TOMMY BOLIN DEAD AT 25 OF OVERDOSE
ROLLING STONE MAGAZINE, JANUARY 13, 1977
By Charles M. Young (submitted by David Polhemus)
Note from the Archives: This article refers to “Phillip Tolimeni” many times. After numerous checks, we want to correct that name for historical purposes. The actual spelling is “Phillip Polimeni.” Phillip did apparently go by the last name “Tolimeni” for a while.
Tommy Bolin died in his hotel room on December 4th from an overdose of heroin and other substances, including alcohol, cocaine and barbiturates. The former James Gang and Deep Purple guitarist was 25 years old.
Bolin, who was living in L.S, at the time, had been in Miami with his band to open a concert for Jeff Beck at the Jai-Alai Fronton the evening of December 3rd. Following a well-received set, he returned to the Newport Hotel where he had several drinks in the bar with friends. Sometime after 1 a.m. he visited his bodyguard, L.C. Clayton, in his room, where he stayed for about half an hour. There he met a childhood friend, Phillip Tolimeni, and an acquaintance identified only as “Art.”
According to Tolimeni: “There were about 20 people in the room. Tommy said he wanted to talk in privacy. He was interested in investing in a limousine service. I had some brochures.” (Barry Fey, Bolin’s personal business manager, who was not in Miami at the time, confirmed that Bolin had been considering such an investment.) The three men went into Clayton’s bathroom for about six minutes.
Bolin, Tolimeni and Art then walked to Bolin’s room where, according to Tolimeni, they continued their discussion of the limousine business. An hour later, still in his room, Bolin slumped over in the middle of a phone conversation. Tolimeni, who was in the room at the time, called Clayton’s room for help. Clayton, Valeria Monzeglio (Bolin’s girlfriend of four months) and roadies David Brown and Jeff Ocheltree responded.
Clayton and Ocheltree placed Bolin in the shower and asked what he had taken. Both recall hearing from Tolimeni and Art that Bolin had taken heroin. “Art said, ‘He shot H,’ and when we asked again a little later, Phillip said, ‘No, ho, he snorted heroin,’” said Ocheltree. Tolimeni denies this version of events and does not remember what he said.
Some color returned to Bolin’s cheeks and his breathing became less labored, so they put him to bed. At 3:12 a.m., David Brown called the hotel emergency line and reached Dr. Ira Jacobson, the physician on duty.
“Brown said Bolin had taken Valium and alcohol and they couldn’t wake him up,” said Jacobson. “I suspected from the way he was talking that Bolin’s condition was a lot worse. I told Brown that Bolin should be taken immediately to North Miami General Hospital or he might die. He said he was afraid of the publicity. I told him there was no choice. Brown assured me he would.”
Brown denied the doctor said Bolin might die, or that he assured the doctor he would take him to the hospital. Bolin was left in bed, where he suffocated four hours later as a result of muscular arrest caused by his overdose.
“I got a bit worried a few times in the past when he drank a bit too much and passed out,” said Brown. “He looked the same, acted the same. I’m not a doctor. I asked Jacobson what was the main way to judge things like that and he said, ‘Is he conscious?’ Soon after that I heard him mutter a couple of sentences. He said, ‘L.C., I’m glad you’re here.’ He was groggy and rubbed his eyes. It’s happened many, many times before. If I had called an ambulance and had an emergency squad come down here, the publicity would have jeopardized the band that he’d worked very hard to keep with him.”
Clayton said he rubbed Bolin’s body for about an hour to keep his circulation going and found no fresh needle marks (the coroner found four fresh needle marks, but no tracks, indicating that Bolin was not a junkie). Both Clayton and Monzeglio said Bolin opened his eyes once or twice, and according to Brown, talked briefly. The hospital was never called. Clayton, Art, Tolimeni and Brown left the room, leaving Monzeglio alone with Bolin. After finding his pulse very low, she finally called for an ambulance a little after 7 a.m. When the ambulance arrived, Bolin was dead.
“The police only asked me a couple of questions,” said Clayton, who was also summoned to the room. ”Things like, ‘Did he sleep in the nude?’ and ‘Did his family have a history of heart attack?’ There must have been a thousand maids and bellboys in the hall. It was a circus.”
After being kicked out of high school in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1967 for refusing to cut his hair, Bolin drifted to Denver where he established a reputation as a silky guitar stylist and gusty vocalist on two albums cut the Zephyr. He eventually left for a brief and largely fruitless stint with a band called Energy. In 1973, Joe Walsh tapped him for a spot with the James Gang. During this time, he also played on Billy Cobham’s first solo album, Spectrum. He left in August 1974 and a year later signed a contract with Deep Purple to replace lead guitarist Ritchie Blackmore. Following their breakup, he embarked on a solo career. On his two albums released in the past year, Teaser and Private Eyes, Bolin explored the realms of jazz, white reggae, Latin rhythms and hard-grinding rock.
According to several friends, Bolin had been having periodic problems with drugs for some time, and one source at his label, Columbia, said his first tour this year had been cancelled because he lost his voice from excessive drinking. Though he was elated to have shared a date with Jeff Beck, the pressures that came from constantly being broke and his breakup from longtime girlfriend Karen Ulibarri six months ago, appear to have added up to a severe depression.
“He smiled for everyone,” said Monzeglio, “but he couldn’t sleep unless he had pills or alcohol. He got upset every time he talked to his manager. Nobody was getting paid on time. He kept complaining he had to do everything himself. I don’t know where he got the drugs. He was going out with new people every night.”
“There was no reason for him to be as penniless as he was,” said Ulibarri. “He just wanted to hire people to take care of him.”
Manager Fey said Bolin’s chronically bad finances were because of his spending huge amounts on his musicians, and that the band was losing $8000 to $10,000 a week. Columbia invested heavily in the group, but ends never quite met.
Ulibarri spoke of Bolin: “We were still best friends. We’d been together so long we had to split to grow up. He was innocent to a fault. He was like a charming little kid people just let him have what he wanted, and if they didn’t give it to him, he’d find someone who would. The only person who could tell Tommy to cool it was Tommy. I don’t know what happened in that room, but David Brown worshipped Tommy. He wanted nothing more than to work for him. It’s just now fair.”
Just before Bolin’s final concert, Jon Marlowe of the Miami News, after an interview with the guitarist, told him, “Take care of yourself,” to which Tommy replied, “I’ve been taking care of myself my whole life. Don’t worry about me, I’m going to be around for a long time.”
He was buried December 10th in the family plot in Calvary Cemetery in Sioux City. Karen flew from England to attend along with 350 other people. She put a ring on his finger that Jimi Hendrix had been wearing the day he died (a gift to Bolin from Deep Purple’s manager). Karen had been saving it for Tommy because he kept losing it.