes in both his personal behaviour and his live performances. His solo’s became inconsistent and he almost fell off the stage during a performance in New York.

Deep Purple disbanded after the tour, but Bolin would record one more solo album, Private Eyes. Like Teaser, the album is an underrated masterpiece, displaying his vast array of talents. From the Linda Blair (whom he briefly dated) inspired, “Shake the Devil”, to the beautiful, “Sweet Burgundy”, there’s something for any fan of classy rock. In an interesting twist, fate may have tipped its hand on the album’s cover, which features Japanese characters meaning ‘fortune’ and ‘grave.’ Six months after the album was recorded, Tommy Bolin was found dead in a Miami Hotel room.

Tommy Bolin had it all – charm, looks, and a mother lode of musical talent, and although he never achieved superstar status in his short lifetime, his influence is evident in artists as diverse as Jeff Beck and Motley Crue. Fans continue to painstakingly search out new Bolin material, from box sets to books, and in 2008, Dean Guitars released a limited edition Tommy Bolin Teaser guitar, which beautifully duplicates his debut album cover in a cool, striking blue finish. He is truly an intriguing personality – a gypsy soul that played his way across a musical landscape which few have been able to follow.

Rock Talk Interview w/ Tommy Bolin


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