Rock has too many sad stories of talent leaving the world long before its time, and one of the saddest stories is Tommy Bolin’s. In the decade of the Guitar Hero, Bolin distinguished himself not just by his chops—which were formidable—but also in the sheer variety of genres and styles he was fluid in. Bolin, in his all too brief career as a recording artist tackled bluesy rock, jazz fusion, reggae, Latin rhythms, metal and ballads with equal aplomb. Not only that, but Bolin became an accomplished songwriter and singer. Unfortunately, like so many other artists in the 70s, Bolin developed an addiction to heroin, cocaine, and alcohol to which he succumbed in late 1976—he was only 25.
Bolin spent much of his youth—both in Sioux City, Iowa and Denver, Colorado—playing in various garage and bar bands when he joined the band that would become Zephyr in 1969. Zephyr, whose lead singer, Candy Givens, was a bit of a Janis Joplin soundalike, would record two albums with Bolin before he left the band to pursue more adventurous musical avenues. Bolin and Zephyr’s drummer Bobby Berge formed the ambitious rock/jazz/blues band Energy, which, though it never produced any official studio recordings during Bolin’s lifetime, attracted plenty of attention amongst fellow musicians. In fact, Joe Walsh was impressed enough with the group to essentially swipe several key players from Energy for his own band.
After Energy fell apart in 1973, Bolin’s fortunes changed when he was called in to be the guitarist for Billy Cobham’s solo debut, Spectrum, which would become one of the most important jazz fusion albums. Spectrum not only helped to solidify the artistic and commercial fortunes of the genre, but Bolin’s playing on the album essentially made his career. Spectrum also reportedly spurred Jeff Beck to move into fusion, whereupon he proceeded to make two of the best albums of his long career.
Bolin, at the recommendation of Joe Walsh, was offered the guitar spot in Walsh’s old band James Gang. He spent the next year in that group, writing a good portion of the material in collaboration with long time friends/lyricists Jeff Cook and John Tesar, and learning to improve his singing with the help of Roy Kenner, the band’s vocalist. Bolin left James Gang in 1974 and worked on another important fusion release, Alphonse Mouzon’s Mind Transplant, while also preparing to work on his first solo album.
During the sessions for Teaser, Bolin was asked to audition to replace Richie Blackmore in Deep Purple after David Coverdale, Purple’s lead singer at the time, raved to the rest of the band about Spectrum. Coverdale and Glenn Hughes, Purple’s bassist and other singer, had been wanting the band to move in a funkier, bluesier direction, and Bolin was the right man for the job. After jamming with Purple for several hours, he was offered the job.
There has been much speculation as to whether or not Bolin’s joining Deep Purple was ultimately a good thing. Even though Bolin was working on a solo album, he could hardly have turned down an opportunity to join one of the most popular rock bands going, even if they were on the downward slope of their popularity. However, the drug problems he was already suffering would worsen under the intense stress of being in a superstar group, especially since Richie Blackmore was one of the top three or four guitarists in the world at that point. Bolin’s addiction was also not helped because Glenn Hughes was also having major issues with his cocaine problem, to the point where Bolin had to play bass and sing back up on one track of Come Taste the Band because Hughes was incapacitated.
In any case, the lone album Bolin would do with Deep Purple was a flawed but worthy addition to both catalogs. Bolin was able to complete Teaser while working on Come Taste the Band, and Glenn Hughes would contribute vocals (uncredited) to “Dreamer,” one of Teaser’s best tracks. Purple broke up after a disastrous Asian tour left the band exhausted and, in the case of Hughes and Bolin, strung out.
After Purple’s collapse, Bolin formed the Tommy Bolin Band and completed what was to be his final album, Private Eyes, which was released in September of 1976. He died on December 4th of that year—his band had just played a show opening up for Jeff Beck, who was touring in support of Wired, one of the fusion albums Beck had recorded after hearing Bolin’s playing on Spectrum
Though Bolin’s short career had many phases, Teaser serves as the best introduction to his versatility as a guitarist, songwriter and vocalist. This album was brimming with so much potential in so many different directions and underscores the terrible loss that the music world suffered at Tommy’s passing.
Fittingly, the first song on Teaser is “The Grind,” a hard luck tale about struggle and strife, which Bolin sings with grit and fire. Even with all of the acclaim that followed his work on Spectrum, Bolin would never find true security, financial or otherwise, during his career. His blazing slide work (one of the many sounds in his arsenal) matches the frustration in Bolin’s voice. “Homeward Strut” is a fine fusion/groove workout featuring session ace drummer Jeff Porcaro. Dave Foster’s synth and Stanley Sheldon’s bass match in perfect sync in an ominous, heavy riff.
“Dreamer” is one of Bolin’s most beloved songs, and for good reason. The lyrics of the song seem to reflect Bolin’s own state of mind, especially in the chorus, “Dreamer I know what you’re thinking, I can see it in your face. Maybe before you were happy, but now your thoughts aren’t of this place.” Foster plays a brilliant, heartbreaking piano melody, and the atmosphere of the song anticipates the big power ballads of the next decade, but “Dreamer” displays none of the artifice and maudlin sentiments of that subgenre. Bolin’s soloing is sublime, quick, and melodic and his singing is at its most passionate. The song ends in a dramatic crescendo with Glenn Hughes taking over the vocal spot, and, if rumor has it, that Jon Lord of Deep Purple also played on Teaser, he would have most likely appeared on “Dreamer,” as well, since only one of two tracks to feature the organ.
“Savannah Woman” is a smooth, swinging, Latin-tinged tune that has Bolin unleashing several textures at once. His soloing features his stunning octave-work, and his most precise clean-tone single note melodies, backed by tight rhythm playing. “Savannah Woman” also has Phil Collins playing percussion, of all the random people. The title track is a murky, heavy, riff-driven rocker, and is actually the weakest song on the album. The lyrics had mostly avoided rock tropes too closely, but “Teaser” is a pretty standard “look out for that evil woman” bit. The song does feature some nifty solo work, but is otherwise a run of the mill 70s hard rock song.
“People, People” has a remarkable backing band, with Dave Sanborn playing his characteristic sax lines and Jan Hammer, late of Mahavishnu Orchestra and the Spectrum sessions on keys and drums. Bolin’s guitar actually takes a bit of a backseat on this song, but he supplies a stinging reggae-tinged rhythm and his vocals are powerful and confident. The same cannot be said for “Marching Powder,” another stunning fusion instrumental, which again features Sanborn and Hammer, with Narada Michael Walden supplying his trademark drum gymnastics. Sheldon and Hammer play in unison, and Bolin fires off fleet-fingered pyrotechnics as the three percussionists create a swirling polyrhythmic stew. The song at times recalls Santana’s jazz explorations, but Bolin’s guitar is fiercer and rawer.
“Wild Dogs” is another one of the classic songs on Teaser, featuring one of Bolin’s most melodically advanced singing and some of the most potent slide work this side of Joe Walsh, who is certainly one of Bolin’s influences as a player. “Wild Dogs” ends with Bolin trading solos with himself in two distinctive voices that is reminiscent of how Betts and Allman used to play off of each other.
Teaser closes, after all too brief a time—the album is only 35 minutes long—with “Lotus,” which sees Bolin shifting from a dreamy, hazy mood, to a heavy chorus, to a reggae outro that shifts back into a heavy jam. All of these tonal shifts happen in the space of less than four minutes in Bolin’s most dazzling display of versatility and virtuosity.
I had heard Tommy Bolin’s name for a good deal of my life because I was a fan of both James Gang and Deep Purple, and I knew that he had taken over from much more well-known guitarists. It took me many years to finally get around to listening to Teaser, and the album completely floored me. I basically kicked myself for not having discovered it sooner.
If you are at all into the guitar greats of the 70s, whether it is Clapton, Page, Beck (who acknowledged the importance of Spectrum on his own career), Blackmore, Walsh, Trower, etc, Tommy Bolin deserves your serious attention, not only because of his inventiveness and technique as a player, but also because he was approaching Clapton and Walsh in his facility as a singer/songwriter dual threat.
Bolin’s albums with James gang, especially Bang, and with Deep Purple are a must for fans of those groups, and anyone interested in jazz fusion needs to take a piece of Spectrum and Mind Transplant. Really, any of the albums listed in the discography below, including Private Eyes, are worth a deep listen. Bolin’s reputation among musicians has only grown over the years, but his visibility to the general listening public certainly has not.
That being said, the best place to start with Teaser is the standalone original release. Over the past decade, The Tommy Bolin Archives has put out several expanded and remastered variations of the album, some of which include re-recordings of Bolin’s songs by contemporaries and younger musicians who were influenced by him. There is also a wealth of live recordings and studio outtakes from all phases of Bolin’s career, which are available from the Bolin Archives. These are really only for the intensely dedicated fan.
Bolin, like so many other artists who flamed out early, left a wealth of questions behind in terms of the direction his career might have taken had he lived.
Zephyr: Going Back to Colorado 1971
Billy Cobham: Spectrum 1973
James Gang: Bang 1973
James Gang: Miami 1974
Alphonse Mouzon: Mind Transplant 1974
Deep Purple: Come Taste the Band 1975
Private Eyes 1976
Much of the detail concerning Tommy’s life and career come from his official website: http://www.tbolin.com/.