Colonel Bruce Hampton is not a colonel. He is THE Colonel. Most fans know his latter-day exploits as front man for the Aquarium Rescue Unit, the Fiji Mariners and the Code Talkers, bands that stressed improvisational chops and jamming strength, especially in their live shows. The Colonel has wowed many a crowd with his guitar playing, usually filled with crisp abundant notes and frequent madness and abandon. It was Hampton’s appearances with Phish and the rising swell of the jamband community that brought the Colonel back into the spotlight. However, the Colonel’s origins in the music biz are far more interesting.
Most people don’t remember (or have never heard of) the Hampton Grease Band. Formed sometime around 1968, the five-piece featured Glenn Phillips and Harold Kelling on guitars, Mike Holbrook on bass, Jerry Fields on drums and Hampton, then only in his late teens, on vocals and assorted mayhem. The band’s shows were notorious, featuring freaked-out music with lots of on-stage weirdness, such as random people watching TV, friends of the band getting up and walking across the stage during the set, and Hampton’s occasionally violent singing (one time he jump kicked one of his band mates, who fell into the drum kit in the middle of a song). Buzz was generating around them, and Columbia signed them to record an album. They recorded over 90 minutes of material, most of the songs hitting at around the twenty-minute mark. For some completely mysterious reason, Columbia released the recordings unexpurgated as a double LP, and it went on to supposedly become the second worst selling album in Columbia history, beaten only by an obscure yoga recording. The band was dropped and eventually fell apart by 1973, when Hampton auditioned to be Frank Zappa’s new lead vocalist.
Though he didn’t get that job, the Colonel certainly didn’t remain idle. He formed a band, the New Ice Age, followed by the Late Bronze Age. The latter group released a few albums, like Outside Looking Out and One Ruined Life (of a Bronze Tourist), but had no commercial success. Seeking to lend his unusual talents and philosophies to a new artistic realm, the Colonel tried his hand at both acting and stand-up comedy, his exploits in the latter field being the stuff of legend; the Colonel did things in his act that would make Andy Kaufman look like a poor man’s Henny Youngman. The Colonel appeared in several unusual films, like Johnny Cash Rides the Rails (ABC TV movie), The Slugger’s Wife, The Bear Bryant Story (as a football coach) and a “horrible... ’80s tit movie” (his words) called Gettin’ It On. Additionally, he has appeared in several episodes of the police show “Adam-12,” and on the Cartoon Network’s “Space Ghost” show. His most memorable roles are likely that of “Morris” in the band rehearsal scene in Sling Blade, and most recently as the star of Mike Gordon’s film Outside Out. (He also appears on Mike’s Outside Out soundtrack, Inside In.)
Following his questionable ’80s exploits, the Colonel formed one his most successful bands, the Aquarium Rescue Unit. Working with such excellent musicians as Jimmy Herring and Oteil Burbridge, the Unit endeared itself to Phish and Dead fans alike, as well as a broader audience of neo-jazz and –blues fans. The Colonel enjoyed moderate commercial success with ARU, but eventually left to work on other projects like the Fiji Mariners, Planet Zambee, and the Code Talkers.
The Colonel officially entered the Phish world on 4/30/92, when he joined the boys on stage to jam on “Tweezer.” After a spot with ARU on 5/5/93, he reappeared on 4/23/94 for a “You Enjoy Myself” keyboard jam, and a one-time cover of Leonard Cohen’s strange “Who By Fire.” On 11/28/95, the Colonel was brought on stage for Fish to serenade him, the drummer belting out a soulful version of “Wind Beneath My Wings” as his hero read a newspaper. On 10/31/96, the Colonel joined the chaos on stage during “The Overload,” the final track of Talking Heads album Remain in Light. He performed on jackhammer for this legendary set closer. Members of Phish have been no strangers to the Colonel’s shows either. Most notably, Mike performed four shows in April 2001 with Hampton and the Code Talkers on a promotional tour for Outside Out. At one of these shows, 4/11/01 at New York City’s Irving Plaza, Mike performed “Destiny Unbound” in public for the first time since 1991. (Page also appeared briefly during that set.) Fish has appeared with the Colonel on 7/7/92, 5/11/93, 3/13/94, 4/22/94, 9/3/94, 12/22/97, 7/3/99 (with Mike), 2/26/00, 10/5/01 and 3/16/02. Mike has also appeared with the man on 3/9/94, 10/30/96, 6/23/00, 12/22/01, 6/29/02, 1/3/03 and 7/26/03. Page (3/26/92, 7/7/92, 3/21/93, 3/11/94, 9/3/94, 10/30/96) and Trey (7/7/92, 7/11/92, 3/11/94, 4/22/94) have also played with the Colonel and his bands.
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