By William Ashton
For a self-proclaimed “shy accountant,” Col. Bruce Hampton has made a spectacle of himself for more than four decades. He’s acted in an Oscar-winning movie (SLING BLADE ), made 15 records (or so) and helped organize the H.O.R.D.E. concert tours of the ‘90s, but he’s mostly known as a performing musician, playing thousands of shows since the late 1960s.
A big, genial man, Hampton had a heart attack a few years ago, but he still plays 150 shows a year. He says that, at age “66 and above ground,” that’s plenty. “If I could go on at 8 p.m., I’d do more, but a lot of southern clubs start at 11,” he says. “It’s a young man’s game.”
Col. Bruce Hampton’s music is an unpredictable blend of blues, jazz and psychedelic rock, with a dash of funk and what not. Before the term “jam band” was coined, Hampton was jamming; he’s played guitar and sang with The Hampton Grease Band, Aquarium Rescue Unit and Fiji Mariners (among others). A touchstone for many musicians in the jam-band circuit, Hampton was there for all but one H.O.R.D.E. tour in the ‘90s, he recalls.
“The only time I missed [H.O.R.D.E.] was when I went out with [the late blues musician] Hubert Sumlin one year, which was fine. We were in Louisiana one night when Sumlin offered to take us to the Crossroads [the intersection along Mississippi’s Highway 61 where blues legend Robert Johnson was rumored to have sold his soul to the devil]. We declined very quickly,” Hampton says. “It was a long way away.”
Col. Bruce Hampton (his legal name, he says) has recently taken his talents to the airwaves, playing music and sharing stories on AM 1690’s “Radio Free Radio” with former Hampton Grease Band member Michael Holbrook. The show airs at 7 pm on the first and third Thursdays of each month.
“I’ve done occasional programs on AM 1690. Jon Waterhouse (from the radio station) asked us to do it every other week,” he said. “I do whatever Jon tells me.”
Hampton and Holbrook seem to have thousands of stories about life on the road, touching on encounters with everyone from Frank Zappa and John Lennon to Muddy Waters and Chet Atkins.
Playing with G.E. Smith led to Hampton’s sitting in on-air with the SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE band one night a couple of decades ago, when Smith was “SNL’s” musical director. Longtime friend Billy Bob Thornton cast Hampton in SLING BLADE – and Hampton’s band performs in Thornton’s forthcoming movie JAYNE MANSFIELD’S CAR.
Sometime this year, Atlanta fans may see Col. Bruce playing regularly at the long-shuttered Avondale Towne Cinema. Hampton is among those meeting with Avondale city officials, with a goal of reopening the venue under new management, he says.
“A couple of lawyers from Alabama are planning to reopen the venue, and music will certainly be a part of it,” said Hampton, who saw wrestling matches at the Avondale landmark when he was growing up in the Decatur area. “I’ll try to play there twice a month and have guest artists. We had a similar (residency) at Brandywine in the ‘90s and it was a huge success.”
Another successful outlet for Hampton’s talents are the summertime Jam Cruises, which gather assorted musicians – many from New Orleans – for musical voyages through the Caribbean.
Hampton seems surprised that he likes the cruises. “I dislike Disney World. I hate just about everything with a lot of people involved, but this is the greatest thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “There’s food 24 hours a day, music 20 hours a day. The musicians are the cream of the crop. It’s fascinating and great.”
Hampton’s own fascinating story is the subject of a 2012 documentary, BASICALLY FRIGHTENED: THE MUSICAL MADNESS OF COLONEL BRUCE HAMPTON; the DVD (with new bonus live footage) has recently gained distribution through Amazon.com after a couple of years of limited availability.