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Published: 2017/06/09
by Dan Skolnik

On the Third Hand: First-Hand Remembrances of Col. Bruce Hampton

The one and only time I met Col. Bruce Hampton, who died on May 1 during a celebration of his 70th birthday, he told me I looked familiar. This was in a bar in Atlanta in 2012, and the whole encounter took less than five minutes. I told him I used to produce features on AOL about Jambands, not least Aquarium Rescue Unit. “I know I’ve met you before,” he said. “You were born in June, weren’t you?”

Mystery Sense

I later learned he could do that. He could meet someone and he would just somehow, not guess but know their birthday. This is no fable. Billy Abrams, a longtime FOCB, recalled meeting him. The Colonel turned to the rest of the band and said, “Looks like a Gemini to me. Venus Rising. What do you think, boys?” They called back, “Venus Rising!”; “Yes!”; “Rising For sure!”

“Then he turned back to me,” Abrams continued, “and was like, ‘You’re a Gemini, right?’” And I said Yes. And he looks at me and goes, ‘Maaaayy twenty-sevennnnnnnth or twenty-eighth! Right?’ And I’m May 28th.”

It might take a day or two, then he’d come out with, “November 7, 1969! And you were born between 6 and 10 AM.” He’d be right or almost-right. I don’t know how he could do it, but he could do it. A sixth sense. It’s inexplicable – a power unknown to science. But obviously not impossible.

Connections at Random of Random Connections

He was funny onstage and off. And talkative, to say the least. Connections between people and things jumped out of him. “He would always point out little wrinkles in the Universe,” said Abrams. “An encyclopedia of random facts. More like a vortex of random facts. Probably seventy percent of them were accurate and thirty percent just left you guessing if he was serious or insane.”

It wasn’t just birthdays and strange-but-true facts. “Bruce would say something completely unexpected to you,” he said, imitating The Colonel’s low, gruff voice. “He’d tell someone, ‘You’re going to bump into a blues legend in 2019, and it’ll be raining outside.’ Just something weird like that to plant in their head.” (In a recent Relix.com video, The Colonel finishes a tale about the Allman Brothers and, without any pause, asks listeners if they know the capital of New Hampshire.)

“I would see something weird and send him a text about it. He would respond with all these totally random associations on what I said. He would have texts going on with six other people, too.”

Jamband Author and Thinker Jesse Jarnow sees this randomness vortex-or-whatever similarly. Making odd connections was a function of “just pure creative instinct” in Col. Bruce. Famed artist Jeff Wood, who designed the poster for the Hampton 70 show, called this “plundering the cosmos as only he could.”

Always an Adventure

Wood remembered the Colonel “holding court on Jam Cruise. The times of sitting and listening as he plundered the cosmos as only he could.” I relish the image of Col. Bruce, unplugged, with a crowd of admirers, on an immense boat under Van Gogh stars. “The guy was not of this world and I loved that about him. It was always an adventure listening to his stories.”

Jimmy Herring was just as animated talking about Col. Bruce. “There will be songs you don’t understand…. And you shouldn’t try to,” he laughed. I once asked him how ARU drummer Jeff Sipe came to be called Apartment Q258. He looked like he knew he wasn’t supposed to tell, but couldn’t resist. “Bruce gave him that name. There was this old radio preacher, and he used to tell people to bring him money.” Herring dropped his voice into gravelly Bruce-speak. “‘Come on down, in the name of the Lord, folks, to Apartment Q258’ in some building somewhere. We were rehearsing and Bruce just started doing it, making like that preacher, and we were all laughing and falling down. And that was it. After that he just started calling Jeff that.”

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