Thomas Richard Bolin was born on 1st August 1951 in Sioux City Iowa. His father Richard was of Scandinavian descent and his mother Barbara was of Syrian. Tommy was later joined by younger brothers Johnnie and Rick (“Pudge”).
Tommy’s early interest in music centered around the sight of Elvis Presley on the Caravan of Stars television show, followed by Richard taking some of the family to see an Elvis performance when Tommy was five years old. That same year Tommy learned to pantomime to “Heartbreak Hotel” and appeared on “Kids Corner” (a local TV talent show) wearing a full Elvis costume. The station was impressed and asked him back three days later. He also came in second at a talent show at Lake Okoboji, after which his obsession with rock and roll began.
Drums were Tommy’s first choice for an instrument, but the expense of a full kit prompted Tommy to move to keyboards and guitar. He kept drumming as a hobby all his life, which he credited in later interviews as contributing to his fast, powerful and accurate picking attack on guitar. His first guitar was a Silvertone with the amp built into his case that Richard got for $65 from Sears, which was followed by a Gretch Country Gentleman.
Johnny Wells, a friend of Tommy relates that “Tommy bought a Gretch Country Gentleman guitar from United Teachers of Morningside in Sioux City around 1967. I was there when he carried it out of the store. But to my recollection he brought it back soon after. I also remember him buying a Mosrite solid body guitar, but I don’t believe he kept that one very long either. He also purchased one of those vinyl-covered Kustom amps with it. I really remember when he brought that thing back. He was not very happy about it. He did experiment though.”
His school only offered music lessons every other year, so Tommy looked to private teachers, first a Mr. Flood, and then a Mrs. Sullivan, neither of whom related to the music that Tommy intended to pursue. After those experiences he then learned by hanging out with other young musicians, invariable a few years older than himself. Their musical experience and knowledge rubbed off on him, and he was spending time learning songs and licks off of records.
Tommy’s first band was called the Miserlous, but he was quickly heard by members of Denny and The Triumphs, an experienced group of teenagers organized by George Larvick, Sr., father of band members Brad and George Jr. Tommy was invited to jam, and soon joined the group. Not long after, bassist Denny Foote was sacked, and the band changed it’s name to Patch of Blue with George Jr. taking over Denny’s bass spot. Patch of Blue lasted until mid-1967.
After Patch of Blue broke up, Tommy played jobs with various bands, but not committing to a firm lineup. On one trip in the fall of 1967 to play at the University of South Dakota he met lyricist John Tesar for the first time. Tesar would continue to work with Tommy for the rest of his life.
Another group Tommy was involved with was called The Chateaux. We have very little information about the period of Tommy’s involvement with this band. Tommy is seen in a publicity photo with them at age 14. He may have played on a single of “Reference Man” by Bob Ellison that was released on Eye Records in 1968, which was after Tommy moved to Denver. Side A had a short version that didn’t feature guitar heavily, but side B had the same song with extended guitar work. Tommy was a solid player for his age, but had not yet developed the distinctive style and tone he would become later known for, so listening to it does not make it easy to make judgement on if it’s Tommy. In any case Tommy gained more experience with the band.
In 1967 Tommy was 15 years old and in the 11th grade in high school. He was subject to frequent reprimands from school officials, primarily for grooming violations. When asked to get his long hair cut up to his collar he did, then when they subsequently told him that he would have to cut it above his ears and give up music he left school for good.
Throughout his life Richard and Barb had given Tommy all the support possible to fulfill his dreams as a musician, and they continued to do so until the day of his passing. With their blessing he left for Denver after receiving a phone call from Brad Miller, Patch of Blue’s second guitarist, who had moved to Denver after leaving the band. Colorado, and Boulder in particular, was at that time a mecca for musicians from all over the country.
Copyright ©2005 John Herdt.