Doc’s Sports Cards Celebrates 20th Anniversary of Its Closing. Part III (Bruce Hampton) :

Doc’s Sports Cards Celebrates 20th Anniversary of Its Closing. Part III (Bruce Hampton) :

The Doctor is Outta Here: Part 3 of 3.  Col. Bruce Hampton (Ret.): The dots are where I say they are…

Preface: To fully appreciate the following essay, the reader is advised that I taught a course that I designed on The History of Popular Music in America: From Ragtime to Rock 'n Roll at Georgia State University and the Music Business Institute from 1982-86.  We now return to our regular programming:

Murray Silver and baseball autographed by Bruce Hampton.It sits on my bookshelf, a reminder of the best days of my life– from different points in my life– and, like my memory, is beginning to fade: an official American League baseball signed by Col. Bruce Hampton, misleading in that he neither played the game at the pro level nor is he one rank below brigadier general in the U.S. Army. He is, however, one of the last iconic images from my generation's golden age of music and a matchless musicologist. More importantly, Bruce Hampton is mentor to the last best hope of this generation during a time when music has devolved to its lowest point artistically in the past hundred years.

Billy Bob Thornton– who featured Bruce in his epic debut, Sling Blade– calls Bruce Hampton “the eighth wonder of the world”. Dave Matthews says that meeting Bruce “was like meeting royalty or some world leader”. Capricorn Records founder Phil Walden calls Bruce “the Vincent Van Gogh of Music”. And a long list of Southern musicians from Derek Trucks (who played in Bruce's band when he was just 12 years old) to Chuck Leavell (keyboardist with the Stones and Allman Brothers) and jam band Widespread Panic (descendants of the Grateful Dead, for whom Bruce once opened for at a concert I promoted in 1970), all cite Bruce Hampton as a singular seminal influence for his approach to music in addition to his style.

Bruce Hampton quit listening to “today's music” in 1974. Instead, he revels in the sounds of the ancient masters of improvisation, like Fats Waller and Sun Ra (who Bruce refers to as his “outspiration”; not “inspiration”). Bruce also loves bluegrass, which he claims is almost as chaotic as the blues and twice as hard to play, and celebrates the music of Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs, a banjo picker that few people know aside from having recorded the theme song to the Sixties sitcom, The Beverly Hillbillies. Ask Bruce who his favorite guitarist of all time is and he'll mention someone that most people have never heard of: Wayne Bennett, who once upon a time backed Bobby “Blue” Bland (who is also someone most people do not remember). Frank Zappa– to whom Bruce's intriguing weirdness is often favorably compared– was a dear personal friend, as was Hubert Sumlin, with whom Hampton toured for two weeks at the end of Hubert's life.

As important as Bruce Hampton is as a musician of his era, he has never earned a fraction of what lesser artists with bigger names have hauled in. The music business Bruce knows is mostly “pain, misery and conflict: the highs are so high, the lows are so low; there is no middle ground,” all of which conspire to keep a good man down. Fortunately for Hampton, he channels this chaos into a unique musical expression onstage where he considers each show to be “a new job every day”. He sees no point in rehearsal if only for its tendency to create habit and ritual sameness and rails against the great musicians who night after night perform the same music the exact same way. Bruce Hampton would rather surround himself with great players– and they are in great number– who know how to listen and have the ability to anticipate where the present moment is moving toward and miraculously arrive there together. To see Bruce in concert is to allow for a process whereby his group will wander out of the good, the bad and even the ugly on its way to its destination, like the proverbial road trip from Hell, of which Bruce has survived 9,000 performances.

Bruce Hampton backstage at Murray Silver's Grateful Dead concert at the Sports Arena, 1970 Music is color. Music is food. Music to eat,” was– and still is– Bruce's mantra ever since he recorded his first album in 1971, “Music to Eat,” which has the distinction of being the second worst-selling lp in Columbia Records history (the first being a yoga instructional record). He had by this time been in the business of music five years and was the hottest act in hippie Atlanta, back when I started promoting concerts on Sunday afternoons at the Sports Arena on Chester Avenue. Bruce Hampton's Grease Band opened most of my shows, whether they were booked in advance or were a last minute add-on to make up for a cancellation. Along with guitarist Glenn Phillips and drummer Jerry Fields, Bruce created improvisational scenes that were likened to sitting atop a powder keg, in the words of The Great Speckled Bird's editor Miller Francis, Jr.

Then– as now– Bruce Hampton looked nothing like the rest of his musical peers: he typically wore a flat-top hair cut and Fifties formalwear or a Confederate uniform and spoke with an unidentifiable accent that was other-than-Southern, almost professorial. My very favorite memory of Bruce dates back to 1970, when I booked him to open for the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers. The place was packed with Deadheads whose heads had already been deadened by copious amounts of pot and the Hampton Grease Band rolled out a blistering set: “Halifax”, “Evans”, “Egyptian Beaver”, “Hey Old Lady”, that set the bar so high that Jerry Garcia had to rise from the Dead in order to deliver his audience to a destination Bruce had already reached. Yeah, dig this: after taking the Atlanta crowd to the moon and back, Bruce ends his set with a masterful version of  “Bill Bailey, Won't You Please Come Home,” a Dixieland standard dating to 1902, that dissected the composition and distilled it to its very essence, then put it back together again in better shape than the original. No one who saw that show ever forgot it, even if they weren't able to remember anything else.

Now as to Bruce and Baseball: Long after I ceased concert promotion and moved on to other music-related matters I continued to run into Bruce Hampton at the ballpark. He was a fan of the game long before the Braves dominated their division and could be found sitting in the outfield bleachers studying a game that in many ways mirrors what he does onstage as a musician: nine players wait and watch and anticipate, and when they get it right there is that “didja see that?” moment, and then sometimes chaos ensues and fights break out and arguments occur and managers are ejected from the game. Baseball, then, is the sporting equivalent to a Bruce Hampton music recital, and Bruce is a purist when it comes to appreciating a game that has no time limit and where out of bounds is still playable.

And, as with his appreciation for music back in the day, so is his respect for ballplayers of days gone by: whenever Bruce would drop in on The Doctor, his interest in baseball memorabilia was restricted to the good ol' days of Maris and Mantle and Mays. It was on one such occasion that I asked Bruce to autograph a baseball as he eyed the one I had in the case signed by Satchel Paige. It is inscribed: “To Murray, Best to you, Col. Bruce Hampton (Ret.). Beneath the inscription Bruce has drawn a self portrait, a simple line drawing sporting a flat-top haircut and smiling with all the awareness of a musician who once upon a time hired on a member of his band whose sole job was to sit onstage and read the newspaper to himself.

Photos: Pictured with the ball in question is Karl Childers; Bruce Hampton backstage at Murray Silver's Grateful Dead concert at the Sports Arena, 1970

For more stories about about the famous and infamous, get a copy of my memoirs, "When Elvis Meets the Dalai Lama".

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