Favorite Musicians: Tommy Bolin

Way back in 1974, when Ritchie Blackmore left Deep Purple for the first time, the band tried to soldier on with a young American guitarist named Tommy Bolin. Purple would break up by mid-1975, but Bolin’s sole effort with them, Come Taste the Band, raised his profile. He was on his way to becoming a solo guitarist the caliber of Joe Satriani (a future Purple alumnus), Steve Vai, or even Jeff Beck. Alas, it was not to be, Bolin died of his own excesses in December, 1976. But before then…

He started out with a Denver band called Zephyr, which played some interesting music. It’s lead singer, however, thought she was the second coming of Janis Joplin. Nonetheless, it launched Bolin’s career and led him to a jazz fusion group, Energy. That, in turn, brought him to the attention of Mahavishnu Orchestra drummer Billy Cobham. Creatively and critically, Bolin had arrived. His guitar work on Cobham’s Spectrum album made many believe Jimi Hendrix had faked his death. (Were that actually true…)

This led to a recommendation from Joe Walsh himself to become the James Gang’s new guitar player. So Bolin moved to Los Angeles and stepped into the future Eagle’s role for two albums. The band might have regained some of its earlier popularity, but Bolin, frustrated, left in 1973.

And so he came to Deep Purple, now consisting of founders Ian Paice and the late Jon Lord, Trapeze’s Glenn Hughes, and Whitesnake founder David Coverdale. Coverdale heard the Cobham album and said he was the one who could replace Blackmore. The music was a seismic shift in the band’s heavy metal sound, incorporating funk and jazz fusion. Ian Gillan, the lead singer and lyricist on the band’s iconic “Smoke on the Water” said he listened to Come Taste the Band and did not recognize it as the band he left two years earlier.

So why is Bolin here on the blog with KISS and Steely Dan and the Rolling Stones? Well, I’ve always believed Bolin’s death was the waste of great potential. He had a lot in common with Jeff Beck, for whom he opened in his final tour in 1976. His playing probably echoed, better than anyone playing at the time, everything Jimi Hendrix was trying to accomplish. He played these sometimes whale-like, high-pitched notes that made his music instantly identifiable.

Prior to joining Deep Purple, he completed a solo album called Teaser which probably was the peak of his creative and performing powers. The album was jazz fusion yet very accessible. It featured David Sanborn and Phil Collins as session players. There are a number of classics on this one: “Wild Dogs,” “Savannah Woman,” and the reggae styled “People, People.”

Bolin’s loss is rock and roll’s as well.

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