FORGOTTEN GUITAR GOD; OR, ROLLIN’ WITH TOMMY BOLIN: AN INTERVIEW WITH PRODUCER GREG HAMPTON
Tommy Bolin was one of the great ‘70s guitar gods, a charismatic, stylish, one-of-a-kind young talent on the rise. He played in the James Gang after Joe Walsh bolted, then stepped into Deep Purple when Ritchie Blackmore left. Bolin also recorded two solo albums that bounced back and forth from classic rock to ballsy, Zappa-esque jazz fusion. He died young, leaving behind a small-but-dazzling body of work.
When Bolin was in hard rock mode, the singer-guitarist sounded like your favorite songs from the Dazed and Confused soundtrack. The title track to Bolin’s 1975 Teaser LP is practically a blueprint for ’80s Sunset Strip hair metal like Mötley Crüe. For some reason, it’s not a nudie bar anthem, but it oughtta be. (An exhausted Crüe covered the song on 1991’s Decade of Decadence compilation, but their version is a fart.)
Bolin’s “Teaser,” album version
When he was shredding or playing it smooth, Bolin could hang with the big dogs. In the ’70s, plenty of rockers were pushing hard to make jazz fusion popular with rock audiences. Teaser’s virtuoso jazz material was recorded with players including Jan Hammer (of Miami Vice theme fame) and smooth-jazz icon David Sanborn (who was once a fairly hip dude).
Bolin fatally overdosed on heroin in 1976, though his cult lives on. He hasn’t had a high-powered music-biz representative to push his legacy, and he’s remained obscure but acclaimed.
Getting a bead on Bolin isn’t exactly easy. The two James Gang albums (1973’s Bang and 1974’s Miami) he recorded are fairly flat; he could play like Walsh, but there was no replacing the Eagle as a lyricist. Bolin’s Deep Purple studio album (1975’s Come Taste the Band) has some moments, though the David Coverdale-era LP is no Machine Head. Teaser might be the most accessible, distinct sampler of Bolin’s talents, but it’s out of print.
To remedy that deficiency and commemorate the 35th anniversary of Bolin’s death, Samson Records has issued the new Teaser Deluxe, which presents an alternate take of the entire Teaser album, taken from the original sessions.
Teaser Deluxe was assembled by producer Greg Hampton, a hard rock/metal veteran whose production and playing credits include Alice Cooper, Lita Ford and Bootsy Collins. He’s been a guiding force in the excavation of the Bolin vault, having curated releases like the two Whips and Roses collections. (While Teaser proper captured the most polished versions of the songs, the Whips takes have a harder edge, and Teaser Deluxe contains extended versions with extra, flashy fingerwork.)
Visit the official Tommy Bolin website for a primer on Bolin, including a free chapter from rock author Greg Prato’s book Touched by Magic: The Tommy Bolin Story.
Hampton talked to MetalSucks about the new album, an upcoming tribute LP, and why you need to start rollin’ with Bolin.
Bolin, “Wild Dogs”
When I heard “Teaser,” I felt like a lifetime of classic-rock radio had betrayed me, because I’d never heard it before. But in your words, who is Tommy Bolin, and why should people know him?
The guy influenced so many people in the ’70s — Jeff Beck and so many other great guitar players. He was so adaptable, and he had so many different styles. He was so versatile. He was 18, 19 years old when he did one of the original jazz-rock fusion records, and he did the whole thing in a day and a half, two days.
How would you rank Bolin against the guitarists of his day?
Definitely one of the greats, no doubt. He was definitely as good as those guys, as the Jimmy Pages and the Jeff Becks. A lot of people thought he was supposed to be heir to the whole Hendrix thing, because of his versatility. He never got a chance to get to that point.
Obviously, it was a well-documented fact that he had some drug problems. He had some amazing shows, and he had some really shitty ones. What he did in the studio, going through it all, there’s no smoke and mirrors. He just did it.
Since I discovered Bolin, I’ve been telling people about him. I tell them to check out Teaser, but it’s out of print, so I wind up recommending YouTube clips.
Some of his best playing is on [jazz fusion pioneer Billy Cobham’s seminal 1973] Spectrum record. He was so young and talented.
Why is Teaser out of print in the US? If you want a copy, why do you have to pay 30 bucks for a Japanese import?
That’s gonna be discontinued. The Teaser Deluxe thing, the audio quality, hands-down, is a hundred times better [than the original Teaser]. It’s got a lot soloing and playing. If you listen to the quality of the mixes and the sonic character and the original Teaser, there’s no comparison.
But why isn’t Teaser available?
It’s legal issues that are being dealt with right now. So there’s not a lot I can elaborate on right now.
Long story short, is it caught up in his estate? Or…
I handle the estate with his brother, John Bolin, the only living heir. It’s a very complicated answer. There are legal issues I can’t really address. It won’t be available as an import much longer. Also, there will be other releases related to the body of material recorded as, quote, Teaser.
Are those problems why this version exists, as opposed to a double-disc with both versions?
Yeeeeaaahhhh, I guess. I haven’t figured out how we’re gonna do it. It’s gonna all be together. The guy didn’t do much work, so there’s only a few cards to play. If we re-release it, it would have to be with all the sessions together. [Originally, Teaser] was a 38, 39-minute record. What I just released [as Teaser Deluxe] was 73 minutes. All the other recordings [for the Teaser sessions] took place in June-July ’75, when he was in the middle of writing the Deep Purple record. So it was fast, furious, and it was over. [Bolin’s solo archive is] a mess over a couple years.
So the new version, Teaser Deluxe, is made up of alternate takes, essentially?
Teaser Deluxe is alternate takes from those sessions. Like the thing you heard from the ’75 record is take 2, the version on Teaser Deluxe is take 3. And it’s a lot more adventurous playing. They were up recording for 15 hours straight. So they’d record five, six, seven versions of a song.
And the new track?
He had a couple versions of a song called “Crazed Fandango” that are on there. There are a lot of other songs that were never put out at that point either, which I put out as Whips and Roses In 2005.
So these sessions and versions are different than the Whips and Roses material?
Versions on this Deluxe thing are definitely different than the Whips and Roses version, 95% of them.
Deep Purple live at Budokan, 1975 with Coverdale and Bolin, “Love Child.”
Having grown up on ’80s metal and hard rock, the first time I heard “Teaser,” I thought, “That’s where the Sunset Strip thing comes from”—sleazy rock and roll that sounds even better in a strip club. I thought Mötley Crüe had invented it. As someone who was involved in that era, what influence do you see?
He was very glammy, too. His image was way ahead of any of those other cats. Some of the ’80s, I don’t look back on very fondly.
How about the other side of Bolin? I love metal musicians that have a jazz background—that’s what I think made the Peace Sells… era Megadeth so good. And even going back to Sabbath. What does that jazz experience do for a hard rock musician?
If you’re a guitar player and you jam with a Stevie Ray Vaughn record, there’s only so much you’re going to learn, because it’s all in certain structural modes. If you play along with a Miles Davis Bitches Brew record, you’ll learn how to play something, or you’ll naturally inclinate toward—the tempos, the keys they’re in, you’ll start playing along with it, and you’ll think, “This is something I’ve never done.” You’ll naturally have to adapt—if you have enough chutzpah to do it.
Rocking jazz instrumental “Marching Powder,” Teaser version
The new CD booklet is big, but it’s all photos, right? Are there musician credits in this one? There weren’t in the vault records like Whips and Roses.
There’s not, because there were no track sheets on that stuff. But on the final deluxe version, it will [have credits]. The final, ultimate deluxe that’s inevitably gonna come out eventually, it will have documented dates of each session. We never had some of the credits for some of the stuff. This thing is just—it’s the 35th anniversary of Tommy’s death, so it was important for us to have [it out].
The original Teaser multitracks [masters] — that they just snipped out 38 minutes worth of performances — were lost in England when they mixed it. Nobody knows where those are.
Is that part of the reason it’s been out of print?
Well, it’s not like he was Jimi Hendrix; it was a small label that he was on, and it’s been out of business for 28 years [Nemperor Records, home to the Romantics, Jan Hammer and Stanley Clarke]. Legally, they don’t even have the rights to put it out in Japan, as far as I know.
Putting the deluxe version together, what concessions did you make to modern recording? Did you compress the shit out of the tracks?
No, no, no.
This, compared to Whips and Roses, is warmer. You’ll hear the “Teaser” from Teaser Deluxe and the original Teaser version, there’s so much more definition. And the thing that [Gov’t Mule/Allman Brothers guitarist] Warren Haynes and I are producing now, the Tommy Bolin tribute [is] all these major cats playing along with the [original] multi-tracks. It’s going to blow everybody’s mind.
They’re not covering the songs? They’re playing with the actual tracks?
Exactly. Tommy playing with [current Deep Purple guitarist] Steve Morse. There’s a new collaboration between [Deep Purple bassist] Glenn Hughes and Tommy Bolin; they hadn’t collaborated on anything in 35 years. That’s an incredible performance, a song no one’s ever heard. Glen had written the lyrics. And a track that’s Glen singing and his bandmate from Black Country Communion, Joe Bonamassa, playing together.
Miles Kennedy from Alter Bridge. Steve Lukather [the Toto guitarist who’s actually pretty badass] played on a track that originally had [Toto drummer] Jeff Porcaro, and Porcaro died in the early ’90s. There were some very emotional moments. It’s a true testament to the strength of this cat’s influence. Here we are, 35 years later. Lukather has won seven Grammys or something. Warren is regarded as one of the top 20 guitarists in Rolling Stone’s history.
How did you become the caretaker of the Tommy Bolin flame?
I helped his brother get some of the estate issues sorted out, because I’d known [the Bolin family]. Tommy Bolin was one of my biggest influences as a kid, as a guitarist and a songwriter. I’d become very dear friends with the family over the course of however many years. John Bolin is like a brother to me. And it’s been a very laborious chore, and it’s still not over. Being in the music business and helping him out was certainly part of it. Basically, I think it was more of a God thing: It’s not like I chose it; it chose me.
So who should pick up Teaser Deluxe?
Kids that are into Coheed & Cambria or Mastodon or things that have a little more musicality.
D.X. Ferris is the author of 33 1/3: Reign in Blood, the first English-language book about Slayer, which is available cheap in hard copies and for the Kindle machines. (He’s been know to send bonus swag in exchange for a proof of purchase.) You can friend it on the Facebook, or follow his bullshit daily on the Tweeters: @dxferris and @SlayerBook.