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Col. Bruce Hampton

Col. Bruce Hampton (ret) Discusses Everything from Andy Griffith to Slingblade to The Aquarium Rescue Unit , Horse Racing and Zambee

by Michael B. Smith
January, 2001

Col. Bruce Hampton has been there, done that and got the t-shirt. He's an avid reader, a film buff, and a musical enigma. From The Hampton Grease Band to The Aquarium Rescue Unit, The Fiji Mariners and The Code Talkers, Hampton has explored musical stylings that blended one part Frank Zappa, two parts Charlie Christian, one part John Lee Hooker, and two parts Captain Beefheart, with more than one pinch of Allman Brothers Band tossed in for flavor. He is a writer, a singer, a guitarist, an actor and a film maker. But more than all of that, he is the organizational master, and if Derek Trucks, Jimmy Herring, and O'Teil Burbridge are young Jedi's, Col. Bruce is their Yoda. No small wonder he has been referred to as "the daddy of us all."
We spoke to Bruce from Montgomery, Alabama, where he was on the road in a thunderstorm. The cell phone held up nicely, and we are happy to present this exclusive one-on-one, Zen-like trip into the mind of a true artist's artist-Col Bruce Hampton.

It was great seeing you reunited with The Aquarium Rescue Unit at Warren's Christmas Jam last week

Thanks. We had a great time, man.

You live in Atlanta nowadays, right?

I live in Florida and in Atlanta.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, but I only spent about eight days there. I was raised in Atlanta. My family has been there since about 1820. I have definite Atlanta roots.

Who would you say influenced you musically early on?

Wow. I would say John Lee Hooker, Little Richard, Bobby Bland, B.B. King - when I was still a single digit- at age 8 and 9.

When and how was The Hampton Grease Band formed?

The name came around in 1967. I had played in a band called The Four Of Nine (laughs) about 1964 with a guitar player named Harold. Harold was the guitarist in the Grease Band. We were in a high school band and it just formed into that.

And you ended up signing to Columbia Records for "Music to Eat?"

That was probably the weirdest record I ever made, Michael. (laughs)

How did that record do for you?

Well, I think it was on the shelves for about six weeks, and they just thought it was too weird and they yanked it. They yanked it pretty quick.

Didn't the Hampton Grease Band open for some pretty big names? What about Jimi Hendrix?

We played festivals that Jimi was on. We probably opened for The Allman Brothers about twenty times- although they weren't big at the time- and The Grateful Dead, Fleetwood Mac. About every band out there in the late sixties.

But you guys were different. Were you theatrical?

Yeah, in a non-theatrical sense.

One press release said that you used to throw chairs into the audience.

(laughs) No, but it sounds good.

What about standing on a pizza and singing?

Yeah. That's true. That's hard.

But it's art. Nobody said art was easy.

(laughs) No. Butch Trucks tells the story that the last time he saw me in the sixties, I was eating Interstate 285. That's always been a good one. (laughs) Fiction is better than truth anyway. I don't know. You can't write anything better than this election. Nobody would believe the script. It's got about ten more years until it plays out. We needed it bad, for the drama.

How long have you had your magazine up? I see it a lot.

In February it'll be up for two years.

Let me ask you a couple of questions. How did you start it?

I was writing for magazines like Goldmine, Hittin the Note and Relix, and I kind of became the ambassador of Southern music. So I decided to start a web magazine dedicated to good Southern music. It just took off from there.

It's great! I just can't believe you found all those old Capricorn bands. You dug Âem up. It's just mind-blowing. Do you ever hear from Dru Lombar?

All the time.

Please tell him I said hello. It's been 25 years since I've seen him.

Will do. After you left Columbia Records, you signed with Frank Zappa's Bizarre/Straight label. Did you do any recording?

We never did any recording, but I knew Frank in the middle and late sixties. He was very much a gentleman to me an everybody around him. I was a nineteen year old kid. We did a cameo on "Lumpy Gravy." Sam Whiteside was with me. He passed away about three months ago. But Frank was just getting started. Moon Unit wasn't even born yet. There was nothing weird about Frank. He was all work and no play. A very serious minded guy.

And quite a guitar player.

He was a great picker. And he was himself, that's what I dug about him.

Kind of like yourself. There's only one Col. Bruce.

Well, I don't know whether I'm good or bad, but we have a new movie that came out last week. It's about me teaching guitar lessons. It's called "Outside Out." I did it with the Phish guy, Mike Gordon. It'll start hitting theatres in a month or so.

Let me ask you, Michael B. Are you a Leo or a Gemini?

Cancer, Aquarius rising. My wife is an astrologer.

(Laughs) You are kidding! WOW! She must be a Pisces.

She's a Gemini, Cancer rising.

Air and water, good match. Which one's the craziest, her or you?

That's hard to say. We are definitely a unique pair.

You sound like a great pair.

Oh, we are. What can I say? (laughs)

Where are you from originally?

Just 35 miles down the road in Spartanburg. Jill and I have been big fans of Gov't Mule. Would you care to comment on the death of Allen Woody?

I hated to see Allen go, man. That really hurt. He was crazy as a loon. What a great guy. A good spirit.

You wouldn't know anything about crazy now would you?

I'm surrounded by it, and I am it.

How did The Aquarium Rescue Unit come to be? Did you put that together?

I had help from everybody. Jeff and I met about 1985, the drummer. He knew O'teil before, and I met him in Â86 and Jimmy in Â89. It all kind of just came together. I can't really take credit for it. I'm an organizer, I'm not a leader. I have to give Apt. Q258 a lot of credit too. The synergy took itself and made itself.

Did Jeff always go by the name Apt. Q258?

He used to be Jeff, now he's Apt. Q258, named after the Prophet Omega. There's a website on that too, called Friends Seen and Unseen, the movie- with Billy Bob Thornton, Marty Stuart and myself. It's not out yet, but I think the web site is up. I'm not sure.

So are you friends with Billy Bob? I know you were in Slingblade.

Yeah. Right.

It took me a while to realize it was you. I didn't recognize Dwight Yoakam either.

We were both honored to be in it.

That was a great movie. Really strange. My kind of flick.

It really was. What's funny is while we were shooting all the producers were going "this one will go straight to video," and I'm sitting there watching the thing and going Âthis is one of the greatest films ever made.' Not because I was in it- I was just devastated by it. It was amazing. And Billy shot a good four and a half hours, and he had to edit it to two hours and ten minutes or whatever. The other half of the movie is just as good as that. It's a shame the world never got to see it. I think it's out on a director's cut though. Billy Bob, you know, is obviously a genius man. He can act, direct, write. He's written two screen plays that are just unbelievable.

There's one that I head was coming out called Daddy and Them, with Andy Griffith and John Prine in it. I'm really looking forward to that one.

He shot that in Little Rock last year, and I think it would be out now, except he released All the Pretty Horses with Matt Daemon, and that just came out. But Daddy and Them is really, really great, man. It should be great. All the Pretty Horses was shot about two years ago, and I remember he trouble getting the sound on it. I remember we were in the studio with him in the fall with Matt Daemon and Billy Bob and Marty Stuart, and I don't know movie stars man, I thought Matt was the piano player. I'm saying to Matt Daemon, one of the best actors around, "hey, that's good piano playing." He just looked at me like I was crazy! (Laughs) Then he found out I was the guy in Slingblade and it was just double crazy. But Billy Bob's a genius, no question about it. And a wonderful, wonderful man too. As good as they get.

What made you leave The Aquarium Rescue Unit and later form the Fiji Mariners?

I didn't leave it. I was told by the doctor to take a long break. My blood pressure was like three-million over three-million. It was pretty exhausting. I took about a four-month hiatus. Then I had to do something, so that was thrown together. I never wanted to leave the ARU. We played two gigs together last year, and maybe we'll play some more this year. Personally, they are wonderful people, and you're not going to get any better players. Or tell me who they are, I'd like to hear Âem. (laughs)

I just saw a video of you and the Unit down in Florida with Allen Woody sitting in on guitar and lap steel.

He came out on the road with us for a while. The best compliment I ever was paid, Allen said, "The Allman Brothers are crazy, but y'all are for real! He said "Y'all don't have to try! It was funny as hell. I miss that cat a lot man.

Tell me what "Zambee" is.

Wow. If you can explain "life and jazz," I'll explain it! In 1974, I met a gentleman who was a sound man, and his name was Zambee. It's an actual person. And he went 250-thousand miles an hour backwards on the Skylab program. 1300 g's backwards, which is impossible. It broke every bone in his body. He's the fastest man ever, backwards. In 1979-80, we tried to open a Zambeeland theme park in Georgia. It was an absurdity, but I actually started getting some momentum. Then in 1980 we had a Zambeeland Orchestra for one gig, dedicated to Zambee. Then Aquarium Rescue Unit came along later, in 1990 or so, and we always praised Zambee, He was our spiritual leader, our mascot you might say. He's also the world's fastest man, backwards. You know Chauncey Gardner, in the movie Being There?

That's one of my all time favorites.

What's weird as hell is in 1980 when it came out, I went to the theatre with him, and I said "Zambee, that's you!" He looks like him, talks like him, walks like him. Peter Sellers as Chauncey Gardner is Zambee. When it finished I said I'm not leaving. I've got to sit through this again. It's a masterpiece. So we sat. And I noticed the black kid in the movie, and I said "Who the hell is that black kid?" Seven years later, that black kid in Being There turns out to be O'teil Burbridge! He said "If you see that honky, tell him I'm gonna cut his ass." It was O'teil. The odds of that are 45-billion to one. So seven years later, I'm sitting there explaining Zambee to him, and he lays it on me that he was in the movie. That's just too crazy. O'Teil had a talk show on NBC called "Stuff." He was on every Saturday morning. He interviewed people like Kareem Abdul Jabar. He was also a ballet dancer, and did a lot of commercials and movies when he was a teenager. He was a drummer first, and didn't pick up a bass until he was fourteen or fifteen. And you know what's funny? The first gig I hired him, I paid him with a 1976 Dodge Colt. He had no car, so I gave him one. I thought he was a drummer, and I was just marveled that this 21-year old kid was that good a drummer. So I hired him as a drummer. Then he picked up the bass one day, and we all nearly fainted. We said, "Holy...What is that??!!" At 21 he was still getting his thing together, but you could still tell he was going to be the Michael Jordan of bass guitar in about three years. All the old school guys are coming up to me and saying, "Tell that guy to stop playing so much." And I say, "You're not listening. He's not over playing. He's just embellishing everything, and the bass line is always there."

The bass line is there, along with a melody line, and something else, and it words well. Very well. Very jazzy.

The melody line is always there. I've played with a thousand bass players, and he is one of the best I've ever played with. His bass line is always there, you've just got to trust him. You just go. Sometimes there is no "one." When him and Jeff get to going, there's no "one." You just have to hang on and go.

I want to do something a bit different, because you are such a renaissance man. In the tradition of great magazines like Tiger Beat and 16, I want to ask you some fan questions.

I'd like that.

What are your five favorite record albums of all time? Not including Donny Osmond. (laughing)

Number one, do you have a pencil? (laughs and spells out name) Krystoff Penderecki "Threnbony the Victims of Hiroshima." That's number one.

Number two is Bobby Bland's Greatest Hits.

Number three is anything by Son House.

And number four is Ala Akbar Khan.

Number five is any records on Crown by John Lee Hooker. Crown or King.

That's pretty interesting. The first album you spoke of, what is that? Is it jazz?

Oh, God no. It's from the 28th century. If you ever get a chance to hear it., It's the greatest piece of music I've ever heard in my life. Actually that's how I met Frank Zappa. I was discussing that piece of music. We were in a cafe, and one of us overheard the other one talking about it, and said "How did you know that record? That's sort of how we became friends.

What's the best book you've ever read?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson, and Commentaries On Living by Jiddu Krishmanurti.

So you like Dr. Thompson. He's one of my favorites.

He's the funniest man. I like him better than Mark Twain. I don't like all of them, but Fear and Loathing is madness at it's height. That's absolutely a masterpiece.

Your all time favorite TV show?

Without a doubt, the acting, the production, the directing, is The Andy Griffith Show. I mean, you can watch that and learn music, and flow, and life more than anything I've ever seen. Those first fifty, there was nothing that could beat Âem. All in the Family was second, I believe. But I study Andy Griffith for musical composition, for space and time. They never did a bad episode. There's not one moment out of place on those hundreds of episodes. When you can perfect something like that, it's amazing. To be that on all the time, and that good, is scary. I generally hate consistency. I want something to be great for two nights and then horrible for a night. So consistency worries me. Consistency is a mediocre mind. But it was a symphony for me each time. It was pro-wrestling and it was Shakespeare. They nailed it. Whoever the producer and the director were. And the acting was just great every show, Ron Howard, Don Knotts, Andy Griffith- I don't know how they did it. Thank you for that question. I finally get to answer stuff I've always wanted to answer.

Favorite movie of all time?

Oh, wow. Being There; Brazil; Magnolia; Slingblade; To Kill a Mockingbird; and Women in Love.

What are your hobbies?

That's so great that you asked that, because I go through passions. I probably do them for about ten years, and then never do them again. I started out as a golfer, believe it or not, until I was twenty. I went to school on a gold scholarship. I have played three times in thirty years. I hate it now. I spent so much time as a young man trying to improve it. I played tennis for about ten years, and I don't play it anymore. For the past ten years I've been into horse racing. I love the Kentucky Derby. I like any kind of racing that lasts less than five minutes and you can tell who's winning. The hundred yard dash and the 440 in the Olympics are fun. I don't understand stock car racing. I'm trying to. I'm asking my friends, "When do you cheer?" I mean, I respect their unbelievable skills, but I just don't know when to get excited. I like drag racing. Other hobbies. I'm just getting back into reading psychology books for the first time in thirty years. I read all of them back in the sixties. I'm reading philosophy again. I really don't know why. (laughs)Everybody has an opinion.

Describe your favorite meal?

Actually, in May of this year I started on a diet to lose weight, and I stopped eating as many carbohydrates. I went on a low carbohydrate diet and I dropped about 40 pounds in two months. Since winter's come I've gained it all back. It's from eating too many carbs. My favorite food, I am proud to say is corn. It's hard to beat cream corn. What do you like to eat?

If you saw me, you would see that I definitely have my own food issues.

Yeah, but in reverse. You're too thin, right? (Note: Col. Bruce has obviously not seen me in person yet!)

Not exactly. But my favorites are Indian food and Middle Eastern.

Oh, I love Indian food.

What music do you listen to today?

I can't stand any popular stuff. I try to be open, but I turn on the radio today and it makes my epidermis hurt. I mean, what in the world? These kids are getting married at 23- do they come back at 70 and hear all this noise and say "Darling, they're playing our song!" I mean, there's no melody. I'm sorry, I just get it. It's not that I'm old, it's not a generational thing. It's just awful. I'm listening to Charlie Christian and Django Rhinehart today, and Robert Johnson.

But I'm sure you listen to some of the young bloods today, like Derek Trucks. I know he's your boy.

I talk to Derek about every three days, and he's coming to see me next week. I've been a friend and a fan since he was nine years old. There are a few hopes out there. As long as it's pure, I'll dig it. As long as it's from the heart. There's no bad or good. It took twenty years for people to get Monk. To get John Lee Hooker and B.B. King. It took forever. I saw B.B. King get booed in the early sixties. People didn't appreciate him, and he's one of the best. But I just talked to Derek last night. Derek's it.

To wrap up, what do you have coming up?

On February 2, at Variety Playhouse (Atlanta), we're showing the movie we did with the Phish guy, Mike Gordon, Outside Out, and we're playing afterwards. And I'm playing three or four days a week with The Code Talkers. We're about to get a new record company. Capricorn closed last week, ironically. But we should be doing some new stuff soon.

Thanks for your time, Col. Bruce. It's been great.

Thank you, Michael. It's been a real pleasure.

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