TOMMY BOLIN IS A ROCK GUITAR HERO – AT AGE 24
THE DRUMMER NEWSPAPER, JANUARY 13, 1976
by David Fricke
The Drummer was a local underground weekly newspaper in Philadelphia
What 1976 needs is not another Bicentennial gimmick or, for that matter, the Bay City Rollers. What this year needs is something to get the music scene up off its complacent ass. Like a real gut-crazy, gen-you-wine rock ‘n’ roll guitar hero.
Not one of those ’69 legends, mind you, like Alvin Lee or somebody already high atop some million dollar throne i.e. Jimmy Page. We’re talkin’ grass roots here — somebody those doped-out stadium gangs can relate to by banging imaginary Stratocasters until they bleed feedback and simply wishing they could be up on that stage trading in fantasy for reality. A real guitar hero.
And Tommy Bolin is as close and as talented as we’re going to get this year. All of 24 years old, he already sports a rock ‘n’ roll resume as long as your arm and twice as impressive. What’s more, he’s got the chops to back it up.
Which is why Tommy Bolin is now burning up coliseum crowds as the new lead guitarist for Deep Purple (at the Spectrum, incidentally, this Sunday) — After apprenticeship gigs with Zephyr, the finally deceased James Gang and a one album-only stint with jazzer Billy Cobbam, the amazingly photogenic (“cute” might be a better word) guitarist has also been certified solo with a new LP entitled Teaser on Nat Weiss’ Nemperor label. But Bolin digs every minute of it. He’s as into his own phenomenon as the kids in the front row.
“I remember one time I played the Spectrum in Philadelphia with the James Gang, with Johnny Winter, I think. It’s like there’s 19,000 people out there and when you get in front of that many people, it’s just a great thrill. Especially if they like you. If they don’t, they go and throw things like sparklers. What’s a real drag is when they throw stuff just for something to do.”
“I just came back from a Eurasian tour with Deep Purple and we played a show in Melbourne, Australia where this guy up front was getting off by throwing marbles at the stage He kept doing it and ducking back so we couldn’t see him. Finally I saw the cat and just took my bottleneck and threw it at him. Hit him right in the head. You get really scared up there with that kind of thing. You’re always afraid some guy’s really gonna nail you. And you don’t know where it’s coming from.”
Battling it out on stage is one thing. Getting there is quite another. Bolin’s formal musical training goes back to the pubescent years when he was busy tackling drums, guitar and keyboards before finally deciding on guitar and striking out with a long-defunct Denver outfit called Zephyr.
“Learning to play all those instruments was a big help for me in learning how to feel and phrase things musically. Playing the drums also showed me how important rhythm sections are to the sound. For me, if it doesn’t rock, it doesn’t motivate. With that kind of background, I can really appreciate how great it is to play with Ian Paice and Glenn Hughes (drummer and bass guitarist respectively with Deep Purple).”
Bolin’s first contact with Deep Purple was through a very simple phone call. About a year ago, the guitarist had split from the James Gang after two moderately successful albums and decided to just cool out awhile. He worked on putting together a band, did the Spectrum album with Billy Cobham (rave reviews on that one), and signed his solo contract. Previous to the call, Bolin had never even heard a Deep Purple album.
“The albums I buy are mainly jazz or Brazilian-type music. Not very much rock, really. When you play it all day, you want to come home and hear something different. Actually, what happened with Purple was that after Ritchie Blackmore left, they gave me a call. I had just signed with Nemperor a week before they called, so I told them about my solo thing, but they said it was okay, just come down and jam. At the time, I was very positive on my solo trip, but I went down anyway. And after the first couple of tunes, I thought these guys can play very funky. They’re very much behind the rhythm. They just blew me away. That was it.”
“Funny thing was I didn’t want to be in an English band. Most of the ones I’d heard were very structured, some of them practically telling the same jokes on stage each night. But Deep Purple works around a skeleton structure, basically arrangement lines. You do the basic song and whatever happens during the solo, happens. One night is Australia, we even did “Waltzing Matilda” in the middle of one number. Incredible response, too.”
“It’s a very comfortable situation. Before, I got the impression it was really Ritchie Blackmore’s band. Glenn Hughes wasn’t even allowed on his side of the stage. But now it feels more like a band. And I can go and get my cookies off whenever I want to.”
Bolin did exactly that with Teaser, an impressive solo debut which brings together a few of the kid’s playing friends as well as saxophonist Dave Sanborn, Tubes drummer Prairie Prince and ex-Mahavishnu keyboardist Jan Hammer. What makes Teaser so impressive — even on first listening is Bolin’s firm and knowledgeable grasp of style. Three successive tracks (“Dreamer,” “Savannah Woman” and the title number) each go their own way from a slow ballad to a slightly Latinized jumper to a heavy handed cooker. But they all retain a distinctive sound, well thought out and not overly produced. The things Bolin has left out are just as important to the final mix as what went in. And it shows — favorably.
On top of that, he submits way-above average material, both on Teaser and the new Purple album Come Taste the Band. It seems Bolin had already written an overabundance of things for his solo trip, so when Purple called he just touched down with these extras and if they liked it, fine. If not, no love lost.
“I had all these tunes that were right for my album, but they needed a more raucous-type voice. Some of them were too difficult for me to sing. So I presented them to the group and we did the ones they liked. David Coverdale wrote the lyrics for most of them”
Good numbers, too. Deep Purple’s whole sound benefits from Bolin’s fresh musical blood and consequently Come Taste the Band easily stands up as the band’s best since Machine Head. You have signature rockers like “Coming Home,” something a bit funkier in “Lady Luck” and even score experimentally with “Ode to G.”
“‘Ode to G’ I wrote as a kind of an ode to George Gershwin. I wanted to write an instrumental, something with a sleazy stripper feel. So I worked it out with Jon Lord and Glenn, who had written “This Time Around.” Turns out the two just naturally fit together and that’s how we did it on the album.”
Bolin admits to an over enthusiasm when it comes to his stint with Purple. Recording and touring with a group credited with sales of well over 12 million units worldwide is quite some gig. But coming on as a rock ‘n’ roll hero isn’t quite as easy despite his reputation and the kid also admits to a lot of luck in that category.
“Sure, it’s a lot of luck. Especially when I find I can sit down and talk to some very heavy guitar players. I jam a lot with Larry Coryell and he teaches me a lot of stuff. When I was doing Teaser, John McLaughlin came down to listen. It’s really a good feeling to know that a couple of great guitarists care enough to come down and listen to what the hell I’m doing.
“And I can dig what the kids are into. I remember when I really wanted to be on stage, be one of the Hullabaloos, Gene Pitney, anybody. I wanted to be a rock star, too. But I don’t look at it that way now. My albums are doing very well, but I’m still in the process of learning like everybody else.”
“Guitar hero? If I am, then it’s a real beautiful idea. But it’s only beautiful if somebody else thinks that I am. That’s something you can’t do all by yourself.”
©1976 and 2017 David Fricke. All rights reserved.
ABOUT DAVID FRICKE
by Art Connor
David Fricke’s career as a music journalist is something almost out of movie or cable television series. Now spanning forty plus years in a very tough and unforgiving business, he has been at the forefront of every new musical fad, wave, trend or band of the week, yet his writings and reporting and interviews have always kept pace with the times, never one to wax nostalgic or lament the passing of the ’60s or ’70s bands in his writings.
By the end of the ’70s, he was already doing some serious writing and interviews for some heavy hitting publications like Trouser Press, Circus, Crawdaddy and The Village Voice, each article and column a stepping stone until the brass ring of music publications came calling — Rolling Stone magazine. With his insightful record and concert reviews and his great interviewing skills, it wasn’t long before he was moved up the ladder, where he became the Stone’s music editor.
Every major artist of the last thirty to forty years has been touched by David’ pen, from Classic Rock Royalty, to the Heavy Metal Masters, the moody and distant Grunge bands and later the millennial Alt-Rock Kidz. His unique interviewing and reporting style even lent itself to television and video, where he is seen quite prominently in some great episodes of the old VH1’s Behind the Music series and later on the “Classic Albums” DVDs.
And let’s not forget about liner notes. The man has written liner notes for CD box sets for the likes of The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Billy Joel, The Ramones, Frank Zappa and The Grateful Dead! His interview with the late Kurt Cobain, just before his death, is still cited as one of the best ever with the artist. Yes, David’s career in music journalism is one that anyone who has ever written a record or concert review, interviewed an up and coming band for their local newspaper or blog can only hope and dream about.
But back in January of 1976, David was then the young Music and Features editor of The Drummer, which was published throughout the greater Philadelphia area. The Drummer was a really cool newspaper back in the day, always had the best music news but also had some very hard hitting political and civic news stories and editorials which were pertinent for a sometimes tumultuous and politically polarized 1970s Philadelphia.
David’s interview with Tommy came right as both Deep Purple’s Come Taste the Band and Tommy’s Tease” albums were getting some significant airplay here on the Philly top FM stations. As you can see with Tommy’s replies to David’s questions he was still very much into being in and playing with Deep Purple, it was then very early into their American tour and the inner problems and turmoil the band were trying so hard to keep from bubbling over, had not yet exploded, forcing them to disband in disarray a mere few months later.
I first met David in late 1975, The Drummer and my college newspaper both were published by the same firm. And yes he really did catch me rifling through his photo drawer so I could use some of the shots in my college articles. He was a few years older than me, so at the time he was more like a mentor and teacher. We never really hung out together, just spoke a few times on the phone about the articles he had assigned to me or at The Drummer’s office when I turned in my copy. Funny, he thought I had potential as a writer. I often wonder how my life would have turned out if I truly listened to him and followed that path.
Special thanks to my old mentor and teacher David Fricke for writing this great piece all of those years ago and to my long time Bolin bud and friend John Herdt for his 21st Century expertise and magic in bringing this long lost interview of David’s with Tommy Bolin back to life once again.
©2017 Art Connor. Written February 21, 2017.