Col. Bruce Hampton


One Ruined Life of a Bronze Tourist

Outside Looking Out

Isles Of Langerhan


Like Sherlock Holmesí story of the Giant Rat of Sumatra, "for which the world is not yet ready," Colonel Bruce Hamptonís story has remained untold. Perhaps the world is ready now....

The story began, according to the Colonel, in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where he was born "around the time of the Roswell incident with four different birth certificates." However that may be, he grew up in Atlanta. His uncle and cousin are three-star generals, his grandfather was a colonel, and for the first six years of his life he was called Colonel Bruce. As a young child he was cared for by Liza Mae, who was born in slavery. She sang spirituals to him. He became the first male child on his motherís side of the family in generations not to attend West Point.

That was then. The Colonel is now authentically and unquestionably the Colonel in more ways than one. Last January Georgia Governor Roy Barnes appointed him a Lieutenant Colonel on the Governorís Staff. Last March Dekalb County Superior Court Judge Gail Flake granted a petition to change the name of Bruce Cowles Hampton to Col. Bruce Cowles Hampton.

Signal to Noise magazine published a superb interview or exchange between the Colonel and another bizarre musical genius, Eugene Chadbourne. (The four birth certificates quote is from there.) In that dialogue the Colonel remembers the first band he was in, "a band called the Four of Nine with six people."

He was sixteen or seventeen, "studying to be a preacher or an accountant. And play golf. And I got onstage, the first night, it was absolutely magic. And I went absolutely insane, I went, ĎThis is what I want to do!í And for the next fifty years itís been nothing but trouble trying to find pitch and key and time."

Two key events in the Colonelís life took place in 1969. That year Columbia released the Colonelís first album, the Hampton Grease Bandís Music to Eat óó an album that sold fewer copies than any Columbia ever released, with the exception of one giving yoga instructions. Also in 1969, the late music writer Bob Palmer took the Colonel, who was then twenty-one, to Memphis, where he saw the blues singer and guitarist Bukka White perform, among other things, his formidable "Fixiní to Die."

Many are the Caucasian musicians who credit a particular older black musician with providing inspiration and instruction. Sam Phillips had Uncle Silas, Hank Williams had Teetot, Jim Dickinson had Alex, the Colonel had Liza Mae. Bukka White seems also to have been an epiphany to the Colonel.

Iím walkiní kind of funny
Feel like Iím fixiní to die
Iím walkiní kind of funny
Believe Iím fixiní to die
Well, I donít mind dyiní but I
Hate to see my children cry ...

Thereís a black smoke risiní
Risiní Ďbove my head
Thereís a black smoke risiní
Risiní Ďbove my head
Well, I canít tell Jesus
Iíll make it on my dyiní bed

The music is sheer genius óó itís jazz, but the Colonelís too smart to call it that óó plus itís a lot of other things, such as blues and, most of, all, fun.
© 2000 Stanley Booth

Check out our digital offerings!

Arkansas Buy from Amazon Listen on Spotify Get it iTunes
One Ruined Life of a Bronze Age Tourist Buy from Amazon Listen on Spotify Get it iTunes