Born: August 1, 1951 in Sioux City, Iowa
Died: December 4, 1976 in Miami, Florida
Few guitarists have cast a shadow as long as the late Tommy Bolin. A natural player with brilliant technique, Bolin was equally well-versed in blues, jazz, funk, and hard rock and would bring elements of all these styles to his uniquely diverse resume, which included stints with bands as varied as Zephyr, the James Gang, and Deep Purple. Bolin was also an in-demand session player and enjoyed a too-brief solo career that influenced future blues-rock guitarists like Warren Haynes and Joe Bonamassa.
Bolin's Early Years
Born Thomas Richard Bolin in Sioux City, Iowa the young musician was drawn to music as a child, originally learning to play the drums and piano. He picked up the guitar at the age of 13 and quickly mastered the instrument, and began jamming as a teenager with local Iowa bands. When he was kicked out of high school for refusing to cut his long hair, Bolin moved to Denver, Colorado where he formed American Standard, the first band he could call his own. The guitarist later hooked up with bluesman Otis Taylor in the short-lived band the T&O Short Line.
Bolin joined Denver blues-rock outfit Ethereal Zephyr in 1969. The band shortened its name to just Zephyr when it signed a record deal. Bolin recorded two albums with Zephyr – the band's self-titled 1969 debut and Going Back To Colorado two years later, but left the band when neither album helped move the band's fortunes forward, even after opening for such heavy-hitters as Led Zeppelin (whose Jimmy Page definitely noticed the teenaged guitarist). Interestingly, Otis Taylor also later joined Zephyr during the mid-1970s, after Bolin's departure, before he would temporarily retire from music.
After leaving Zephyr, Bolin formed the jazz-rock fusion outfit Energy in the vein of contemporary artists like Weather Report and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Energy played some live shows and recorded a handful of demos (some of which would be released after Bolin's death) but never secured a recording contract. Bolin's talent had begun to attract attention, however, and he was asked to play on jazz-fusion artist Billy Cobham's ground-breaking 1973 album Spectrum. That gig led to his hiring by the James Gang to replace departing guitarist Domenic Troiano, who himself had replaced founding member Joe Walsh. Bolin recorded two albums with the band, 1973's Bang and the following year's Miami.
Bolin left the James Gang in late 1974, at first pursuing session work, lending his talents to recordings from jazz legend Alphonse Mouzon (his Mind Transplant album) and Canadian rockers Moxy, among others. Bolin signed with Nemperor Records for a solo album, enlisting friends like Jan Hammer and David Sanborn to play on the disc. Fate would intervene, however, in the form of a phone call from British rock superstars Deep Purple, who asked Bolin to fill the shoes emptied by the departing band founder Ritchie Blackmore. Bolin was flown to Munich, Germany where he joined Purple in recording their 1975 album Come Taste The Band, bringing more of a blues and funk edge to the band's trademark hard rock sound. Bolin toured the U.S. and Japan with Purple before the band broke-up in 1976.
Bolin's Solo Career
Bolin continued to work on his solo debut album while also working on Come Taste The Band, and the critically-acclaimed Teaser would be released in November 1975 while Bolin was touring with Deep Purple. The album's mix of rock, blues, and jazz featured Bolin's soulful vocals and his dynamic fretwork, the ground-breaking status of Teaser growing with each passing year. After the break-up of Deep Purple, Bolin began work on his sophomore effort, 1976's Private Eyes, which largely eschewed the guitarist's jazz-fusion inclinations in favor of a blues-rock sound.
Touring in support of Private Eyes, Bolin had the good fortune of touring with such major league talents as ZZ Top, Peter Frampton, and Jeff Beck. However, it was a poorly-kept secret that Bolin suffered from severed drug addiction that pre-dated his tenure with Deep Purple, and the guitarist would die from a heroin overdose on December 4, 1976 the day after opening a show for Beck. Bolin was only 25 years old and, given what he had accomplished during his brief career, seemed destined for greater musical achievements.
Recommended Albums: Although Tommy Bolin only released a pair of solo albums during his lifetime, Teaser being the better of the two, his younger brother Johnnie has kept the flame alive through a series of releases through the Tommy Bolin Archive, including several live recordings. The now out-of-print The Ultimate Tommy Bolin box set was released in 1989, and several tribute albums have followed, including 2012's meek Great Gypsy Soul, which featured guitarists like Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes playing over unreleased Bolin demo tracks, the album a pure studio creation that should be avoided at any cost.
Tommy Bolin Select Discography
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Zephyr (Probe Records, 1969)
Going Back To California (Warner Brothers Records, 1971)
With Deep Purple:
Come Taste The Band (Warner Brothers Records, 1975)
Teaser (Nemperor Records, 1975)
Private Eyes (Columbia Records, 1976)
Notable session recordings:
Billy Cobham's Spectrum (Atlantic Records, 1973)
Alphonse Mouzon's Mind Transplant (Blue Note Records, 1975)