Col. Bruce Hampton, jam band patriarch, died surrounded by music

BY MELISSA RUGGIERI/AJC Music Scene

(This post was originally filed on May 2, 2017)

Music was Col. Bruce Hampton’s lifeblood, and his death came hours after being surrounded by the things he loved most — family, friends, fans and an everlasting beat.

Hampton, affectionately known as the “Granddaddy of the Jam Scene,” was performing Monday night at “Hampton 70,” an all-star concert at the Fox Theatre, when he collapsed during the encore — Bobby Bland’s “Turn on Your Love Light.”

The idiosyncratic singer/guitarist, who turned 70 on April 30, was rushed to Emory University Hospital Midtown, where he died a couple of hours later.

Col. Bruce Hampton feels the music at his Fox Theatre show on Monday. Photo: Melissa Ruggieri/AJC

Around 7:40 p.m. Monday, Hampton opened the sold-out concert to celebrate his birthday milestone and appeared locked in a groove with his backing band as he sang with clarity, his eyes closed and his knee bouncing to the beat. His initial appearance onstage prompted a wave of appreciative hoots and whistles from the clearly adoring crowd.

During the four-hour show, musicians who came to honor his legacy — which included the avant-garde Hampton Grease Band, Aquarium Rescue Unit and the Codetalkers — included Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, John Popper, Oliver Wood, Dave Schools, Chuck Leavell, actor/musician Billy Bob Thornton, guitar prodigy Brandon Niederauer and many other rock and jam band luminaries.

Just before 3 a.m., Trucks and Tedeschi posted a notice on their Facebook page from Hampton’s family, confirming his death.

RELATED>> An appreciation of Hampton

Sign a condolence page for Hampton here

Hampton, born in Knoxville, Tenn., enjoyed a varied career that ranged from his progressive jazz-rock leanings that began with his first band in 1963 to appearing in a 2014 video for “Blockbuster Night, Pt. 1” with rap act Run the Jewels.

One of his more amusing legacies is the album “Music to Eat,” released with the Hampton Grease Band in 1971 on Columbia Records. It was reportedly the second worst-selling album on the label at that time, surpassed only by a yoga album.

In the ’90s, Hampton was instrumental in shaping the H.O.R.D.E. tours with Popper, who remained a friend and performed at the Monday tribute concert.

Actor Thornton also had good reason to be at the Fox event: Hampton appeared in the 1996 film “Sling Blade” as a poet and band manager.

Hampton was also the subject of a documentary, “Basically Frightened: The Musical Madness of Col. Bruce Hampton, Ret.,” that premiered at the Atlanta Film Festival in March 2012.

Earlier this year, AJC freelancer Jon Waterhouse, who emceed “Hampton 70,” wrote an in-depth profile of Hampton — whom he likened to “the Dixie-fried answer to Frank Zappa” — that focused on his open-ended weekly residency at the Vista Room at Napoleon’s in Decatur.

In the story, Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ frontman Kevn Kinney refers to Hampton as “a legend.”

“People don’t understand how far back he goes,” Kinney said. “He’s just the ultimate showman. He’s our P.T. Barnum. You never know when he’s going to pop out of the jack in the box.”

On Tuesday afternoon, Trucks and Tedeschi released a statement solidifying their respect for Hampton and acknowledging the shock of his death so soon after a triumphant performance.

“Those of us who were present felt the importance of this moment in time not knowing the finality of this performance. It was an evening of incredible music, improvisational spontaneity, smiles, both on stage and in the audience.  Our musical guru challenged us all and made us focus on what was at the root of musical expression and how to understand the importance of time, tone, and space in a way that has the ability to connect with everyone,” they said. ” We can only take solace in the fact that he was truly surrounded by loving friends and family, honoring his contribution to music and art when he passed.  It was a dramatic and poetic ending to the life of a man whose entire way of living was an art form but cannot mitigate the sadness of all who loved him.”

A message posted Tuesday on the website of Hampton’s record label, Ropeadope, hails Hampton’s legacy as well.

“This is not just the death of a celebrity whose music touched us, this is the departure of a GIFT that we as humans had the choice to recognize and learn from. Col. Bruce Hampton was a child at every age; he was the man who tested whether you were truly paying attention to the truth.”


Musician Jeff Mosier, who performed at the Fox concert, posted this heartfelt video on his Facebook page in tribute to Hampton.

Here are some scenes from Col. Bruce Hampton’s final performance – as well as some of the other acts who played in celebration of his 70th birthday at the Fox Theatre on May 1, 2017.

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