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We’ve Made it This Far

I’ll never forget the last night I saw Bill Cochran on this Earth. He was wearing my polo shirt and reclining on the couch in a seaside villa on Jekyll Island, a big grin on his drugged face, completely immobile except for his tapping foot. It was early June, 2018, and Bill was in the last days of his bout with cancer and I was about two months away from having an improbable stroke and Johnny Knapp was still alive.

Bill was on pain meds and receiving an almost constant dose of marijuana from the vape pens he kept close by. His eyes were shut and if he’d worn a sign that said, ‘closed for business,’ it might have been appropriate, but it wouldn’t have been accurate. Not quite, because of his foot. It was tapping rhythmically and his smile was broad and he said softly, “God, I love that man,” while Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit played on my laptop, filling the room with music, sonic tonic for my dying friend’s soul. He opened his eyes and held a hand up in praise.

Bill really loved Bruce. He’d seen pretty much all of the Colonel’s bands through the years, from the Hampton Grease Band (Bill was about 13 when he somehow landed in Piedmont Park and mingled with the hippies) right on up to the Madrid Express (Bruce’s last band), decades later. Bill loved music. In fact, that was kind of the lede for the obituary I wrote about my friend after he died a week later.

Bill is one of the main reasons that there is a book called The Music and Mythocracy of Col. Bruce Hampton: A Basically True Biography, a book that took me about eight years to research and write. Because Bill was a constant cheerleader. “How’s that book coming?” “You almost done?” “I can’t wait to read it.”

He was my friend Tommy Deadwyler’s brother from another mother. The two of them had logged many miles together, geographically and otherwise. I’m going to leave that story for Tommy to tell, but he really ought to. There is a good movie in the friendship my pals Tommy and Bill shared for so many years. But Bill and I became fast friends. First time I met him, he asked if he could hold my son and dance with him. That’s the day I started loving Bill Cochran.

But I want to tell you the story about the night Col. Bruce guessed Bill’s birthday. First, this: As I mentioned, Bill walked into a Grease Band gig in the park back in 1969-ish and later told me, “I got on the proverbial bus and I’ve been on it ever since.” I know he spent years following different bands — the Grateful Dead, and he told me he was a bad influence in the Widespread Panic scene and had basically been banned from going backstage. Well, many years after those road-warrior days, when Bill was a husband and a doting father, he and Tommy and I went to see Panic in Myrtle Beach. There was no backstage ban this day. I was working on a story about the band and my two pals were with me and at one point we were walking through a narrow corridor backstage and Sunny Ortiz, Panic’s percussionist, was coming from the other direction.

Sunny and Bill stopped and looked at each other. You could see that Sunny was trying to work it out in his head, could tell that he recognized Bill. It was like two old gunfighters with mutual respect and mistrust. It was a short, almost tense pause as the two men looked each other over, measuring. Bill had his usual wide, knowing grin, and he spoke first. “Sunny.” Sunny looked serious, then a small smile and he said, “Bill.” No other words were exchanged, but I had the feeling that worlds were. Bill filled me in on some of the details later. OK, forget that.

A few years after this, I was at Smith’s Olde Bar in Atlanta to check out Bruce and his band. The place was packed when I felt a tap on my shoulder, turned around and there’s Bill Cochran, who had made the drive up from St. Simon’s just to see this show. We had a great time that night. Before Bruce’s set (there were several bands playing that night, Jerry Joseph’s was one of them), Bill and I sat with him downstairs, eating, and Bill asked Bruce, “man, I’ve been seeing you for years, we’ve met a bunch of times, and you’ve NEVER guessed my birthday. Won’t you do it for me now?”

Bruce, between bites of something, said, “Can’t. Doesn’t work that way. You asked.” So Bill said, “well, shit,” and we finished our food, then watched Bruce’s set. Afterwards, Bill and I snuck backstage (which, if you’ve been backstage at Smith’s, you know is a tight squeeze). So we make our way back to the green room and Bruce sees Bill and I walk in and he points at Bill and says, “Bill Cochran, Leo. August 21st.” And he was right on. Nailed it, first time. Bill wasn’t stunned, just delighted. Biggest grin yet, and Bruce gave him a pinky handshake.

Fast forward to the night of May 1st, 2017. Hampton 70 at the Fox Theatre. I was standing with Tommy and Bill near the soundboard when Bruce went down for the count, the most dramatic, unsettling, brilliant, tragic, and triumphant ending to a concert anyone has ever seen. Mainly, though, we were fucking worried. Outside near the backstage entrance, a small crowd gathered as Bruce was taken away in an ambulance. Bill was there. He said there was a glow coming from what would have been Bruce’s shirt pocket as he was wheeled out on a gurney. “It was God texting Bruce, telling him to come home,” Bill said. Later that night, Bruce did go home and we’ve missed him ever since.

But not very long after that, maybe a couple of months, Bill had moved from the coast up to Athens and he was on his way to a job interview. As he walked down the street he heard Bruce’s voice in his ear, “Bill Cochran … Leo.” Bill recalled, “It was like he was walking right next to me. I turned to look, almost expecting to see Bruce. I saw a door with one of those lion door knockers. Leo the lion.” Noting the address on the door (which was probably 821, but I can’t remember for certain), Bill hurried to the nearest store and bought a lottery ticket, played the address, and won 50 bucks.

Of course he did. That was Bill, and that was Bruce. So it felt right that night on Jekyll, as Tommy and Bill and I spent one more late night together, that Bill would fall asleep listening to the Colonel and his greatest band, and it felt right that the music was soothing our sweet friend. When I think of that moment and that time, the thing that makes me saddest is thinking about Tommy, who spent months taking care of his dying brother Bill in Athens. I remember how exhausted and soul tired he was. But in spite of all that, this was a weekend of joy, even if we didn’t expect Bill to survive it.

Later that night, Tommy tucked Bill into bed and sat there beside him, his hand on his friend’s chest. It stopped moving, like he was holding his breath, or …

“Jerry, he’s gone,” Tommy called, sounding a little panicked. “He’s gone!” That’s when Bill raised his head, fully alert, and blurted, “Who? Me?” We laughed our asses off over that and Bill wouldn’t let us forget it the next morning when he called from the bedroom, “Hey, Tommy … he’s gone!”

On Sunday, we took him to the beach in a special wheelchair with big rubber wheels and flotation devices on the side. The thing moved easily, like the sand was glass, and we got as close to the water as Bill wanted, then stood there soaking up the sun and listening to the water and the laughter of families. Bill dozed, opened his eyes, smiled, contemplated, breathed, stretching the minutes like saltwater taffy, stretching them into hours.

He wanted to move back to the deck overlooking the beach. He was getting tired, but didn’t want us to take him back to the hospice center yet. It got to be late in the afternoon and Bill started thinking about that bed. It was time to go back to Brunswick. On the way, Bill reminded us again how much he loved the Sidney Lanier Bridge. From the backseat, I looked at geography and colors that Bill had captured in hundreds of gorgeous photographs over the years, pixelated love offerings for the world of his world.

At the hospice center, we arranged his stuff, tucked him in, and said our goodbyes. The last time I saw my friend, he was still wearing the shirt off my back, wished that I could give him more, and realized as we turned north on Altama Avenue that I’d forgotten to tell him how much I appreciated that dance, all those years ago, when he spun around a green grass field with my little boy in his arms.

Since Bill died I’ve spent a lot of hours thinking about him, wishing he was here to read the book he wanted me to finish, and I regret not having finished it sooner, so that he could read it. But then I smile and remember that Bill lived and was my friend and that I had the great pleasure of knowing him. A book is a small thing compared to that. And if we survive wretched 2020 and live to see what we all hope is a hopeful 2021, and if we make it to April 1st, the book will be a reality and I’ll say silently to my friend, “we’ve made it this far, Bill.”

Then we’ll see what comes next.

Tommy

For starters, this doesn’t feel right. This feels out of order, a cosmic square peg trying to force itself into an elusive round hole. I am rambling while trying to do my dear friend a modicum of justice.

Anyway, years ago I wrote something about Tommy Deadwyler, something really nice that I can’t remember, but I’ll never forget his response: “Damn, Jerry, I’m not dead yet.” Then he flashed that brilliant, genuine, million-dollar smile, the one that welcomed you right into the best bear hug you’ve ever had. Now that he’s left the planet – or at least, that part of him that you can hug back – it’s hard to find the right words.

Here’s what I know. I know that the book about Col. Bruce that I wrote would not exist without Tommy D, for better or for worse. For my part, it was for better, and I will be forever grateful to him for that, and for his regular taunts of, “Jerry, you done with that book yet?” It took eight years to make that book, from start to finish, so there were a lot of those. And then, when it was finally published, I don’t think he ever read it. He was worried that it would make him too sad, and I totally understand that and love him for it. But he is mentioned first in the acknowledgements, and it’s because of the point made earlier: Tommy is why the book exists.

Tommy introduced me to Jeff Mosier. Then Jeff got Bruce to come up to Sautee (and that led to a bunch of different shows up here in the hills) and then Tommy introduced me to Bruce. Like Bruce, Tommy had a real gift for connecting people. Tommy knew how to bring friends together, how to put a crew together, how to put the right artists together on a stage. He knew how performers would fit neatly together, complement each other. And the best part was, he really loved these artists, and they knew it. No, I mean he really loved them. This was no bullshit. The man respected and loved the musicians he worked with, and who were lucky enough to work with him.

A couple of weeks ago when he already knew what he was facing, Tommy was making big plans. He had plans for how he wanted to die and what should happen. For one thing, it was not supposed to happen for several months yet. His spirit had different plans. But during that visit, Tommy was taking stock and allowed that, “I’ve really had an interesting life, no complaints except I wish it would last a little longer. But I’ve had the chance to see and so some amazing things.” He did. I asked him several times to write a book just about the jobs he’s had.

So, one of the highlights of his rich life is such a Tommy Deadwyler thing. He said, “I can’t tell you how much it meant to carry Jeff Mosier’s banjo.” Like, it was more than an honor – he wasn’t talking about that kind of formal bullshit. Carrying the banjo, I think, was a metaphor for something more. He was overjoyed with the growing friendship with Jeff, the partnership they had, the trust — the trust Jeff had to let Tommy carry the instrument. Tommy experienced sincere joy in that. Plus, it was a cool banjo.

There are too many favorite memories with Tommy D. Way too many. His 50th birthday is one. We went to one of his awesome sisters’ lake house in Alabama and that’s where we discovered that my son Joe loves going fast. Tommy was helming the boat and he’d turn around to where I was holding Joe and say, “Hey, Joey, wanna go fast?” Joe would respond in the affirmative and Tommy would gun it. The smile on the boy’s face spread across two counties.

There’s another related to Joe. He was in the hospital 10 years ago with a bad staph infection, spent about a month there, and it included Thanksgiving. Tommy and his much better looking half, Tia, showed up to visit and he was immediately put to work. The PICU floor received a bunch of cooked turkeys to feed the parents who were staying in the hospital with their kids. But they needed someone to slice the birds. And they didn’t have any silverware. Not even a scalpel. So, Tommy and I used our hands and a plastic butter knife. The PICU staff and families enjoyed a tasty, if sloppy-looking dinner.

And there was the time that we took Bill Cochran out for one last night at the beach. Bill was in his final days and wanted to go the beach. So, Tommy and I rode down to Brunswick to pick up Bill and take him to a condo we rented for the night on Jekyll Island. It was a bittersweet night out with the boys. Tommy had been Bill’s nurse, basically, before Bill checked into hospice. We had tucked Bill in for the night and a little while later, Tommy went in to check on him. Bill wasn’t moving and didn’t seem like he had a pulse and the nurses had told us to not be surprised if Bill took his backstage pass during our big time on the beach. So when everything about Bill seemed motionless, Tommy called from the bedroom in a panicked voice, “Jerry, I think he’s gone.” That’s when Bill sat up and said loudly, “Who, me?”

We laughed together about that, the three of us. After Bill died, Tommy and I laughed about it. Tommy was still laughing about it a few weeks ago. Now, I’ll laugh about it.

But if there is one favorite memory of Tommy, the one that touches my heart deeply every time I conjure it, is seeing him on that platform during one of our Headwaters productions, lit by the stage lights, singing in his inimitable voice a song that Mosier wrote, a beautiful song with a lovely, mournful melody, “Ever changing Moment.” I’m crying now thinking about it, the plaintive banjo and Tommy singing, “Tears when my heart is broken, tears when I laugh so long, life’s an ever-changing moment, and the changes make us strong …”

There were a lot of other unforgettable stage moments for Tommy – as Claxton Bliss running for office, as Thomasina Agua-Caliente swinging on trapeze, as himself running across the community center lawn in a diaper (it was a performance, not a fashion choice). Even when he was introducing an artist, he had a way of livening the stage. A couple of times, we even sang together on stage. He made it less terrifying for me, because Tommy could really sing.

Still, the Mosier song and Tommy’s delivery of it was magical and deep and forever feeling. I can hear it yet in my memory track. Tommy’s voice. God almighty, I will miss it. But I am stronger for having heard it and having known Tommy, for having worked and played with him so many times. More than almost anyone else, at the oddest hours of the day, he has seen me at my absolute best and absolute worst, and never flinched, never judged, offered love instead. Yes, I am indeed stronger.

As a young guy, long before I knew him, Tommy was a football player. A linebacker who took quarterbacks apart. Mean and tough. Then he made a concerted effort that leaned more on love, and though he loved a good football game, he’d made a kind of transition, through an abundance of life experience, from jock to artist, from wild man to gentle giant. To singer. Along the way, I think, Tommy instinctively learned, as the old song says, that the greatest thing is to love and be loved in return.

And my friend Tommy — our friend — loved a lot. Loved Tia, loved his mother and his family, loved his friends, especially loved his grand-daughter (who is only two but will always know Tommy as Grand-dude). He loved life, loved his life, loved the show, loved the hang after the show (facilitated the hang much of the time — in addition to the show). Yes, he could still be the tough guy at times, and seemingly intractable at other times, but the bottom line? Tommy Deadwyler loved love. That’s the gift he shared, and took with him. Imagine that.

Really, though, it’s all too much to process right now, and mostly I’m just rambling in the broken-hearted aftermath of fresh, bad news. This impossibly Tommyless world is going to take some getting used to, but I don’t think many of us will get used to it. In the meantime, I will cherish the memories. Tommy D., I remember you. Always.

The Whys of Mize

The truth is, Johnny Mize was always supposed to be first. The other truth is, I’m really glad that he wasn’t.

Last year on April 1st, an appropriately foolish day, my first book, The Music and Mythocracy of Col. Bruce Hampton, was released by the University of Georgia Press. I worked long and hard on that book, like the labor of love that it was, because I loved Bruce. He was my friend.

Now, that wasn’t by intention, in spite of Bruce’s well-known directive about doing everything with intention. Some of the most enjoyable friendships feel like a complete accident when the universe doesn’t share its plans with you ahead of time. This seemed like one of those happy accidents.

I met Bruce when he was performing here in my neighborhood, after having heard of him for many years. I’d never seen him perform before, had rarely even heard his music. But this was Col. Bruce Hampton, and without belaboring that point and its implications, let’s just say that Bruce set my storyteller’s sense tingling. I was a journalist, built to gather tales and share them, and here was the keeper kingfish.

A rotating series of lunches, gatherings, whimsical texts, and countless phone calls ensued, and with Bruce’s blessing, even after he departed the planet, a book emerged. It isn’t the book that I expected, but it’s a book that I’m proud of, even if Bruce’s life and career deserve so much more. That said, I’m glad to have played my bit part as some kind of dime store Boswell.

All of that completely cuts out the scenic route. It’s the short version to get us back to the original point about Johnny Mize.

Long before meeting Bruce Hampton, I’d begun work on a book about Johnny Mize, the baseball player who lived in Demorest, a few miles from my home. This would have been in 1999 or so. I’d recently moved here to this area and was slogging away as editor for one of the local newspapers when Johnny’s daughter, Judi Mize, called one day to pitch a story about her father, who had died six years earlier.

It turned out, Mize was one of 75 athletes being featured on the back of boxes of Wheaties, the Breakfast of Champions. It was part of a contest for the cereal’s 75th anniversary. Customers were asked to vote on their favorite stars, and the winners would be featured on the cereal box front, as in days of old. Johnny didn’t win, but I got really interested in him.

Legends in uniform. Johnny Mize (right) played baseball for the Great Lakes team in the U.S. Navy. His manager was Mickey Cochrane, Hall of Fame catcher for the Athletics and Tigers.

I’ve been a baseball nerd longer than I’ve been a music nerd. I’ve always wanted to write about baseball. And Mize? He’d been a part of my mental orbit for decades. My father, who is responsible for my baseball affliction, was a Yankees fan and a Mize fan. He thought of the legendary Big Cat as something of a rare jewel that not many people knew about. And he was right. Mize had flown under the proverbial radar of baseball history for many years, even though he’d been a bona fide superstar in his day. “The strong, silent type,” Dad would say. He liked that type. Lou Gehrig was his favorite player. Mize wasn’t far behind. Funny that both men played first base.

Anyway, I started researching Mize, even interviewed some of his old teammates (men who have since departed the world for parts unknown). I wrote a couple of chapters and mailed them off to a publisher of baseball books. To my great surprise, they were interested in what I had to offer. Soon, a contract arrived in the mail.

But I never signed it. Life intervened.

Our son Joe was born on August 1, 2001, three months premature. Before too long we also discovered that Joe was developmentally delayed, eventually diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Our beautiful, tiny little boy had some monumental challenges that would require both of his parents to be on point. These were scary times for us as a new world and new kind of existence took hold.

My interests and intentions had been diverted. Very quickly, the idea of writing a book about anything felt like speaking a dead language. How many times in the years since Joe burst on the scene have I thought of John Lennon’s words, “life is what happens when you’re making other plans?” I’ve never actually counted, but probably hundreds, at least.

So, my attention was spent elsewhere. On work, on community, on family. On Joe. I string words together in sentences and paragraphs for work, so you’d think writing a book would be kind of easy.  Not so. Writing for magazines to earn a paycheck is nothing like writing books, which for someone like me, is an extracurricular activity, not a full-time job. It was something I didn’t have time for, and I had to tell the publisher, ” no thanks.”

But time is an interesting thing. It keeps moving even if we don’t. As Joe grew older and our family evolved, we became more involved in local events and volunteering, and part of that was helping the local community center present live entertainment. One of the things we learned about Joe early on was this: He LOVED live entertainment, particularly music.

He was thrilled by live music, particularly high-flying music played by bands that could really jam, taking their performances to the very edge of the cliff, threatening to spiral down into a mangled mess, but then reeling it all back in, with the audience in tow. For a boy whose ability to physically move was hampered by his own body, these sonic flights of fancy transported him, and me, to wonderful places.

I always loved music, but my tastes were limited. Joe unlocked something in me that felt profound. Combine all of that with meeting Col. Bruce Hampton. By the time I was ready to write again as an extracurricular activity, I knew exactly what and who to write about. Bruce always knew that Mize was supposed to be first. We talked often. He shared my baseball affliction. He appreciated it. He said, “I’m honored to be hitting ahead of Johnny Mize. Hope I get some good pitches to hit.”

Now the Bruce book is in the books. So, it’s Mize’s turn at bat. I dusted off my old notes, scrapped the old chapters, and about a year ago (not long after the Bruce book was published), started a new round of research. And while I don’t want to give too much away right now, I’ll just say that the Johnny Mize biography I’m writing as we speak will blow away the book I’d originally intended to write.

There is just so much more information available to a writer whose life situation has to keep him close to home. Like, I may not have to actually travel to the Baseball Hall of Fame, or the Library of Congress. I can do almost all of the research right here, at home, a few feet away from my now 20-year-old son Joe.

The best part of it is, the Mize book will feature stories about the Big Cat (his nickname – I should have explained that sooner) that almost no one has heard before. Really fascinating stuff (and not just to the baseball nuts among us) about his time away from the conventional (i.e., white) world of pro ball.

And, unlike previous stories or books that have been written about Mize, I’m not planning a longwinded account culled from old newspaper sources and outdated statistics. My book includes actual interviews with baseball legends like Whitey Ford and Carl Erskine, and renowned authors like Donald Honig and Peter Golenbock. My book delves into Mize’s family life in old Demorest – what happened to his parents, to his brother (who also played professional baseball)? What was it like growing up in a small mountain town, and being discovered, against all odds, by Major League Baseball?

We’ll explain how he was related to both Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth, and relive his experiences playing baseball with the best Black and Latin players at a time when the “organized” game was segregated. We’ll see Mize during World War II, when he played for some of the best Armed Services baseball teams every assembled. We’ll assess Mize’s place in the pantheon of heroes, how he stacks up, who he is most similar with from the contemporary game. And we’ll meet Johnny Mize the complex human being, and ultimately wrap it all up by intertwining baseball history with a tale of true love, like strands of DNA.

This has been a fun book to write so far, and there are plenty of chapters yet to make. Then, in time for Baseball Opening Day, 2024, my friends at the University of Nebraska Press will release the book, tentatively titled, Big Cat: The Life and Times of Baseball Hall of Famer Johnny Mize.

I’m so thrilled that U of N Press is publishing this, because I’ve read their baseball books, and they are truly first class, top of the line – hardcover and everything! Two recent titles that I highly recommend are Loserville: How Professional Sports Remade Atlanta – and How Atlanta Remade Professional Sports, by Clayton Trutor; and The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife, by Brad Balukjian.

I’m really happy that my book about the Big Cat will be part of that all-star catalog. Please stay tuned. Promise it’ll be worth the wait.

Happy Home Run Anniversary

Who hit the first home run in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium? Hint: His name was Aaron.

That was one of Col. Bruce Hampton’s favorite trivia questions, partly because Bruce was there to witness that inaugural moonshot, and partly because most people got the answer wrong. The correct answer is Tommie Aaron, who was Hammerin’ Henry’s little brother. Tomorrow will be the anniversary of the first game in the Atlanta ballpark, an exhibition between the Detroit Tigers and Milwaukee Braves on April 9, 1965.

Tommie’s 3-run homer paced the Braves to a 6-3 win in the brand new stadium. Soon after, they embarked on their last season in Milwaukee before moving to Atlanta in 1966, and making the ‘Launching Pad’ their home field for the next 30 years.

But today is the anniversary of the most important and most famous home run in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium history, Henry Aaron’s 715th, the blast that made him baseball’s king of clout, pushing him past Babe Ruth in the all-time record books. I’ll never forget that night, April 8, 1974, a few minutes past 9 o’clock – the jumping and the screaming in our den, me and my brothers and sisters, as Bad Henry circled the bases after taking Dodgers lefty Al Downing deep.

We lived in the Atlanta suburbs at the time. I was 13 years old, and at the very height of my baseball fandom. Henry Aaron was like God to me. I’d already managed to secure his autograph (twice – once in person at the stadium, another time through the mail), and had prayed for him to catch the Babe in 1973, when he gave a furious chase.

I’ve got a bunch of Henry Aaron stuff lying about. When I was 13, he was God to me.

He had 713 career dingers, one behind Ruth, on the last day of the 1973 season, a few days after my birthday. The Houston Astros were in town and 40,000 people – including me and Dad – showed up on a Sunday afternoon to see if Henry could tie the record. He didn’t, and the Braves lost, 5-3. But Henry had three singles to finish one of the best seasons any 39-year-old ever had, with an impressive .301/.402/.634 slash line (to go with his 40 home runs in just 392 at bats).

Though we left the ball park a little disappointed that Aaron didn’t hit a homer, I still get chills when thinking about the tremendous ovation he received that day after flying out in his final at bat. Just being part of that scene with Dad is one of life’s highlights for me, and one of the best birthday presents I ever received. We talked about that happy day for the rest of Dad’s life.

Which brings us to today’s anniversary, and that moment 48 years ago. Just … wow. Did I mention chills already? When it comes to Henry Aaron, the things he did just become more astounding to me the older I get. Because I’ve had more time to consider it. If you’ve wiled away, or whittled away, as many minutes as I have just thinking about baseball, you’ve probably considered it, too.

All of those home runs over so many years, the sheer persistency of it. And the consistency of it. From 1955 through 1973, Aaron hit between 27 and 47 home runs a year, smashing 40 or more eight times. Year after year after year, he just kept coming. And pitchers kept getting whiplash, snapping their heads back, watching line drives whistle over distant fences.

The most amazing thing about chasing the Babe was how Henry was able to focus against Major League pitching even while racist nut-jobs were sending him death threats. Aaron once told me the supportive letters outnumbered the hate mail and buoyed his spirits, but there was a lot of hate mail, enough to turn what should have been a completely joyful experience into a traumatic ordeal for one of the game’s greatest players.

In an interview with Atlanta radio station WABE later in his life, Henry called those days the saddest he had in baseball and questioned whether or not he’d go through it again. But he also recalled what it was like to actually play the game, what it was like between the foul lines, where his otherworldly talents – a rare combination of power and grace – always were evident.

“I didn’t have any trouble on the baseball field,” he said. “On the field itself, playing the game was probably as easy for me as anything.”

Another Line-Up for Yesterday

With apologies to the great Ogden Nash, whose “Line-up for Yesterday” is a classic. That poem, though, doesn’t mention any of the baseball greats who were banned from Major League Baseball because they were Black. This poem that I’ve cobbled together focuses entirely on the Negro Leagues (everyone or everything mentioned is related to that). While it tries to spread the love around, the poem really proves just one thing: I ain’t no poet.

A is for Aaron, 
He was king of the clout,
Whose grace, class, and style,
Were never in doubt.

B is for Bell,
Fastest man who wore cleats;
Couldn’t stop Cool Papa
When he took to his feets.

C’s for Cristóbal,
The Great Torriente,
The dark Cuban slugger
Who lost baseballs aplenty.

D is Dihigo,
More versatile than usual,
He pitched like Bob Gibson,
And he hit like Stan Musial.

E is for Effa,
The splendid Ms. Manley,
She piloted the Eagles,
And did so quite handily.

F is for Foster,
The Father, the Founder,
He could pitch, he could lead;
Rube was an all-rounder.

G is for Gibson,
Who was called the black Ruth,
But Josh outhit the Babe,
To tell you the truth.

H is for Homestead,
The home of the Grays,
Best team in Black baseball,
For quite a few days.

I is for Indy,
Where the ABCs were;
Their time as league leaders
Was kind of a blur.

J is for Johnson,
A defensive beauty,
Who some folks called Jing,
But most folks called Judy.

K’s for Kansas City,
The city of kings,
Where the Monarchs were champs,
Among other things.

L is for Leonard,
Who answered to Buck,
The best way to pitch him
Was throw hard and duck.

M is for Mackey,
The catcher named Biz,
A mighty fine hitter,
And a defensive whiz.

N is for Negroes,
And for ‘Not’ allowed in;
Even though they were brilliant,
They were banned for their skin.

O is for Oscar,
He was Mays before Mays,
'Cause Charleston could beat you
In so many ways.

P is for Pittsburgh,
The Crawfords’ home town;
They may be the best
To ever throw down.

Q is for Quincy,
The well-traveled Trouppe,
If you tried to outpunch him,
Then you were a dupe.

R is for Robbie,
Jackie wore forty-two,
An American hero,
Clad in Dodger blue.

S is for Satchel,
Who defied his age,
And just kept on pitching,
‘Cause he was Satchel Paige.

T is for Turkey,
Who talked to his bats,
And ran like a bird,
Flying ‘round the basepaths.

U’s for Ely Underwood,
Whose grandson named Blair
Is an actor who played Jackie,
With depth, skill, and flair.

V is for Vic,
An outfielder named Harris,
He was no Turkey Stearnes,
But he didn’t embarrass.

W is for Willie,
Mays, Wells, or Foster;
These guys all belong
On the all-time roster.

X is for X-Giants,
Titans based in New Jersey,
They gave Pop Lloyd his start,
And they rarely showed mercy.

Y is for Yancey,
First Black player in the Stadium,
The famed House that Ruth Built,
Where Babe used to play ‘em.

Z is for Zest,
For zip and for zeal,
The spirit of Black ball,
Was palpably real.

Oscar Charleston was Willie Mays before Willie Mays.

Gransden Band Story

This was a small-world story, though it has nothing to do with small worlds, but is one of my favorites (at least among those written for Atlanta magazine). The picture of my beautiful wife surrounded by balloons on a long-ago New Year’s Eve is part of the small-world story. To sum up quickly: Jane and I were taking photos at a New Year’s Eve bash in Madison, Georgia, volunteering at an event organized and hosted by then-hotelier John Scatena. John was one of the few other Italians from the north living in Madison at the time, and he became a great friend to my wife and I during those years. Then we lost touch. Then I got a chance to write this story about the amazing Joe Gransden who, it turns out, is close friends with John Scatena, who left the hotel business and was running Café 290 (which has since closed). That brings us back full circle. Enjoy the pretty picture of Jane, and I hope that you’ll read the story which follows. Both the photo and the story occurred at this time of year, decades apart. Thanks!

Jane was as lovely as ever on this New Year’s Eve in 1990-something (and is even lovelier now). We were working with our friend John Scatena, who appears in the story that follows which is really about Joe Gransden.

The Joe Gransden Big Band swings into Ella Fitzgerald’s rollicking blues anthem “When I Get Low I Get High,” the buoyant intro fronted by a muted trumpet. The eponymous front man, in a black blazer, white pocket square poking out neatly, grabs the mic. It’s a Monday night at Cafe 290 in Sandy Springs, home base for Gransden’s 17-piece band. Tonight’s crowd is younger than usual, thanks to the students (and their parents) from the Lovett School, where Gransden’s wife is a band director.

“My coat got sold/Oh Lord, ain’t it cold/But I’m not gonna holler/’Cause I still got a dollar/And when I get low,” Gransden sings, then asks the room, “What I do?” The audience answers, “I get high!” and Gransden adds an aw-shucks aside, still keeping time with the band, “Sorry, Lovett parents.”

At 46, Joe Gransden—trumpet virtuoso, vocalist, bandleader—is too young to really be an elder statesman of Atlanta’s jazz scene. “He’s more like the jazz ambassador of Atlanta,” says Jim Basile, longtime Atlanta traffic reporter for WXIA-TV and V-103, who is a part-time arranger for Gransden.

Gransden is a busy ambassador, performing five or six nights a week, typically with a smaller lineup—duos, quartets, sextets. He’s a regular at Eddie’s Attic and the Velvet Note, runs a jazz camp for young musicians, gives private lessons, and keeps several standing gigs, including the Tuesday night jazz jam session he headlines at Venkman’s in the Old Fourth Ward and a Wednesday night duet with pianist Kenny Banks at Valenzia in Brookhaven. He juggles all that while holding down one of the rarest jobs in Atlanta’s (or any other city’s) music scene: big-band leader.

“He’s a great leader of people, too,” Basile says. “They used to say about Duke Ellington, ‘He’d get you to play his way and make you think you’re playing your way.’ That’s pretty true about Joe.”

Gransden and his big band headline Cafe 290 on the first and third Monday of each month. As the first generation of rock ’n’ roll dies off, this band harks back even further, to the age of Tommy Dorsey and Ellington. Even with the distractions of a digital age, the big band has found a groove that extends beyond its biweekly appearances at Cafe 290, with annual gigs at New York City’s famed Blue Note, performances with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, or at venues like the Ritz-Carlton on Lake Oconee.

“This music is timeless,” says John Scatena, Cafe 290’s owner for all but five years of its 30-year history. In a fragmented musical landscape, it seems almost miraculous that this old stuff from the greatest generation still finds an audience. Gransden and Scatena admit that it was a roll of the dice when the big band was launched in 2009. But it was based on a model that works well in New York City, where Gransden has lived and worked off and on since first arriving in Atlanta about 25 years ago. “Monday night is big band night in the New York clubs, and it packs houses,” Gransden says. “The Broadway musicians are off on Mondays, so there are jazz and big bands all over the place. We’re kind of unique in Atlanta, but it’s working. It remains fresh.”

There was a time when Gransden, who grew up in Buffalo, was more comfortable with a hockey stick in his hands than a trumpet. “The Sabres were killing it in the NHL back then, so I was really into it.”

Here’s Joe doing what he does so well (photo borrowed from his website)

But music is in his DNA. His father, Bob Gransden, is a pianist and singer. His grandfather, William Ashton Gransden, was a big-band trumpeter. One uncle played bass; another performed in Broadway musicals. Ultimately, though, it was a stranger who set him down his path. When Gransden was in middle school, a guest performance by trumpeter Allen Vizzutti left him “almost in tears,” Gransden remembers. “After that, music was like a drug for me.” One day, he came home from school to find a Chet Baker album on his turntable with a note from his father: “Listen to this.” “It was the first time I really heard somebody playing jazz improvisation, and my whole brain shifted,” Gransden says. “Since then, all I’ve wanted to be is a jazz musician.”

He was in his second year at Fredonia State in Buffalo studying trumpet when he got a call to audition for the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, one of the longest-running outfits in the business. Dorsey, of course, had died decades earlier, but the orchestra is like a sports franchise—same name, different owners, different leader, but still the major leagues. Gransden got the job, left school at 20, and traveled the world for a year.

“I was the youngest guy in the band,” he says. “The first leg of the tour was in the U.S., six or seven weeks straight. We’d finish the gig, jump on the bus, and drive all night. Stuffed into this space with 18, 19 people, I learned patience, how to gel with a group, how to communicate with professionals who are two, three times my age.”

After that year, Gransden moved to Atlanta (where his parents had moved) and went to Georgia State University, adding to his internal song list by learning four or five tunes a week. Today, Gransden’s band has 300 songs in its playbook, which members read off of iPads onstage.

The day after graduating from Georgia State, he drove to Manhattan to make it in “the capital city of jazz,” Gransden says. “Spent a few years there, went broke, came back to Atlanta to save up, then went back. I tell all my students who want to be professional to pack up and go to New York, crawl on your face for a while.” He returned for good after 9/11. About 20 years ago, between the New York experiments, Gransden started singing. It was a commercial decision; he’d formed a trio—piano, bass, and trumpet—that played every Sunday and Wednesday at Veni Vidi Vici, a now-closed Midtown restaurant, earning $50 and a plate of spaghetti per night.

“One night, the manager says, ‘You guys are doing a great job, but we want a singer, so we might need another band.’ So, I lied and told him I was a singer,” Gransden says. “The next week, I sang, the people liked it, and there was more money in the tip jar.”

He spent hours listening to Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, and Dean Martin, “realizing the importance of the lyrics, and how when people recognize the words of a song, it brings something out of them, warms them up to you more than when you’re playing in a corner, playing notes that mean something to us but not as much to them.”

Although Gransden enjoys the greater freedom to improvise with smaller lineups, he says, “the big band is a thrill on a whole different level. I’m more of an entertainer for those shows. I play my horn but tend to sing more, and I really enjoy hearing that wall of sound behind me.”

So do his fans, which include Clint Eastwood. More than 15 years ago, a friend convinced a skeptical Gransden to randomly mail a CD to the actor. Several weeks later, Gransden got a phone call from Clint’s wife, inviting him to perform in California. Gransden thought it was a joke until he heard, in the background, Clint’s familiar voice call out, “Hello, Joe!” Now, he regularly performs at Eastwood’s private club, Tehama. And when Eastwood was here filming Trouble with the Curve, he would drop by Cafe 290.

Through Eastwood, Gransden met saxophonist Kenny G., who has become an occasional collaborator and appears on the Gransden Big Band’s just-released studio album, Go Getta. The band also released a Christmas album last month. Both that one and Go Getta were funded largely through Kickstarter campaigns.

His busy schedule helps provide a comfortable living for his family—his wife, Charissa, is band director for the Lower School at Lovett, and they have an eight-year-old son, Joey. Both Joe and Charissa are cancer survivors. Joe was diagnosed in 2006, but he didn’t miss many gigs during his eight months of chemotherapy, sleeping in whatever green room was available for 15 minutes between sets. “Then, as soon as I got my five-year cancer-free news, Charissa was diagnosed with breast cancer,” he says. “That was tough, but she’s doing really good now. We’ve been very lucky.”

Go Getta features some of the band’s favorite covers, a tribute to the late Glen Campbell (another musician Gransden has worked with), and an original song by Atlanta artist Kipper Jones. Scatena, who has produced many of Gransden’s dozen or so records, hopes this one will be a hit.

Cafe 290 is where the musicians experiment and feel the love of a home crowd. The show is almost over, and Gransden dedicates the penultimate song, “In the Mood,” to Bob Boden, a white-haired guy sitting alone at a table in front. He never missed a night when his wife was alive, and he’s here for every Monday show. “This is for you, Bob,” Gransden says, taking up his trumpet and joining the rhythm. Bob gets up and starts dancing, bopping up and down and side-to-side in the cramped space, a party of one in a crowded room filled with a joyful noise. 

Astros, Braves, Yogi, and The Hillside Tattler

One reason that I’m glad the Atlanta Braves will be playing the Houston Astros in the World Series is purely nostalgic. The first Major League Baseball game I ever covered was Astros at Braves on my birthday in 1986. Got to meet Yogi Berra, who was a coach for the playoff-bound Astros at the time. Got to meet Dale Murphy. And the funny thing about it is, I wasn’t supposed to be there.

Here’s what happened.

My family had a print shop in Covington, Georgia. I’d left my job as sports editor at a tri-weekly newspaper in South Carolina to join the business but I missed being a sports writer and had always wanted to cover baseball. So I invented a non-existent newspaper called  The Hillside Tattler.

Back then, if you were a small newspaper on the fringes – or in this case, a fantasy newspaper – you got into major professional or college sporting events by writing to the organization’s media relations department, stating your intentions on a copy of your newspaper’s – or fantasy newspaper’s – letterhead.

So I designed a masthead for The Hillside Tattler, created a piece of letterhead and typed a letter to the Braves media guy, begging for press passes, claiming our newspaper (located in a distant, fictional rural Georgia town) wanted to write a feature story about what it’s like to play out the string of a major league season, because the Braves had been out of the division race since mid July.

My brother Steve took these shots of Yogi Berra at work for the Houston Astros, late in the 1986 season, when Houston was still a rival of the Atlanta Braves in the National League West. Now they’re in different leagues and squaring off in the World Series.

Meanwhile, the red hot Houston Astros were coming to Atlanta to play the Braves for a late September three-game weekend series en route to their epic National League Championship Series against the New York Mets. I asked for two passes for a Friday night game, which happened to be my birthday – one for a writer (me, the fake editor of the fake newspaper) and one for a photographer (my brother Steve, the fake photographer who actually is a great photographer, of the fake newspaper).

The passes were waiting at will call, and we got there in plenty of time to see batting and fielding practice, spoke with NBC broadcasters Tony Kubek and Bob Costas who were there in advance of Saturday’s telecast. Then we met Yogi.

We’d grown up with a father who was a big Yankees fan so Berra was something between a saint and a super hero in our house, maybe the best catcher of all time, the archetype clutch player who helped the Yankees win 10 World Series then managed both the Yankees and Mets to pennants. The bow-legged Berra might have been the size of a bowling trophy, but to us he was still a giant.

He was standing near the third-base line, hitting fly balls to guys in the outfield. He patiently answered a couple of questions and I wrote it down in a reporter’s notepad that I later asked him to sign – a shameless move that proved I wasn’t an actual reporter at the time, though Yogi didn’t see through the façade. Nor did he care. He went back to work.

The Braves won the game, 5-4, then lost seven of their last eight games, falling from fourth to sixth.

Eventually, we lost the print shop and I went back to sports writing for about 10 years. Covered a lot of baseball games, got to cover the World Series, including the Braves championship run in 1995. Those were some great times, and all of it on the up and up, with actual stories written on deadline and everything – no fake letterhead, no asking for autographs, no cheering in the press box.

But the first Major League Baseball game that I ever covered was particularly special. We got to meet Yogi Berra! Sure, it was covered under false pretenses and it would have been better if was, you know, legit. But as Yogi himself said, “if the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be.” Right on, Yogi. Right on.

A Father-Son Baseball Tale

I’ve taken my son to more minor league baseball games than I can remember, but not enough to call it a day yet. We have many more to see. But we’ve only gone to two major league games together.

The first time was when the Society for American Baseball Research held its annual meeting or convention in Atlanta. My pal Lynn “Gus” Sutter was in town. She was a newly minted author, at the time, of a well-reviewed baseball book, Ball, Bat and Bitumen: A History of Coalfield Baseball. She’s since written two more well-reviewed books of baseball history. Another pal, my fellow native Long Islander and Newsday sports department alum and longtime Atlanta sports writer Jack Wilkinson, got us great tickets to a Braves game.

It was Joe, Jane, me, Gus, our friends Susan Percy and Janet Ward (Jack’s better half – Jack was in the press box, working that day). And we had a grand time, all of us. But it wasn’t your typical father-son baseball outing, like the kind I’d been used to with my dad. You know, just you and the old man.

Several years later, in 2013, Joe and I had our father-son outing at the ballyard. But that one wasn’t typical, either. It was both a brutal and lovely experience. It was during a period of Joe’s life when riding in the car for him was an iffy proposition at best. He was like nitroglycerin, ready to explode at any moment. Most of the time, if the trip was longer than 15 minutes or so, he absolutely hated it and he let you know it.

The Braves were hosting the Washington Nationals at Turner Field. My buddy Ron Currens had entered Joe in a contest with Superior Plumbing, one of the Braves’ many sponsors. They were giving away tickets to a few special needs kids for each ballgame, setting them up in the fancy club level section.

Freddie Freeman as a bobblehead

We started the 95-mile trip to Turner Field and the boy was in great form, really excited about going to the game with his old man. The bomb went off when we hit bumper-to-bumper, 10-mph traffic just north of Midtown, and it continued, unrelenting, until just before we reached the parking lot across the street from the ballpark. Joe lost his shit. Wailing, turning red, steam coming out of his ears, the works. It wasn’t pretty.

But the kid has a sixth-sense of direction. Whatever hell takes him, whatever place he’d go to in those moments, he always seemed to be aware of when the trip was almost over. This tantrum was epic, like a big bang without the benefit of a new universe. But as we entered the parking lot, he calmed down. And as we rolled to our seats in the Superior Plumbing Club, he was tranquil.

And then, thank God for Jack Wilkinson again!

I’d given Jack the heads up we were coming. Now the official scorekeeper for the Braves, he stopped by our seats before the game, loaded down with gifts: Braves schedule magnets, various press box handouts (stat sheets, game notes, and blessedly, a scorecard – yes, I’m one of those fans). And a Freddie Freeman bobblehead!

“Hope you like Freddie Freeman,” said Jack, making eye contact with Joe, like always, and giving him a fist bump.

How can you not like Freddie? This was long before his MVP season, long before his amazing division series winning home run. This was a likeable baseball hero. He was particularly likeable on this night, hitting a long home run his first time up, sending millions of decibels of loud through the stadium – resulting in a stunning smile on my son’s face.

He was fully back to being Joe, the tantrum having long ago evaporated. By the time Freddie singled in the Braves’ only other run in a 3-2 loss, Joe was smiling, and making a variety of wild moves and happy sounds.

What began as a hellish ride into the heart of the big city had become a joyful night. We met Jay Cunningham, founder and owner of Superior Plumbing, who said he got more out of the free tickets program than any of the contest winners. Then we spent the last couple of innings strolling around the stadium, out in the bleachers, rolling from foul pole to foul pole.

Loaded down with ‘Bobblehead Fred’ and assorted other ballpark accrual, we left, pleased with the evening’s outcome in spite of the Braves’ loss.

On the way home, I remember what it was like on late-night rides with my dad, and what terrible company I must have been, snoring beside him across long miles. It occurred to me that such terrible company isn’t really so terrible. It can be a blessing, the sound of your child’s peaceful snoring (particularly when you consider the combustible alternative!).

I strapped Joe’s chair into our big green van. He was quiet, tired, worn out after a long day. We pulled out of the parking lot that used to be the ball park where Henry Aaron passed the Babe, looking for the interstate. In the rearview mirror I could see Joe nodding, a Braves hat lilting on his head, his perfect face reflecting city lights as we headed north toward the mountains and dark, twisty night roads. Game over, another one for the books.

Yonrico’s Mighty Heart

The first time I saw and heard Yonrico Scott share his immense rhythmic gifts he was playing with Francine Reed at the Sautee Nacoochee Center, the same place where I first saw Col. Bruce Hampton perform. It’s one of those nice little Bruce synchronicities that seem more and more inevitable the older I get. Because Bruce and Yonrico were very close, but I didn’t know it at the time, and I’d already started working on The Music and Mythocracy of Col. Bruce Hampton. And then all things came together, or collapsed into place, as Bruce might have said.

So, today is Yonrico’s birthday. He would be 66 in Earth years, an important number as he would well know. Two sixes? He was in Bruce’s orbit, so he knew all about six significance. This would be an important birthday for him. But Yonrico died on September 19, 2019, which made a lot of people, including me, very sad. He was an excellent human being.

For what it’s worth, and to me it’s worth a lot, Yonrico took his backstage pass to the universe exactly one week before the deadline to turn my manuscript over to the capable hands and brains of the University of Georgia Press. It would not be a lie, or even a fabrication, to say that Yonrico’s death completely changed how the book begins.

The last thing that I did on the manuscript was to rewrite the introduction. I was really bummed about Yonrico, and it was so fresh; and I was still mourning the loss of Johnny Knapp, who had been gone 10 months by then. And Bruce. These were heavy losses. And after Bruce died in May 2017, every time one of our mutual friends took his backstage pass, it felt heavier. Writing that afterlife fantasy scene that opens the introduction was catharsis.

Bruce, Johnny, and Yonrico, together in an ethereal diner. It seemed the perfect place for Yonrico to thank Bruce for getting him the gig with the Derek Trucks Band. The story, as Yonrico told it, had him sitting in an Atlanta jail for an extended period after being stopped and taken in for driving with a suspended license.

Eight hours before Yonrico was to be released, Bruce let him know that Derek Trucks needed a drummer for a gig in 12 hours. The thing is, no one knew when Yonrico was going to be released yet, not even Yonrico. “How do you know I’m getting out in eight hours,” he asked Bruce, whose answer was laughter.

“That’s how I met Derek Trucks,” Yonrico said. “Straight from jail. Thank you, Bruce!”

Picked up this great print by Kirk West (of Bruce, Derek, and Yonrico) at Gallery West in Macon a few months back.

While he gave Bruce credit for getting him the gig, Yonrico also counted it as a point of pride to have been fired by Bruce several times. Whether he was actually “fired,” or given leave is up for grabs – this is a rhythm devil who played not only with Bruce and the Grammy winning Trucks band, but also Earl Klugh, Whitney Houston, Peabo Bryson, and the Royal Southern Brotherhood, among many others. Yonrico also led his own ensemble and recorded several outstanding solo albums.

But he always cherished Bruce’s peculiarities and usually jumped at the chance to work with him, for the unique experience as much as anything else. He recalled the first time he met with Bruce and Dr. Dan Matrazzo to rehearse with the Fiji Mariners in the early 90s.

“With Dan, every gig was like the Super Bowl. And I’m like, ‘Bruce and Dan in the same band, let’s do this,'” Yonrico said, setting the scene. “So I go to Bruce’s house and they’re inside, jamming. Guitar and keyboards. While they’re working on a song, I start setting up my drums, get everything ready. And they say to me, ‘alright, ready to practice?’ I was enthusiastic, ‘OK, let’s go!’ That’s when Bruce comes over and pulls out the Daily Racing Form and shows me how to handicap. That was rehearsal, learning how to handicap horses.”

It wasn’t the first time he’d stumbled into Bruce’s version of how-to-be, of course. Yonrico came to Atlanta in 1976 and got to know Bruce early on, beginning their long musical association at a Late Bronze Age show at the 688 Club. He also got to know Rickey Keller around that time and considered the multi-talented musician and producer like a brother.

“He was an Amadeus, he was that good, and a good soul, too,” said Yonrico, who launched into one of his favorite Rickey tidbits: “He was just out of college and became George Wallace’s campaign musician. We had pictures of him in the studio of him and George Wallace shaking hands, when Wallace was in a wheelchair, after he got shot. Dudes in the studio used to do cocaine on that picture.”

I wanted to know more about that Wallace photo, and what it may have touched off, or could have touched off. Keller, a white guy from South Georgia, and Yonrico, a black guy from Detroit. And Wallace. Yonrico didn’t flinch.

“Fuck George Wallace,” he said. “I understood why Rickey did it. He was right out of high school and it was a large gig. We were all working musicians, and there is stuff that I had to do that I’m not proud of. I was guarded in how I teased Rickey over that. He was my big brother and he had a lot of heart and he would give it to you, whether you were white, black, blue, or green.”

Yonrico paused in that part of our conversation to consider his losses. “Rickey’s been gone a while, man. And now, Bruce.” Then he got quiet.

When I interviewed Yonrico for the book, it was about a month before his dear friend and band brother, Kofi Burbridge, succumbed to heart disease. Yonrico was going through his own health difficulties at the time. Before Kofi passed, Yonrico was there, acting as his friend’s nurse, driving him to appointments.

We talked a little more after the Rickey stories, mostly happy stuff – he’d been Tyler Neal’s drum teacher, then found out Tyler could play guitar. And sing. Really well. Eventually, Tyler became the front man of Bruce’s last band, the Madrid Express. Bruce told Yonrico, “he’s our secret weapon.”

And we hung up.

At some point after Yonrico died from heart disease, long after I had turned in the manuscript, it occurred to me that he and three of his best friends in the world had disembarked the planet on a wave of cardiac maladies. I remember wondering, how is it that men with such mighty hearts can be betrayed by those hearts? I’m guessing the answer might have something to do with overuse.

Gratitude and Faith at 61

Sixty one is a lot of years to be alive, but not too many, and hopefully there are plenty of good ones left in the cosmic stash.

The more spins I take around the sun on this big, rotating blue dance floor, the more I’m reminded of how melancholy and gratitude are such close dance partners. For instance, I’m grateful for the time I’ve had, but sad that I’ve wasted a lot of it. And I’m sad that so many people who have wished me happy birthday are no longer around, but really grateful to have known and loved them, and to have so many other wonderful people still in my life.

My father left the planet more than 30 years ago and I miss him fiercely, particularly on special days, like birthdays, and on hard days, when I could use his strong, supportive presence. But my 90-year-old mother is healthy and happy and also strong and supportive, and I thank goddess for her, and think about how much I love her every day, and we talk often, so I get to tell her that.

And though Covid and my son’s health issues have forced me to stay close to home, away from Mom, I’m so grateful that we can see each other on Zoom (welcome to the future, Jerry) and so glad every time I hear her voice, which is the first voice that I ever knew and recognized and loved.

Mom gave me the best birthday gift I’ve ever received, the very first one, delivering me safely to the world’s embrace, then caring for me and loving me all these years. What can possibly be better than mother’s love? Nothing.

So, the second best birthday gift of all time? This day, today, which I get to spend at home with my son, Joe, and wife, Jane. We just got home after four days in the hospital with Joe, who had hip surgery. So the gratitude magic is strong right about now (though it is mingled somewhat with anxiety over trying to play catch-up at work while helping Joe in his rehabilitation).

Can’t remember what I was thinking or seeing here, but it obviously made me happy … either that, or I just farted.

Still, though. Joe is sitting beside me in his recliner, dozing comfortably (he has some good drugs), with the Grateful Dead playing in the background on YouTube (Springfield, Massachusetts, March 1973, for any Deadheads keeping track). But there’s that word again: Grateful. We are home!

Yes, caring for Joe is a monumental challenge. It can be scary, and back-breaking, and temporarily soul-crushing when he’s having a really hard time. But right now, in this moment, with dawn breaking and Jerry Garcia’s twinkling guitar harmonizing with the birds and Joe’s snores, and that bright patch of sun in the woods outside. Happy birthday to me!

But, the third best birthday gift of all time is probably the one that I gave myself two years ago, September 26, 2019, when I turned in the manuscript of my book – The Music and Mythocracy of Col. Bruce Hampton – to the editors at the University of Georgia Press. I can’t describe how great it felt to have everything in place, digitally speaking, and hitting that blue “send” button. What a rush that was!

Now the book is out in the world, like a child, and I haven’t given it near the love and affection that my mother has given me. But I do love it, and I am proud of it, and this birthday message takes me around to the subject of the book, my friend Bruce, for whom birthdays were a big deal, a kind of recurring synchronous theme in his remarkable life.

He was always a bit elusive on the circumstances of his own birth. Sometimes he claimed to have come here from another planet. And sometimes he claimed to have two birth certificates. And his birth name, Gustav Valentine Berglund III, was radically different from the name he lived and died with. Then there was his unusual knack for guessing a stranger’s birthday upon first meeting. He did this all the time, and usually he was right, or close to it.

I’ve seen him do it. Point at a person and tell them their astrological sign, then their birthday. Sometimes to the minute. Sometimes he was way off, but in my experience, he was always on target, or very close.

When we first met he said, “Grillo, you’re easy, typical Libra. You’ve got the same birthday as Trey Anastasio, Sept. 30.” With 365 days to choose from, he wasn’t far off, but I winced slightly, and was about to say, “mmm, not quite right” when he stopped me and said, “no, wait – you’re closer to Virgo than Trey, Sept. 26.” Then he correctly guessed the time of day when I was born, and my father’s astrological sign.

But, is it guessing if he already knew on some level? Too heavy to think about this early in the morning. Bruce had a good grasp on how astronomical phenomena influenced our lives, on how the stars and planets in the sky define who and why we are on Earth.

I don’t understand it all but I know some smart people who can inform me in these starry matters (my friend Deborah Coons and my sister Barbara come to mind). Plus, I’ve got faith. A little bit of that can go a long way. It’s gotten me through 61 years and keeps me looking forward hopefully to whatever comes next.

Creating a Landslide

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.