Col. Bruce Hampton used to talk a lot about taking the music “out.” He was even in a movie by Mike Gordon called “Outside Out.” In fact, “out” was the direction Bruce was moving in all of the time, like skin cells on their doomed outward migration to the skin surface. Way out. The epilogue of my book about Bruce is called an “outroduction
Bruce already was headed in that direction, but he didn’t find his way “out” all by himself. He had help along the way. Some inspiration. And the man who personally inspired the Bruce esthetic more than anyone was the late, great Harold Kelling, one of the co-founders of the Hampton Grease Band, and a high priest of “out.”
Harold died way too soon (in 2005), and in life he didn’t receive nearly the credit that he deserves for much of what we think of as having originated with Bruce. Don’t get me wrong – Bruce was a true original, a unique and creative and profoundly influential artist and human being. And he was influenced by Harold, who was just a few years older, and someone Bruce looked up to, someone who gave Bruce artistic agency.
Harold’s grasp and sense of the surreal and the zany helped Bruce move giddily along that road. It was Harold who first saw in Bruce the potential to master a stage, who first brought Bruce up on the stage to sing and create the lunacy they both enjoyed. Basically, without Harold Kelling, there is no Col. Bruce Hampton.
It was Harold who no doubt made the first connection with Frank Zappa, randomly uttering, “Grease,” to him on a New York street in 1967. Zappa loved the weirdness of Harold, Bruce, and their pals at the time (this was before the Grease Band had even formed), and invited them to “sing” on his album, Lumpy Gravy. Harold opened doors for Bruce, got Bruce “out” on the road, the two of them and their pals taking frequent trips to New York. Harold was with Bruce for the Incident of the Sixes.
With Glenn Phillips (who co-founded the Grease Band with Harold and Bruce), Kelling formed a ridiculously powerful, completely unique one-two guitar punch. These were two beasts on their instruments, sonically intertwined, blasting away from different directions with remarkable dexterity and tone; and with Bruce, drummer Jerry Fields and bassist Mike Holbrook, they formed a band that writer Jesse Jarnow called, “the South’s first freaks.”
Harold Kelling founded two great, under-appreciated Atlanta-based bands: The Hampton Grease Band and The Starving Braineaters.
In fact, I won’t waste your time trying to explain the Grease Band. My book, “The Music and Mythocracy of Col. Bruce Hampton: A Basically True Biography,” glides through the Grease Band story, as it tries to cover the life of just one of its founders. If you really want to know a whole hell of a lot about the Hampton Grease Band, read this fabulous epic story by Jarnow for AquariumDrunkard.com.
It is easily the best thing ever written about the band. If anyone writes a book about Harold and the Hampton Grease Band, I hope that it’s Jesse. He’s also one of the busiest people engaged in the business of telling music tales, so he might have to clone himself.
Anyway, after leaving the Grease Band, Harold launched a few projects, most notably the Starving Braineaters. This was fusion music on steroids, dialed up to 11. This eclectic outfit caught the attention of legendary record producer John H. Hammond, who appeared set to make a recording deal with this Southern fried version of Return to Forever. A meeting was reportedly in the works, but Hammond had a heart attack and it never happened.
The music, recorded and preserved by Brooke Delarco, almost disappeared. But you and and your ears are in luck, thanks to Ken Gregory, one of the Starving Braineaters and the proprietor of the excellent 800 East Studios in Atlanta, who shared these recordings with me.
I got to know Ken through a few events he hosted at 800 – a memorial for Dee Knapp, the artist and jazz singer and wife of jazz piano legend Johnny Knapp, and a 90th birthday party for Johnny, shortly before he died. Ken is gracious to a fault, and a multi-talented musician who spent at least an hour talking with me about Bruce for the book – and then my digital recorder was stolen (with a few other items, but that interview and a few others that were on the recorder were the worst losses, by far).
As a result, Ken’s wonderful stories aren’t in the book. I’ve never told him about this, so great was my embarrassment over losing the interview (speaking of embarrassment, Jesse was kind enough to quietly point out one of my blunders in the book – I’d forgotten that the Fillmore East was previously the Village Theatre, and mangled a fact or two about Bruce and his pals going there to see Cream).
Well, embarrassment and lost interviews aside, Ken is a real hero because he has provided a priceless link (below) to 17 Starving Braineater songs. Dive in. Dig this band, and the genius of Harold Kelling. You want some really delicious “out” music? The Starving Braineaters will satisfy that appetite.
Give a listen, pick your jaw up off the floor when you’re done (and please clean the drool – we are still living in a pandemic).
LINKS TO HAPPINESS: