IOWA ROCK & ROLL HALL OF FAME 1999 INDUCTION OF TOMMY BOLIN
Speech by Mike Drumm
Tommy Bolin was filled with the light of the divine power his musical gift resonated, enabling him to touch thousands and thousands of people. His life was an incredible musical celebration and his life wound up being a terrible tragedy.
His life began right here in Iowa on August 1, 1951. Tommy was the oldest child of Rich and Barb Bolin of Sioux City, a family of modest means, but a family that loved their children.
Think back to the 1950’s and answer this question: Which musical figure was the top star of the 1950’s? Elvis, and just like myself who was also born in 1951, Elvis was truly fascinating his music, his hip grinding presence, his incredible celebrity status captivated millions and Tommy was one of those millions. He knew he wanted to be like Elvis and unlike so many parents of the Elvis era, who were horrified by the King, Rich Bolin took Tommy to an Elvis show right in Sioux City, Iowa. What a powerful inspiration that was for a child not yet ten years old. And that wasn’t the only support the Bolins’ provided for Tommy, they bought him a guitar early on and basically supported him in his desire to become a star. Dad was even known to road manage for Tommy, helping haul band members to and from gigs, even if it meant getting home at 3 am. Tommy owed so much to Rich and Barb, and he owed so much to other Iowa musicians who also had been bit by the rock-n-roll bug, his Iowa band mates who helped get that fire burning to a fever pitch.
But Tommy was a free spirit. He knew that his craving for musical recognition probably could not be quenched here in Iowa, so even though Iowa had been so nurturing for Tommy, he felt Iowa had its limits. So when Central High in Sioux City demanded that the sixteen year old Bolin cut his hair yet again, Tommy packed his bag, grabbed his guitar and headed to Denver. Colorado proved to also be a very nurturing environment for Tommy. In short order he was absorbed by the most creative elements of the Colorado rock music scene. At the ripe old age of seventeen, Tommy helped form Zephyr a prototypical psychedelic, blues rock band based out of Boulder, Colorado.
Zephyr was, in many ways, as dynamic and powerful as it’s San Francisco based psychedelic compatriots, bands like the Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead, total legends of that era. Zephyr was as compelling live as those bands. In Zephyr, Tommy stretched out way out. It was here he developed his Echoplex laden improvisational chops, going out into musical dimensions that very few guitar players had ever visited. Not only did those of us in Colorado recognize what a unique talent Tommy was and what a great band Zephyr were, national record companies got it as well. In 1969 ABC-Probe released Zephyr’s debut album, soon thereafter the band appeared on American Bandstand and crisscrossed America playing with just about all the best bands of the era. In 1971 the band, now signed to Warner Bros., traveled to New York to record their second album “Going Back to Colorado” at Jimi Hendrix’s legendary Electric Lady Studios with Hendrix engineer Eddie Kramer at the helm.
During these sessions, a historic event was anticipated. Jimi had heard about Tommy and was anxious to jam with Bolin. After all, Eddie Kramer had figured it out; Tommy was touched by the same huge creative muse as Hendrix. So the stage was set for the Hendrix/Bolin jam. The day before he was to fly from London to N.Y to hook up with Tommy, Hendrix died on his way to the hospital. Sadly, the torch was passed. Zephyr wound up finishing the album and toured through the year. But at the end of 1971, Tommy quit the band to pursue his own musical vision with the band Energy.
Initially, Energy was an all-instrumental ensemble, playing Heavy Metal/Jazz Fusion music uncompromising, incredibly powerful music that left many people scratching their heads. This stuff was, as John Denver would say, truly “far out.”
During this era, Tommy and Energy would serve as both the opening act and back-up band for many incredible touring musical legends. Fans in Boulder were treated to the sight of Tommy playing with the likes of Chuck Berry, Big Mama Thornton, and Albert King. One show I saw had Energy backing Albert King, but backing is really the wrong term, as Tommy and Albert stood toe to toe challenging each other with blistering blues licks. Afterwards Albert reportedly said to Tommy “you got me.” It is an awe inspiring musical memory.
Energy evolved into a tight more commercial ensemble featuring Jeff Cook on vocals. They recorded an albums worth of wonderful demos trying to secure a record deal and in one of the great absurdities of the modern music era the band could not secure a record deal, so the bottom line was that the bottom line was at zero. Tommy was broke and something had to give. It was during this time that Joe Walsh had quit The James Gang and moved to Boulder he had met Tommy jammed with him and come to the realization that Tommy could quote “play rings around me.”
Dominic Troiano had replaced Joe in The James Gang, but he just wasn’t cutting it, so Joe told his old band mates about Tommy. Tommy, frankly, was desperate for money and a chance to build his reputation, so he joined The James Gang basically putting an end to Energy. His stay in The James Gang resulted in two really good albums, Bang and Miami, an appearance on midnight special and Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert and the chance to tour, but Tommy was restless. He knew that he deserved more. That realization had been fueled by the recognition Tommy had gotten in creative circles from his work in the jazz-fusion area. Around the time he was joining The James Gang, Tommy had been recruited by drumming legend Billy Cobham to be the guitar player on Billy’s first solo album Spectrum. You see while Tommy was in New York working on the last Zephyr album, he had been introduced into the burgeoning New York jazz & fusion music scene. People like Jan Hammer, Jeremy Steig, and Billy Cobham, amazingly gifted, innovative musicians, became hip to Tommy and immediately absorbed him into their progressive innovative musical worlds. This was not rock music, this was cutting edge improvisation fusion music that demanded both technical excellence as well as a flowing creative musical imagination and Tommy had both in generous supply. But at this time he was faced with a challenge focus on creative cutting edge music with limited commercial potential, or position himself to become a major star. He decided on the latter, moved from Boulder to LA and began developing demos for what would become the Teaser album, his crowning solo album accomplishment. While Tommy’s star was rising within the structure of the music industry, he still was relatively unknown, to the public and still in need of cash flow. It was at this time that Richie Blackmore ha shocked Deep Purple by quitting. At the time Deep Purple was basically the second most popular rock band in the world, and only to the Rolling Stones. The other band members wanted to keep going, but how do you replace your main creative force? David Coverdale had heard of Tommy from the Spectrum album and invited him to audition. Well it took all of fifteen minutes for that to be a done deal. They had found their man.
For Tommy the strategy was simple, use the huge Deep Purple platform to catapult himself to world wide fame, release the Teaser album to much greater notoriety, make some major money, and finally be in a position to do The Tommy Bolin Band and achieve the degree of spotlight he clearly deserved. While it worked that way to a pretty good degree, the Purple experience was a double-edged sword. As with so many rock stars of that era, Tommy enjoyed the rock-n-roll lifestyle. In Purple, that was indulged as never before. Also, he was being forced to funnel his creative muse through the Purple sound and was not treated as a full band member due to the nature of the deal that was cut. As such, Tommy’s playing and attitude could be erratic at times. You see all was not well, so after the Come Taste the Band album came out, followed by a major world tour, it was finally time to launch the overdue Tommy Bolin Band.
In May of 1976 Tommy performed his first ever solo gig. I saw the Denver Ebbet’s Field show of that tour. I hadn’t seen Tommy for over 2 years. I wondered if he would remember me. After all, he had left Boulder to become a star, and was returning now as a star. A meet and greet party was staged and I was so impressed that Tommy was still the warm, friendly person I had known. He greeted me with a big bear hug-that meant so much to me. He was not some lofty rock star, he was Tommy Bolin warm soul, yet we had heard about all the partying and I was worried for Tommy’s well being.
Anyway the year unfolded with touring and the recording and releasing of Tommy’s Private Eyes LP on Columbia Records. But again, all was not well. There was continual bickering with Tommy’s manager. Tommy was suspicious that perhaps the money was not being handled honestly, and Tommy was also indulging the habits that had worsened during the Purple tours. So, at the point he had worked so hard for, the launching of his solo career, the waters were muddied. There was barely enough money to keep a band together, forcing a variety of personnel changes in just over six months, and the tensions with his manager just kept growing. Perhaps a change in management would help. Anyway, a tour was put together that would feature the Tommy Bolin Band as the opening act for The Jeff Beck Group, followed by a tour with Fleetwood Mac. The exposure Tommy would get would be very powerful.
In opening for Jeff Beck, Tommy would be on the bill with Beck who was a true fan of Tommy’s and he would be reunited with Beck’s keyboardist Jan Hammer a dream situation. But then tragedy struck. After the first night of the tour on Dec. 3, 1976 in Miami, Tommy and his entourage partied extensively. A Cuban national was ushered into the party with a satchel with ten different grades of heroin. Almost everyone there indulged themselves. Tommy went too far, and even though Tommy’s manager’s appointed bodyguard was there to help keep him clean, amazingly enough no one called the paramedics for over four hours after Tommy showed signs of passing out. To this day this makes no sense. By the time they were called he was gone. Dead at age 25.
On Monday morning Dec. 5th, I was in my TV room in Boulder watching Good Morning America. Rona Barrett’s celebrity gossip segment came on and on the screen the Teaser LP graphic was superimposed. My eyes were riveted on the screen. Why was Tommy being featured on major network TV? Then Rona announced Tommy had died in Miami. My heart sunk oh my God. It was then that Tommy returned home to Iowa and it’s where he will be for eternity. It has been an endless source of speculation since. What if Tommy had lived? Well he would have been a huge multi-platinum act and he would have indulged both the commercial side of his career and his creative improvisational side, similar to the way Santana has over the years.
The Tommy Bolin Archives wants to thank the Iowa Rock-n-Roll Music Association for inducting Tommy, Iowa’s brightest musical light, into the Iowa Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame, and now I would like to introduce Tommy’s brother Johnnie who continues his family’s great musical tradition as one of rocks great drummers. Johnnie also has that same soft, loving, warm persona that Tommy had. The end product of coming from that loving family that Rich & Barb Bolin sired. Please welcome John Bolin.