By Greg Prato (Submitted by Greg Prato)

Tommy Bolin played guitar with some of the biggest names in ’70s rock. With a fiery and technical style, he helped bridge the gap between the Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen ‘generations.’ He had the looks and the talent, but also a deadly drug addiction. Classic Rock takes a look at the tragic career of a guitar great, through bandmates, friends, and family.

The early 1970s was a great time for guitar heroes. Ritchie Blackmore, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton and their peers were at he top of their game, but most adhered to a style rooted in the blues. Moreover, in the wake of Jimi Hendrix’s death, almost all the six-strong gods came from England.

American Tommy Bolin, a native of Sioux City, Iowa, was a notable exception. Best described as the David Bowie of the guitar, Bolin jumped from one playing style to the next — making each one his own, before quickly discarding it for the next.

Glenn Hughes, Bolin’s one-time bandmate in Deep Purple, agrees with this assessment. “Tommy was different, wasn’t he? He had a very South American-flavored, Brazilian, reggae-ish way of playing guitar:, it wasn’t European. It was be-boppy, it was jazz, it was everything Deep Purple weren’t. He was a genius.”

Born on August 1, 1951, Tommy Bolin discovered rock n’ roll via Elvis Presley, and got his first guitar when he was 10. Although he did time with such bands as Denny and The Triumphs, Patch of Blue, and The Velaires, he became increasingly fed up with the going-nowhere local music scene. He told his parents he was relocating to the then-musical hotbed of Denver, Colorado.

As Bolin’s brother, Johnnie, recalls: “Mom and dad were behind him 100%. I mean, to let a kid go hitchhike to Denver at 15, it’s not like they didn’t care, but he said, ‘That’s what I really want to do.’ And my mom didn’t like the fact that they kept throwing him out of school because of his long hair.”

The greatest classic rock tune you never heard

Although Tommy Bolin’s discography is littered with songs that in a perfect world, would have been hits, one in particular stands out — “Alexis.” A gorgeous tune about lost young love set in the south of the U.S., it features one of Tommy’s best vocal performances (his first ever on record), while the music slowly builds before erupting in a smoldering solo. The song made its official debut on the James Gang’s Bang album.

“I think it’s one of the best songs he ever did,” praises co-writer Jeff Cook. “It had sensitivity, strong lyric imagery, and the music fit the mood of the song very well.”

Stanley Sheldon recalls that Energy did in fact “Record a version of that, early on in Boulder. Tommy, I, and [drummer] Joe Vitale cut that track. It was a really good version — it never got to vinyl, but our version I liked a lot better."

Brother Johnnie Bolin recalls the song’s initial recording. “I was at the studio when he first did ‘Alexis.’ It was a 16-track in Boulder, and he turned the lights off. He was kind of unsure of himself as a singer. He sang all the time, but he didn’t think he was a good enough singer to be a singer.”

Interestingly, years later, the song’s lyrics came true for Cook. “I wrote the lyrics to that. The song was just a piece of fiction. When I wrote the song, I’d never been to Atlanta, I’d never been to New Orleans, and the lyrics were all just imagination. But what’s very interesting, is that whole song came true in my life. Ten years later, I ended up moving to Atlanta, meeting a woman younger than myself, marrying her, and having a daughter — so we named her Alexis. And her whole family was actually from New Orleans. So the song actually came true.”

Cook: “I live in the constant hope that someday, somebody will cover that song. Because I still believe it could be a hit song.”

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This article was originally published in Classic Rock magazine, issue 86. To subscribe go to www.classicrockmagazine.co.uk.
Thanks to Greg Prato for helping to secure authorization for us to present this story.