TOMMY BOLIN BAND: FIRST TIME LIVE (2CDs)
By John Bentzinger
“Ladies and Gentlemen...
For the FIRST time in the United States...
The Tommy Bolin Band!!!”
As the first riffs of “Teaser” came crashing from the stage monitors, Scott Chatfield couldn’t have imagined the triumphs his introduction had just set in motion. This was the exact moment when all the years of struggle and hard work were about to pay off for Tommy Bolin, who was hoping to soon be a household name. Chatfield also couldn’t have foreseen the instrumental role that he would play in preserving this brilliant piece of rock history for us today.
At this moment the 20-year-old only knew that he was introducing a very cool band to a packed, and appreciative audience, and he was certain their leader was about to make it to the big time. It was with these huge expectations that the Tommy Bolin Band made its debut performance at the historic La Paloma Theater, in Encinitas, California on April 28th, 1976. It was scheduled to be just a warm up gig for their highly anticipated breakout concert at the Roxy Theater in Los Angeles in just two days. But with such an incredibly talented lineup, the tunes needed only a few rehearsals before they were ready to be played live. Norma Bell was playing with Frank Zappa in Los Angeles when Tommy asked her to audition. “That was such a really good, tight, hot band. Narada Michael Walden was on drums, and he’s a really fearless drummer. He and Tommy really played well together, they did some dueling guitar-drum solos that were incredible. Tommy’s voice was great that night. We had a great keyboard player, Mark Stein. He played with Vanilla Fudge years before. And our bass player, Reggie McBride played with Rare Earth. He’s a Detroit boy, so he knows how to bring it home. When you have a wonderful bass and drummer, the top instruments can’t do anything but complement them and shine. Tommy had alot of freedom and could be quite innovative with a great bass player and drummer like that.”
Nemperor Records had been waiting patiently for nearly six months. Teaser was released in November of 1975. But Tommy immediately left the States to tour with Deep Purple. Even with great reviews, album sales were disappointing without a supporting tour. When Tommy returned home in March, the record company was ready. Tommy was issued a generous line of credit, and he began auditioning musicians to go out on the road. Brother Johnnie Bolin remembers an excited phone call home to Sioux City, Iowa. “There were alot of auditions. The names he threw at me were like, Stevie Winwood. He thought Stevie was going to do it. Then he had Bill Bruford from Yes. I don’t think he auditioned, but he had him in mind to play drums. But all that changed in a day or two. I remember Tommy saying he went down and saw Norma at S.I.R. Studios, where she was rehearsing with Frank Zappa and Terry Bozzio on drums. When he got the final lineup, he said it was the most phenomenal band he had ever worked with. When I finally got to see him, I still wasn’t prepared for what I heard. I had never heard Tommy sing live. And hearing him sing was incredible. But there were five people in the band singing. You know, five part harmony! They didn’t take a long time rehearsing. When you have those kind of players, it comes together pretty quick. And it really comes together when you’re playing live.
The La Paloma Theater was built in 1928, and was famous for its great acoustics. It seated 385, which provided the perfect intimacy the new band needed. It was also small enough that a thin crowd wouldn’t be quite so noticeable. They needn’t have worried. The concert’s sponsor was the local progressive rock powerhouse, KGB-FM. The station’s Music Director, Drake Hall, was giving Teaser a huge push. KGB was also well known for its live concert broadcasts. A sound truck was rented, and engineers spent the day wiring the stage for a live recording. Fans showed up early for good seats, and the place was soon packed. Drake was excited to meet Tommy backstage. “I congratulated him on the album’s success. I told him everyone at the station loved it, and we were very happy to host this concert for him. He was very thankful for everyone’s support, and looking forward to all that was to come. We knew this was going to be a special night, and it was remarkable. It just blew everyone’s mind, because they didn’t know what to expect. Nobody could quite put their finger on what it was, but we all knew this guy was something unique. I just recall his incredible stage presence. Even standing still, he was really charismatic. It was the dawn of something real special.”
When Scott Chatfield arrived at the theater that afternoon to start his Production Assistant duties, he was summoned to the Promoter’s office for a very memorable adventure. “Tommy was sitting across from the Promoter’s desk. He was very mellow, and very nice. He had an interesting feather in his hair. I couldn’t tell where the feather started, and the hair ended. I was asked to go get him a carton of Nat Sherman cigarettes at the 7-11 store across the street. I didn’t even know what Nat Sherman cigarettes were. But I got them and a case of Michelob and began walking back to the theater. I was jaywalking across the intersection when a Sheriff’s Deputy stopped me. Here I was, only 20 years old with these cigarettes and beer, and Tommy waiting for me. Fortunately, I managed to talk my way out of it.”
Moments before the show started, the five band members joined hands in the middle of the dressing room. After bowing their heads silently, Tommy and Narada led the group in a brief prayer. Norma Bell vividly recalls the electricity of the moment. “There were people in the band who were very spiritual. We just asked the Supreme to let us be the best we could be. We believed that if we would do our best, then people would be pleased.” Reggie McBride wasn’t accustomed to a spiritual approach to rock and roll, but he eagerly joined in, adding, “Let’s go get ’em!” as they moved toward the stage. “I remember the audience really enjoyed it. Every song that we played, they just wanted more. I remember Narada and his flowers. He always brought flowers and put them on the stage to bless the show. He would spread roses and flower petals all over. I thought Tommy was a great musician. Even though he didn’t have formal training, he had a great ear for music. He knew exactly what he wanted, and he could naturally project to an audience. I remember the HiWatt amplifiers he had. Most people were using Marshalls. I thought, Wow, that’s incredible. A HiWatt. I had never seen amplifiers like this before. Tommy said they were alot more powerful than Marshalls. I was really impressed with that.”
As the set progressed, the band’s confidence grew. “Get on up and dance!!!” Tommy shouted. “This is the last chance to groove. Everybody that’s high, clap!!!” The show ended with a rousing version of “Homeward Strut.” “Let’s get happy!!!”, and Tommy really meant it. In the sound truck behind the theater, engineers were hard at work.
In 1976, live concert recordings were becoming state of the art. Frampton Comes Alive! was easily album of the year. The zillion seller set the standard for fidelity and production values. The mobile sound crew had wired the La Paloma stage so levels were taken through the house sound board, then mixed live in the truck directly to two-track reels. KGB-FM broadcast the show two weeks later, and response was so huge, it was re-played several more times. But years later, the tapes were neglected and forgotten, and were in real danger of being destroyed.
Fortunately for us, fate took a hand when Scott Chatfield left the theater, and was hired as KGB’s morning producer in 1983. “I found the tapes in the music library, and listened to them, and was surprised to hear my own voice welcoming me to the show. I recorded it onto cassette, and loved it.” In 1990, the station changed format from Progressive, to Classic Rock. “I asked the Program Director what the plans were for the tapes. He said, ‘None. You can have them if you want.’ So I took them, and took care of them. They literally might have been tossed if I hadn’t.” The post-concert party was winding down. Nobody could figure out why Timothy Leary was hanging around backstage (Zephyr had opened for a Leary performance once in Colorado). Tommy gave a warm greeting to a couple of old friends from Sioux City who now lived nearby. Tom and Mark Packard were totally in awe of the performance they had just witnessed. When Tom complimented him on how animated his stage presence had been, Tommy just laughed and said, “That’s showbiz!”
Tommy, Reggie and Mark Stein slipped away from the party, and drove back together to their homes in L.A. Reggie McBride remembers the triumphant trip. “I remember coming home about five in the morning. Mark was driving. It was a long way, but we just stayed up and clowned the whole time. We were all very happy.”
The next afternoon, it was back to work. A short rehearsal and sound check at the Roxy. In the early evening, A Western Union telegram arrived that lifted spirits even higher. It said “Congratulations on a hit act. I heard you knocked ’em dead in San Diego yesterday. I’m sure you will do likewise at The Roxy. I can’t wait to see you next week in San Francisco.”
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