She Is Sam

This should have been the first thing I wrote after turning in the final portion of the manuscript, which was the index, which was basically all her work. She is Sam, my first-born miracle, my brilliant little Valentine, Spider Monkey, and Field Mouse — my cross-country companion, tiny and mighty, sometimes pointy but always sharp, completely huggable, heartbreakingly beautiful, and constantly present (whether she is near or far) daughter, who doesn’t know the meaning of the concept, ‘half way.’

Except for me and Bruce and the University of Georgia Press, Sam – more than anyone or anything else – is the reason that there is a book called “The Music and Mythocracy of Col. Bruce Hampton: A Basically True Biography,” about to become a bona fide entity on April 1st.

Samantha Leigh Safin and her dad, somewhere near the Columbia River in Washington. She was flying the coop to begin her brave journey as a mighty grown-up on the Pacific Coast. A trip for the ages.

There is some perfect symmetry here that the book’s subject would really appreciate: The publication date happens in the same month as his birth (his birthday is April 30), and the same month as Sam’s birth (her birthday is April 6). This is my first book, guided toward the finish line by my first child.

So here is what happened:

I began thinking about the book in 2009, 2010, running the idea in my head, making a few inquiries of friends who knew Bruce, and so forth. In 2011, after Bruce gave me permission to write it, I started working in fits and starts and often not at all.

In those days (like today), I had a full-time job, occasional freelance writing gigs, community commitments, and gigantic family responsibilities, all of which left very little room for pursuing the life story of a musician who moved around his professional and geographical landscape with all the predictability of an oblong pinball. So I would squeeze in interviews whenever possible, tracking down the musicians in Bruce’s extensive virtual rolodex; or I’d beg my wife’s forgiveness to run off with the circus temporarily and catch a live show.

This went on, in its haphazard trajectory, for five or six years. I gathered stories, jotted down a few phrases and pages, but nothing resembling a book … until 2016. A big reason for that is Johnny Knapp. Bruce had introduced me to Johnny several years earlier and I’d become very close with this ball-busting jazz pianist. Johnny kept urging me to write words so that I could finish the Bruce book and get to work on a play that we could write together. He even wrote a few songs, I wrote some lyrics, we had an outline for a story … but I had miles to go yet on the book. He’d say, “finish the goddamn book about Bruce so we could write the goddamn play.” I miss Johnny.

She is on social media, but not because she likes it.

So I wrote a little here and there and had about 75 good pages to share with Bruce the night he died after collapsing on the Fox Theatre stage in May 2017. I never delivered the pages and, in fact, most of them wound up in the trash. After Bruce died I wasn’t sure what to do with the book. I was depressed. I put it down for several months then picked it up again and wrote with some intention. Then I had a stroke (August 5, 2018). As you can imagine, that slowed the process a bit. Once again I stopped thinking about the book for a few months, spent time wallowing in some self-pity, recovering my senses, working on some freelance projects that needed to be finished. Sam left her home in Michigan and spent a month with us, making sure her old Dad was on the road to recovery. The memory of her coming into my hospital room that hazy night still brings me to tears.

Anyway, in November or December of 2018, about a year after I’d contacted them and about six months after giving up on them, I heard from the University of Georgia Press. They were interested in publishing the book and wondered where I was with the manuscript, and when they could have a look. The plan was to turn it in on my next birthday, Sept. 26, 2019.

Gulp. This was real now. I started turning down freelance opportunities and spent every spare minute outlining or writing, editing and rewriting, gathering photos, then writing some more, then erasing and rewriting. By July I was about 10,000 words over the number I’d projected to UGA Press – with four chapters left to write. That’s when I called my daughter.

Sam had been an honors student who majored in English – her heroes in literature weren’t the authors, but the great editors who helped give them a voice. While she never actually pursued work as a writer or editor, Sam is both. Every November, she dives into the NaNoWriMo, which is National Novel Writing Month. My daughter has written about 10 novels. Someday, I expect, she’ll publish something. When she feels like it. She’s too busy enjoying her life with her awesome husband Eric, and working in her rewarding, challenging, and super successful, non-literary career (here’s how she describes her work: “I do Salesforce and Pardot.” She is a self-described ‘polymath.’).

The marvelous polymath has amazing editorial super powers

But mad skills are mad skills. “Sam, I need you to be a heartless editor and cut the hell out of my book,” I said, explaining the lay of the land and what I needed to do by Sept. 26. My daughter is probably the most dependable person there is – after my wife, who she blessedly takes after. She said, “no problem, Daddy-O.” Then proceeded to make what I thought was a pretty good manuscript much better.

She cut some of my fat babies, but did so lovingly. She slashed with intention. She offered editorial advice, some direction, asked good questions. She read about a man and music that she had previously cared nothing about – Sam is a woman of her generation, she has her music, but she came to genuinely appreciate Bruce, and was passionately interested in the project. In fact, she could probably beat you or me at Col. Bruce trivia by now, because once a thing enters Sam’s head, it stays there. Her retention is otherworldly. When she was a little kid, reading books faster than I could crack one open, we’d quiz her to see if she was really absorbing the lit. She was, and then some. Comprehension is one of her super powers.

Every few days, chapters would come back to me, trimmer and healthier than before. I was able to turn in a manuscript that was only 75,000 words in the end (I’d estimated 70,000 but begged the Press to take the 5,000 extra, reasoning that it was way better than the 100,000 word epic that had been looming before Sam applied her editorial scalpel). Sam saved the day. And then she offered to do the index, too, jumping into that project eagerly (“Ooh, something new to learn,” she said, and then mastered it).

Now the book is almost out there. It’s off the press and headed for bookshelves – I’m told that half of the pressrun of 1,000 already has been sold, which is just amazing. A box of books should arrive at my door any day. I’ve already promised signed copies to a bunch of folks, and my engaging daughter thought of that, too. Turning the manuscript over on my birthday was a purposeful thing, something I planned. It seemed like the Hobbit thing to do. And here’s something that my little scheming Samantha Leigh planned and carried out with her usual precision, this custom pen that you see pictured. It arrived in the mail, my special birthday present, “something to sign books with,” she noted.

This is a gift that I look forward to using over and over again. But there won’t be enough blank space in the book to scribble all of the words that I owe my daughter when it comes to inscribing her copy. But that’s OK, because I know a very sharp  editor who can trim it down to a manageable word count.

One Day at the IHOP in 2014

There was supposed to be five of us but Joe Zambie cancelled so it was just four: Bruce, Johnny, me, and I forget who the fourth guy was. Sue was our waitress, as usual. Johnny ordered tea and crepes, as usual. And the bullshit began to flow like four kinds of syrup on Bruce’s turkey sausage. Also as usual.

Here’s how it went that day:

Bruce: Zambie says he can’t come because he doesn’t have a car. That’s just Zambie, of course he has a car (Bruce cackles and rolls his fists around each other and raises his hands in the air, in the Zambi/Zambie salute).

Johnny: He has a cat that has cancer. He loves this cat so much. Zambie drives the cat up to the veterinarian school in North Carolina every Monday to get cancer treatment. Seven hours there, seven hours back.

After an agreeable nodding of the heads by the cat lovers among us, the conversation turned, eventually, to Bruce’s ranking of the best all-time guitarists. He said that he and Oteil Burbridge had been talking about it and they’d come up with a list.

Johnny: Where is Tal Farlow on your list?

Bruce: He’s 42nd?

Johnny, who played in Tal Farlow’s trio, called bullshit on that.

Bruce: No. 1, with a doubt, Django Reinhardt. He invented it! Then B.B. King, Wes Montgomery, Charlie Christian, Ralph Towner. He’s Beethoven. Ralph is the king. ARU [the Aquarium Rescue Unit, the best band many people have ever seen] had one bad gig. We were playing in Washington, D.C., at Blues Alley, and we saw Ralph Towner play and then we couldn’t play. He dismantled us. We just sat there while he destroyed us. He’s a composer, he’s a decomposer, he’s reincarnated Beethoven. Hendrix is 12th.”

Me: What about Hubert Sumlin? I’ve heard you say that he was the best.

Bruce: He’s actually No. 1. Me and Oteil put him about 7th on this list. He’s the shit. He plays nd nothing happens, and it’s all ghost notes, and you’re like, ‘where in the fuck is that coming from?’ He doesn’t know any keys. We asked him, ‘who’s the best guitarist you ever heard?’ He goes, ‘my brother, but was too shamefaced to come outside.’ We asked him how he lost his teeth and he said, ‘Howlin’ Wolf kicked ’em.’ Then he said, ‘A police dog bit ’em off.

Bruce was cackling again. Everyone at the table was laughing. Even Sue, filling up a bottomless pot of coffee, was laughing.

Bruce: An hour later hour he’d say, ‘I was poisoned in Canada by three women.’ We took him on tour with us, the Code Talkers. He never slept. He was always in a coat and tie, 20 women all night long coming and going in his motel room, 77 years old. His sheets were never turned down. We spent eight days with him. It was like being with the pope. At the end of it he said, ‘It’s time. it’s time to go to the crossroads and get your stuff and go home.’ I’m telling you, he would play and nothing would happen. It was just insane.

Johnny: Who is … Hubert … what?

Bruce was on a roll and continued with his Hubert routine, pulling out phrases from what he told us was the best week of his life on the road. Sumlin was one of his longtime heroes.

Bruce: He said, ‘I didn’t use a pick, I used chicken wire, and I picked enough cotton to kill five people.’ The Rolling Stones paid for his funeral. They stole everything he did, but if you’re gonna steal, steal from the best. The Stones are Hubert Sumlin. And they’re honest about it.”

From there the conversation sort of went all over the place. Bruce dropped his phone in his grits at some point. Anyway, this is the randomness that unfolded:

Bruce: If you never have to go out there and fucking sweat, you’re never gonna appreciate a napkin. You’ve got to appreciate the little things.

Johnny: I met Johnny Mercer once, it was at a party where Cole Porter was playing.

Bruce: Synchronicity! I was with Dave Schools, years ago, and I had just met Stanley Booth the day before, and he’d just started working on something about Johnny Mercer. Anyway, Dave says, ‘I just found out that I’m Johnny Mercer’s nephew.’ A minute later, Stanley Booth calls and says, ‘do you know any of Johnny Mercer’s relatives.’ I go, ‘yeah,’ and hand Dave the phone. That is absolute insanity.

And he’s just gotten going at this point on the whole synchronicity thing …

Bruce: In our song, “Brato Ganibe,” Ricky Keller’s wife, Carol, the first word she says is, “Frahner.” Two weeks ago I hired a bassist whose name is Frahner! Frahner Joseph. Insane!

Johnny: What the hell is that? Brato what …?

Bruce: Brato Ganibe was a dream I had for three years. Its either a canoeist or universal peace. Brato means canoeist and Ganibe means universal peace on my planet. When I see it in a book somewhere I will dive through an IHOP window and crucify myself onto a Dodge with the single bullet theory.

Johnny: Ah, there he goes. He’s going into the abyss. Can I tie a rope around myself so I don’t get pulled in?

Bruce starts making goofy sounds and the tape gets garbled, but then clears up for a second and I can hear …

Bruce: The alphabet is actually 36 letters.

And that’s it. Gotta say, I really miss those guys.

Bruce and Johnny doing what they loved best.

Better Late Than Never

These four men played in the Negro Leagues before reaching the previously all-white big leagues. Clockwise from top left: Larry Doby broke the color barrier in the American League a few weeks after Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers; Don Newcombe became the Dodgers’ pitching ace of, winning the first Cy Young Award; Jackie Robinson … ’nuff said; Monte Irvin was a superstar in the Negro Leagues, then helped lead the New York Giants to two National League pennants in the twilight of his career.

The reaction to Major League Baseball’s official recognition of the old Negro Leagues (from 1920 through 1948) has been mostly positive and seen as long overdue, for all of the reasons you would imagine.

The 3,000 or so men who played Negro League baseball during that era (three women did play Negro League ball after 1948) were performing at the highest level available to them, and many of these athletes were as good or better than their white counterparts who were earning more money playing in what was known as big league ball back then. For those black ballplayers, the Negro Leagues were the Major Leagues, and since squads of Negro Leaguers often defeated their white counterparts in exhibition games, they proved themselves in head-to-head competition, too.

So count me among the many people who believe that this is a long overdue but welcome move on the part of MLB. Let the record books be revisited!

Not everyone shares my opinion and, in fact, some folks just can’t seem to wrap their pea-sized brains around this concept. One author whose writing I typically respect basically said that integrating Negro League records with traditional ‘Major League’ records will somehow diminish Jackie Robinson’s contribution (now, based on MLB’s recognition of the Negro Leagues, Jackie “only” integrated the National League, not the Majors).

Yes, it is as ridiculous as it sounds. Guess we should un-retire Jackie’s No. 42, based on that guy’s backwards assessment, and erase the history of what actually happened, simply because the people who run Major League Baseball did something sensible and righteous for a change. Other critics of the official recognition want to penalize Negro Leaguers because they didn’t play as many official league games as the fellas in the white leagues. For instance, Josh Gibson only played in 78 league games when he was credited with a .441 batting average in 1943. Meanwhile, the batting leaders in the white leagues were playing a 154-game schedule.

Of course, Josh also played about 100 other games each year, just for the dough and the joy of playing, wherever and whenever he could. That was the life of the Negro League ballplayer in those days — there were lots of exhibition games, there were triple-headers. These guys were every bit as committed as their white counterparts, even more so.

I guess the question is, will Josh’s .441 now be considered the highest batting average in Major League history, eclipsing Hugh Duffy’s .438 in 1894, and Rogers Hornsby’s 20th century record, .424, even though he played about half the number of league games? I sure as hell hope so. It wasn’t Josh’s choice to play fewer league games, and he wasn’t playing for statistics anyway. He just happened to have really great numbers.

Josh’s lifetime average of .365 will now, presumably, put him one percentage point behind Ty Cobb (.366) on the all-time list (bumping Hornsby and his .358 down to third place). Again, as a lifetime fan of baseball and its fascinating history, I am so OK with that. For a sport that looks upon its numbers as holy relics, it would be fitting for the ghost of Gibson, and his comrades, to share the joy.

******

The integration of Negro League records with ‘Major League’ records also means there is some change in store for the lifetime report cards of the gentlemen pictured above. Based on the new Major League Baseball reality, these men — Larry Doby, Don Newcomb, Jackie Robinson, and Monte Irvin — all began their big league careers in the Negro Leagues. (As a side note, I consider it among my life highlights to have met Larry and Don).

That means their lifetime baseball records are going to change. For the two or three of you who give a shit about that stuff, here’s how the integration of Negro League and ‘Major League’ numbers will affect these four guys, superstars all:

Larry Doby’s lifetime average will increase to .287 and his runs batted in total will reach a pleasingly round 1,100. Don Newcombe now has 154 career wins (up from 149). Jackie Robinson’s lifetime batting average will improve slightly from .311 to .312. And Monte Irvin, who was known as Mr. Murder in the Negro Leagues, where he batted .347 over 10 seasons, will now be a career .300 hitter in the Major Leagues (.311).

Bruce Probably Knew All Along

John Bell basks in the curving glow of a labyrinth that would soon be lined with food.

We were either high up on the scaffold, or moving it around the hardwood floor like it was a medieval battle engine, hanging stage lights from the ceiling of a 1930s-era gymnasium that looked as if it could have been the setting for the movie Hoosiers. This was how we used to set up John Bell’s food labyrinth during the holidays, part of Widespread Panic’s ongoing efforts to feed the hungry. JB was there. So was Tommy, Tosh, can’t remember who else, but I’m forgetting someone. What I remember most about that day was Col. Bruce Hampton.

No one saw him enter the gym. His voice came from the darkened bleachers, his face floating in the blackness, lit by the cell phone. This was the first trivia question I’d ever heard from Bruce. There would be many, many more. But the first one, surprisingly, wasn’t about baseball. It was this: “Name the top five pro football players of all time. ESPN ranked them.” So we started throwing down names. In order, the correct answer was: Jimmy Brown, Jerry Rice, Joe Montana, Walter Payton, Lawrence Taylor. I missed Rice.

Later on we went to lunch (there would be many more of these, too). It was a cheap Mexican restaurant in Helen, a fake Alpine German town, and the incongruency of it delighted the Colonel. The only other trivia question I remember from that day was this one: Who is the last switch hitter to win the MVP Award in the American League. No one at the table could get it. This was one of Bruce’s favorite questions. The answer, of course, is Vida Blue. A pitcher. A trick question. But that was Bruce, full of tricks.

Some time later, when I’d worked up the courage, I asked him if it was OK to write a book about him. I was nervous, walking compulsive circle-eights in my driveway, where the cell phone service is better, fumbling over my words as Bruce listened on the other end. Finally he said, “I was wondering when you were going to ask,” as if he knew all along. And I’m still not entirely convinced that he didn’t.

Healing Gifts of Music

The fabulous Lilies of the Valley

Eight years ago (almost to the day, as I write this) we brought our son Joe home from Scottish Rite Children’s Hospital after he’d spent about a month there battling a vicious infection that almost took him away from us. And his timing could not have been worse!

We had big plans for my wife Jane’s birthday in early November 2012. People were coming from out of town to celebrate, including our daughter. Friends from all over the world had collaborated on a ‘happy birthday’ video message. Then Joe got really sick the night before her birthday. We took him to the hospital and there he stayed for four weeks. At one point, the clinicians had to induce a coma for a couple of days so his body could rest and heal. These were awful weeks, wondering when and if he’d get better, days spent balancing work with real life, nights spent sleeping in the van in the parking garage. There was a monotonous but edgy and unpleasant and alien rhythm to all of it.

I’d started working on the Bruce book about a year earlier, had been in almost daily contact with him. When Joe got sick, that all came to a halt as my family circled our wagons and worked out the complexities of living in an Atlanta hospital with our son and maintaining our house (and pets) in Northeast Georgia, while keeping our jobs and, for the most part, our sanity.

At the time, Bruce was trying to put me in touch with some of his old bandmates from the Code Talkers, particularly bass player Ted Pecchio and drummer Tyler Greenwell. Bruce was eager for me to work on the book, but we both knew it was a project that would take some time because of my work schedule (I was executive editor at a business magazine back then) and his (he was playing at least 40 weekends a year). And he also was aware of my occasionally complicated family situation, which often kept me close to hearth and home (and wife and son). Bruce knew Joe, had met him a bunch of times, watched him twirling in his wheelchair around festival fields and venue dance floors, and understood that Joe’s needs made it challenging for his old man to run off with the circus.

“You’ve got responsibilities, man,” Bruce said in that confidential, deep timbre. “Gawd, I don’t know how you do it.”

So when Joe went into the hospital that time, Bruce didn’t hear from me for days. Then I get a text message from him wondering where I’d been. I texted him back, explaining. Then I get this sweet text from him (the punctuation is mine): “Best. Sorry sir. Grace. Let’s make good happen.  Can I bring you anything at all?”

I told him the grace was appreciated and to send some good healing vibes and we’d catch up later. I’m not sure what specific vibes Bruce conjured, but within days we got a visit from the Lilies of the Valley, one of Joe’s favorite musical groups. The Lilies are a group of local musicians here in this goodly portion of beautiful Northeast Georgia, all women, all friends, who perform a series of concerts one weekend every year, always in November. Joe loves these shows, and the Lilies love Joe (who often will sing with the Lilies during a performance from his place in the audience; in fact, I think the Lilies have grown to expect this).

When they saw that Joe wasn’t sitting in his usual place in the front row for that year’s concert, several Lilies took it on themselves to bring the music to Joe. It might have been a day or two after he came out of the coma that these wonderful sirens, instruments in tow, came to his room in the ICU to sing ‘Ripple,’ which is Joe’s favorite Grateful Dead song. God bless all the Lilies of the Valley (we recently enjoyed their first virtual concert, and it was another smashing success).

That time when Rev. Jeff Mosier brought music to my son at Scottish Rite.

And God bless the Rev. Jeff Mosier. Joe got out of the ICU on Thanksgiving. A day or two later, our dear friend Jeff (the guy who introduced me to Bruce, and one of Bruce’s oldest, closest friends) showed up in Joe’s room, carrying a banjo. He sang some of our favorite songs from Blueground Undergrass (Joe basically grew up seeing Jeff’s band play live music), and created some healing sonic momentum as Joe was now in the home stretch of his recovery.

And God bless Sautee Nacoochee, my community. When we took Joe home the first week of December, a throng of 50 people from around here (including some of the aforementioned Lilies) gathered in our woody front yard to sing Christmas carols. We love our community.

I wanted to end this post with something smart about the healing power of music, something about the scientific evidence that proves music can have profound effects, can improve recovery in stroke patients, or reduce symptoms of depression, or enhance healing after surgery.

Instead, let me cap this true life episode (now wrapped within the story of making a book) with the next phone message I received from Bruce, the day before Christmas: “Have you talked to Ted yet? He knows! Hey, your friend [name withheld] got drunk and danced naked last night. Call me.”

In other words, it was time to get back to work.

Making the Sausage

Even though it’s a pretty short book (the entire volume is around 200 pages), a whole lot of time and energy went into making The Music and Mythocracy of Col. Bruce Hampton: A Basically True Biography. About eight years’ worth. So, I’ve got a ton or two of notes, way more than I was able to use. There should be a miniseries, there are so many notes.

Anyway, I thought it might be fun from time to time to share some of the process with the two or three of you that might get lost on this lonesome backroad of the worldwide interwebs. I’ll call it Making the Sausage and it’ll be a place where I can share some inside stories of how the book came together. Some of it might even be interesting and eye-opening. This first installment, though, is doodling; scrawls made during work on the Bruce book, including some drawings that probably can be used to have me committed, if anyone’s interested (or committed).

My first notes from Johnny Knapp, plus illustrations, because I’m a compulsive doodler.

Something about Zambiland, apparently. With illustrations. This is from an interview with Bruce, though the drawings are mine, the kind of weird shit that happens subconsciously when I’m on the phone or taking notes. Bruce seemed to understand.

This was from some notes about Bruce’s movie work, doodles and random words that I made while recording an interview with one of the film directors that worked with the Colonel.

Honestly, I’m not sure what this one is all about. Some compulsive doodling while talking on the phone, but I’m not sure who I was interviewing in this case.

More autopilot doodling, during an interview with Jeff Calder. I was sitting in my car in a Georgia Tech parking garage recording Jeff tell some fabulous stories. This was one of the highlights of the process – not the drawing, the chance to interview the co-founder of the Swimming Pool Q’s, who is a great writer and insightful observer and, it turns out, an old friend of a very good friend of mine here in Northeast Georgia. Bruce would have been pleased with all the synergy that unveiled itself during the making of this book.

Other Random Lunatic Scrawls Found Among Bruce Research and Interviews:

Bruce and Virgil ‘Fire’ Trucks

Bruce at an IHOP lunch. That’s Jim Basile’s shoulder behind the Virgil Trucks baseball card. Jim is probably Bruce’s equal when it comes to baseball trivia.

A few days after Virgil Trucks, the old pitcher, died in Alabama, Ron Currens shared the sad news with Col. Bruce Hampton, who already knew, of course. We were at the Lilburn IHOP to interview the Colonel, Ron for a piece about Bruce’s new documentary (for the magazine Ron co-founded, Hittin’ the Note) and me for my book, The Music and Mythocracy of Col. Bruce Hampton: A Basically True Biography (coming this spring from University of Georgia Press), and also for the hell of it, because it was Bruce, and Ron asked me to be there. It was late March 2013.

Like Bruce, Ron knew that Trucks was one the Truckses. Virgil’s nephew, Butch Trucks, was a founding member of The Allman Brothers Band. And Virgil’s great nephew is guitar master Derek Trucks, who co-leads another band you’ve probably heard of, along with his wife, a bluesy guitar-playing siren named Susan Tedeschi. Derek is also one of the countless musicians Bruce mentored in some fashion.

Virgil had been one of Bruce’s baseball heroes, a maker of early memories for the kid. Bruce even had Virgil’s autograph in his collection of sports memorabilia. Several years earlier, in an interview with filmmaker Michael Koepenick for the documentary we were there to talk about, Basically Frightened: The Musical Madness of Colonel Bruce Hampton, (an interview that wasn’t used in the final cut), Bruce gushed about, “Virgil ‘Fire’ Trucks. Ted Williams called him the greatest pitcher who ever lived.”

The Trucks family, he explained, had been in his life for as long as he could remember, thanks to Fire Trucks, who threw two no-hitters in 1952, which comprised nearly half of his victory total that year (he went 5-19, unusual for a guy who won 177 games in a great career). “He was my hero,” Bruce said. “I like that name, ‘Fire Trucks.’”

That day in the IHOP, after Ron shared the news, Bruce mythologized about Virgil and Ted Williams, saying, “Ted said he’d be out of a job if there had been another Virgil Trucks. I think he went one for 70 against him.”

We laughed at that, Ron and I, because A) we’re baseball fans, and B) it’s a funny thought, Ted Williams going one for 70 against anyone, and C) Bruce’s delivery was great. We didn’t care that it wasn’t accurate. Bruce had made the point he was trying to make in his own colorful way: Ted Williams had a lot of goddamn respect for Virgil Trucks.

That part is completely true. Teddy Ballgame thought Virgil was the fastest pitcher he ever faced and always considered him one of the best. Ted also considered him one of his favorites because he hit 12 home runs off Virgil Trucks (the most he hit off any single pitcher).

Anyway, this is an anniversary of sorts for Virgil Trucks, an all-star pitcher who won a lot of games for the Detroit Tigers, and was one of the few pitchers to post a 20-win season playing for two different teams (St. Louis Browns and Chicago White Sox in 1953). Today or yesterday in 1955 (Bruce might know), Virgil returned to the Tigers in a trade that sent Bubba Phillips (you remember him) to Chicago. As Bruce noted, Virgil also was a Yankee (in 1958, his last season as a big league pitcher).

When it came to baseball history, Bruce was a spray hitter with precision power – he could be all over the place, and he could go long to straightaway center. Most of the time he was correct. All I know is, baseball is what connected us. Baseball and sports trivia in general, but mainly baseball. Over lunch in a cheap Mexican place in Helen, Georgia, with Tommy, Tosh, and J.B., he talked baseball and asked some impossible questions. So I kept showing up to lunch, wherever and whenever I could.

At the IHOP, a few days after Virgil Trucks died, Bruce talked mainly about the movie, and about his old baseball hero, of course. In the end, Ron asked one final question. Was there anything else the Colonel wanted Hittin’ the Note readers to know?

“Mythocracy is what I live, and I don’t like truth, or melody,” he said. “Every lawyer and every politician says, ‘to tell you the truth …’  I don’t want to tell you the truth, I’m sick of a culture with truth. Myth is where I’m at. What’s funny though, about 88 percent of the stories are true, that’s what’s scary, and the rest is embellished. I’d rather have somebody laugh than know the weight of an onion in Idaho. And I can’t believe Virgil Trucks is dead.”

Happy Birthday, Johnny Knapp

I don’t worry about Johnny Knapp anymore. No need to. But I used to, and it kind of bothers me that I don’t, because it’s another reminder that he’s not free for lunch at the IHOP or supper at the Dan Thai or that little Chinese place next door to the gas station, where the restaurateurs never charged him for a meal. It was a takeout place but it had two obligatory booths with sticky vinyl seat covers. “Mister Johnny,” the gentleman who owned the joint used to say, genuinely happy, shaking the old piano player’s magic right while Johnny steadied himself on his walker with his magic left hand.

Back then, I worried about him because you just never knew when he might slip and break an ankle, or cut his toe on the wheelchair lift in his house. For a guy who played little miracles on a keyboard, he could be clumsy as hell. The polio probably had something to do with it, though he wasn’t the kind of guy to make excuses. Usually.

Johnny was a player in the whiskey-soaked, smoke-filled New York in the 50s and 60s, making cash money playing society music on weekends and jazz on the weekdays, jamming in his soundproof basement with Charlie Parker, who always wanted to read his yoga books. “Thanks to yoga, I took the braces off my legs,” said Johnny, who brought the books to Charlie in the hospital, where the saxophonist, “was listening to music, but it wasn’t Stravinsky, who he loved,” said Johnny. “It was Delius, and that really surprised me.”

Yoga notwithstanding, Johnny’s infantile polio still had lasting effects. It definitely slowed his gait, a handicap that actually led to his famous parking pass at the Apollo Theatre in New York. The legend, as Col. Bruce Hampton told it and retold it, is that Johnny Knapp was the only guy who had a parking pass at the Apollo Theatre. He got the pass because he was slow afoot.

He had a regular gig at the San Su San in Mineola, a club owned by the mob out on Long Island. He didn’t have a handicap parking pass. So Johnny often had to park a strenuous (for him) walk away from the club. Consequently, he was showing up tired, and just in the nick of time. “The manager wanted to know what the hell my problem was and I told him,” Johnny said. “He said I needed a handicap parking pass and that he’d take care of it. Next gig, I had parking pass. Well, that pass was good for anywhere, including the Apollo. So whenever I played the Apollo, all the other cats wanted to ride with me because I got to park right next to it.”

That was one of the stories that flowed like syrup at the IHOP during lunches that stretched into 2 or 3 p.m. sometimes. The sound of Bruce slapping the back of his hand into his palm and cackling at something Johnny said. They were like a comedy team, the two of them. It’s a shame they didn’t know each other for years and years. But there was a history.

When Bruce’s band (the Fiji Mariners) had a standing gig Saturdays at the Brandy House, Johnny had one on Sundays. This would have been the 1990s, early 2000s. But they didn’t know each other. That took Jez Graham, the spectacular Atlanta keyboardist who knew both men. He introduced Johnny and Bruce and started the Tuesday lunch thing. Bruce or someone would bring Johnny, who wasn’t driving any more, and a small crowd of musicians, writers, and at least one deity (Joe Zambie) would gather. Food would get cold (but eaten) as talk flew across the table and Sue the waitress kept bringing Bruce glasses of watered down iced tea.

I’ll never forget the first time Bruce told me about Johnny Knapp. He told me to meet him an Arby’s just inside the perimeter. It’s in the book I wrote about Bruce. It was a late afternoon in July 2012:

Bruce Hampton was stealing my curly fries, punctuating each theft with, “Shhh, don’t tell my wife.” He’d just come from the YMCA swim­ming pool in nearby Doraville, and he smelled of chlorine. The restaurant was a block or two from where the old Pearson Gulf Station used to be, where Bruce had worked in the early days of the Hampton Grease Band.

Then, pointing a curly fry at me, he said, “I’ve got to tell you about the most amazing cat I’ve ever met. His name is Johnny Knapp. Piano player. He’s in his eighties, and he’s a beast.” Bruce continued, “He played Lincoln’s second inaugural ball. He was born in Lower Manhattan and got polio as a baby. When the doctor told his parents they should move to the country r his health, they moved to Brooklyn. A bunch of us meet him for lunch on Tuesdays at an IHOP and just stare at him like he’s Babe Ruth.”

He recited the Johnny Knapp legend, stories run through Bruce’s hy­perbolic lens: The son of Czech immigrants, Johnny jammed with Charlie Parker, backed Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughn, and gigged with Louis Armstrong. He saw the Hindenburg crash while on a Boy Scout trip to New Jersey. Johnny was slated to perform at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles the day Robert Kennedy was shot, and in the aftermath of the as­sassination, Roosevelt Grier knocked him down. Finally, Johnny was Steve Allen’s band director, and he had the only permanent parking space at the Apollo Theatre.

“Sometimes Bruce is full of shit, but some of that stuff is true,” said Johnny, who didn’t see the Hindenburg. Nor did Rosie Grier knock him down. But the other stuff was real.

He’d hooked me. I went to the Tuesday lunch and kept going. It was like a scene from Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose, bunch of dudes sitting around a table eating fatty food and drinking coffee, telling lies, asking trivia questions and sometimes making up the answers. Jez, who is a healthy eater, chose the IHOP because it was the only place where Johnny could get cheap crepes the way he liked them.

We used to celebrate birthdays at the IHOP. Look at Facebook, you’ll see plenty of pictures from Unknown Vincent or possibly my brother from another mother, Andy Estes. Looking at them puts a smile on my face and a tear in my eye. Bruce was a friend and Johnny became a very close friend. The kind you worried about.

Johnny was born and died during the month of November. As I sit here wrapping this up, it’s his birthday, November 25, one day before my mother’s. He would be 92 now. He had a squeaky Brooklyn rasp and a sweet nature, could curse like a sailor, knew the filthiest jokes. He liked to eat crepes at the IHOP and wor wonton soup at the Chinese place and used to come to my house on the holidays and play our electric piano. He loved Bruce Hampton, who introduced Johnny to a new generation of fans and musicians and one my mother’s three sons, who kind of misses worrying about Johnny Knapp.

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.