Boy, was I ever in for an education on Tommy Bolin.
I came to learn that Bolin had by then established himself as one of the most talented and adept guitar players in the industry, with successful stints with the James Gang, session work with jazz drummer Billy Cobham, and through his own solo work.
Before his untimely death in 1976, he was a surprisingly versatile and gifted guitar player with a significant body of work at a very young age. He is most definitely a guitar player you should know.
Born in Iowa, Bolin began playing guitar by age 13, and was soon playing with local bands. He relocated to Colorado and things began taking off. He first formed the group Zephyr, recording briefly with the band before starting the fusion jazz band Energy.
While Energy did not record, it brought Bolin to Cobham’s attention.
But Bolin’s first big break came in 1973, when the James Gang sought him to replace guitarist Domenic Troiano, who had earlier taken over for future Eagles’ guitar player Joe Walsh.
“With the James Gang it got kind of tedious, playing the same things every night,” Bolin told Melody Maker magazine in 1975. “And there was never any close communication between us, on stage or off, and people in the audience could feel that.”
He began doing session work and recording his own material. Then another break: Lead guitar player Ritchie Blackmore was leaving Deep Purple, and the legendary metal band came looking for Bolin.
“The man who sparked the James Gang and went on to surprise jazz-rock aficionados with his remarkable playing on Billy Cobham’s ‘Spectrum’ album, on cuts like the hair-raising ‘Quadrant 4,’ will be recording with Purple,” Melody Maker reported at the time.
“And the freedom of the arrangement means that Tommy will be able to go off and do his own things, while Purple gets the services of one of the best young guitarists to emerge in a long time.”
Bolin’s loose arrangement with Purple did allow him to keep promoting his first solo album, Teaser. But he also hit the road with Deep Purple, where he was allowed to perform tracks from his own album as well.
In 1976, Bolin completed his second — and last — solo album, the critically acclaimed Private Eyes. In the Melody Maker interview, he talked about putting a band together for the album.
“I’ve just accepted the fact that things take time, and you go step by step,” he said. “There’s light at the end of the tunnel and all of the groups are looking at the same light. I want a band to sound as powerful as Purple, but fresh.”
However, things were not well. His now-obvious heroin use was becoming problematic. With Purple, there had been rumors that excessive use even contributed to partial paralysis in his left arm.
In late 1976, he was touring behind Private Eyes and opening for performers like Peter Frampton and Jeff Beck. On Dec. 3, 1976, he opened for Beck. It was his last show: He passed out several hours later and was pronounced dead the next day.
He was just 25.
His brother, Johnny Bolin, remained in the business: He was the drummer for the southern rock band Black Oak Arkansas. And years after his death, former Deep Purple bandmate Glenn Hughes organized a tribute concert.
Today, it’s chilling to imagine how his career would have progressed. Give him a listen. You’ll see.
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(NOTE: This is part of my ongoing series of reports on guitar players who fly under the mainstream radar. Keep checking The Listening Room for future installments of guitar players you should know – JF)
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