Thomas Richard Bolin was born on August 1, 1951 in Sioux City Iowa. His father Richard (Rich) was a full-blooded Swede born near Sioux City and his mother Barbara was full-blooded Syrian born in Nebraska. Tommy was later joined by younger brothers Johnnie on August 17, 1954 and Rick (“Pudge”) January 24, 1957. Another brother, Bobby, was born in 1953 but did not survive birth. Rich worked at a meat packing plant and Barb worked at her brother’s grocery store. Despite the hard work they provided their sons with the attention and support of a strong family.

Tommy’s early interest in music grew as he watched the Caravan of Stars television show, which featured new stars like Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins. Unlike many parents of the day, Rich liked Elvis and on May 23, 1956 he took Tommy to see Elvis perform at the Sioux City Municipal Auditorium. Tommy was blown away and by this point had decided for a career in music, or at least at first to be on stage.

That same year Tommy learned to pantomime to “Heartbreak Hotel” and appeared on Kids Corner (a local TV talent show) wearing a full Elvis costume. The station was impressed by the many phone calls that came in about the act and asked him back three days later. He also came in second in an amateur talent show at Lake Okoboji which featured around 100 performers.


Tommy decided that he was going to pursue music for real and with Rich’s support he started out on drums. This helped him develop a sense of rhythm which he later credited in interviews as contributing to his fast, powerful and accurate picking attack on guitar. After a year or so his interest shifted from drums to guitar. His first was a Silvertone with the amp built into the case that Rich got for $65 from Sears. Tommy showed that he was serious about the instrument and he became aware early on of the value of professional grade instruments, so the Silvertone was soon replaced by a Gretch Country Gentleman.

Johnny Wells, a friend of Tommy relates that “Tommy bought a Gretch Country Gentleman guitar from United Teachers of Music in Sioux City around 1967. I was there when he carried it out of the store. But to my recollection he brought it back soon after. I also remember him buying a Mosrite solid body guitar, but I don’t believe he kept that one very long either. He also purchased one of those vinyl-covered Kustom amps with it. I really remember when he brought that thing back. He was not very happy about it. He did experiment though.”

His school only offered music lessons every other year and Tommy missed out, so he looked to private teachers. Mr. Flood at Flood Music started him out on Hawaiian steel, which wasn’t really what Tommy was looking for because he wanted to stand like Elvis. He then began lessons on guitar with a Mrs. Sullivan. She favored Country & Western music and the first song she presented was “On Top of Old Smokey,” so that didn’t last long either.

After those experiences he then learned by hanging out with other young musicians, invariable a few years older than himself. Their musical experience and knowledge rubbed off on him and he started learning songs and licks off of records. He liked the Ventures and became a surf music fan, then got into the Beatles. Once he got going he practiced for hours each day, really putting in the time. Tommy really wanted to play with his brothers, and with Rich’s support Johnnie started drumming on a $400 set of Ludwigs. Pudge tried to start out on guitar and vocals but wasn't as committed to playing as his brothers.

It’s around this time at age 12 or 13 that Tommy met John Bartle at the United Teachers of Music store. They were going to separate Jr. High Schools at the time but soon wound up together at Central High School. Bartle would become a lifelong friend and musical cohort, but initially they helped each other learn guitar by jamming and sharing info they picked up. He has stated that even at that age he knew Tommy was special.

Tommy’s first band was called the Miserlous, but he was quickly heard by members of Denny and The Triumphs, an experienced group of teenagers organized by George Larvick, Sr., father of band members Brad and George Jr. Tommy was invited to jam, and soon joined the group. Once Tommy was in his first band he never looked back. He was still in school but began playing a steady stream of professional shows in the Sioux City area. Click HERE for the next part of the story.

Copyright ©2005 John Herdt.

Rick (“Pudge”), Johnnie and Tommy Bolin.