The last time I spoke with Col. Bruce Hampton was backstage in March, Widespread Panic at La Playa in Mexico. Of all things, we talked about death. I told him my stories about watching my Mom on her deathbed, suffering and afraid, and he told me his mutual stories of the same kind. (Which I won't repeat, for fear of breaching his confidence.)
"It's just awful to watch it happen," he said. "There must be a better way...but no. There's no good way."
But if there's such a thing as a better way to die, maybe Bruce found it after all. Leave it to the Colonel. He collapsed onstage while surrounded by great friends, many of the brilliant musicians he had encouraged and nurtured, and a theatre full of adoring fans, during his 70th birthday celebration at the beautiful Fox Theatre in Atlanta. Not too shabby.
From his days with the Grease Band and the Music to Eat album in '71 (the second-worst selling album in the history of Columbia Records, which if you knew Bruce, might be interpreted as a bizarre badge of honor)...on through to the mighty Aquarium Rescue Unit and their involvement in the hugely influential H.O.R.D.E. tours in the '90s, which spearheaded the great jam band revolution of our generation...to all the many genuinely brilliant musicians he discovered then sent onward to their various careers of great acclaim...to his iconic appearance (alongside Vic Chesnutt) in Billy Bob Thornton's Academy Award-winning film Sling Blade in '96...and beyond, right through literally to the last day of his life...Bruce's influence was profound and he'll be canonized in the realm of Legend.
His music was hard to categorize. He referenced jazz, funk and deep blues; he surely loved the likes of Bobby “Blue” Bland and James Brown. In recent years, he appeared regularly with the great pianist Johnny Knapp, who once accompanied artists such as Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong. Bruce was also compared to the likes of Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa, and he sometimes edged into truly unpredictable and experimental territory, yet he could bring it all back home and rock, straightforward, hard and pure as anyone. You just have to hear it to get it, and if you haven’t already, I highly recommend you seek out his records and do so.
His musical and cultural legacy speaks for itself. Personally, I'll miss his outrageous stories told backstage, his comprehensive and infallible recall of the most obscure baseball statistics, his ability to guess everyone's birthday, his great sense of humor, and his unfailingly gracious behavior. He was a true gentleman, and an American original, and now he's spreading his wild music back out into the cosmos from whence he came. We were all lucky to catch a glimpse while he was here with us.