Let the Starving Braineaters Feed Your Ears

Col. Bruce Hampton used to talk a lot about taking the music “out.” He was even in a movie by Mike Gordon called “Outside Out.” In fact, “out” was the direction Bruce was moving in all of the time, like skin cells on their doomed outward migration to the skin surface. Way out. The epilogue of my book about Bruce is called an “outroduction

Bruce already was headed in that direction, but he didn’t find his way “out” all by himself. He had help along the way. Some inspiration. And the man who personally inspired the Bruce esthetic more than anyone was the late, great Harold Kelling, one of the co-founders of the Hampton Grease Band, and a high priest of “out.”

Harold died way too soon (in 2005), and in life he didn’t receive nearly the credit that he deserves for much of what we think of as having originated with Bruce. Don’t get me wrong – Bruce was a true original, a unique and creative and profoundly influential artist and human being. And he was influenced by Harold, who was just a few years older, and someone Bruce looked up to, someone who gave Bruce artistic agency.

Harold’s grasp and sense of the surreal and the zany helped Bruce move giddily along that road. It was Harold who first saw in Bruce the potential to master a stage, who first brought Bruce up on the stage to sing and create the lunacy they both enjoyed.  Basically, without Harold Kelling, there is no Col. Bruce Hampton.

It was Harold who no doubt made the first connection with Frank Zappa, randomly uttering, “Grease,” to him on a New York street in 1967. Zappa loved the weirdness of Harold, Bruce, and their pals at the time (this was before the Grease Band had even formed), and invited them to “sing” on his album, Lumpy Gravy. Harold opened doors for Bruce, got Bruce “out” on the road, the two of them and their pals taking frequent trips to New York. Harold was with Bruce for the Incident of the Sixes.

With Glenn Phillips (who co-founded the Grease Band with Harold and Bruce), Kelling formed a ridiculously powerful, completely unique one-two guitar punch. These were two beasts on their instruments, sonically intertwined, blasting away from different directions with remarkable dexterity and tone; and with Bruce, drummer Jerry Fields and bassist Mike Holbrook, they formed a band that writer Jesse Jarnow called, “the South’s first freaks.”

Harold Kelling founded two great, under-appreciated Atlanta-based bands: The Hampton Grease Band and The Starving Braineaters.

In fact, I won’t waste your time trying to explain the Grease Band. My book, “The Music and Mythocracy of Col. Bruce Hampton: A Basically True Biography,” glides through the Grease Band story, as it tries to cover the life of just one of its founders. If you really want to know a whole hell of a lot about the Hampton Grease Band, read this fabulous epic story by Jarnow for AquariumDrunkard.com.

It is easily the best thing ever written about the band. If anyone writes a book about Harold and the Hampton Grease Band, I hope that it’s Jesse. He’s also one of the busiest people engaged in the business of telling music tales, so he might have to clone himself.

Anyway, after leaving the Grease Band, Harold launched a few projects, most notably the Starving Braineaters. This was fusion music on steroids, dialed up to 11. This eclectic outfit caught the attention of legendary record producer John H. Hammond, who appeared set to make a recording deal with this Southern fried version of Return to Forever. A meeting was reportedly in the works, but Hammond had a heart attack and it never happened.

The music, recorded and preserved by Brooke Delarco, almost disappeared. But you and and your ears are in luck, thanks to Ken Gregory, one of the Starving Braineaters and the proprietor of the excellent 800 East Studios in Atlanta, who shared these recordings with me.

I got to know Ken through a few events he hosted at 800 – a memorial for Dee Knapp, the artist and jazz singer and wife of jazz piano legend Johnny Knapp, and a 90th birthday party for Johnny, shortly before he died. Ken is gracious to a fault, and a multi-talented musician who spent at least an hour talking with me about Bruce for the book – and then my digital recorder was stolen (with a few other items, but that interview and a few others that were on the recorder were the worst losses, by far).

As a result, Ken’s wonderful stories aren’t in the book. I’ve never told him about this, so great was my embarrassment over losing the interview (speaking of embarrassment, Jesse was kind enough to quietly point out one of my blunders in the book – I’d forgotten that the Fillmore East was previously the Village Theatre, and mangled a fact or two about Bruce and his pals going there to see Cream).

Well, embarrassment and lost interviews aside, Ken is a real hero because he has provided a priceless link (below) to 17 Starving Braineater songs. Dive in. Dig this band, and the genius of Harold Kelling. You want some really delicious “out” music? The Starving Braineaters will satisfy that appetite.

Give a listen, pick your jaw up off the floor when you’re done (and please clean the drool – we are still living in a pandemic).

LINKS TO HAPPINESS:

Music of the Starving Braineaters

Your Copy of The Music and Mythocracy of Col. Bruce Hampton

In the Footsteps of Shoeless Joe

You’ve been talkin’, workin’ out your deal; let’s sit down, make this thing real. I said I wanted to be your friend, and you find ways to make it end. I feel – I feel like Shoeless Joe; I feel, yeah, Lord I feel like Joe. – Bruce Hampton

Those lyrics are from the song “Shoeless Joe,” by Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit, from their great album Mirrors of Embarrassment. That was just the first time Bruce sang about Joe Jackson, baseball’s tragic fallen hero, and one of its most misunderstood figures.

Last weekend I gained a better understanding of poor old Joe, thanks to the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum & Baseball Library in Greenville, South Carolina. I was in town ostensibly for a book signing at M. Judson Booksellers, but as I’ve grown accustomed where all things Bruce Hampton are concerned, the universe had other synergistic reasons for me to be there. Worlds, interests, meanings, and people collide when Hampton magic is at work.

Anyway, the book signing was a lot of fun. Didn’t sell many books, but drank some great coffee, enjoyed meeting the friendly and brilliant bookstore staff, and visited with some friends, including Sam Church, who once conspired to bring Bruce and the Hampton Grease Band to rural Habersham County for a high school dance, then enjoyed a great career in rock and roll radio; and Darryl Rhoades, a bona fide Atlanta music legend who probably hates being called that – founder and leader of memorable bands the Hahavishnu Orchestra and the Mighty Men from Glad, comedian, writer, and a baseball memorabilia expert.

Shoeless Joe Jackson is immortalized as a statue gazing out at a tape measure shot, just outside of Greenville’s Fluor Field, where he never played a game. Don’t let that stop you from visiting. Home of the Greenville Drive, this is a gorgeous ball park in a gorgeous city.

Both of these gentlemen mentioned the Shoeless Joe Jackson connection to Greenville – his hometown, where he still is a legend 70 years after his death – and the fact that there was a museum, nearby, dedicated to his memory. Of course I knew that this was Shoeless Joe’s town. I’d even taken a selfie in front of the Shoeless Joe statue at Fluor Field at a ballgame earlier this year. But, a museum? This was news to me.

I’m always on the hunt for the next “Aha!” baseball moment. Well, the Shoeless Joe museum and its executive director, Dan Wallach, afforded me enough “aha” moments to satisfy my appetite for this kind of stuff, at least for a little while – after leaving the museum, I was compelled to download a biography of Shoeless Joe for the drive home.

Anyway, forget what you think you know about Joe and his career and the Black Sox Scandal if “Eight Men Out” is your main source of information. Having read the book, and seen the movie about a dozen times (I have a copy and yes, in case you were wondering, director/actor John Sayles does look remarkably like Ring Lardner).

The book and movie are presented as historical accounts of the infamous Black Sox Scandal, the 1919 World Series that was thrown to the underdog Cincinnati Reds by a number of dirty players on the heavily favored White Sox. Both the book and movie (one of my favorites) are highly entertaining and dramatic, and also highly inaccurate.

Dan did a great job of summarizing the actual story of the Black Sox Scandal, using a revelatory report produced by the Society for American Baseball Research in 2019, called “Eight Myths Out.” It’s totally worth your time. Let’s just say that Charlie Comiskey wasn’t the cheapskate he’s always been made out to be. Eddie Cicotte wasn’t promised a bonus for 30 wins. Players – not gamblers – initiated the fix. Read the report.

The museum is located at 356 Field Street, .356 being Shoeless Joe Jackson’s lifetime batting average. Baseball nerds like myself pick up on this kind of significant minutiae immediately.

Anyway, Joe was banned from baseball for life, along with seven others, for being in on the plot to throw the Series. He wasn’t in on it, though he did receive $5,000. He tried to give it back, tried to tell his bosses (including Comiskey) about the fix. He played to win, set a record for most hits in a World Series. But once Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis tossed Joe and the others, they were gone for good.

All of this and so much more is brought to life at the Shoeless Joe Museum, which is located in the last house Jackson actually lived in – moved from its original location to its current spot, across the street from Fluor Field, home of the Greenville Drive, a Boston Red Sox minor league team (the park even has its own version of the Green Monster).

The museum tells almost as much about mill-town history as it does about baseball, with priceless photos of the corporate villages that cropped up in the Carolina Upstate.

I felt kind of high as I slipped my hand into a tiny glove like the one Joe wore, and held a replica of Joe’s bat, ‘Black Betsy’ – at 36 inches and 48 ounces with a thick handle, it was more like a shillelagh than a bat. I imagined what it must have felt like to hit .408 swinging a hefty club like that, which is exactly what Shoeless Joe did in his first full season, 1911.

They even let guys who can’t ascend the Mendoza Line hold Shoeless Joe’s mighty war club.

Speaking of which, Col. Bruce Hampton sang about Joe in a second song, called “1911.” It’s part of an unfinished, probably never-to-be-released studio album Bruce was working on with his collaborators Jez Graham and Darren Stanley, among others. He performed the song live a few times with the Aquarium Rescue Unit during their 2015 reunion tour, but the live version actually pales in comparison to the cool groove cut that Jez shared with me. I think it was recorded at Darren’s place.

Anyway, it’s got a great pace and rhythm and Jez’s piano brushes up against atonal jazz as Bruce sings, “All they had to say was 1911,” before monologuing over the music, “ Ty Cobb had a 40 game hitting streak. Batted .420. Honus Wagner had retired. Shoeless Joe hit .408 that year. How would you feel if you hit .408 and came in second place?”

But his original paean to Joe, “Shoeless Joe,” captures the tragic feeling of Jackson best as Bruce’s vocals scream cosmic empathy for the great ballplayer. That song features some of mandolinist Matt Mundy’s most freakish playing with ARU, amazingly fast lighting runs, faster than running water, with Oteil’s scat singing and made-up words mingling with his bass like sonic DNA strands. A wonderful song, the entire band at its best in a studio performance overseen by the great Johnny Sandlin.

“You got things done, you hit your home run,” Bruce sings. “You scored from first, talked to the ump. He controlled the game, got me in the dumps. I feel …”

Get your own feel going, and take a trip to Greenville, and check out the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum & Baseball Library. Say hello to Dan and the gang. Linger awhile. Then tell me that Joe Jackson doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame.

How the Band got the Count

“Lady of Paradise is checking you out. Educated guess: She’s with the Count.”

— Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit

I didn’t know that Count M’Butu’s given first name was Harold until a few months before he died (which he did early Sunday morning, June 25).

I always thought it was Larry. But whatever name he answered to, his real name was written on his forehead. That’s what Col. Bruce said when he told Harold ‘Larry’ Jones his real name. And ever since that day in 1988 or 1989, Harold/Larry was known to the masses as Count M’Butu.

He was and always will be the Count, a creative and spiritual rascal who once threw cups of ice cold Coca-Cola on a bunch of white people sitting in the choice seats of the movie theater in Sandersville, Georgia.

It’s a long story that involves the young Count discovering that, as a black person, he would have to sit up in the balcony at the local cinema. Upset at this turn of events, at being separated from one of his white boyhood pals, the Count decided to give the patrons below a soda bath.

Anyway, the first time I met the Count was just days before he moved to Argentina with his lovely best friend and life partner, singer/artist Graciela Lopez, who was returning to her home country for a career opportunity. I was working on my book about Bruce and needed to catch up with the Count before he left the country. The first thing he did was set the record straight.

“It was 1989 when I met Bruce,” the Count said. “He always insisted it was 1988, so we agreed to disagree. But I know it was 1989. It was the night the band changed its name to the Aquarium Rescue Unit.”

This picture of the Count

by Michael Weintrob is

one of my favorites.

The Count met Bruce in the usual way, through the human network – Bruce’s was one of the largest on Earth, he was about one and a half degrees of separation from everyone. The Count had played a gig with drummer Jeff Sipe and keyboardist Dan Matrazzo and bassist Oteil Burbridge at a club he couldn’t remember the name of.

“I hadn’t seen Sipe in a few years, and I’d forgotten Oteil’s name, but I knew he was Kofi Burbridge’s brother,” the Count remembered. “Anyway, these guys told me, ‘we want you to meet Col. Bruce.’”

They met one night at the Point. Let’s say it was 1989. Before the gig, the Count was hanging with Sipe and Oteil when he noticed a disheveled guy loitering around his drums. Shirt half-tucked, mismatched shoes, shuffling kind of aimlessly, suspiciously.

“Hey buddy, those are not toys, those are my instruments and I’ve got to play them,” the County said. “’ Oteil took me aside and said, ‘That’s the Colonel.’ He walked right into my space, right up to my face, and I stumbled, had to step back and almost fell. I’m looking at him and sI ay, ‘Hi, I’m Larry Jones.’ He says, ‘No, no, no, no, I’m trying to think of your real name. It’ll come to me.’”

Well, the Count had been in Africa 15 years earlier working on a degree in African studies and he stayed with a family called, ‘M’Butu.’

“I hadn’t thought of it for years, but Bruce looks at me and says, ‘we’re gonna call you Count M’Butu.’ I wondered how the hell he knew that name and he said it was written on my forehead. Then he looked at me and said ‘your birthday is August 10. And I’m like, ‘where is this guy getting all of this information?’ To be honest, it made me feel a little high, a little weird. I went outside and had to readjust my attitude. When I got back in they were ready to go on stage and play.”

The Count joined them. He felt at home. He’d found his team. That sense of “team” was important to the Count. “Most people don’t know how hard it is to find the right team,” he said. “I thought that I could play with these guys.”

That night it was Bruce, Sipe, Oteil, Charlie Williams on guitar, and banjoist Jeff Mosier. This was before Jimmy Herring and Matt Mundy joined ARU. At one point, the Count recalled, Bruce had the band playing “Basically Frightened,” for about 20 minutes, “first, like it was a country song, then a swinging jazz version, and it went on like that. Then they started running around the stage and I’m like, ‘what the hell is this?’

“Then they come back and start playing ‘Basically Frightened’ again, and it seemed like it went on for about an hour, until Bruce dropped his guitar on the floor,” the Count remembered. “It was loud. Then Oteil dropped his bass. Charlie laid his guitar down. And Sipe, he just walked through his drums, knocking his cymbals down, ‘bing! Bang!’ They went off and left me standing on the stage by myself.”

So he thought. There was a refrigerator box on the side of the stage that had been there the whole time, the Count said.

“it started moving when they left the stage and all of a sudden I hear banjo, and Mosier steps out of the box, and once again I’m thinking, ‘what the hell is this?’ So I pick up this instrument called a shekere, and me and Mosier played for about 30-30 minutes, him singing and picking the banjo. I was getting into it when he just walked away, just left. I was thinking that these were some great musicians, but strange cats.”

From his place on stage the Count said he saw Bruce come back to the club in his black-striped Plymouth Duster. Meanwhile, the other guys were across the street eating pizza. They returned and fell in behind Bruce and marched back into the Point and went right back into “Basically Frightened.”

And they played that song for about another hour or so, the Count recalled, which made me blurt, “that’s it!” The Count wanted to know, “what’s it?” I told him that Bruce had been saying to me, “I’m trying to get it down to one song.” Then he’d hold up his index finger and repeat, “one song.” He’d managed to do it that night at the Point, years earlier, his first night jamming with the Count M’Butu.

“They played that song then said good night, Bruce handed me my 25 bucks and they left,” the Count said. He went home and told Graciella he’d played, “with some of the baddest musicians I’ve ever seen or heard, but their leader is crazy. They played one song all night.”

The next day he got a call from Mosier, who greeted the Count then handed the phone to Oteil, who did likewise, and it went on down the line to Sipe, and Charlie, and Bruce, who all said in unison, “we would like for you to join our band!”

The Count had to think for a second before answering, “well, you’re all bad as hell, and I wouldn’t mind playing with you, but you only play one song! The Colonel said, ‘I can handle that. Come back tomorrow night and we’ll play two songs.’”

After he finished laughing, the Count said, “Sure, I think I can go with that.”

That’s how Harold Larry Jones – Count M’Butu – joined the greatest band anyone ever heard. And if there is a green room in the vast backstage of the universe, Larry and Bruce are lounging there together, telling tales.

Deleted Scenes

Here are some scenes or things Bruce said that were originally intended for “The Music and Mythocracy of Col. Bruce Hampton: A Basically True Biography,” but for one reason or another didn’t make the final cut:

“I’m a premature vessel to the second level of consciousness.”

“I’m like an accountant that weird shit happens to. All of my life. The more insane it is, the truer it is. There’s lots of stuff in the sky.”

“The key to life is to be childlike and not childish. If you lose that childlikedness, you’re dead. Go sell stocks.”

***

Bruce happened to be in the Capricorn office – the second incarnation, in Nashville – one day when a publicist from Warner Brothers (neo-Capricorn’s partner) took a phone call from a 19-year-old college journalist in North Carolina.

Capricorn had just released put out the Elmore James: King of the Slide Guitar, and the young writer was working on a story about that.

Bruce’s likeness emerged from stone at the Hemlock Festival.

“She asked if she could talk to Elmore James,” Bruce recalled through fits of breathless laughter, because the blues master had been dead almost 30 years. “I told the guy, ‘give me the phone!’ Then I spent three hours talking to that woman.”

Bruce spoke to her in a false voice, his version of Elmore James, and he told her a lot of malarkey, such as, “Me and Robert Johnson drank shoe polish straight through bread.” According to Bruce, the journalist wrote down every word.

That’s an article that I would dearly love to find.

***

One of the things that Bruce was basically frightened of is fame. He couldn’t commit to something as pointless as celebrity. Certainly not on a full-time basis.

“I want to jiggle the middle,” he said. “I don’t want to go too far down or too far up. I don’t want to be on the  phone all day. I want to paint. I want to dribble a basketball, and be a part-timer at everything. A part-time person.”

He didn’t want to be an image, didn’t want to be a rock star, “and go out there and do the same thing every night. I mean, I want to go out there and set fires and bring sprinklers, eat benches, or something new.”

***

Bruce used to play the Hemlock Festival, just outside of Dahlonega, every November. And every year, my family and friends would go and dig this cool little weekend festival.

At his last Hemlock, we introduced one of my son’s friends, a young guitarist, to Bruce who told him, “listen to Django Reinhardt and you’ll never go wrong.”

One of my favorite Hemlock memories was the time my friend Patrick and I went backstage to talk with Bruce. We were just chatting when the band on stage started playing a Grateful Dead song. Patrick, a Deadhead, stopped mid-sentence as if in a trance.

His silence lasted only a second or two, but it had a solid beat before and after and he looked at Bruce and I and said, “I have to go dance now,” then sprinted out of the tent and back to the front of the stage so he could dance.

Bruce clapped his hands and said, “It’s Zambi Two!”

Joe Feels the Music

The dad is downstairs in his self-appointed salt mine, pounding plastic keys with arthritic fingers, trying to make stories about scientific research, trying to wrap his damaged brain around the carbon cycle and soil organic matter and, oh yes … what if those microbes are putting more methane into the air than carbon dioxide? What then?

Upstairs the son is lying on his black gym mat, between virtual classroom sessions, obviously enjoying a Widespread Panic concert from Red Rocks (2011) playing on the TV. Obvious because every minute or so I hear him making happy sounds, singing or talking. Joe is considered nonverbal, but he does vocalize, and he does it with intention.

There is a long story about Joe and his love of music and how he inspired my love of music, and maybe there will be time to tale that epic tale one day. Maybe. But it’s going to take some work on my part and his, because such a story needs to be a road story. As in, Joe and I really need to hit the road one day and go on a festival or concert tour.

It’ll take extra work because Joe doesn’t travel easily. He has lots of equipment and assorted necessary accessories that travel with him. He has lots of needs. But who doesn’t? Meeting Joe’s multiple and sundry needs would require a great effort on his part and mine to make everything move smoothly between Point A to Point Wherever.

When the music is near and the sound is right, Joe will party like this all night.

Anyway, that is the unplanned plan, the big kahuna on the bucket list. Extended road trip with Joe to soak up sonic goodness from sea to shining sea, or thereabouts. That’s the dream. Plenty of hoops to erect and knock down or go through before we get to that point. And of course, Mama Jane would have to be included. That is a must, for both Joe and I. This doesn’t have to be just a father-son story. It should be a family story … as told by a father and son.

If the geographical journey takes shape, rest assured you’ll read about it. Even if it is just a spiritual journey taken on the magic carpet of modern technology in the home, you might read about it. Who can tell? We write about what inspires us.

My son and his joyful soul-grasp of music is a gigantic part of what inspired me to go ahead and write the book about Col. Bruce. The physical challenges that keep him close to home much of the time also keep me close to home, so I wasn’t able to run off with the circus very often to see Bruce in his natural habitat.

In some ways, that made writing the book a little tougher than it might have been otherwise. In other ways, that helped make writing the book a total joy because I could focus on Bruce and his life, and spend time with Joe. That’s called a win-win.

But, back to the working dad and the son upstairs and Widespread Panic.

After hearing several of his happy sounds, elicited with gusto and loud enough to be heard over the music and the sound of the wheels turning inside my broken head, I had to rush upstairs to see my boy. The picture that you see here is what I found.

Dude was singing along with JB, and doing a damn fine job of it. More than that, he was enjoying the song and the moment with confident abandon and it reminded me once again that I would so love to feel the music the way he does. It’s one of my son’s super powers.

Bruce Hampton, Car Salesman

Bruce was the everyman bandleader, an irregular regular man’s man who loved eating, smoking, betting, sports, music, and the company of his friends. He was part Oscar Madison, part Babe Ruth, part Frank Zappa, and entirely Bruce Hampton. He was also a car salesman. Buy low, sell high.

Anyway, the photo below is from a popular website that is selling the book where a few readers have taken the time to write reviews. One of the reviews tells a fabulous story about how Bruce’s skills as a car salesman helped a friend out of a jam. Hope you enjoy it half as much as I did:

That Night: May 1-2, 2017

As I post this, it is 12:20 a.m. on May 2nd, 2021, four years after Bruce fell on the Fox Theatre. It was almost at this exact moment on that night when I saw the EMTs rolling Bruce out of the theatre and into the ambulance and I thought, “this won’t be the last time I see Bruce Hampton.” Unfortunately, it was. So far. I’d like to put any potential reunions off for a while, but I have missed him every day. Anyway, this is an excerpt from the introduction to my book about Bruce, “The Music and Mythocracy of Col. Bruce Hampton: A Basically True Biography,” recalling some of that unforgettable night.

Bruce used to talk about being eighty or ninety, “like Johnny Knapp,” and still performing, at least until he dropped dead onstage. “I’ve got a gun to the back of my head,” he’d say. “I can’t retire. This isn’t really a choice.” He’d also say that he was probably supposed to be an accountant or insurance salesman, “with a Volvo wagon, two and a half kids, and a white picket fence.” But there was the gun and there was the stage, and one compelled Bruce to the other.

I heard Bruce talk about dying on stage a number of times. But so have a lot of performing artists. The big difference between Bruce and them is, of course, he did it. I’ve missed him every day since, and so have many others.

Still, dying onstage was just an abstract notion from a master of the abstract. Who took him seriously? He certainly didn’t. And then there Bruce was on May 1, doing the most serious thing in his life. When he collapsed at the feet of guitar superkid Taz Niederauer, everyone in the Fox Theatre thought it was another one of his slapstick bits, the kind of stage antic he was known for. So the band kept playing. Even after three, four minutes, they played. Keeping time and keeping track of time are not necessarily the same things.

“When you’re playing onstage, it’s hard to always tell how much time has gone past—you can’t tell fifteen minutes from fifteen seconds,” said Denny Walley, who was in shock for about a month after the show. “Well, think about it: forty-six hundred people on their feet for almost four hours, all of these musicians who loved Bruce and felt a deep sense of gratitude toward him. It was all so overwhelming, like an overdose of love and joy affecting every fiber of Bruce. Then to go from that high, high moment, to the absolute bottom, like almost into the pits of hell. It blows your mind in an instant. This was the most extraordinary event of my life.”

Even after it was obvious that something was terribly wrong, after Bruce had been taken away in the ambulance, Johnny Knapp, Jim Basile (musician, longtime Atlanta radio personality), and I figured we’d be laughing about this with Bruce at some future lunch. We figured Bruce would be fine; he seemed indestructible to those of us who have eaten with him. But we got the news around 1:30 a.m., as we approached the traffic light where Tenth Street crosses Peachtree in the heart of Midtown Atlanta. Joe Zambie, one of Bruce’s closest friends (and the Godhead of the religion/philosophy Bruce created, Zambi) called from the hospital.

“He’s gone,” Joe said in a rickety voice that we could hear over Jim’s Bluetooth. Then a long pause and an inarguable tone of finality. “Bruce is gone.”

Johnny sounded like he was in pain, crying, “Oh no!”

The atmosphere sucked from the car, we glided numbly down that stretch of Peachtree that used to be called The Strip, once upon a time Atlanta’s little version of Haight-Ashbury. Somewhere to our right just a few blocks down was Piedmont Park, where fifty years earlier the Hampton Grease Band had played free concerts for the hippies who dug the band and never forgot its eccentric lead singer, a guy named Bruce.

“The Music and Mythocracy of Col. Bruce Hampton: A Basically True Biography” is available online at most sellers you can think of, or through your local bookstore (who can order it for you if it’s not on their shelves, or right here from the University of Georgia Press.

Have a catch?

I’m the idiot you see out there pitching baseballs past invisible batters into an invisible catcher’s mitt, sometimes on the Sautee Nacoochee ball field and sometimes in one of the batting cages/nets/things at the recreation department complex. Rather than going after dragons disguised as windmills, I’m chasing something more elusive.

It’s an addiction that has come along late in life, a desperate cling to spring in the autumn of my years. The last time I played competitive baseball was almost 30 years ago. Last year, before I turned 60, I got it in my head to start tossing the old horsehide around again. It’s not competitive, but it is meditative. And it feels like a connection to something old, even older than my childhood. Wind up, step, throw.

That’s me, the baseball guy who forgot his cap.

There must have been something in the horsehide zeitgeist, because soon after I started pretending to be the white Satchel Paige (April 2020), I read about this book. I think the writer might be a kindred spirit. The main difference, of course, is that he went on the road to connect with people over games of catch, and I stayed in my neighborhood and invited people to play during a pandemic. Sometimes they played but mostly they stayed home, so mostly I played alone, pitching my bag of baseballs into a backstop, retrieving them, jogging back to the mound, and pitching again.

I don’t know why I started. Something was missing in my life, probably. Well, baseball, obviously. But maybe it was the pandemic, the topsy-turvy feeling that the world had tilted awkwardly forever, the feeling that things never would be the same again. I wondered if that theory held true for my curveball, which rarely ever curved. Turns out, it did. The curveball is snapping in ways that I can neither explain nor control — but I’m getting better, more strikes than wild pitches now.

None of it matters, or all of it does, or some of it does. All I know is, after almost 30 years of hardly ever throwing anything besides a fit, the old starboard soup bone feels good, feels like it could go nine innings. As long as the batters are invisible. It would be nice to have someone to throw the ball back, though.

Whaddya say? I’ve got some extra gloves, about a dozen (mostly round) baseballs in a bag, even a few softballs somewhere. Even have a few bats. We can hit fly balls to each other. Wanna be 12-years-old for a few moments in the sun or under a turbulent sky?

It Hasn’t Sunk In

The book has had its second printing and it still hasn’t fully sunk in. Chuck Leavell wrote the foreword. The keyboardist who provided the soundtracks for so many lives. The guy who played with the Allman Brothers, Sea Level (get it? C. Leavell?), Eric Clapton, George Harrison, the Rolling frickin’ Stones. That Chuck Leavell, one of the most in-demand piano players in the world.

I’m speechless. Numb from where I’ve pinched myself. And if they do three, four, five printings (a man can dream), I’ll still be stunned and it has nothing to do with my imposter syndrome. It’s Chuck Leavell, man! He’s been a music hero of mine since the 1970s – a music hero to millions, creator of some of the most iconic sounds we’ve heard. His piano solo in Jessica, for example. If it’s never given you chills or made you want to get up off the couch, check your pulse.

That Chuck Leavell. Tree farmer, conservationist, author, kind person. He’s such an authentically creative and industrious man who gets so much done in a typical day, that Billy Bob Thornton says, in hilarious Bruce Hamptonesque deadpan, “He’s the kind of guy that makes you feel bad about yourself.” That’s from the wonderful documentary, Chuck Leavell: The Tree Man, which came out last year.

I highly recommend this film.

Billy Bob is joined by Jimmy Carter, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, David Gilmour, John Mayer, and a bunch of folks who sing their personal praises of Chuck throughout the movie, which tells the story of this down-to-Earth, prolific artist, who is probably the first person in the music business you think of when you hear the phrase, “fine human being.”

So how the hell did this schmo, your faithful if unreliable narrator, ever cross paths with Mister Leavell? How else? Work.

Years ago, I worked as an editor/writer for a well-regarded business magazine here in Georgia. I put editor first because I had a variety of editor titles (senior, managing, then executive), but I was primarily a writer. Didn’t do much editing. But one of the sections of the magazine that I did edit was our biggest annual project, the 100 Most Influential Georgians.

A third of the list was composed of friends of the publisher (we may have included a few dead guys occasionally by accident; I can’t be sure) – you must have some influence if you’re cocktail party pals with a guy who buys ink by the barrel. But the other two thirds of the list included people who had legitimate influence – senators, governors, CEOs, philanthropists, environmentalists. And at least one rock star.

At some point we were able to convince the publisher (who also wore the editor-in-chief mantle, but like me did very little editing) to include Chuck Leavell on the list. Even the seersucker wearing boss couldn’t argue with the Rolling Stones. So Chuck made the list and stayed on it for years. As tree farmer of the year, as co-founder of the Mother Nature Network, as an author, as a rock music icon. Influence. He deserved to be on the list. Plus, he had way, way, way more fans than Sonny Perdue and I think more people than usual attended our rubber chicken gala just to be near a Rolling Stone and Allman Brother all at the same time.

I used to work at this place. We did serious journalism there. Seriously, we did.

Of course, as editor of that section, I got to assign the 100 little stories that we wrote for the section (a paragraph each, with a mugshot and credentials). I usually had four or five other writers helping me, and usually gave myself the most boring people to write about, plus Chuck. Yep, that’s how I met Mister Leavell. Work.

I contacted him through his people and he got right back in touch from his personal number, acted like he was shocked to be included on such a business-heavy list of muckety mucks, but was truly honored and showed up at the awards banquet.

Anyway, through the years, in those too-rare instances when I had the opportunity to write a music story, Chuck often was a go-to source, a reliable and experienced voice who could talk about the artistic and business sides of the tunes industry, and always make it interesting.

I also interviewed Chuck for the book, prodding him for his memories of Bruce, how they met, the famous gig at the Georgia Theatre, which became Aquarium Rescue Unit’s first album. Chuck, the consummate pro, brought in particularly for that engagement, no rehearsal, no nothing, just Chuck flying by the seat of his pants making it sound like he’d been with the band forever. “It put me on my toes like I’d never been before, and it remains one of the recordings I am proudest to be on.”

Fast forward to 2019. I was meeting my editors at the University of Georgia Press face-to-face for the first time. They had a helpful to-do list to think about as I closed in on finishing the manuscript. Topping the list: Get someone good to write the foreword. Can you think of someone that Col. Bruce’s fans, or readers of this book would know?

Yes, I could. Chuck Leavell. Like Bruce and Johnny Sandlin, back when they were planning for the Georgia Theatre gig, Chuck was the first guy I thought of. The first-class go-to guy for so many people. I had no expectations, just hope when I reached out to him. And when he said yes, that he’d be glad to, I nearly passed out with glee. Then a few weeks later he turned in a beautiful short essay that leads off my first book, “The Music and Mythocracy of Col. Bruce Hampton: A Basically True Biography.”

Thank you, Chuck.

And it still hasn’t fully sunk in.

If you’d like a copy of “The Music and Mythocracy of Col. Bruce Hampton: A Basically True Biography,” you can get it here and here and also right here. Thank you!

It is Opening Day!

Bruce Hampton was, among other things, an avid baseball fan. Yes, he was a fan of the Atlanta Braves franchise. More than that, he was a fan of the game and knew its intricacies, its nuanced statistical nooks and crannies. For instance, if you named the second string catcher of the Tampa Bay Rays, he could probably tell you what the guy’s batting average was with runners in scoring position on the second Wednesday of each month. And if he didn’t know it, he’d make up a plausible number.

Bottom line, the man loved the game, thought it was the greatest sport ever invented, grew up listening to St. Louis Cardinals broadcasts and thrilling to the exploits of an aging Stan Musial. That was something Bruce had in common with a dude from Arkansas who would one day become his friend and artistic collaborator, Billy Bob Thornton. They were both Cardinals fans.

When Billy Bob was directing Bruce in the Academy Award-winning film Sling Blade, they would toss the ball around during down times, Thornton showing off his junkball pitching while Hampton enlightened the young director with Cardinals trivia.

Eventually, Bruce moved on to support the Braves when they moved to Atlanta from Milwaukee, replacing the Atlanta Crackers as the city’s local nine. But he never forgot the magic of old Ponce de Leon Park (the Crackers’ home field) and the legends who played there (like Eddie Mathews, a double Gemini). Bruce even made a short film about it. You can watch it here.

Here is Bruce with baseball pitching ace Virgil Trucks’ nephew, Derek. While Derek doesn’t have Virgil’s fastball, Virgil couldn’t play guitar worth a damn. Bruce loved baseball and music, probably in that order.

-Photo by Ron Currens

I had the great and unexpected pleasure of meeting Bruce, and we bonded over baseball, particularly over its lore, its trivia. We could bullshit for hours over grits (his) and coffee (mine) about the best clutch hitters (Yogi Berra, according to Bruce), all-around players (he gave Willie Mays a slight nod over Henry Aaron, saying, “Mays had the better arm and could catch a fly ball anywhere in the atmosphere.”), wildest characters (Dock Ellis: “He pitched a no-hitter on acid, ‘nuff said,” Bruce opined), scariest person (“Ty Cobb scared the hell out of me when I met him,” he offered).

For his 67th birthday (April 30, 2014), I gave him a copy of “Inventing Baseball: The 100 Greatest Games of the Nineteenth Century,” a book that included three of my stories. He loved it and said, “you should have interviewed Johnny Knapp – he actually saw some of those games; he played Lincoln’s second inaugural ball … ” And our table at the IHOP erupted.  

Bruce’s favorite baseball trivia question was this one: “Who was the last switch hitter to win the Most Valuable Player Award in the American League?” It’s a dandy and kind of a trick question. Everyone wants to say Eddie Murray, the great slugger for the Orioles. But the answer is Vida Blue, a pitcher who won the MVP Award in 1971 and was a terrible hitter.

But did you know that Bruce, too, is the answer to a baseball trivia question? Well, he’s AN answer to a trivia question, or a trivia request, which would be, “name someone who attended both the first and the last games at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.” Yep, Bruce was one of the few. He was there in 1965, when the Aaron boys (first Tommie, then Henry) hit home runs in an exhibition game loss to the Detroit Tigers. And he was there in 1996, when the Braves dropped Game 5 to the Yankees in the World Series.

See … baseballs on the cover. It was inevitable.

-Cover art by Flournoy Holmes

That game is legendary in Ron Currens’ memory. Ron, founding editor of Hittin’ the Note magazine, was one of Bruce’s best friends. They attended many baseball games together (Ron had season tickets), including that World Series contest. The reason the game stands out so much for Ron has nothing to do with the outcome, and everything to do with Bruce’s pregame shenanigans.

A pretty Fox TV reporter was interviewing fans who had been to both the first and last games at the Atlanta park, and when she got to Bruce to ask him about his memories, he told her the night was particularly profound for him because his uncle had been buried out there under second base. The reporter went mute, the cameraman shook with laughter.

Today, I am shaking with laughter, with excitement, with nervousness. Today is opening day of the baseball season, and opening day for my new book, “The Music and Mythocracy of Col. Bruce Hampton: A Basically True Biography.” Today is also April Fool’s Day. I cannot think of a more perfect intersection of timing. This is Bruce’s birth month, too.

This is a book that I wanted to write. It’s a book that Bruce wanted to happen. It has baseballs on the cover – art designed by the awesome Flournoy Holmes, who knew instinctively that baseballs would have to be part of the cover and the story, a small but critical part.

Anyway, it’s also a book that I hope people will read and enjoy, and I’m so happy its finished and proud that its published and look forward to talking Bruce and baseball with anyone who wants to.

Let’s play ball!