An undervalued or forgotten gem you may have overlooked.
By James Halbert (Submitted by Wally Z)

The album Private Eyes contains some sensational music, but there are additional reasons why it holds a special place in the Tommy Bolin story.

Recorded just six months before the some-time James Gang and Deep Purple guitarist overdosed in a Miami motel room on December 4, 1976, Bolin’s second solo album had cover art which was later interpreted as a portent of doom: Bolin is pictured enjoying the hospitality of oriental women in what could pass for an opium den (or, equally, a photographer’s studio), but intrigue was to center on the cover’s Japanese lettering. The character ‘Tomi’ means ‘fortune,’ while the character ‘Bo’ means ‘grave.’ More fascinating still is the fact that stand-out track “Post Toastee” — on which Bolin’s lyrics mourn drug-casualty friends, while trying to get a handle on his own excesses — was Tommy’s set-closer at a Miami sports arena just 10 hours before his death.

Bolin, from Sioux City, Iowa, had influences as diverse as Duke Ellington and Jeff Beck. When Joe Walsh’s recommendation secured him a place in the James Gang in August, 1973, the group were taken enough to allow Bolin’s songwriting to completely dominate their next album, Bang.

Bolin’s solo career kicked in alongside a later, short tenure with Deep Purple, with David Coverdale having led the charge to get him into the band when Ritchie Blackmore left Purple to form Rainbow in April 1975.

Together with bassist/vocalist Glenn Hughes, Bolin brought soul and funk to Purple on their album Come Taste The Band. Touring commitments with Purple limited promo opportunities for his own, newly recorded solo debut Teaser. Hughes and Bolin’s ‘inappropriate’ musical leanings and the UK’s reluctance to accept Bolin as Blackmore’s replacement were factors in Deep Purple Mk. III’s demise.

For Bolin, the upshot was the opportunity to revamp his solo career with Private Eyes. Despite a growing heroin problem which often rendered him “completely out of it” in the studio, that jazz, bossa nova and fusion-tinged record bears testament to his versatility as a songwriter, and to his relaxed and classy vocal style. There’s no shortage of rip-roaring guitar solos, either.

Whereas Teaser drew on session players, Private Eyes utilised the ‘official’ Tommy Bolin Band. On the record’s sleeve, the guitarist describes them as the most wonderful band I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with.” Norma Jean Bell warrants special mention. Her superb, funky sax is well to the fore on “Bustin’ Out For Rosey,” and her backing vocals lend oomph throughout the album. She’d previously played with Frank Zappa and John McLaughlin, but said she liked Bolin’s playing best. “He could go from rock to jazz to blues to funk, and he had a wonderful tone,” she said.

Bolin’s break-up with his long-term girlfriend (she would soon date Glenn Hughes) might explain “You Told Me That You Loved Me.” “Shake the Devil,” meanwhile, is one of several co-writes with Jeffrey Cook, a friend since teenage years, and was reportedly inspired by Exorcist star Linda Blair, one of Bolin’s more short-term relationships. The said song’s bottom-heavy rifferama exemplifies a reverb-soaked production that some found wanting. That fat percussion sound, though, is one of the strengths of Private Eyes.

The nine-minute epic “Post Toastee” is the track that really sets the heather alight. Often featured as a piece of incidental music on Tommy Vance’s old Radio One slot The Friday Rock Show, it’s a little-known classic featuring exotic percussion, swathes of incisive lead guitar, and great vocal harmonies from Bell. The album version was reportedly edited down from a take lasting almost twice as long. If the master-tape still exists, it would be wonderful to hear that un-pruned version.

IN A NUTSHELL: Heroin-troubled guitar legend records wonderful swansong after demise of Deep Purple Mk. III.

Copyright © Future Publishing
This article was originally published in Classic Rock magazine, issue 51. To subscribe go to www.classicrockmagazine.co.uk.
Thanks to Wally Z for helping to secure authorization for us to present this story.