I heard Col. Bruce Hampton say on several occasions that he’d probably die on stage, eventually—that he’d prefer to die there, actually. But I didn’t really take him seriously. Then, “eventually” arrived.
Even when Hampton collapsed on stage during the encore of his 70th birthday all-star jam, Monday just before midnight at the Fox Theatre, most of the 4,500 fans and friends in attendance—including the musicians around him—figured this was one of the stunts he’d become famous for in his 50-plus years of performing. In other words, we’d all seen him fall on stage before.
“The guys that have played in bands with him for years said he’d pulled some shtick like this,” said John Bell, lead singer for Widespread Panic, part of the evening’s star-studded lineup and one of the 27 musicians performing during the encore performance of “Turn on Your Love Light.”
It’s important to note here that Hampton, often referred to as the patriarch of the jam band scene, preferred the brass-infused original R&B version of “Love Light” by Bobby “Blue” Bland over the Grateful Dead version, adding his own version of the Bland signature growl to Monday night’s performance.
“I sound like everyone I’ve stolen from,” Hampton told me several years ago, when I started gathering material for a book about him. At the time, it seemed like a straight-forward proposition. How little I knew.
“Another guy tried to write a book about me, but it was insane—filled with space ships and spies and things that made no sense,” Hampton said, adding later that this was his 165th trip to the Planet Earth, “the only planet in the solar system with aluminum.”
Then he correctly guessed my birthday, and I correctly answered his baseball trivia questions, and he invited me to his Tuesday lunches, and our extended, wide-ranging bullshit sessions lasted until Monday night and will someday yield a book that now has a different and somewhat sadder ending than the one I’d intended.
Anyway, that Bobby Bland growl was the last thing Hampton (who actually turned 70 on April 30) performed on stage. Then, his back to the audience at stage right, he motioned to 14-year-old guitar wunderkind, Brandon “Taz” Niederauer, to step up and take a solo. As the young star of Broadway’s “School of Rock: The Musical” began shredding, Hampton lowered himself to his knees, arms in front of him, as if paying homage to the guitarist.
A fine athlete for most of his life (and he would have been the first one to tell you), Hampton could throw a tight spiral, or make a hook shot from half court, or pull off a pratfall without injuring himself, at least in his younger days. This wasn’t that. But as he collapsed he had the presence of mind (or a physical sixth sense) to brace himself, cradling a speaker with his left arm before lying, face down, on the stage, like he was playing dead.
He lay there, and the band played, and no one in the Fox, except perhaps Hampton, had a clue. How could we? He’d always been the great trickster, a free range artist who wrote music and poetry and drew pictures and acted and could also speak fluent hyperbole, the kind you wanted to believe.
“Eighty-eight percent of my stories are true and the rest are embellished,” Hampton warned me once. “Mythocracy is where I live. I’d rather have somebody laugh at something I say than learn the weight of an onion in Idaho.”
After the ambulance came and carried Hampton away to Emory University Midtown Hospital, a small group huddled on Ponce de Leon Avenue near banjo picker Jeff Mosier, a longtime Hampton collaborator, who said, “We’ve all seen him do this kind of thing so many times—some of us were going to get down on the stage, too.”
Everyone thought he was joking. The Atlanta music legend who cried wolf.
“Pretty quickly,” Bell observed, “it all turned very real.”
On a typical Monday night, Hampton would have been playing team trivia at the Local 7, a tavern in Tucker, instead of playing the last gig of his life, which may have also have been one of the best gigs of his life.
The stellar lineup included Chuck Leavell, Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, John Popper, Tinsley Ellis, most of Widespread Panic, John Fishman from Phish, former Cy Young Award winner (and a decent guitar player) Jake Peavy, Oliver Wood, and piano player Johnny Knapp, among others—“artists that Bruce has fostered in some way,” said Leavell, who added, “he’s certainly been one of the most influential and inspirational human beings I’ve ever known.”
After hanging backstage for most of the evening, Hampton came out to play for the last hour or so, with a set list that included the prescient “Fixin’ to Die” and his most well-known song, the ironically-titled “Basically Frightened.”
“The truth is, Bruce was fearless, and one of the things he instilled in all of us as musicians and artists was to be fearless, and never let boundaries get in the way of expressing yourself,” Leavell said.
The oldest person on stage was the 88-year-old Knapp, a former jazzman who started gigging with Hampton about five years ago. Knapp, who left the stage before the encore, was sitting in the wings in his wheelchair near Hampton, who was waiting to go back on.
“I told him, ‘Well, you’ve got five minutes, then it’s all over.’ And he said, ‘Johnny, I’ll be glad when it’s all over,’” Knapp said. “I thought we were talking about the concert. Maybe we weren’t.”
When it was all over, and word came to Knapp and to everyone else who waited downtown into the wee hours of Tuesday that the Colonel had died, the arc of Hampton’s remarkable story landed right where he predicted, or hoped, it would—one last show, one last note, then out.
“It hurts to say this, but there’s something sadly poetic about the way things happened,” Leavell said. “As if Bruce had already written the last sentence on the last page of the last chapter of his story.”