GUITARIST | SINGER | SONGWRITER
August 1 1951 – December 4 1976
Tommy Bolin was born in Sioux City, Iowa and began playing in bands around the city as a youth (including A Patch of Blue ) before moving to Boulder, Colorado in his late teens. He played with American Standard before joining Ethereal Zephyr, named after a train that ran between Denver and Chicago. When record companies became interested, the name was shortened to Zephyr. The band featured Tommy on guitar, David Givens (bass), and Givens' wife Candy (vocals). They produced two albums with Tommy and began performing larger venues, opening for more established acts such as Led Zeppelin.
In 1972 Tommy, aged 20, formed Energy, a fusion jazz-rock-blues band which featured Stan Sheldon (bass), Bobby Berge (drums), Tom Stevenson (keyboards) and Jeff Cook (vocals) who shared writing credits with Tommy over throughout his career. While the band never released an album during his lifetime, several recordings have been released posthumously. Around this period he was invited to play on Billy Cobham's (ex Mahavishnu Orchestra) highly acclaimed Spectrum album (1973), with Tommy on guitar, Cobham (drums), Leland Sklar (bass) and Jan Hammer (keyboards). The album allowed Tommy to reach a far wider audience, and to this day, is considered one of his career highs. Jeff Beck reportedly was so impressed, he went down a similar path – ‘Stratus’ is a regular on his current concert set list. Of note, ‘Stratus’ was also sampled by Massive Attack on their 1991 track, ‘Safe from Harm’.
Reportedly, at Joe Walsh's recommendation, Tommy joined the James Gang in 1973 as Domenic Troiano's replacement (who had subsequently replaced Walsh). He recorded two albums, Bang! in 1973 and Miami in 1974. Frustrated with the band's progression he quit in August, 1974, and went on to do session work for numerous artists including Dr John's ‘Hollywood Be Thy Name’ album (his guitar parts were replaced before release – tapes featuring Tommy's contributions exist, making the decision even more baffling). Alongside Lee Ritenour and Jay Grayden, Tommy laid down some stunning guitar on Alphonse Mouzon's 1975 ‘Mind Transplant’ album, considered ‘one of the best fusion recordings of all time’ by Allmusic reviewer Robert Taylor. He also jammed with The Good Rats and Carmine Appice – a rousing version of ‘Stratus’ is available through the Tommy Bolin Archive Release Live at Ebbet's Field.
Tommy signed with Nemperor Records to record ‘Teaser’, his 1975 debut solo album. Musicians included; David Foster, David Sanborn, Jan Hammer, Stanley Sheldon, Phil Collins and Glenn Hughes. Also around this time he contributed some studio guitar assistance to Canadian band Moxy for their self titled debut album. While recording Teaser, he was contacted to replace Ritchie Blackmore in Deep Purple.
A year earlier Blackmore had mentioned in an interview that Tommy was ‘the only American guitarist worth listening to’. But, it was apparently on the recommendation of David Coverdale – Purple's then current vocalist, that he was invited to audition for the band in July 1975. The job was immediately his. Contracts were quickly drawn up between managements allowing Tommy to continue his solo career during Purple's downtime. The band relocated to Munich to begin work on a new album. ‘Come Taste the Band’ was released in late 1975 (around the same time of the release of ‘Teaser’) with Tommy writing or co-writing seven of the album's nine tracks. At the time, many die-hard Purple (and Blackmore) fans were unhappy with album's strong funk element, but the album has aged well – the 2011 release of the 35th Anniversary edition (see discography) received ecstatic reviews. The band embarked on a world tour, but internal conflict and Tommy and Glenn Hughes' increasing drug use resulted in mixed performances – the group disbanded in March 1976.
Tommy immediately returned to the States to record his second solo album, Private Eyes, released September 1976. He then went on the road to promote the album with a rotating cast of players which included Narada Michael Walden, Mark Stein, Norma Jean Bell, Reggie McBride and Jimmy Haslip. The tour, which saw him opening for Peter Frampton and Jeff Beck, proved to be his last. His last performance was at the Jai Alai stadium in Miami December 3, 1976 where he opened for Beck. Ironically his last song was ‘Post Toastee’ – a song warning of the dangers of addiction. A day later, Tommy was pronounced dead from a drug overdose. He is buried in Calvary Cemetery, Sioux City, Iowa.
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TOMMY BOLIN MEMORIAL FUND