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Tommy Bolin

By all accounts, much respected and versatile 70s guitar hero TOMMY BOLIN was one of the greats, having progressed from hard-rock alumnus by way of ZEPHYR, The JAMES GANG and DEEP PURPLE. But for his death from a drug overdose in Miami on December 4, 1976, at the age of only 25, the question oft arises on what might’ve been.
Born Thomas Richard Bolin, August 1, 1951 in Sioux City, Iowa, native American TOMMY BOLIN’s first forays into the music world (having learned the guitar at 13) came with amateur outfits, Denny & The Triumphs and Denver’s newbies American Standard; this led to session work for Lonnie Mack.
Teaming up with Denver-based brother-sister blues-rock act ZEPHYR in the late 60s (aka singer Candy Givens and sibling David + two), the group secured a US Top 50 eponymous album, although another for Warner Brothers (`Going Back To Colorado’ in ‘71) failed to make the grade; ZEPHYR struggled on without him releasing a third set in ‘72. Taking a jazz-fusion diversion and inspired by The MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA and CHICK COREA, BOLIN formed Energy, although it would be his fiery finesse on drummer BILLY COBHAM’s `Spectrum’ album, that set him apart from others of his ilk; JOE WALSH, JOHNNY WINTER, etc.
The fact that the former star was once an integral part of The JAMES GANG, and that same band wanted BOLIN to supersede newest axeman Domenic Troiano (who joined The GUESS WHO), was accolade enough as the man. Now as a glam-friendly flash axeman and lead singer/lyricist, Tommy brought about a sort-of second coming for The JAMES GANG on a pair of decent sets, `Bang’ (1973) and `Miami’ (1974).
But this too was rather short-lived as he departed to create yet another jazz-fusion outfit, Mind Transplant, alongside Alphonse Mouzon, ex-drummer with WEATHER REPORT. Then, just out of the blue, on the advice on new kid on the block, singer DAVID COVERDALE, he was invited to audition for masters of rock, DEEP PURPLE, as the esteemed RITCHIE BLACKMORE had bailed out in ‘74. Needless to say, Tommy passed with flying colours and duly featured on DP’s 1975 studio album `Come Taste The Band’ (one can also count swansong live set `Made In Europe’ in ‘76).
Spread between a studio in Germany for ‘Purple’s last set and Los Angeles for his debut solo LP, TEASER (1975) {*8}, a heavy burden was put on BOLIN at a time when he was often overworked and stressed-out. The album itself was well-received and even managed to scrape into the US Top 100. Like many others of its day, session players played a major part in keeping the set tight; Jan Hammer, Dave Sanborn, Narada Michael Walden, Prairie Prince, Jeff Porcaro, David Foster, Bobby Berge and PHIL COLLINS (the latter on `Savannah Woman’) all somewhat overshadowed by Tommy’s dynamic displays on hard-rock opener `The Grind’ to instrumentals `Homeward Strut’ and `Marching Powder’, plus the almost spiritual `Lotus’.
By this point BOLIN had already bailed out of the sinking DEEP PURPLE ship, beginning work on his second solo set PRIVATE EYES (1976) {*7}. Despite BOLIN’s worsening drug habit and the attendant studio difficulties, the album finally surfaced in September ’76, complete with noted session guests like Mark Stein (ex-VANILLA FUDGE), Reggie McBride (ex-RARE EARTH), MAHAVISHNU’s Walden (again!) and Norma Jean Bell (ex-FRANK ZAPPA, ex-STEVIE WONDER). Dealing with drugs (on the 9-minute `Post Toastee’) and `Shake The Devil’ (plus ballads `Gypsy Soul’ and `Sweet Burgundy’), there were of course highlights on this potent US Top 100 set – his second in a year!
Ironically and tragically, however, BOLIN was dead by December 1976, a waste of a promising future for a man who had so much to give the world. Judging by a raft of posthumous collections put together since the retrospective THE ULTIMATE… (1989) {*8} dealt with his lifetime’s work (from start to finish), it’s clear the name of TOMMY BOLIN will last long in the annals of rock history.
© MC Strong 1997/GPD // rev-up MCS Dec2011

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