Monday, August 13, 2012

Death By Misadventure: Tommy Bolin

Well my mind has been overflowin' 'bout some things that don't seem right.

Marc Campbell, who writes for the blog, Dangerous Minds has the best description of Tommy Bolin (whom he knew from the early 70s Boulder, Co. music scene) "If, as the brujo Don Juan claims, death is astride our left shoulder at all times, than Bolin was wearing his mortality like a swashbuckling pirate wears a majestic parrot. It wasn’t hard to miss" Over the course of his brief and mercurial career, Tommy wowed his fans with both his musical talent and his total disregard for moderation. 

Tommy Bolin was the precursor to all those speed riff players who honed their skills studying under various accomplished instructors (ala Randy Rhoads) Bolin however, was a natural, self taught, versatile and driven by a restless compulsion to learn. He was a brilliant jazz fusion guitarist, influenced by American jazz & popular composers (his composition "Owed to G" recorded with Deep Purple, was a tribute to George Gershwin) Bolin was also a silky rock guitarist with an acumen for experimentation, frequently stretching out beyond simple hard rock riffing.

Barely seventeen years old, and having been kick out of high school for refusing to cut his hair, Tommy Bolin arrived in Denver, Co. from Sioux City, Iowa in the fall of 1967. Tommy was practically homeless when he ran into Jeff Cook (who would later join Bolin in Energy) practicing with his band (Cross Town Bus) Tommy talked his way into a jam session with the band, the members were so impressed that they fired their guitarist and hired Bolin. Cross Town Bus then  became American Standard, and nabbed the gig as house band for The Family Dog.

Denver's Family Dog was affiliated with Chet Helms' San Francisco club of the same name. Barry Fey (a familiar name to Albuquerque concertgoers) was the house promoter, responsible for bringing in national acts such as Cream, Canned Heat, The Jefferson Airplane, The Doors, The Grateful Dead and even Jimi Hendrix. Eventually, Tommy tired of the human jukebox grind (the band played mostly covers) and joined keyboardist John Faris in the eclectic blues/rock/jazz fusion band Ethereal Zephyr (they were soon joined by the husband and wife duo, David & Candy Givens) 

By the time the band arrived at Wally Heider's studio in 1969, the group's name had been shortened to Zephyr. With Bill Halverson at the helm, Bolin & the band co-wrote most of the material for the album and Tommy exhibited playing skills far advanced for his age (18) The single release of "Cross the River" led to an appearance on American Bandstand, where Candy & Tommy lip synced the lyrics while the entire band hammed it up. Pretty heady stuff for a kid who just two years prior had been walking the streets of Denver, guitar in hand. 

The California Zephyr was a train that ran between San Francisco & Chicago, with a stop in Denver. Zephyr also denotes a west wind and is considered the mildest and most favorable of the directional winds. In the vernacular of Colorado mountain men the winds blowing eastward  off The Rockies were referred to as Zephyr winds. Originally the group may have derived its name from the train, but surely someone in the band was also reading Geoffrey Chaucer, who wrote of the "swete breth" of Zephryus, or Shakespeare "They are as gentle as zephyrs blowing below the violet"

In an interview David Givens explained: "If you have ever lived along the Front Range in Colorado, you know that the West wind can be gentle at times, but every now and then, it rages down out of the mountains at hurricane speed. We liked to think that our band was capable of those kinds of contrasts. The image of the powerful streamlined train combined with the many-faceted personality of the West wind embodied our vision of the music we played."

Zephyr didn't  gather momentum like a hurricane, due in part to Candy Givens' penchant for affected Janis Joplin vocals. Despite the best of efforts, the band's debut album sank like a stone, but it did set them up as an opening act for several established bands, including  Led Zeppelin.  The first "big name" band they opened for was John Mayall & The Blues Breakers. Tommy came out determined to show up Mick Taylor (who would soon join The Rolling Stones) Bolin blazed through his set and thoroughly outclassed Taylor, much to the delight of the crowd. Thus a legend was born.

And my gun is cocked and loaded, I hope I get me some sleep tonight.

With 20 year old Tommy Bolin firmly established as the focal point of the group's music, Zephyr blew to New York City to record their second album at Electric Lady Studios. Released in 1971 "Going Back to Colorado" was marred by producer Eddie Kramer's lack of focus & attention (he was still mourning the loss of Jimi Hendrix and had just broken up with Carly Simon) The album was a commercial disappointment. Tommy, dissatisfied with the musical direction of Zephyr, and not content to play back-up to Candy Givens quit to form Energy, a jazz fusion band. 

Energy created quite a buzz, for a band that never put out an album (several recordings were released posthumously) During this period, Bolin also played with Albert King. A man that Tommy credited with helping him take his talent to another level. "At the time I was playing everything I knew when I took a lead, and he said, Man! just say it all with one note"  Bolin said during an interview with Guitar World magazine "He taught me that it was much harder to be simple than to be complicated during solos, if you blow your cookies in the first bar, you have nowhere to go" 

Bolin returned to New York City and its budding jazz fusion scene. During his previous visit, Bolin had met and jammed with the cream of NYC's jazz fusion musicians, including Jan Hammer and Billy Cobham. Now Cobham (of the Mahavishnu Orchestra) called on him to play guitar  on his ground breaking album "Spectrum" In the studio Bolin was joined by Leland Sklar on bass and Jan Hammer, keyboardist (of Mahavishnu Orchestra and Miami Vice theme music fame) Spectrum was a highly influential and commercially successful album that opened many doors for Tommy Bolin.

It's a common misconception that Tommy replaced Joe Walsh in The James Gang. In actuality, Walsh had left the band in 1971 while Bolin was still recording with Zephyr. The future Eagle did however, relocate to Boulder where he started putting together his next band, Barnstorm. (Joe would nick two of Tommy's players from Energy, Kenny Passarelli & Tom Stephenson) Walsh became acquainted with Bolin during this period, and when The James Gang went looking for a replacement for guitarist Dominic Troiano (who left to join the Guess Who) Walsh recommended Tommy.

The James Gang had been around since 1966 and had gone through various personnel changes. Joe Walsh himself wasn't an original member, he had replaced Glenn Schwartz in 1968. (Schwartz went on to from the moderately successful rock band Pacific Gas & Electric) The James Gang was at it's best with Walsh, two iconic albums (Yer' Album & The James Gang Rides Again) and two popular singles (Funk 49 & Walk Away) helped establish them as a popular live act. Although, by the time Tommy came along, The James Gang had seen much better days.

Jim Fox, Dale Peters & Roy Kenner had misgiving about whether Bolin could play hard rock or not. But, after a blazing audition set, he was hired on the spot. For Tommy it was a good paying gig at a time when he was in need of a steady income. Bolin's status as an already popular guitarist  bolstered The James Gang's sagging box office potential, if only temporarily. Tommy brought with him a backlog of songs he had composed with Jeff Cook & John Tesar, this plethora formed the bulk of both albums that Bolin recorded with The James Gang.  

Tommy and The James Gang, hit the ground running, recording an album "Bang!", that sold well and produced a single "Must be Love" that surpassed all the band's previous efforts on the music charts. David Jeffries of Allmusic describes it this way: "feels less like a band album and more like talented studio musicians on the loose, but die-hard fans of either the Gang or the late Bolin will enjoy it, if only in fits and starts." The band cashed in with a heavy touring schedule before returning to the studio to record the follow-up album "Miami" recorded appropriately enough in Miami, Fl. 

"Miami" tanked, Allmusic's take: "Again, there was a noticeable lack of memorable songs, but Miami is worthwhile for guitar aficionados" Meaning that Tommy's performance was its sole redeeming factor. The attention lavished on Tommy led to tension between Bolin and lead singer Roy Kenner.  Contrary to his reputation as "the best replacement guitarist ever" his welcome was starting to wear thin. In retrospect, Tommy's stints with both The James Gang and Deep Purple were marred when his drug problems began to manifest themselves.

Don't let your mind post-toastee, Like a lot of my friends did.

With Tommy Bolin, drug abuse was always the 800 lb. gorilla in the room. His desire to burn hard & burn fast was taking its toll, resulting in cancelled shows and sub par concert performances. Bolin left The James Gang in August of 1974. His use of drugs had grown to legendary proportions and whenever he set out on tour  there was often speculation around Boulder whether he would make it back alive or not. After a few months spent trying to put together a band in Colorado, Tommy left for Los Angeles to seek out better opportunities, he wouldn't have long to wait.

Alphonse Mouzon, the drummer for Weather Report was inspired by Billy Cobham's Spectrum album, he set about recording his own jazz fusion masterpiece. Naturally, this meant that he had to have Tommy in his band. Bolin had just finished up some session work for an album by Dr. John (Tommy's leads were eventually scrubbed from the project) So he eagerly joined Mouzon at  Wally Heider's in Hollywood. The recording sessions were completed in December of 1974. The resulting album "Mind Transplant" was a raw and powerful fusion of musical styles. 

Unlike "Spectrum" Tommy shared the guitar spotlight with noted session player Jay Graydon and jazz guitarist Lee Ritenour, who like Tommy was a young rising star on the jazz fusion scene. Keyboards and bass were handled by Jerry Peters and Henry Davis. After finishing up with the "Mind Transplant" sessions, Tommy began working on his first solo album. The sessions for "Teaser" took place in New York City, and during some down time at the studio, Tommy was asked to record some leads for Moxy (a Canadian hard rock band)  

Earl Johnson, the lead guitarist for Moxy had a falling out with the producer, and it just so happened that Bolin was in the studio at the same time. Tommy effortlessly laid down some blistering leads for the band, a feat that only added to his ever growing legend. On his solo album, Tommy had intended to record with Mike Finnigan on vocals, that fell through and he wound up doing the vocals himself. (Jan Hammer, Stanley Sheldon, Jeff Porcaro and a cast of many accompanied him) Work on the album was put off in June 1975, when Tommy received an invitation to join Deep Purple.

Ritchie Blackmore had just left Deep Purple, so the band had a choice between folding up or hiring another guitarist, they chose to continue. Lead singer David Coverdale claims that being familiar with the "Spectrum" album, he suggested that they audition Bolin in Los Angeles. Coverdale described the scene:  "He walked in, thin as a rake, his hair coloured green, yellow and blue with feathers in it. Slinking along beside him was this stunning Hawaiian girl in a crochet dress with nothing on underneath. He plugged into four Marshall 100-watt stacks and...the job was his"

On his part, Bolin claimed that Ritchie Blackmore himself recommended him to the band and not David Coverdale. Tommy had it written into his contract that he could finish up "Teaser" while working with Deep Purple. (when the album finally came out, a sticker reminded everyone that Tommy was also the lead guitarist for Deep Purple)  Bolin and his band mates immediately started work on a new album "Come Taste the Band" Tommy's arrival didn't go over well with all of Deep Purple's followers (or some ex-members) 

"Who is this bloke and why is he ruining my favorite band?" was the question raised by many hardcore fans, especially after some of Bolin's sloppy stage performances. Tommy really had no intentions of joining a band, he truly intended to focus on his solo career. However, his dire financial state, meant that he had to compromise. "Come Taste the Band" and "Teaser" were released at almost the same time. Tommy's solo album lost out as all his touring efforts went towards Deep Purple. "Teaser" released on Nemperor Records languished on the charts. 

"Come Taste the Band" despite mixed reviews was a commercial success. (it was certified Silver, selling well over 100,000 copies) Former lead singer Ian Gillan (who had left the band two years prior) on the other hand, has stated that he does not view the album as a real Deep Purple album.  Although Tommy Bolin brought a funk edge to their hard rock sound, that revitalized a dying band,  he couldn't wait to put some distance between himself and Deep Purple. Before he could quit however, Jon Lord and Ian Paice folded the band (seemingly for good) in March of 1976.

From people that I been meetin', Seems I got to beware.

Tommy returned to California and put together a group of musicians that came to be known as The Tommy Bolin Band (Mark Stein from Vanilla Fudge on keyboards, Norma Jean Bell from Frank Zappa’s band on sax, Reggie McBride on bass, and drummer Narada Michael Walden of the  Mahavishnu Orchestra, he had replaced Billy Cobham and played on Jeff Beck's Wired album) This was the original lineup, as Tommy's drug use spiraled up and down, musicians came and went.

During this same period (May, 1976) Tommy was breaking up with his girlfriend Karen Ulibarri (she would later marry Deep Purple bassist Glen Hughes, who was having drug problems of his own) When Tommy (playing loaded) almost fell off the stage at the Bottom Line during a showcase performance attended by executives from Tommy's record label, the fallout was immediate. Narada Michael Walden, fed up quit the band after the show. Nat Weiss the head of Nemperor Records advised Barry Fey (now acting as Tommy's manager) to find Bolin another label. 

Through Fey, Tommy was able to sign with Columbia. His new label pushed hard to make Bolin a headline act, but no effort was made to address his obvious drug issues. Mark Stein left the band for that reason, disgusted at the lack of action taken by management to help Tommy clean up. Bolin tried to kick on his own, he stopped using heroin, but not cocaine and alcohol. The Private Eyes tour kicked off prior to the album release in Albuquerque, July 16th 1976, venue unknown (probably the old Civic Auditorium) 

He then opened for Rush, ZZ Top, Jeff Beck & Peter Frampton (during Feyline's Summer of '76 concert series at Mile High, Tommy ran into his old pal Stanley Sheldon, who was now playing with Peter Frampton. He broke down in tears, visibly upset that Frampton's level of success had eluded him) When Tommy lost his voice after a drinking binge, the tour was shelved until the addition of  Johnnie Bolin (Tommy's brother) and Jimmy Haslip in August. 

Bolin's second solo album "Private Eyes" was released in September of 1976, produced by Dennis McKay & Tommy Bolin. The backing musicians consisted mostly of The Tommy Bolin Band minus Narada Michael Walden (Carmen Appice sat in on one track while Bobby Berge nursed a hangover) "Private Eyes" was a more conventional rock album than "Teaser" a blatant attempt by Columbia to get Tommy more FM radio play. It did accomplish that, as "Post Toastee", "Shake the Devil" and "Bustin' out for Rosie" all became FM rock staples. 

If you were to judge him by his best known solo composition "Post Toastee" you would think he was nothing more than a hedonistic rock & roller hell bound on self destruction. Sadly, there is an element of truth in all assumptions concerning Bolin. "Post Toastee"  is actually meant to be a cautionary tale. Tommy was starting to realize that the only one holding him back was himself. Advice is one thing, following it is another. Ultimately it was his haphazard "catch me when I fall" circle of friends that failed him the most. 

Well I don't know what went wrong, I hope I get me some sleep tonight.

Dec. 3rd. 1976, The Tommy Bolin Band opened for Jeff Beck at the Jai-Alai Fronton in Miami, Fl. By all accounts his performance was inspired and Tommy closed his set with a rousing performance of "Post Toastee" Afterwards Bolin and his entourage retreated to the Newport Hotel. Tommy drank at the bar with several friends before going to the room of L.C. Clayton, his bodyguard at 1:00 am on Dec. 4th. A small party was taking place, Tommy ran into a childhood friend, Phil Tolimeni and a man known only as Art. According to Clayton, Bolin asked Tolimeni if they could talk in private.

The three men (Bolin, Tolimeni & Art) went into Clayton's bathroom together, supposedly to talk about a business venture that Tolimeni could help Tommy with. They were in the bathroom for six minutes, upon exiting the three left Clayton's room and walked to Bolin's room, where another party was in full swing. There they continued their "business" discussions. At approx. 2:00 am. while talking on the phone, Tommy suddenly collapsed. Tolimeni called Clayton's room for help. Clayton, guitar tech David Brown, roadie Jeff Ocheltree and Bolin's current girlfriend Valeria Monzeglio quickly responded. 

Tommy was placed in the shower, Clayton quizzed Tolimeni and Art as to what drugs Bolin had taken. Both said "He shot H" however a few minutes later Tolimeni changed his story and said emphatically "No, No he snorted heroin" As the minutes ticked away, color returned to Bolin's face and he seemed to breath easier. His friends then helped him to bed. At 3:12 am David Brown called the hotel emergency number and spoke to the physician on duty, Dr.  Ira Jacobson. Brown told the doctor that Bolin had taken Valium and alcohol and that they couldn't wake him up. 

Dr. Jacobson suspecting that Brown wasn't telling him everything, warned him that Tommy could die and that they should get him to the emergency room at North Miami General immediately. Brown told Jacobson that he was afraid of the bad publicity, but assured him that they would take Bolin to the hospital.  Brown would say: "I got a bit worried a few times in the past when he drank a bit too much and passed out, He looked the same, acted the same. I'm not a doctor. I asked Jacobson what was the main way to judge things like that and he said, 'Is he conscious?'

At that point according to David Brown, Tommy came to and mumbled "L.C. I'm glad you're here" and then rubbed his eyes, to Brown he seemed coherent.  "It's happened many, many times before. If I had called an ambulance and had an emergency squad come down here, the publicity would have jeopardized the band that he'd worked very hard to keep with him." Clayton rubbed Tommy's body for over an hour, he would later state that he found no needle marks on Bolin. Tommy is said to have opened his eyes and talked a couple of times.

A call was never placed to the emergency room, the men left the room leaving Valeria Monzeglio alone with Bolin. His pulse rate dropped sharply and finally at 7:00 am she called for an ambulance. When the paramedics and police arrived, Bolin was already dead. The cause of death was an overdose of heroin, although the medical examiner's report showed that he had ingested a lethal cocktail of drugs (cocaine, barbiturates and alcohol) L.C. Clayton would recall that "There must have been a thousand maids and bellboys in the hall, it was a circus" 

Tommy Bolin died practically penniless, according to Barry Fey he was burning through $8000 to $10,000 per week. Columbia had deep pockets, but they were getting tired of footing the bill. His former girlfriend Karen Ulibarri described Tommy, "He was innocent to a fault. He was like a charming little kid -- people just let him have what he wanted, and if they didn't give it to him, he'd find someone who would"  Tommy Bolin was buried in the family plot at Sioux City, Iowa. On his finger, Ulibarri placed a ring that Jimi Hendrix was wearing on the day he died. 

Footnotes: Nemperor Records was primarily a jazz & pop label, which at the time Bolin signed with them, was distributed by Atlantic Records (It's currently owned by Sony Music) The label was originally founded by Brian Epstein and Nat Weiss as a management company. In 1974 Nemperor branched out as a record label. Nemperor was also home to popular 80s new wave band, The Romantics.

Candy Givens was the daughter of a Colorado outlaw and came from a family of trainrobbers and gamblers. Her vocal style, can best be described as a caterwauling mix of Grace Slick & Janis Joplin. Although folks around Colorado swore she was better than Joplin, her career never really got off the ground.

In January of 1984, Givens got into an argument with her boyfriend. She then consumed a large quantity of tequila, grabbed a handful of Quaalude, drew a hot bath and locked the door behind her.  Candy passed out, slid under the surface and drowned.