Photo via Hampton’s Facebook page
Singer/guitarist Col. Bruce Hampton, the Aquarium Rescue Unit founder who grew into a godfather of the modern jamband scene, passed away earlier this morning. He was 70.
A staple of the Southeast music scene, Hampton—who celebrated his birthday on April 30—collapsed onstage while performing “Turn on Your Lovelight” with an all-star cast a Atlanta’s Fox Theatre at the end of his own tribute show, “Hampton 70.” The evening featured a multi-generational cast, including: Widespread Panic’s John Bell, Dave Schools, Duane Trucks and Jimmy Herring, Phish’s Jon Fishman, R.E.M’s Peter Buck, Karl Denson, Leftover Salmon’s Drew Emmitt, Rev. Jeff Mosier, Warren Haynes, Drivin’ N Cryin’ frontman Kevn Kinney, Johnny Knapp, Chuck Leavell, T. Hardy Morris, Brandon Niederauer, John Popper, Frank Zappa associate Denny Walley, Oliver Wood, actor Billy Bob Thornton, Cy Young winner Jake Peavy and others. The breathe of performers spoke to Hampton’s far-reaching influence.
After Hampton passed out, the Fox’s curtain was pulled closed and the singer/guitarist was rushed to Atlanta’s Crawford Long Hospital. An official announcement states, “After collapsing on stage surrounded by his friends, family, fans and the people he loved Col. Bruce Hampton has passed away. The family is asking for respect and privacy at this difficult time.”
Hampton’s onetime bandmate Mosier was one of the first musicians to confirm his passing, writing: “I feel so blessed to have been there tonight and be a part of the greatest gathering of friends and loved ones. I’ve never seen Bruce happier. I’ve never been sadder. I’ve dreaded this day for years, but could have never imagined a more joyful departure. I feel so lost.” Both Tedeschi Trucks Band and Widespread Panic shared his families words shortly after his death was confirmed.
Born in Knoxville, TN in 1947, Hampton first made his mark as the leader and namesake of avant-garde Atlanta blues act the Hampton Grease Band. The group shared the stage with fellow improvisers the Allman Brothers Band and the Grateful Dead and proudly released the “second worst selling record” on Columbia. They later signed with Frank Zappa’s Bizarre and Straight labels and opened for Zappa’s spiritually similar Mothers of Invention at the Fillmore East on the famed night when John Lennon and Yoko Ono appeared.
The Grease Band parted ways in the mid-1970s, though Hampton continued to perform and had a second act in the late-1980s and 1990s as a mentor to a new generation of jamband musicians. His zany onstage antics and “out” performance philosophies set the template for acts like Phish, Widespread Panic, Blues Traveler, Derek Trucks Band, Dave Matthews Band and many other groups who followed Hampton’s ego-less approach; Trucks described Hampton as minor league scout who helped future generations get to the majors in his recent appearance on Marc Maron’s podcast.
Through a series of Atlanta jam sessions, Hampton put together seminal jamband The Aquarium Rescue Unit with then-unknown players like Herring, Otiel and Kofi Burbridge and Jeff Sipe. They quickly earned a reputation for their free-flowing performances and deep improvisational twists and participated in the inaugural H.O.R.D.E. tour with Blues Traveler, Phish, Panic, Spin Doctors and The Flecktones in 1992. (The other, larger acts on the bill said it was their “secret squirrel mission” to help ARU get discovered.) He also achieved some unexpected film success, appearing in Thornton’s 1996 award-winning hit Sling Blade.
Hampton left ARU in 1993 but continued to perform with new projects like Fiji Mariners and The Codetalkers. Through his association with Widespread Panic, Phish and members of The Allman Brothers Band family, he eventually popped up on arena-size stages for sit ins and remained a festival mainstay. (Hampton performed at the first Bonnaroo in 2002.) He continued to shepherded a new generation of performers too, helping build the careers of guitarist Niederauer and drummer Duane Trucks as well as appearing in a recent video for hip-hop act Run the Jewels. ARU has performed sporadically since their original split and staged a more lengthy anniversary tour in 2015.
His uncanny memory was matched only by his ability to correctly figure out complete strangers’ birthdays.
“Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been doing theater and just been a rabble-rouser,” Hampton told Relix in 2015. “I played basketball while I had a yellow coat on—not to attract attention, but just for the element of weirdness—and they threw me out of the league. I’ve always liked theatrics. When I was 13, I read that Duke Ellington said the only reason he plays music is to do hijinks. A group has to be really tight to pull it off and the tighter the group is, the more hijinks there are. There are no jokes, but there should be extreme laughter.”