THE BAND:

Late March 1976 - late May 1976
Tommy Bolin: guitar, vocals
Mark Stein: keyboards, vocals
Norma Jean Bell: sax, vocals
Reggie McBride: bass
Narada Michael Walden: drums, vocals

Late May 1976 - Late July 1976
Tommy Bolin: guitar, vocals
Mark Stein: keyboards, vocals
Norma Jean Bell: sax, vocals
Reggie McBride: bass
Bobbie Berge: drums

Late August 1976 - early October 1976
Tommy Bolin: guitar, vocals
Mark Stein: keyboards, vocals
Norma Jean Bell: sax, vocals
Jimmy Haslip: bass
Johnnie Bolin: drums

Early October 1976 - December 3, 1976
Tommy Bolin: guitar, vocals
Max Gronenthal: keyboards, vocals
Norma Jean Bell: sax,vocals
Jimmy Haslip: bass
Mark Craney: drums

THE STORY:

On March 15, 1976 Deep Purple Mk 4 played their final show ever at the Empire Theatre in Liverpool. Overnight Tommy Bolin went from playing guitar in one of the most successful rock bands ever to scrambling to reinvigorate his solo career, which had been put partly on hold while he concentrated on Deep Purple.

In some respects the seeds for a Tommy Bolin band had been sown in January 1975 when Tommy was recording his Teaser album and working toward building a band to tour in its support in between work with Deep Purple. Tommy, along with Stanley Sheldon on bass, Ronnie Baron on keyboards and vocals, and Bobby Berge on drums gelled into an act that auditioned for some labels but ended up fizzling out, and a mini tour for Teaser ended up not happening. At the time of the recording sessions Berge was in solid stead playing drums for Buddy Miles, and Sheldon had joined Peter Frampton’s band in time to ride the wave of the incredibly successful Frampton Comes Alive. Both experienced running from sessions for their main bands to doing sessions for Teaser, and both would be unavailable when Tommy formed a touring lineup after leaving Deep Purple.

When Tommy put together what is usually referred to as the first lineup of the Tommy Bolin Band, the members were Tommy Bolin on guitar and vocals, Mark Stein from Vanilla Fudge on keyboards and vocals, Norma Jean Bell from Frank Zappa’s band on sax and vocals, Reggie McBride on bass, and top fusion drummer Narada Michael Walden on drums and vocals. Stein had first met Tommy at a Deep Purple show at Long Beach Arena in California. There to see his old friends Jon Lord and Ian Paice, Stein was impressed by Tommy’s performance and stage presence. Stein heard later that Tommy was putting a solo band together just as Stein was forming a band with Reggie McBride on bass. McBride had been catching the industry buzz about Tommy and was very interested in the gig. After separate rehearsals with Tommy at SIR Studios in Los Angeles Stein and McBride were on board.

The band played their first two shows on April 28, 1976 at the La Paloma Theater in Encinitas. The shows went well and the spirits of the band and their industry support were very high. The quality of shows varied over the coming months varied, however, as Tommy’s drug use spiraled up and down. Another factor affecting Tommy was that when he had left Deep Purple he was having problems with long-time girlfriend Karen Ulibarri, who would eventually marry Deep Purple bassist/singer Glenn Hughes. That situation resulted in confusion and depression during the first few months of the band’s life that took Tommy some time to overcome.

Tommy’s performance at Ebbets Field in Denver on May 13, 1976 did not equal his absolute powerhouse performances with a lineup of friends at the same venue in 1974. The band as a whole played well at the Ebbets show, the disappointment for Tommy’s fans was that he laid out of so many of the solos, letting Norma Jean take them on sax. Tommy had set a very high bar for thrilling and compelling guitar work, and fans coming to get smothered in it were disappointed. Tommy had stated that he wanted the band to be a real band rather than just his backup band, so Norma Jean taking some solos would have been appropriate within that paradigm, but for the band to really break big they needed their beloved and admired star player to shine front and center. Tommy went on to play a stronger set at My Father’s Place on May 22, 1976, and the show is well worth hearing on the Tommy Bolin Archives’ The Tommy Bolin Band: Alive on Long Island CD.

Then Tommy almost fell off the stage during the band’s show on May 26, 1976 at the Bottom Line in New York City, an event which was witnessed by executives from Tommy’s label, Nemporer Records. The Bottom Line fiasco particularly affected Walden, who had been relishing taking a hot band into one of the hallmark rooms for intense music, and quit the band after the show. It also brought about Nemporer Records head Nat Weiss asking Tommy’s manager Barry Fey to find a new label for Tommy. Fey’s friend Jonathan Coffino helped them get a deal with Columbia, and even though some damage had been done Tommy continued to have label support. The original lineup is well-represented on the Tommy Bolin Archives’ First Time Live CDs, which contains both of those first brilliant shows.

After Walden’s departure the lineup remained the same except for the addition of Bobby Berge on drums. Live recordings of this lineup are sort of a black hole in the collector’s domain, but this was the band that recorded Private Eyes, so the Berge period resulted in one of Tommy’s crown jewels. Berge played on the Private Eyes tour in the second half of July. The tour opened in Albuquerque and included a rave up jam after Tommy, Mark and Bobby jumped up on stage with Santana. At the end of July Berge left the band, stating in a later interview that Tommy pushed him into a swimming pool as a joke, but Bobby’s reaction was rage and he left a few days later.

Bassist Reggie McBride left at the same time as Bobby, so the bass and drum spots were filled respectively by Jimmy Haslip and Tommy’s brother Johnnie. Mark Stein had met Haslip at a recording session, so Haslip came in for an audition and the result was that the new lineup played their first show together at Mile High Stadium in Denver on August 29, 1976. A film of the show circulates in collectors’ circles, but correct audio for it may not exist. In a sense the Mile High show was an Energy family reunion, as Energy bassist Stanley Sheldon was with playing with Peter Frampton and Energy keyboardist Tom Stephenson was playing with Gary Wright on the same bill, which was one of Feyline’s Summer Of ’76 concert series. Upon meeting up with Sheldon Tommy broke down in tears, distraught that his band hadn’t broken on a commercial level to rival Frampton.

This lineup is well represented on some Tommy Bolin Archives releases, including shows from September 19 and 20 opening for the Blue Oyster Cult at the Palace Theatre. Tommy’s new label, Columbia Records, was investing heavily in moving Tommy to being a headline act, and many shows, including these, were recorded for radio broadcast. In the case of the Albany show on September 19 the target was the King Biscuit Flower Hour, but the results were not deemed worthy of a straight commercial release due mostly to technical problems with the sound system. As an opening act Tommy was not being allowed sound checks, and there have even been rumors of sabotage, so in spite of the label support and radio opportunities the band remained in the position of opening for other bands and being at the mercy of their sound crews. Another consequence of being an opening act were the relatively short sets they were allowed, having to shut down right as they were really warming up.

From a performance standpoint, Tommy was regaining his consistency compared to the period with the original lineup. Haslip and Stein have both stated that they were trying to get Tommy to tone down his lifestyle and keep his health up, and Tommy was beginning to recognize that he was jeopardizing the upper limits of his solo career. As the heroin episodes decreased, however, alcohol was moving in to somewhat take up the slack. Eric Clapton had gone through a similar travail as he tried to escape heroin and hit the alcohol hard for a number of years before finally getting totally clean. The heroin and coke weren’t gone, but Tommy’s performances were often energetic and supplied some guitar thrills unique to each show.

The additions of Johnnie Bolin and Jimmy Haslip gave the band a harder hitting rock sound than the original lineup. Haslip was well-schooled in the progressive fusion chops that McBride had displayed, but arguably rocked out more with his percussive style and punchy notes. Johnnie Bolin’s drumming was more straightforward than Walden’s, and in an arena setting that would fit the bill better for a rock crowd. McBride and Walden had proved they could rock hard though on a number of tracks, so it also happens that the focus on Tommy’s presentation was changing from a fusion rock act to a straight but sophisticated rock act and Johnnie and Jimmy dropped right into place. And indeed with Columbia’s support the band was moving from the more intimate venues of the first lineup into arenas, albeit as an opening act.

Haslip in particular was a fantastic band mate for Tommy in terms of style, chops and inspiring musicality, but was in part responsible for Johnnie Bolin electing to leave the band. Johnnie has stated that Norma Jean Bell had been critical of his drumming, that while Johnnie wasn’t playing “wrong” he wasn’t playing like Narada Michael Walden or jazz-trained drummers that worked with Frank Zappa. Johnnie also felt like he was having a hard time keeping up with Jimmy Haslip, though performance recordings of them together show them to play very well together, and one never gets the sense that Johnnie’s drumming was lacking. Johnnie’s last show was on October 10 in St. Louis, MS.

Mark Stein was also coming to the end of his time in the band, as he was no longer in harmony with management and what he perceived as their lack of action in helping to get Tommy to clean up. Stein stayed long enough to audition drummer Mark Craney at Pirate Sound in Hollywood. Stein then left and was replaced by keyboardist/vocalist Max Gronenthal. Mark Stein retained a strong friendship with Tommy after he split from the band, and his friendship extended to Tommy’s family after Tommy’s death later that year.

One consequence of losing Stein and Narada Michael Walden was that more pressure was put on Tommy to sing all of the lead vocals in the sets. Walden’s featured song “Delightful,” which was better presented in smaller venues because of its sing-along aspect and drum explorations, may not have been missed as much as the loss of Mark Stein’s often-gorgeous “I Fell in Love” after the band moved into larger rooms and arenas, but both songs had taken some singing weight off Tommy. Indeed Tommy was now singing lead for the entire shows, and in some cases you can hear his fatigue. Tommy not fronted a band as lead singer before the Tommy Bolin Band, and despite his tremendous strides to learn to strengthen his singing he had been thrown into the deep water quickly.

New drummer Mark Craney, who would go on to play with Jethro Tull, Eric Burdon and Tower of Power, proved to give the band an incredible shot in the arm. As with Bobby Berge, Craney was a native of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, but ended up being recommended through his association with Max Gronenthal, who would himself join the band to replace Mark Stein. Mark Craney passed away on November 26, 2005 at age 53 from pneumonia. The drummer had fought a long battle with diabetes that required two kidney transplants.

Nebraska native Max Gronenthal had first met Tommy in Omaha, Nebraska in late 1971 when Energy passed through. In early 1973 Gronenthal joined the final lineup of Energy as a replacement for both vocalist Jeff Cook and keyboardist Tom Stephenson. Gronenthal would go on to do session work for artist such as Rod Stewart and Elton John, and in 1985 joined the popular .38 Special under his stage name of Max Carl.

Craney’s drumming had a pronounced effect on bassist Jimmy Haslip, and they quickly became a rhythm section that any progressive rock or jazz band would envy, yet pounding it home hard in a rock format. This resulted in Tommy turning in some of his most exciting performances with the Tommy Bolin Band. He was gaining more confidence in his singing, and in general his guitar playing was tight and inspired. His offstage partying wasn’t showing up onstage as often as in some of the earlier shows that year, though on November 16, 1976 at New Orleans’ Jazz City Studios he drank champagne before the show and made some bloopers that he laughed off. Those glitches at Jazz City are in large part overshadowed by his powerhouse performances on some of the tunes, such as the beautiful sheets of sound he made with his Echoplex in the end section of “Post Toastee.”

The Jazz City audio also shows that Max Gronenthal was still getting his sea legs with the keyboard parts. Mark Stein had been in on the creation of the Private Eyes material that made up a large part of the band’s set, and his super solid parts on keys during his tenure with the band were going to be hard to replace. Also, though he was a very accomplished singer Gronenthal did not sing lead on any of the tunes the band were presenting in their live sets, but added strong backup along with Norma Jean Bell. The label and Barry Fey were putting the focus on Tommy as a star, and the intriguing opportunity of hearing a great singer like Max carry the vocals on some of their future material was never fulfilled. Gronenthal and Tommy did write some material together, including “Faded Satin Lady,” which Max went on to record with other musicians after Tommy’s death.

The band rolled into Tommy’s home town of Sioux City to play a show on November 22, 1976. No audio from this show has shown up in collectors’ circles, though by all accounts it was a good one. A short break in the tour allowed Tommy to spend Thanksgiving with his family. On Thanksgiving Day Tommy picked up an old acoustic guitar and played songs like “Wildwood Flower” in his parents’ living room with other the other Bolins joining in on spoons, harmonica or whatever they could grab.

On the evening of November 24 he and some of the cream of the Sioux City music scene got together to play at the Jet Bar. Parts of that jam session were released by the Tommy Bolin Archives on the Tommy Bolin: Live at the Jet Bar CD, and show Tommy in healthy, happy form. Players included guitarists Roger Rothwell and John Bartle, drummers Johnnie Bolin and Mark Craney, and bassist George Larvick, who Tommy had played with in Patch of Blue. Roger Rothwell related in 2006 that he had a conversation with Tommy at his parents’ house during this hiatus. Rothwell said that Tommy did not come off as having any kind of star attitude among his friends, and indeed was basically the same Tommy that Roger had always known and was a pleasure to be with. This is heartening information for fans who have read or heard some of the negative aspects of Tommy’s behavior in 1976, that the young man that so many people liked on a personal level was still there.

Indeed it was a happy, healthy Tommy that would play a great show on December 3, 1976 opening for Jeff Beck at the Jai Alai Fronton sports arena. What would turn out to be Tommy’s final performance was exceptional, and it was a triumphant Tommy that would retire to the Newport Hotel to celebrate with friends and ultimately pass away under multiple drug intoxication. Tommy’s final show was released by the Tommy Bolin Archives as The Tommy Bolin Band: Live in Miami at Jai-Alai, and shows the power of the Haslip/Craney lineup.

It was Tommy’s last show, but it was a very good one. All of the performances by the Haslip/Craney lineup are very good, maybe someday some more of them can see official release. Tommy had started the year moving upward then quickly downwards or sideways, and then picked up steam both musically and emotionally as the year ended. The tragedy of his death is to some degree offset by the feeling that at the very least he left this world on a upswing rather than in frustration and despair.

Please note that our Photo Gallery has many shots of the Tommy Bolin Band.

Copyright ©2006 John Herdt.

TOMMY BOLIN BAND TOUR DATES

DATE
VENUE
LOCATION
April 1976
28 La Paloma Theater Encinitas, CA
30 The Roxy Theater W. Hollywood, CA
May 1976
1 The Roxy Theater W. Hollywood, CA
7 & 8 Winterland San Francisco, CA
13 Ebbets Fields Denver, Colorado
22 My Fathers Place Roslyn, NY
24-26 The Bottom Line New York, NY (N. M. Walden’s last show)
July 1976
July 16 Unknown Albuquerque, NM (all July shows with B. Berge)
July 18 Electric Ballroom Dallas, TX
July 19 Unknown Wichita, KS
July 20 Unknown Austin, TX
July 21 Unknown Houston, TX
July 31 Unknown Denver, CO
August 1976
29 Mile High Stadium Denver, CO (J. Haslip and J. Bolin’s first show)
September 1976
19 & 20 Albany Palace Theatre Albany, NY
21 Shaboo Inn Willimantic, CT
22 Northern Lights Recording Studios Maynard, MA
24 Aragon Ballroom Chicago, IL
29 & 30 My Fathers Place Roslyn, NY
October 1976
1 Unknown Dover, NJ
2 Tower Theatre Philadelphia, PA
3 Tomorrow Youngstown, OH
4 Cleveland Agora Cleveland, OH
5 Ford Theater Detroit, MI
6 Unknown Akron, OH
7 Unknown Cincinatti, OH
8 Unknown Milwaukee, WI
9 Unknown Columbus, OH
10 Unknown St. Louis, MO (J. Bolin’s last show)
24 (moved from16) Santa Monica Civic Auditorium Santa Monica, CA (M. Craney’s first show)
25 & 26 Paramount Theater Seattle, WA
28 Paramount Northwest Seattle, WA (opened for Rush)
29 Tacoma National Guard Armory Tacoma, WA (opened for Rush)
30 Paramount Theater Portland, Oregon (opened for Rush)
31 Convention Center Spokane, Washington (opened for Rush)
November 1976
3 Douglas Hall Fairgrounds Roseburg, OR (opened for Rush)
4 Medford Armory Medford, OR (opened for Rush)
5 & 6 Winterland San Francisco, CA
7 Sacramento Memorial Auditorium Sacramento, CA
10 Tulsa Fairgrounds Pavilion Tulsa, OK
11 McNichols Sports Arena Denver, CO
16 Jazz City Studios New Orleans, LA
21 Bradley Fieldhouse Peoria, IL
22 Municipal Auditorium Sioux City, IA
December 1976
3 Jai Alai Fronton Miami, FL

ARTICLES, INTERVIEWS AND WEBSITES

Tommy Bolin Archives Articles
Tommy Bolin Archives Interviews
The Deep Purple Appreciation Society’s Tommy Bolin Band History
Bobby Berge Interview (on the Tommy Bolin Fan Page site)
Bobby Berge on the Rampant Zone
Mark Stein Interview (on the Tommy Bolin Fan Page site)
Max Carl (Gronenthal) Interview (on The Fuze site)

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