Tommy joined the James Gang in August, 1973 as a replacement for Joe Walsh. The members were:
Roy Kenner: lead vocals, percussion
Tommy Bolin: guitar, vocals, synth
Dale Peters: bass
Jim Fox: drums, piano
The James Gang was originally formed by drummer Jim Fox in Cleveland, Ohio in 1966. Though guitarist/singer Joe Walsh is most often associated with the early and highly successful James Gang, he actually was the replacement for Glenn Schwartz, who departed in January, 1968. Jim Fox relates that the gap between Schwartz leaving and Joe joining was less than 48 hours. Dale Peters, who later played in the lineup with Tommy on guitar, came in on bass after the release of Yer Album, the group’s first with Walsh. The band’s music combined both American and British rock influences. With Walsh the band toured England opening for The Who, as well as having success with album and touring sales in the United States.
Walsh left James Gang in late 1971, in part because he was envisioning music that could not be performed with a power trio. He then moved to Boulder, Colorado. His immediate replacement on guitar was Domenic Troiano, while Roy Kenner was brought in on vocals.
In Boulder Walsh took six months to study ham radio and chill out. He then began to hook up with musicians such as bassist Kenny Passarelli and keyboardist Tom Stephenson, who were playing with Tommy Bolin in the first lineup of Energy. Tommy and Walsh also met during this period, and often jammed and recorded at Joe’s garage studio. Passarelli split from Energy to join Walsh in his new band Barnstorm, which offered an immediate chance at fortune and fame. Tommy was then forced to look for a new bass player and scored with Stephenson’s cousin Stanley Sheldon.
Tommy and Energy played through until early 1973, when Tom Stephenson left to join Walsh and Passarelli in Walsh’s band, and Tommy was again forced to replace a player. This time Max Gronenthal was then brought in on keyboards and vocals, but the end was near and Tommy left for New York City to record Spectrum with Billy Cobham in May.
The James Gang had not been doing as well as they had hoped for with Troiano on guitar, and Walsh was quick to recommend Tommy for a replacement. That recommendation was partly based on the intensely positive rush Tommy’s playing on Spectrum was generating, plus possibly an effort to pay Tommy back for Joe having nicked Passarelli and Stephenson from Energy. On meeting Tommy in August of 1973, Jim Fox and Dale Peters said they were impressed by Spectrum, but were concerned about Tommy’s ability to play rock. Fifteen minutes into the live audition Tommy was signed on.
The new lineup went to work almost immediately on the Bang album during August and September, 1973 at the Cleveland Recording Company, and was released in October. The album cover photo had already been taken while Domenic Troiano was still with the band, and the album went out using the same photo with Tommy’s face replacing Troiano’s, fairly seamlessly given the technology of the day.
Bang relied heavily on the stockpile of songs Tommy had written with Jeff Cook in Energy, with John Tesar separately, and from solo demos he had been doing on the reel-to-reel tape deck Mike Drumm had helped him buy. One interesting example is “Got No Time for Trouble,” which was a Bolin/Tesar song that had been sung by Jeff Cook on an Energy studio demo and can be heard on the Tommy Bolin Archives Energy CD. Of the album’s nine tracks, Tommy had written or co-written eight.
In the beginning Tommy got along well with singer Roy Kenner. They enjoyed singing a cappella together, and Kenner helped coach Tommy on his singing, a place where his confidence was low. Tommy’s lead vocal on “Alexis” could not have been more perfect for the track. Later their friendship would slowly deteriorate as competition for the spotlight would contribute to driving them apart.
The album turned out very well as the band transformed Tommy’s songs into well-polished studio gems. The record label’s choice for the first single, however, was not to the band’s liking:
The band as a whole loved “Alexis” would have been thrilled to see it released as a single. However, as is the case with most artists, the label almost always has final say over what is released as a single and what is not. In this case, they had no feel for the song as a single and never even considered it. When they chose “Must Be Love” as the single, I was personally shocked, and wouldn’t even have considered it to be in my top five choices for a single. Yet, the record actually charted as high or higher than any of our other singles, including “Walk Away” and “Funk 49.” Go figure! – Jim Fox, 2011
“Must Be Love” started getting radio airplay quickly. Other songs such as “Standing In the Rain” and “Alexis” were also played by FM stations which at the time had creatively adventurous play lists. Jim Fox loved “Standing in the Rain” and fought hard for it to be the next single. Atco eventually relented and it hit in the Top 100.
Bang stands as one of the strongest rock statements of the period. Not only are the arrangements and performances crisp and catchy, but Tommy also laid down guitar that was on par with his performances on Spectrum. To many people this album contains the quintessential essence of Tommy’s guitar tone and fire. The guitar solo in “From Another Time” is a textbook example of his ability to play with grace, fire and precision even at fast tempos. The notes still raise your hair even if the track is played at half speed. “Mystery” was another standout with its stellar string arrangements by Jimmy Haskell, reminiscent of Paul Buckmaster’s work with Elton John.
The band hit the road to tour in support of the new album. There are not many live recordings of James Gang performances. A video of their appearance on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert TV show circulates in the underground, but the high quality original has never been officially released. The band performed live rather than lip synching, and they play with excitement and authority to an enthusiastic crowd.
There are only a few other know live recordings of the band on tour, but they are all strong performances with Tommy tearing it up each time. It is also interesting to note that the band played “Stratus” from Spectrum in their sets, and did a fine job.
Between James Gang engagements Tommy would returned to his Denver and Boulder hangouts. Tommy’s long-time guitar tech David Brown once said that the standing joke in Boulder at the time was “Oh, he made it back this week?” One such trip to Denver resulted in a spectacular pair of gigs on June 3 and 4, 1974 at Ebbets Field that were captured on tape and released in edited form by the Tommy Bolin Archives in 1996.
In spite of the band’s initial excitement and success, cracks were appearing as the lineup’s first year together was coming to a close. The band entered Criteria Recording Studios in Miami to record the Miami album in the spring of 1974, and it was released in July. They once again relied heavily on Tommy for material, as this time Tommy was author or co-author on every track.
On it’s release Miami was to some extent a letdown to fans who were blown away by Bang. The material didn’t seem quite as compelling, and there was somewhat of a feeling that the band was going through the motions. The album has held up quite well though, and is an essential additional to any Tommy Bolin fan’s library. The beautiful “Praylude” leads into “Red Skies,” a gem from the days of Energy when Gary Wilson was singing. “Summer Breezes” and “Head Above the Water” are highly engaging, as is “Spanish Lover,” which features Tommy on lead vocal. Miami is the album that guitarist Ritchie Blackmore from Deep Purple heard that prompted his quote that Tommy was one of the only American guitarists Ritchie thought was doing anything interesting.
After the release of Miami in July 1974 things went downhill within the group fairly quickly, in part because Tommy was feeling that he had gone as far as he could creatively with the band and decided to move on. The Colorado Times reported the date that Tommy officially left the group as August 27, 1974, and the last known James Gang show with Tommy was on July 27, 1974 in Waterbury, CT. In contrast, the booklet provided with the 1989 The Ultimate boxed compilation says Tommy left in October. The Tommy Bolin Archives catalog featured a reproduction of a James Gang concert poster for a show on December 8, 1974, but by then Tommy was in Los Angeles working Alphonse Mouzon’s Mind Transplant album, so it’s possible that the poster was printed before Tommy left.
It’s also interesting to note that in July 1974 Tommy played on a track called “Invisible Song” from Rainbow Canyon’s debut album, Rollin’ in the Rockies, done as a favor to Jim Fox, who was producing the album. The catchy tune didn’t turn out to be a smash hit, but did get a fair amount of airplay after its release.
Tommy’s next moves in the last part of 1974 would be an attempt at forming a group in Colorado with famous organist and vocalist Mike Finnigan, as well as recording sessions with Dr. John. He would also relocate to Los Angeles, where he would soon work with Alphonse Mouzon on the Mind Transplant album, and begin preparing to make his own first solo album.
The James Gang decided to call it quits after Tommy’s departure, but not for long, as Fox and Peters launched a new version of the group in 1975 with Bubba Keith on vocals and guitar, and Richard Shack on guitar. This lineup released an album titled Newborn that year. Keith and Shack were then replaced by returning original member Phil Giallombardo on keyboards and newcomer Bob Webb on guitar and vocals, releasing a strong album titled Jesse Come Home before the band broke up for good in 1977.
Copyright ©2005 John Herdt.
Updated June 2011 with help from Jim Fox.
Bang (1973, Atco)
Miami (1974, Atco)