He might as well be Colonel Appleseed, the way he's pollinated Georgia music for nearly 50 years.
Col. Bruce Hampton is a guitarist, singer, composer and arranger who's been at the epicenter of Atlanta's thriving music scene since the mid 1960s.
Although his early group, the avant-garde Hampton Grease Band, cut a couple of albums, they weren't successful (according to legend, Music to Eat was the worst-selling album in the history of Columbia Records).
His destiny, it turned out, was to breed and foster dozens of the South's best musicians, weaning them on his high-octane blend of blues, jazz, rock and soul.
Among the jam band greats to emerge from the Colonel's shadow: Jimmy Herring, Oteil Burbridge, Count M'Butu, Jeff Sipe, Ike Stubblefield, Kofi Burbridge, Matt Mundy and Jeff Mosier ... in fact, if there's a cool guitarist, bass player or keyboardist in Georgia, odds are he's served - gratefully - with the Colonel.
Hampton, 63, is an old-school musician - although he was notorious, in his younger years, for onstage outrage and Zappa-like weirdness, the music has always been the central issue.
A man who loves a playful change of name, he's called his evolving band the Aquarium Rescue Unit, New Ice Age, Late Bronze Age, the Codetalkers, the Fiji Mariners, and a half dozen other things.
Most recently, the band was called the Quark Alliance.
In the late 1960s, what was the goal? Or was there a goal?
Col. Bruce Hampton: That's great you asked, because it synchronizes with everything I'm doing right now. I gave a speech yesterday at a high school about the ‘60s music, and I'm doing one at Emory University in about a month. I never mathematically calculated it - you just have to do what you're supposed to do. I was sorta thrown into it, and I usually collapse into place.
The intent was so different then. Music meant a lot; it was a way of life, almost. It just doesn't seem to have the urgency today - even a Pepsi commercial has a good tune usually.
For you, though ... what did you hope to get out of it?
Col. Bruce Hampton: I'm a very shy accountant, and 47 years later I'm still doing it. Which is amazing to me. It's like a Jekyll/Hyde thing - during the day I'm just a quiet shy guy, and onstage a little bit rowdy sometimes. It just altered destiny, to say the least.
I did not go about it to make money, or to make myself famous or draw attention. You just have to do what you're supposed to do. The music business sort of chooses you - you don't choose it.
I've always liked to just jiggle the middle; I don't want to be anybody and I don't want to starve either. So I've just stayed in the middle and worked.
What was Atlanta like in those days? Did you feel culturally isolated?
Col. Bruce Hampton: Oh yeah, it felt like we were in Borneo or something. There were a couple clubs you could play at in the late ‘60s. I remember Skynyrd was the house band in a place called Pinocchio's. We played a place called the Twelfth Gate. And then the Allman Brothers and the Dead would play Piedmont Park quite a bit. We would hold tremendous festivals there, from Jackie Wilson to the Brothers to the Dead, 20 or 30 acts every weekend playing.
Duane Allman is what he is now, and everybody everywhere knows he was an incredible guitarist, but ... you actually knew him. What was he like?
Col. Bruce Hampton: He was the sweetest, nicest cat you ever met. And just completely awake. And he was really changing a lot. Before he passed away, he was really opening up to great music. I remember he was listening to Django Reinhardt and Coltrane and Roland Kirk quite a bit.
I think he was gonna come out in a year or so and just play the greatest music that could be played for the time.
And he never sat in with Jimi Hendrix. He was supposed to, at the second Atlanta Pop Festival, but it never happened.
You're always called "The Godfather of the Georgia Jam Band Scene." I wondered if that's a mantle that sits well on you?
Col. Bruce Hampton: Anything they say, as long as they don't throw darts! I've been called everything, and flung through the mud, and the heights of heaven to the pits of hell, and it's all the same. I gotta do what I gotta do, you know? And I'll take anything. Anything sounds good.
Is the passion still there for playing?
Col. Bruce Hampton: Yeah. It's a lot slower than it was. I mean, when I was 23 I could do backflips. The music business is quite brutal, on the business side of it. It's an oxymoron, "music business." Sort of like "military intelligence" and "jumbo shrimp." And "Greater Cleveland," that's always my favorite!
This business is basically filled with melodramatic people selling sound. And it's insane, one day you're popular and the next day you're not. But what I do is just try to stay on course and play as pure as possible. I like every type of music there is. Music to me has to have an element of folk music or come from the church. It has to have the human emotional element to it. The emotional core, let me say that. And then you can sophisticate it or take it any way you want to do it.
Who's in the Quark Alliance now?
Col. Bruce Hampton: Well, we changed the name of the band, which I do every two weeks. It's called the Pharoah Gummitt. That's for the people that work for the federal government.
We have Dothan's number one bass player, Kevin Scott; on drums, Duane Trucks from Jacksonville, Florida - he's Derek's brother; and William Barnes from Montgomery is playing guitar.
They're young, so they work for seven bucks a night and a taco.
Col. Bruce Hampton & the Pharoah Gummit
Where: Live Wire Music Hall, 307 W. River St.
When: At 9 p.m. Friday, Feb. 4
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