This is from my book, The Music and Mythocracy of Col. Bruce Hampton: A Basically True Biography. It tells the story of how Bruce got back into making albums, thanks mainly to Michael Rothschild and Landslide Records (which is celebrating its 40th anniversary with the release of a new album, this one here). Michael basically launched Landslide so he could record Bruce. In fact, Bruce had a lot of help getting deeper into music following his Hampton Grease Band days, from artists like Flournoy Holmes, Tom Patterson, Ricky Keller, Billy McPherson and many others. Making music often depends upon (and soars because of) great collaborations. Anyway, if you like this chapter, please consider getting a copy of the book through your local independent bookseller, or from the usual places online, such as Bookshop.org or even the monolithic marketplace named for a famous river in South America. Enjoy:
When Bruce Hampton made his first solo album, he wasn’t interested in just recording some new songs that featured his imaginative, inscrutable lyrics juxtaposed with a brilliant fusion of instrumental styles. He had other aspirations. He wanted to showcase his comedy, the stuff he was leaving on the stage at the Midtown Pub (mainly from 1977 to 1979). And he wanted the album to look good, so he enlisted his friend Flournoy Holmes, the Atlanta artist whose work had become the visual incarnation of southern rock thanks to masterpiece album covers like the Allman Brothers’ Eat a Peach. Flournoy also helped name that album, the same service he inadvertently provided to Bruce.
“He called me on the phone and gave me the name of his album,” Flournoy said. “But I misunderstood him. I thought he said, ‘One Ruined Life of a Bronze Tourist.’ So that’s what I repeated back to him.” Recalling the conversation years later, Bruce said he told Flournoy, “That’s perfect. That’s it. You know there are no accidents. That’s the name of the album.”
Bruce released One Ruined Life of a Bronze Tourist in 1978 under the name Mr. Hampton B. Coles (Ret.)—a goof on his actual name, Bruce Cowles Hampton. It was his first album since Music to Eat, and Terminus Records rereleased it in 2000 (with several bonus tracks and under the name Col. Bruce Hampton). The 1978 and 2000 compilations credited a cast of guest musicians under false names; these artists include Billy McPherson on sax and clarinet, Bruce’s little brother, Jim Hampton, on flute, and Ricky Keller, Jerry Fields, Bill Hatcher, Ron Clinton Smith, Jeff Sipe, Jeff Mosier, and Oteil Burbridge. One Ruined Life of a Bronze Tourist “could be heard as a soundtrack to a psilocybin-soaked storyline from a lost science fiction film,” wrote author James Calemine in a review for the website Swampland.com.
Bruce, as photographed by the artist Flournoy Holmes (who designed the cover for The Music and Mythocracy of Col. Bruce Hampton: A Basically True Biography)
The album combines New York City swing (“Charlie Patrick’s Millionaires Learn to Swing”) with southern-fried blues (“Sunshine Makes Eye Contact” and “Talking Shoe”) and gibberish that sounds like a dolphin orgy (“Rise to Failure and 300”), along with some of Bruce’s standup routines and a collision of sounds and words and styles ranging from avantgarde jazz to tribal chanting. Calemine summed up the work in his review, calling the album a classic and “a bizarre musical journey into outer space and partway back.”
Michael Rothschild, founder and president of Landslide Records, stated, “Frank Zappa said One Ruined Life of a Bronze Tourist was one of his favorite albums. It doesn’t matter if it wasn’t a commercial success. It was interesting.” Fortunately for Bruce, “interesting” is what mattered most to Rothschild. The independent film producer and distributor moved to Atlanta from Jacksonville in the 1970s, and he met Bruce through a mutual friend, David Moscovitz, in 1978. “Bruce and I hit it off immediately, especially in terms of talking about music and sports, his two big things,” Rothschild said. “We became friendlier and started going to ballgames together, and that initiated what became an interesting business relationship.”
One night, Michael went to see Bruce perform with Billy McPherson and loved what he saw. Then he and Bruce started talking. “Bruce was interested in recording, and I was thinking of getting into a studio and producing something,” Michael said. “I wasn’t thinking of establishing a label. But Bruce’s stuff wasn’t very commercial, and there was no way we were going to get it out there—nobody was particularly interested in that kind of out music. So I decided to go ahead and establish a label, and figured we’d do it ourselves. That’s how we started Landslide Records.”
Basically, Rothschild started a new record label so he could record his friend’s music. In the summer and fall of 1980, Bruce and the Late Bronze Age went into the studio and recorded Outside Looking Out. He kept the Hampton B. Coles identity, and McPherson was Ben “Pops” Thornton. The two are on the cover of the album in a black-and-white photograph by Flournoy Holmes (who also designed the cover). Standing side by side, Thornton/McPherson is wearing a marching band jacket, and Coles/Hampton sports large-rim glasses and is made up to look like an older man with light hair. Guest musicians on the album include Paul McCandless, Al Nicholson, and David Earle Johnson. Of course, the credits also list bogus players and instruments—for example, Col. Crawford Boyd plays the potarth. Moreover, as Hampton B. Coles (Ret.), Bruce is credited with playing what would become one of his favorite tools, a “chazoid,” or a dwarf guitar that he described as a “perverted mandolin-cello.
Outside Looking Out marked the beginning of the Landslide catalog, and the first reviews for it and Landslide’s other initial release, Dan Wall’s Song for the Night, were positive. Writing for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in January 1981, Mitchell Feldman gave both albums great reviews. He lauded Outside Looking Out’s “interesting juxtaposition of dada poetry and fantastic music,” and its “spirit of improvisational art.”
Released in early 1981, the Bronze Age’s first national review made the record company venture “look like a real easy deal,” Rothschild said. “I mean, a rave review in the New York Times. It doesn’t get much better than that.” It helped to have connections. Trumpeter Gary “El Buho” Gazaway, one of Bruce’s pals and a guest musician on Outside Looking Out, knew Times writer Robert Palmer. Palmer was the newspaper’s chief popular music critic from 1981 to 1988, as well as a longtime contributor to Rolling Stone magazine. Gary called him “Bob Palmer, one of my best friends.”
They were both from Arkansas and had played music together. Palmer, the author of several books about music and musicians, including Deep Blues (1981), loved Outside Looking Out and the band, deeming them “a refreshing antidote to both predictable radio fare and the more self-conscious experimentation of much of the current rock vanguard.” He gave high marks to the album’s song construction and musicianship, as well as to Bruce’s singing and lyrics. In addition, Palmer applauded Hampton and McPherson for not taking themselves too seriously.
However, not everyone was delighted that Bruce was making music again. Rothschild remembered meeting former Columbia head Clive Davis, who was leading Arista, at a record release party. “We started talking, and I told him that I’d established a label. He wanted to know who was on it. I told him our first act was someone he was familiar with, Bruce Hampton.” Davis immediately stalked off and never came back to the conversation, choosing instead to glare at Rothschild from across the room. Outside Looking Out is a great audio document of some of Bruce’s best early poetry. One of the song titles, “A Stained Soul Cringes at the Small Details in the Mirror of Embarrassment,” was published as a poem in the Red Hand Book III.
This poetry collection was edited and published by Tom Patterson, who met Bruce through Mitchell Feldman at a Late Bronze Age show in 1980, “at some dive bar in Buckhead.” “They sounded totally unlike the Grease Band,” said Tom, who had seen Bruce’s first band. “The jazz influence was more overt in this group—a plus in my book—and the playing was more mature and wide ranging.” After the show, Bruce correctly guessed the birthdays of Tom and his wife, then invited himself over to their house for dinner, and so began a friendship that lasted for the rest of Bruce’s life.
The comedy gigs had frittered away, and Bruce was focusing his artistic yen on music. But he had to pay bills, and he wasn’t the kind of musician that could easily work other venues—“lounge lizard gigs,” as Billy McPherson called them. Quoted as “Pops” Thornton by Doug DeLoach in a 1982 MUZIK! magazine article, McPherson explained the dilemma: “What we’re dealing with is economics, financing. We’re playing creative music. To make money in Atlanta we all have to do lounge lizard gigs. We’re all basically lounge lizards, shit-eating lizards, total prostitutes—and on the side we do this Late Bronze Age, avant-garde, experimental thing.”
Hampton B. Coles (Bruce) and Ben “Pops” Thornton (Billy McPherson) try to gain altitude in this photo by Flournoy Holmes.
Bruce had to seek other work to support his art habit. “He had a couple of different day jobs,” Tom Patterson remembered. “For a while he drove tourists around Atlanta in a big bus and showed them the sights while rattling off absurdist historical disinformation about the city.” Driving his tour bus and dressed in a red blazer and tie, Bruce was known to introduce his guest passenger, Joe Zambie, as the governor of Georgia to a group of out-of-towners who didn’t know any better. Joe remembered another similar incident: “We passed a house with a lady standing out front, and Bruce gets on the microphone and says, ‘You people are in luck—there’s Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone with the Wind, on her front lawn.’” Joe added, “Of course, Margaret Mitchell had been dead about forty years.”
Driving jobs suited Bruce. He liked driving and knew his way around Atlanta like a human GPS. I followed him once while he delivered DVD copies of his documentary film, Basically Frightened, to different places north of Atlanta. He knew every back road, parking lot, and back lot that would save a few seconds here and a few yards there. The stories of his driving rules on tour are legendary.
Besides those hundreds of thousands of miles between gigs over fifty years, and the tour bus job of course, Bruce worked as a courier for Atlanta Blueprint Company, a job he landed through a friend of Doug DeLoach’s. At the time, Doug was supplementing his writing income as a courier for a consortium of advertising art and photography studios. “Consequently, we would randomly run into each other as we made deliveries around town,” Doug said. “Whenever that happened in the afternoon, we would meet in the parking lot and sit in one or the other’s car, with Bruce smoking Marlboros, listening to Alley Pat on WYZE and laughing like lunatics.”
Driving around was the kind of thing that satisfied Bruce’s craving for what he called “meaningless repetition.” It was something he could do easily while entertaining himself or others. Tom Patterson wrote in his memoirs that Bruce was one of the few people he knew who was “capable of turning the most mundane activity into a uniquely entertaining experience.”
Patterson said, “Bruce liked to have someone riding shotgun, anyone who would play audience to his ongoing performance.” But he didn’t listen to the radio while cruising—no background music, no rock and roll on the radio. By the early 1980s, Bruce was already adopting a curmudgeonly attitude about “today’s music.” For the 1983 article in Art Papers, he told Mitchell Feldman, “I can’t listen to any of today’s music. It bores me because it’s all premeditated and calculated to reach other people rather than yourself. I don’t hear the primal scream anymore.”
This is a rant that would last the rest of his life, this ancient complaint of “They just rant that would last the rest of his life, this ancient complaint of “They just don’t make music like they used to.” Well into his sixties, Bruce acted as if he had found hidden treasure whenever he discovered new music that he liked (or new players of old music, like the sacred-steel gospel group, the Campbell Brothers). Otherwise, he adhered to his standard assessment of current music: “The music of today is horrid!”
The first time Ricky Keller heard Bruce Hampton and his band the New Ice Age, the guys were all living in the same apartment complex, where the band used to perform in the clubhouse at least once month to earn free rent. “I had just moved, and I heard this smoking band in the clubhouse,” Ricky told interviewer Dean Budnick, editor in chief of Relix magazine, for a story in September 2001. “So I introduced myself to those musicians and they let me sit in. Eventually, Bruce ended up sleeping on my floor for a few months, and then out of the blue in the early 80s, Bruce called me up and said, ‘We want you to come play a gig.’ We had one rehearsal, maybe, and then I played with him eight, nine years.”
Ricky was an expert on the French horn and the bass, and around the time he joined the Late Bronze Age, he launched his recording studio in his house. “The whole reason for us having a studio and getting serious about it was to record Bruce,” Ricky told Budnick. Keller lived in a carriage house behind a mansion, and McPherson dubbed the studio “southern living at its finest.” Ricky explained why: “You could sit on the back porch in rocking chairs and look out over this nice expensive neighborhood. It was so funny that I said, ‘That’s the name of the studio,’ and it stuck.”
But Southern Living at Its Finest Studios grew to be much more. Ricky went on to work with artists from across the pop music spectrum, including Bruce Springsteen, Train, Outkast, Papa Roach, Stone Temple Pilots, and the Thorns. He also helped nurture the careers of producer/musician Brendan O’Brien, drummer Sonny Emory, bassist Oteil Burbridge, and percussionist Yonrico Scott, among others. Originally from Valdosta, down near the Florida line, Ricky had supposedly been offered a respectable job as a high school band director, but he had turned that down to start a recording studio, play in the Late Bronze Age, and become known as Lincoln Metcalf. By either name, he was beloved. After Ricky died of a heart attack in June 2003, the church was packed wall to wall with musicians and friends paying their respects.
“Ricky was a genius, a kind and gentle spirit who also had a sardonic edge,” noted saxophonist/keyboardist Jon Marett, who created a space near his Soundscape Studios for Keller’s recording studio.
Bruce as seen on the back cover of the Arkansas album — Photo by Flournoy Holmes
“Bruce and Ricky were brothers from another mother,” said Jeff Sipe, who became the drummer for the Aquarium Rescue Unit, the greatest band anyone ever heard. “Ricky would get these incredible Atlanta musicians, like Oliver Wells, the organ player. Fantastic musicians who loved to play, loved to go out, loved Bruce’s whacky sense of humor and his audacity. Ricky helped Bruce by getting the rhythm sections together and recording those tracks, then working with Bruce, one on one, take after take, to get Bruce to sound as good as he possibly could in the studio. Ricky would push him, was honest with him, ‘Try it again, Bruce; try it again, Bruce.’ And they made some great recordings.”
Thanks to Ricky’s pushing, he and Bruce produced “Jack the Rabbit,” one of Hampton’s most lasting songs. Landslide released it in 1994 on the compilation album Strange Voices: A History 1977–1987 under the name Col. Bruce Hampton. Off and on, the upbeat rockabilly song was part of Bruce’s setlists for years. Its creation sounds just like something he did with the Grease Band, when he was pulling lyrics from an encyclopedia entry about Halifax.
“Me and Ricky were sitting in the studio one day, and Ricky said we didn’t have enough material for the record, let’s do a weird tune,” Bruce recalled. “So we got an out-of-print book of five hundred or one thousand blues songs. We took a pen and randomly opened to a page and would take three words from that song, then we’d do it again. There were four hundred pages in this book. And everything we did worked, and it was all random and miscellaneous, never a thought, we just did it. It makes no sense; it was all random and it all worked.”
Ricky was Lincoln Metcalf, Bruce was Hampton B. Coles, and McPherson was Pops Thornton. Jerry Fields, Bruce’s old friend from the Grease Band, also joined the new group, and his Bronze Age character name was Bubba Phreon (he sometimes played garbage can lids in lieu of cymbals).
That was the Late Bronze Age at its height, the foursome that appeared in the 1983 low-budget teen coming-of-age comedy Getting It On. Later, after McPherson left the band, Bill Hatcher joined up and became Lamar Metcalf. Ricky’s wife, Carole, provided a thick southern annunciation for the song “Brato Ganibe,” reciting that title phrase over and over. (It’s something Bruce heard in a dream—it means either “world peace” or “canoeist.” The song appears on two of his albums, the 1987 Arkansas and the 1994 compilation album Strange Voices.)
In early 1982 the Late Bronze Age released its second album, Isle of Langerhan (as opposed to pancreatic insulin-producing cells, islets of Langerhans). This time, Landslide secured the services of Eddy Offord, England’s legendary producer of progressive rock whose credits by then included eight Yes albums and Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s first four albums. Once again, Robert Palmer weighed in with a great review in the New York Times. In a piece previewing the Late Bronze Age’s New York debut at the Mudd Club (May 20, 1982), he called the album “tighter and punchier than the previous album, with the players’ rhythm-and-blues roots attractively exposed.” Palmer also praised Bruce’s lyrics.
In his feature story about the band in Atlanta’s MUZIK! magazine, Doug DeLoach wrote that Isle of Langerhan was so harmoniously creative that it sounded as if the band had been playing together for decades. Even so, he noted, “It’s only been about a year since the origin of this universe-warping formation, this evolutionary crux, this ongoing social and musical experiment known as the Late Bronze Age.” DeLoach said that Hampton “plays with words and phrases seeking a sharp sense of mellifluous combinations and humorous juxtaposition.” And he quoted from the song “Merged Moons,” with its titular orbs perpetuating resurgences, and folklore, and the five elements, and earthworms. Incomprehensible imagery? It doesn’t matter, Doug wrote, because it’s fun. When taken together with the band’s complex music, he declared, “Hampton’s lyrics are as natural and emotive as they are playful and esoteric.”
The album’s guitar-driven rock-and-roll title track was eventually recorded again by Bruce’s later band the Codetalkers. It’s a great song, but the most memorable tune on the album is “Time Is Free,” written by percussionist David Earle Johnson. This was another song that Bruce played for the rest of his days; it became something like a personal theme for him.
The lyrics question the motives behind music, then suggest putting everything to music. Listen to the live version by the Aquarium Rescue Unit on their eponymous debut album. You’ll see. But great songs and a great review in the Times followed by a great live show at the Mudd Club in New York did not add up to album sales. “Neither Isle of Langerhan nor Outside Looking Out did very well commercially,” said Michael Rothschild. “I think maybe we sold two in every state.”
Isle of Langerhan was the last Late Bronze Age album, but Bruce kept the band going in one form or another until 1987. One of its memorable performances, a 1983 fundraiser for the Art Papers featuring visual artist St. eom reciting his stream-of-consciousness poetry, was captured by filmmaker/videographer Bill Brown.
That footage is included in the 1993 biographical documentary The Pasaquoyan: The Life and Works of Visionary Artist Eddie Owens, a.k.a., St. EOM. The film shows Bruce performing in full gonzo stage mode, blasting away on a trumpet, speaking in non sequiturs, and making the audience giggle with just a mad look in his darting eyes.
Flournoy Holmes captured this image of Bruce looking a little bit like a Svengali (no eye contact!)
The Pasaquoyan also features interviews with Bruce, an ardent admirer of St. eom. In typical Hamptonesque hyperbole, a scruffy-faced Bruce, clouded in a wisp of smoke that drifts across the frame from an unseen cigarette, claims to have actually seen St. eom defy gravity in a special suit that the artist created.
Outsider artists like St. eom and his fellow Georgian Howard Finster appealed to Bruce, who was (like these two visual artists) a “Cosmic Southerner.” Writer Lance Ledbetter used this phrase in an interview with Bruce for the winter 2015 edition of Oxford American magazine, writing that Finster was the first “Cosmic Southerner” he’d identified. “He held deep Southern roots and felt a cosmic connection to the universe, which he expressed through his lifestyle and art.”
Finster resided in Paradise Gardens, his picturesque homeplace in Pennville, about ninety-five miles north of Atlanta. In 1987, Bruce played a festival there with a lineup that included his friends the Shaking Ray Levis (keyboardist Dennis Palmer and percussionist Bob Stagner), as well as Finster, who was a solid banjo picker.
That was the same year that Bruce’s next album, Arkansas, was released on Landslide. It was also the year he started going by Col. Bruce Hampton—sometimes followed by “Ret.,” sometimes not. His first album as Col. Bruce Hampton, Ret., Arkansas was “his best recorded material to date,” wrote the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Bo Emerson in June 1987. In the same article, Emerson reported that negotiations were underway to reissue Music to Eat through Columbia’s Special Projects subsidiary. Bruce was apparently unimpressed and uninterested, saying, “It’s pumping life into something that’s dead.”
Bruce told me that Robert Palmer said to him, “I never had much control until I got to Arkansas.” Bruce loved the line, so he turned it into the lyrics of a song, and that song became the title of an album. Arkansas, released by Landslide in 1987, featured a stellar lineup of musicians.
The album was recorded at two studios—Keller’s Southern Living at Its Finest and Marett’s Soundscape. “In the studio, like when he was performing live, Bruce was all about the vibe and being honest with the music, bringing your reality, no artifice,” Jon said, adding, “But he was a fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants kind of guy. He’d come into the studio with these disheveled notes and lyrics on various pieces of paper, cardboard, envelopes, and napkins. That would be his preparation, and it was almost like he was proud of himself for being that prepared.”
The lineup for Arkansas includes players from the band Bruce was building at the time—the band that would become the Aquarium Rescue Unit, the greatest band anyone ever heard. Folks Bruce had been playing with in the Late Bronze Age (Keller, Yonrico Scott) were also involved, as were friends from other bands who had either collaborated with him before or wanted to, like Little Feat guitarist Paul Barrere, longtime Stained Souls collaborator and blues guitarist Tinsley Ellis, and drummers Sonny Emory and Walter Brewer, among others.
This album is also where Bruce debuted some of his best and most well-known songs, like “Basically Frightened” (which opens with a child’s chorus singing about a rabbit before Bruce details the many absurd things he’s frightened of). Bruce’s definitive recording of Bukka White’s “Fixin’ to Die Blues” first appeared on Arkansas. So did the loping, lovely Jeff Mosier banjo tune “Morgan,” and so did “Thron Dossull.” The album’s title track is a jazzy number with a Manhattan Transfer-ish kind of chorus. And even though Bruce told me writer Robert Palmer said the line that became the song, Bruce’s old pal and collaborator Gary Gazaway said he provided it.
“In 1980 I was going through a divorce and told Bruce that I had to get back to Arkansas to get some control of my life,” said Gary, also the source of another favorite Bruce story. This incident occurred in the 1980s when the Hampton myths really began growing legs. Bruce used to tell about the time bluesman and Arkansan CeDell Davis (famous for using a table knife in his fretting hand, playing his own singular brand of slide guitar) flew first class to New York City while sitting next to Henry Kissinger. Bruce usually told the story as if he had been on the plane. But it was Gazaway who brought Davis to play in New York in May 1982, when the old bluesman made his East Coast debut. The plane stopped in Washington, D.C., to add some passengers. “Then in walks Henry Kissinger,” Gary recalled, continuing the story as follows:
He sits in the aisle across from CeDell, who turns to Kissinger and says, “I was just wondering how your wife is doing. I saw on the tv that she’s been sick.” So they started talking. When we landed in New York, I’m getting CeDell into his wheelchair, but Kissinger knocks me out of the way. “Let me push him to the gate,” he says.
So now Henry Kissinger, one of the most powerful men in the free world, is pushing CeDell Davis in his wheelchair to the gate. Palmer was waiting for us and nearly passed out when he saw this spectacle.
Bruce told Gary it was the most incredible story he’d heard, adding, “I have to be on that plane with you, I have to be in that story!” So that’s how Bruce “got on the plane” with CeDell Davis.
Eventually, Bruce and the Aquarium Rescue Unit wound up backing Davis on his album The Best of CeDell Davis, released in 1995 on Fat Possum Records.
There was always a musical director in Bruce’s bands, Michael Rothschild remembered. The position was filled by “people who could play and interpret what Bruce wanted to see and hear happen.” Jerry Fields said Bruce always had a muse in his band. With the Late Bronze Age, the muses were Ricky Keller and Billy McPherson. Ricky, always devoted to Bruce’s vision, stuck it out for the duration. But Billy left the band after a few years and eventually moved into something more lucrative and risky.
First he linked up with Atlanta musician Tommy Dean in 1984 to start the League of Decency to perform at the Point, a club that Tommy’s brother Britt opened in the Little Five Points neighborhood of Atlanta. Britt wanted a jazz band for the house. “I had never played jazz before, but Billy taught me,” Tommy said. “He was brilliant, the smartest cat I ever worked with, and I owe him a lot. I’ve been able to support myself singing jazz and playing bass, and that’s directly connected to Billy’s influence.”
When the Point changed ownership in 1988, McPherson split for Seattle and became a worldwide legend among psilocybin mushroom enthusiasts, who remember him by other names: Psilocybe Fanaticus, or Professor Fanaticus. “He had a terrarium at his house where he grew mushrooms,” Dean said. “He perfected the technique and grew them at will, and once he could do that, he moved to the Pacific Northwest and took an ad out in High Times.” Eventually, Billy was arrested by federal authorities and served six months’ home detention. In 2011, Billy succumbed to hepatitis C.
The only time Steve Dukes ever saw Bruce Hampton cry, they cried together as a bluesman’s voice spun sorrow and enlightenment on the turntable. The song was “Levee Camp Moan” by Son House. “Bruce brought the record over one day, we played it, and tears ran down our faces. This was a life-changing moment,” said Dukes, who had been the last student of influential avant-garde composer John Cage. Consequently, Dukes followed an unconventional path in his musical journey. Then he met Bruce and learned the answer to the question “What happens when two avant-gardists collaborate?”
Dukes, who lives in San Francisco, is a guitar teacher whose students have included Charles Brewer (founder and former CEO of Mindspring) and former Cy Young Award–winning pitcher Barry Zito. And also Bruce Hampton.
“After I left John Cage in 1977, all I played was avant-garde music for years—no tonal instruments, no guitars, no trumpets, no pianos, only noise instruments, and typically those found on the way to the gig, in trash cans or on the side of the road,” Dukes said. “But the day Bruce and I listened to that record, it dawned on both of us that the music made sense in a way that was beyond what we were hearing. And I remembered what Cage had told me: ‘Find what you like and do it; take what you don’t like and stop doing that; then just be yourself.’ So I switched from avant-garde music to acoustic blues, and I’ve been there ever since. That was Bruce’s influence.”
Bruce trusted Dukes enough to take lessons on the mandolin, and they started a band called the Aberdeen Fresco Adjusters, Steve with his Martin guitar, Bruce with his slide mandolin. “He was totally enamored of that mandolin and the fact that, for the first time in his life, he was playing a legitimate instrument in a straight way. This wasn’t ‘out’ music,” Dukes said. “He was like a child, and this was something new. He knew I’d been Cage’s student, so that gave me enough cred with Bruce that he could relax the whole ‘I’m the weirdest musical motherfucker on the planet’ thing. He learned about twenty bluegrass songs, and we played cities like Huntsville, Richmond, Savannah.”
The duo had one high-profile gig, a performance on Tonight at Ferlinghetti’s, an award-winning public television show presented as if it were happening in a Greenwich Village coffee shop. The program had been a critical hit in Georgia, where it won a regional Emmy Award. It was just beginning national distribution when the episode featuring Bruce and Steve (taped in August 1984) aired. Bruce delighted the faux coffeehouse audience with his song “Baseball Tickets,” which he’d recorded on his solo album Arkansas in 1987.
Dukes said that he and Hampton even wrote some songs together. Bruce would write down lyrics on a napkin or the back of an envelope. Then one day, according to Steve, “Bruce just walked away. Wouldn’t answer my phone calls, stopped all contact. He used to come to my house all the time, and then everything just stopped. A sudden silence.”
And that was the end of the Aberdeen Fresco Adjusters. But it was not the end of Bruce’s participation in side projects. One of them was the temporary outfit that Bruce played in for a handful of shows through 2011, the Egyptian Windmill Operators, a trio including keyboardist Dennis Palmer of the Shaking Ray Levis, and improv guitarist Davey Williams. Bruce played with the Operators when he wasn’t leading Pharaoh Gummit, his present full-time band.
But his most lasting side project was the ongoing collaboration with guitarist Tinsley Ellis, a group they called the Stained Souls that would last for more than twenty-five years. Basically, it was an ongoing jam featuring Bruce and Tinsley and a rotating cast of guests. “I met Bruce in 1983 when we were both on the Landslide label,” Ellis wrote to me in 2014. “We formed the Stained Souls to play blues classics together. The first time we performed as the Stained Souls, we did so without a bassist, and I complained a lot about that. The next week Bruce had three bass players show up.”
The duo was sonic medicine for Ron Currens, who thought the eighties a tough time for music lovers. “Disco was still in flower, and the AllmanBrothers had broken up, and we didn’t think there was any hope of them coming back, and Gregg Allman was testifying against one of the roadies in a drug trial,” complained Currens, who was such a big fan of the Brothers that he started a magazine devoted to the band, Hittin’ the Note, in the 1990s. “But I was a big fan of Tinsley Ellis, and he told me about the Stained Souls. And man, did I need that.”
For a while, Ron remembered, the Souls played together almost every week, usually at places like the Point. The band also played at the Little Five Points Pub, which was Bruce’s happy space. “The Little Five Points Pub really was his best place—that was his living room,” said Charlie Williams, a talented Atlanta guitarist who was fourteen when he first saw Bruce fronting the Hampton Grease Band.
The Little Five Points Pub was an incubator for different bands. Widespread Panic played there in its infancy, just before becoming one of the most successful touring bands in the country. The pub is the place where Epic Records discovered the Indigo Girls. And the Monday night jams that evolved there under the intelligent design of Col. Bruce Hampton provided the perfect training ground for what would become the best band anyone ever heard.