THE TOMMY BOLIN STORY
Author Unknown (submitted by John Herdt)
Note from John Herdt: I found an old box with some issues of Creem magazine that had survived from the 1970s. Among them was a centerfold poster of Tommy that I had up on my wall at one time. I currently do not think that the poster was from an issue of Creem, and have no indication of what it was from, possibly Circus. On the back of that poster was part of the story on Tommy that had run in that issue. The rest of the issue was not to be found, but there is some interesting info here for Tommy fans. Here is the text that survived…
Tommy then took off for Denver, Colorado, where he began a group called American Standard, who for a time played a weekly spot in a local club. From there he travelled to Cincinnati, eventually landing a job backing Lonnie Mack, a noted blues and steel guitar player. This too was short lived and following a police raid on the house he was staying in, Bolin took off once more, ending up this time in Boulder. Here he recruited David and Candy Givens, Robbie Chamberlin and John Faris to form Ethereal Zephyr. They quickly developed a weird style, mixing jazz, rock and blues in no particular order over a very English-sounding keyboard backing, and having shorted their name to just Zephyr, began to build up a strong local following sufficient anyway to impress ABC Records who offered them a contract.
Their first album (as far as is know Bolin’s vinyl debut) came out in 1969 in both America and Britain. It’s a fairly primitive affair with an amateurish studio sound, and may come as something of a disappointment to any fan who spends a lot of time and money tracking down a copy today. However, although Bolin’s playing is far from earth-shattering, it is certainly interesting to here him developing; he provides some nice jazzy bursts, most notably on a song called Boom Ba Boom, though Candy’s terrible screeching is something of a drawback. I wonder if a few topless publicity shots were really worth it!
The band’s developing career was curtailed in 1970 when ABC went broke and it wasn’t until 1971 that they managed to get their second album out, this time with Warner Brothers. They’d acquired a new drummer too, Bobby Berge, as well as a flautist named Jeremy Steig.
The album, Going Back to Colorado, was a big improvement on their debut with Bolin co-writing many of the numbers, the best of which is “See My People Come Together.” In addition, the LP contains guitar runs which Teaser owners will recognize at once, plus a riff suspiciously like that of a later Deep Purple tune. With Candy now a lot calmer vocally, the thole thing can be listened to in relative comfort, and today it seems even rarer than the first album (it never to UK release).
Though the album contains some interesting playing from Bolin, he was actually becoming rather disenchanted with the band, feeling he was losing control of the musical direction. Eventually he upped and left. Berge and Steig going with him and though Zephyr struggled on to do one more album they then faded from the scene.
Working once more from the Boulder area, Bolin proceeded to put together the nearly legendary Energy with Berge and Steig in the autumn of 1972. Joined by Tom Stephenson on keyboards and Stanley Sheldon on bass, they returned to the club circuit. Like Zephyr, the music is hard to describe mainly rock/jazz but with more than a nod towards the spacier sound of Pink Floyd and god knows what else.
Local bar owners were not impressed, however, as the group attracted crowds who came to listen and beer sales inevitably slumped. Nevertheless, they soldiered on, recording a number of demo tapes though no record company was prepared to take a chance. Their shows included a song called “Dreamer” (later to appear on Teaser), and also an embryonic version of “Lady Luck.” Like music the lineup remained flexible, drummer Gill Evans coming in after a while and vocalist Jeff Cook joining too, forming a writing partnership with Bolin that would last until the end. Musically the group gave Bolin the freedom he’d been looking for and people like Stanley Sheldon still speak with some awe of his playing at the time.
Without a deal the band eventually fragmented, Bolin deciding to take a chance over in New York with Jeremy Steig, who asked him to play on a solo album he was doing (never released). Bolin also worked briefly with Eddie Gomez, John Lee Hooker and (back in Boulder) Albert King. King and Bolin spent their time trying to outdo one another on stage and King taught Bolin a lot about the subtleties of playing Tommy later cited him as one if his main influences.
One of the people Steig introduced Bolin to was Bill Cobham, then about to record some demos for his own album. As a result, Cobham hired Bolin to play on these first takes and a few months later on the finished album. The LP, Spectrum, issued in October 1973, not only established itself as one of the definitive jazz/rock albums of the time, but also introduced Bolin’s playing to a far wider audience. His guitar work can be heard on all but two tracks, although in places it’s so fast and fluid you can easily mistake it for a synthesizer. Even if you’re not a great jazz/rock fan, the playing is certainly worth a listen, try “Quadrant 4” or “Snoopy’s Search” for openers.
The two days spent doing the LP probably changed Bolin’s career. Among the people who picked up on it were Jeff Beck as a result he decided to attempt material along the same lines David Coverdale and Joe Walsh. The result of Coverdale’s having heard it wouldn’t be felt by Bolin for a few years, but Joe Walsh’s response was more immediate.
Walsh was then leading his own group called Barnstorm, having left his previous outfit The James Gang back in October 1971. He had been replaced by guitarist Domenic Troiano, but after a couple of years it became clear that things weren’t working out. Walsh, having heard the Spectrum demos, gave them Bolin’s phone number and he was quickly auditioned. Troiano left to join The Guess Who and Tommy Bolin became part of The James Gang.
It was August 1973. By October they had a new album, Bang, on sale, the material largely coming from Bolin’s own stockpile of songs. As a result, the album is very recommended both for his playing and the quality of the material. He opens the album with a rapid burst of guitar easing into a classic American rocker called “Standing In the Rain.” The following number, “The Devil Is Singing Our Song,” hinges on a riff owners of Deep Purple’s “Love Child” will spot at once, yet it’s by no means an out and out thrash Bolin worked in two of his best-loved quiet tracks, “Mystery” and “Alexis” to close each side of the album. He also sang some lead vocals for the first time on record. Bolin was justifiably proud of both songs, and wanted “Alexis” out as a single, though the others overruled him. It was perhaps the first hint of discord.
Although the band kept Bolin busy touring, the still found time to jam with other groups. One such session, Bolin guesting alongside The Good Rats survives on cassette, and has them tackling a lengthy cover of “Stratus” from the Cobham album. It contains some of the most remarkable guitar I’ve heard from Bolin.
Back in The Gang, he soon became tired of the routine it’s clear the group were not a particularly close-knit outfit. Their second album to feature Tommy was Miami, issued in July 1974, and his lack of interest shows quite clearly as he contributes only two compositions of real merit: “Spanish Lover” and “Praylude.” His guitar work is good throughout, however, bringing forth a remark from a certain Ritchie Blackmore, who commented that Bolin was one of the few American guitarists doing anything interesting. It was the last album he made with The James Gang, leaving in October 1974.
He returned to Los Angeles where he passed the next few months spending his James Gang royalties on ‘crazy stuff’ and auditioning singers. He was anxious to make certain that his material would be done properly from that point on. The break didn’t last long, for in December he was contacted by jazz/rock drummer Alphonse Mouzon, and the resulting album, Mind Transplant, came out the following year. Though the LP really says little Cobham hadn’t already said, Bolin’s work, which appears on four tracks, is equally as good as that done for Spectum, with some particularly sonic stuff on “Snow Bound.”
Bolin did another album at this time for Dr. John (The Night Tripper), but it was never issued. Finally Atlantic offered him a solo album deal. He had it all planned, one side vocal songs, one side instrumentals, but the project was shelved when Atlantic began to dictate to him about producers. As a result, he decided to record his own demos and try and get a deal elsewhere. These were done at the Beach Boys’ studio and Bolin ended up doing the vocals himself on the advice of some of the Boys, who helped with suggestions on technique, etc. It was these demos, done with the aid of various friends from his Zephyr and Energy days, which Nemporer Records hears, offering Bolin a contract at once. It was April 1975, he got himself a manager and signed.
A few blocks away from where Bolin was living in LA, Deep Purple were holed up searching for him. Blackmore had left the band and Coverdale had put forward Bolin’s name as a possible replacement. After scouring the wrong side of of America, one of Purple’s roadies located Bolin nearby and he was invited for an audition, which landed him the job along with a contract allowing him enough free time to pursue his own career. This he did at once, recording his first proper solo album that summer. In actual fact, he tried to get Purple to help him out, but they were unable to do so for legal reason (though Glenn Hughes didn’t let that stop him making a brief guest appearance!), so he used an assortment of friends instead. His own LP done, he went into serious rehearsals with Purple, who began preparing material for the new album, eventually recorded over in Munich in August. With that done, Tommy dashed back to England to oversee the mixing of his LP in October, and from there went to Hawaii for Purple’s final rehearsals prior to their world tour.
Deep Purple’s Come Taste the Band album and Tommy Bolin’s Teaser (complete with a “Guitarist of Deep Purple” sticker) both hit the shops around the same time in late 1975. Taken together they provide the best showcase of Bolin’s guitar playing style and skills and, as far as he had a big hand in writing many of the cuts on the Purple album, they amply illustrate his abilities in this area, too.
Come Taste the Band was Purple’s most energetic effort in years; it seems as if Bolin’s own enthusiasm and talent had rubbed off on the others, injecting new life into the group. “Comin’ Home,” “Lady Luck” (a song from Bolin’s days with Energy), and the brilliant “Love Child” (in which Tommy recycled a riff he’d initially learned off a Joe Walsh track The James Gang did live), all show this to be true.
Teaser, by comparison is a quieter affair. Riff merchants will still find both the title track, “The Grind,” and “Homeward Strut” particularly appealing, though on the less frantic “Savannah Woman,” “Dreamer” (another song Bolin had saved up for the right album) and “People, People” are all well recommended. Also well demonstrates is the way Tommy managed to generate a special mood or feel to suit each individual track. This willingness and ability to experiment with so many emotions, and his refusal to force his songs into the same old rock formula is one of the main things to set him apart from most other guitarists.
It has to be said, however, that if Purple’s album came as something of a shock to a system, then Teaser itself (not aided by a particularly subtle press campaign) fared even worse, selling only to a hardcore of fans and those with enough spare cash to indulge their curiosity.
Deep Purple themselves were by now well into their…
Second note from John Herdt: Well, that’s it. Sorry I didn’t have the rest of the story intact to type up the whole thing. There are indeed some interesting things for hard core fans here though.