I wrote this a day after Col. Bruce Hampton died, for Atlanta magazine. I was still numb, working my way through tears and confusion over the loss of this man, who had become my friend over the last eight or nine years. He had many friends. Bruce collected people. He could guess your birthday the first time he met you, but that barely scratches the surface of his magic. The story below is slightly edited from the Atlanta magazine version, because this is my blog and I can say things here that I couldn’t or wouldn’t say there.
I heard Col. Bruce Hampton say on several occasions that he’d probably die on stage, eventually—that he’d prefer to die there, actually. I didn’t really take him seriously. Shit, he didn’t want to be taken seriously. But then, “eventually” arrived.
Even when Bruce collapsed on stage during the encore of his 70th birthday all-star jam, Monday just before midnight at the Fox Theatre, most of us — the 4,500 friends and fans in attendance, including the musicians around him, figured this was another one of the stunts he’d become famous for in his 50-plus years of performing. In other words, we’d all seen him fall on stage before.
“The guys that have played in bands with him for years said he’d pulled some shtick like this,” said John Bell, lead singer for Widespread Panic, part of the evening’s star-studded lineup and one of the 27 musicians performing during the encore performance of “Turn on Your Love Light.”
It’s important to note here that Bruce, often referred to as the patriarch of the jam band scene, preferred the brass-infused original R&B recording of “Love Light” by Bobby “Blue” Bland over the Grateful Dead rendering, adding his own version of the Bland signature growl to Monday night’s performance.
“I sound like everyone I’ve stolen from,” Hampton told me several years ago, when I started gathering material for a book about him. At the time, it seemed like a straight-forward proposition. How little I knew.
“Another guy tried to write a book about me, but it was insane—filled with space ships and spies and things that made no sense,” Hampton said, adding later that this was his 165th trip to the Planet Earth, “the only planet in the solar system with aluminum.”
Then he correctly guessed my birthday, and I correctly answered his baseball trivia questions, and he invited me to his Tuesday lunches, and our extended, wide-ranging bullshit sessions lasted until Monday night and will someday yield a book that now has a different and somewhat sadder ending than the one I’d intended.
Anyway, that Bobby Bland growl was the last thing Bruce (who actually turned 70 on April 30) performed, with intent, on stage. Then, his back to the audience at stage right, he motioned to 14-year-old guitar wunderkind, Brandon “Taz” Niederauer, to step up and take a solo. As the young star of Broadway’s “School of Rock: The Musical” began shredding, Bruce lowered himself to his knees, arms in front as if paying homage to the guitarist — another one of the musicians Bruce has fostered over the years, helping to find success and stardom.
A fine athlete for most of his life (and he would have been the first one to tell you), Bruce could throw a tight spiral, or make a hook shot from half court, or pull off a pratfall without injuring himself. At least, he could in his younger days. This wasn’t that. But even as he collapsed, he had the presence of mind (or a physical sixth sense) to brace himself, cradling a speaker with his left arm before lying, face down, on the stage, like he was playing dead.
He lay there, and the band played, and no one in the Fox, except perhaps Bruce had a clue. How could we? He’d always been the great trickster, a free range artist who wrote music and poetry and drew pictures and acted and could also speak fluent hyperbole, the kind you wanted to believe.
“Eighty-eight percent of my stories are true and the rest are embellished,” he warned me once. “Mythocracy is where I live. I’d rather have somebody laugh at something I say than learn the weight of an onion in Idaho.”
After the ambulance came and carried Hampton away to Emory University Midtown Hospital, a small group huddled on Ponce de Leon Avenue near banjo picker Jeff Mosier, a longtime Hampton collaborator, who said, “We’ve all seen him do this kind of thing so many times—some of us were going to get down on the stage, too.”
Everyone thought he was joking. The Atlanta music legend who cried wolf.
“Pretty quickly,” Bell observed, “it all turned very real.”
On a typical Monday night, Bruce would have been playing team trivia at the Local 7, a tavern in Tucker, instead of playing the last gig of his life, which may have also have been one of the best gigs of his life.
The stellar lineup included Chuck Leavell, Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, John Popper, Tinsley Ellis, most of Widespread Panic, John Fishman from Phish, former Cy Young Award winner (and a decent guitar player) Jake Peavy, Oliver Wood, and piano player Johnny Knapp, among others—“artists that Bruce has fostered in some way,” said Leavell, who added, “he’s certainly been one of the most influential and inspirational human beings I’ve ever known.”
After hanging backstage for most of the evening, Bruce came out to play for the last hour or so, with a set list that included the prescient “Fixin’ to Die” and his most well-known song, the ironically-titled “Basically Frightened.”
“The truth is, Bruce was fearless, and one of the things he instilled in all of us as musicians and artists was to be fearless, and never let boundaries get in the way of expressing yourself,” Leavell said.
The oldest person on stage was the 88-year-old Johnny Knapp, a former jazzman who started gigging with Bruce about five years ago and became the centerpiece at the Tuesday lunches Bruce organized. Johnny, who left the stage before the encore, was sitting in the wings in his wheelchair near Bruce, who was waiting to go back on.
“I told him, ‘Well, you’ve got five minutes, then it’s all over.’ And he said, ‘Johnny, I’ll be glad when it’s all over,’” Knapp said. “I thought we were talking about the concert. Maybe we weren’t.”
When it was all over, and word came to Johnny and to everyone else who waited downtown into the wee hours of Tuesday that the Colonel had died, the arc of Hampton’s remarkable story landed right where he predicted, or hoped, it would—one last show, one last note, then out.
“It hurts to say this, but there’s something sadly poetic about the way things happened,” Leavell said. “As if Bruce had already written the last sentence on the last page of the last chapter of his story.”