With Col. Bruce Hampton’s death, Atlanta loses a piece of music history

2:19 p.m Tuesday, May 2, 2017 Living
Melissa Ruggieri/AJC
Col. Bruce Hampton performs at “Hampton 70,” his all-star jam celebration of his 70th birthday at the Fox Theatre on May 1, 2017. Musical guests included members of Widespread Panic, Susan Tedeschi, Chuck Leavell, Derek and Duane Trucks, among others. MELISSA RUGGIERI / MRUGGIERI@AJC.COM

An African proverb says “When an elder dies, a library burns to the ground,” and so with the passing of Bruce Hampton, an archive of Atlanta music history goes up in smoke.

Hampton, a man once referred to as Atlanta’s only living art object, whose life inspired a documentary film and a horde of musical followers (who gave birth to the aptly named H.O.R.D.E. jam band tour), has left the building.

He bid goodbye to his friends and his many followers at his own 70th birthday celebration, onstage Monday at the Fox Theatre, with a host of luminaries on stage and a crowd of well-wishers filling the audience.

The performer lived a life that was thoroughly unscripted, but his exit was so dramatic, theatrical and fitting that some thought it was part of the show.

It wasn’t. He left people mourning all over Atlanta. “I’m going to start crying now,” said musician and old friend Marvin Jackson, who knew Hampton when both were students at North Fulton High School.

Jackson played with Hampton in a short-lived combo called Avenue of Happiness. “The second time I was ever on stage, we were opening for Fleetwood Mac at the City Auditorium,” he said. “He had that much confidence.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Colonel Bruce Hampton & Friends, shown Feb. 2, 2017, recently had a weekly residency at the Vista Room at Napoleon’s in Decatur. HENRY TAYLOR / HENRY.TAYLOR@AJC.COM

Hampton was fearless, and he inspired that fearlessness in others.

His guestbook will have thousands of names in it, partly because he never stopped touring, but also because he was simply a congenial man.

He was also partly an enigma. Many friends never knew that his real name was Gustav Berglund. Hampton invented histories for himself and also created new identities for members of his many bands. (Drummer Jeff Sipe was given the unlikely moniker Apartment Q-258.) Hampton appeared in the liner notes of Frank Zappa’s “Lumpy Gravy” and recorded what was at the time one of Columbia Records’ most expensive failures, “Music to Eat.”

“Not only was he one of the most creative people I’ve ever been around, but he was also the funniest,” said Hampton Grease Band bassist Michael Holbrook.

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Col. Bruce Hampton (far right) with (from left to right) Mike Holbrook, Glenn Phillips, Jerry Fields and Harold Kelling of the Hampton Grease Band. CONTRIBUTED BY BILL FIBBEN

Holbrook joined the Grease Band after he graduated from high school, and rented a house with Hampton in Brookhaven, which most musicians called “Brokehaven” back then because it was a cheap-rent haven for penniless artists. (It’s more expensive now.)

“He was always able to attract the most incredible musicians,” said longtime Atlanta bandleader Tommy Dean. “He was very accepting of people, very nonjudgmental.”

Dean brought a version of his swing band, the League of Decency, to play for bassist Scott Glazer’s birthday party a week ago, and Hampton was in attendance. Dean sat next to Hampton during a break to chat.

Hampton told him what may be the secret of his magnetic draw: “I like people who play like themselves,” Hampton said.

His sunny disposition, his inexhaustible fund of stories and his willingness to improvise made his performances unique.

Jackson was 16 years old when he sneaked out of his parents’ house at midnight to hang out with a friend. His friend introduced him to Hampton, who was lying in the middle of the road. “I’m trying to predict when cars will come by,” Hampton told him.

The Avenue of Happiness opened for the Hampton Grease Band on many occasions. Jackson went on to play with Radar, the HahaVishnu Orchestra, Cruis-O-Matic and others.

Musicians gathered around Hampton because of “his energy level, the fresh air of having that madness in your life, that positive madness,” said Jackson. “He laughed every day. Who doesn’t want to be around that energy and that positivity?

“He was a gravitational force. He was as strong as any planet.”

He had the uncanny knack of guessing birthdays. Said Jonny Hibbert, a founding member of Cruis-O-Matic: “He guessed the day and year of my birth long before Google made that easy.”

Club-owner Michael Reeves said “The first time I met him he said ‘Michael Reeves, Gemini, May 26, 1953, 2 a.m. in the morning.’ I said ‘How did you do that?’ I think he said ‘Zambie told me.’” 

More than once, Hampton told interviewers he planned to die on stage, but Jackson said that was a young man’s bravado. “We’ve had this conversation 10 times,” said Jackson, not at all convinced that Hampton meant what he said. On the other hand, said Jackson, “His heart was bad, his weight was bad. I’d give him (a hard time) about his weight, and he’d say, ‘I’m going to have another biscuit. Are you done with that plate?’”

Dean and others agree that nobody could have planned what happened at the Fox Theatre, where luminaries such as Oliver Wood and Chuck Leavell mixed with upstarts such as the teenaged guitar sensation Brandon Niederauer.

And yet they can’t help but marvel at the cosmic reverberations of the event. “To fill up the Fox Theatre with all your friends,” said Dean. “To fill up the stage with all your jam buddies. Everybody was there for him. And then to go … You can’t top that.”

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