The making of Great Gypsy Soul

July 9, 2012
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“When I was a little kid, I was just consumed by the fact that Tommy Bolin was all over the map,” says producer Greg Hampton, who recently partnered with Warren Haynes to release the labor of love, Tommy Bolin and Friends: Great Gypsy Soul [Samson/429 Records]. “He was incredibly diverse musically, and that’s what attracted me to him. He became a huge influence on me.”

Though somewhat off the radar these days, Tommy Bolin was a monster who could negotiate a number of styles, and blow minds along the way. Before he died from a drug overdose at just 25 years old on December 4, 1976, Bolin had played on two influential jazz-fusion albums (Spectrum by Billy Cobham and Mind Transplant by Alphonse Mouson), done scores of sessions, logged time in the James Gang, replaced Ritchie Blackmore in Deep Purple, and recorded two mostly brilliant solo LPs (Teaser and Private Eyes).

That Bolin is not more publicly revered spurred Hampton and Haynes to resurrect some original master tapes (with the assistance and approval of Bolin’s sole heir, his brother John), and reboot Bolin’s genius by bringing on a bevy of guitar stars to overdub new parts. The two-disc version of Great Gypsy Soul is quite a repast for guitarists (including the 25-minute blaze-a-thon, “Marching Bag”), and the roster of players jamming alongside Bolin features Peter Frampton, Nels Cline, John Scofield, Derek Trucks, Brad Whitford, Steve Lukather, Glenn Hughes, Sonny Landreth, Steve Morse, Joe Bonamassa, and Oz Noy, as well as Haynes and Hampton.

What inspired the decision to record musicians overdubbing new parts, or replacing the original tracks? Had the sound quality of the original masters deteriorated?

Haynes: Actually, most of the stuff was in pretty good shape—just in a less-complete form. There were incomplete vocals, or sections where Tommy wasn’t playing, or places where he hadn’t quite figured out what he was going to play. When Greg called me, his concept was in place—to take these tracks, and add guitar players and singers to make it a very unique tribute to Tommy. That was what got me onboard. Here was an opportunity not only to sing and play along with Tommy, but also to track along with Jeff Porcaro, Jan Hammer, Narada Michael Walden, David Sanborn—whoever appeared on the original versions.

How did you select the guest stars? Was it a matter of assessing who would rock the tracks, or who would be more sensitive to Tommy’s original vision?

Hampton: Warren and I had a wish list, for sure, and all of what you said could enter into the selection process. But a few choices were easy to make, because some of the people had history going for them. Lukather has history with Tommy, obviously through Porcaro. Steve Morse indirectly took Tommy’s place in Deep Purple. Glenn Hughes finished an uncompleted collaboration with Tommy from 30-plus years back, which was “Sugar Shack.” All the parts were there, but there were no lyrics or a vocal melody, so that was a poignant, must-do kind of decision. So there were obvious things such as those. But some of them—such as getting John Scofield to play “Savannah Woman”—were a matter of determining who would sound amazing on a particular track.

Warren, as one of the producers, I’m sure you could have chosen to play on whatever you wanted, so what drove you to go for “Teaser”?

Haynes: You know, I was more concerned with working with Greg to make sure we had the right people doing the right songs, than I was worried about picking something for me to do. We waited until we had a lot of the other pieces of the puzzle in place before we even started thinking about it, and I trusted Greg’s intuition on the choices for me. Having said that, I was a big fan of Tommy’s solo records, Teaser and Private Eyes, so I was very familiar with all that stuff. I guess it was a no-brainer for me to play some slide and stuff on “Teaser.”

When did you first hear Bolin, Warren, and what attracted you to him as a player?

Haynes: I discovered Tommy when I was a teenager—and those are the formative years of any guitar player’s life. I was just starting to discover jazz and fusion, and I was listening to Mahavishnu, Return to Forever, and, consequently, Billy Cobham, so I heard what Tommy did on Spectrum. I was also still listening to Deep Purple, and I had listened to the James Gang stuff with Tommy. So I was taken by the diversity of what Tommy had to offer. Each situation he was in, he played his own personality, but in a different way. When I heard the solo records, I thought his voice was very charming, his sense of melody was very unique, and he had a lot of history in his music. This was someone who had listened to a lot of styles of music.

And he was obviously able to play all those styles and still sound like himself—not an insignificant feat. For example, some very famous guitarists pride themselves on being able to play with anyone in any style, but their tracks are instantly recognizable as them, with little if any actual surrender to the music at hand. Bolin, however, displayed tons of sensitivity to whatever style he was performing, but he also managed to leave his own imprint on the music. How do you think he was so successful at doing this?

Haynes: There was that chameleon-like attitude of wanting to fit into the fabric, but also wanting to express himself differently in each situation. I can relate to that. In some ways, there’s a strange parallel with Tommy’s career and mine—although the obvious elephant in the room is that Tommy was 25 when he passed, so we’ll never know what he might have done had he lived. Same thing with Duane Allman, or Paul Kossoff, or Jimi Hendrix. But I’ve wound up in situations myself where I was faced with the dilemma of paying homage to someone while simultaneously interjecting my own personality— whether that was Jerry Garcia or Duane Allman, or whatever the situation at hand called for.

Can you cite a specific example of something you learned from Bolin’s approach that helped you to refrain from totally disappearing when paying homage to another player or negotiating different musical styles?

Haynes: I feel he showed me that there’s an invisible line you can’t cross if you want to be yourself while performing within different musical fields. The conventional session- musician mentality is that you match your skills to the situation at hand, and you throw your own personality out with the bathwater. But to be an artist, you do the exact opposite of that—you bring your personality to the musical situation. Let me put it this way: When John Scofield and I play together, he plays a little more rock and bluesy, and I play a little more jazzy. We retain our unique personalities as players, but we kind of lean into each other’s musical orbits.

Greg, given that you were working with decades-old masters—and incorporating new tracks and new players into the mix—I sure there must have been some “hair pulling” moments during the project.

Hampton: There were a few things. Scheduling everyone was a big challenge, because all those players are extremely busy. It was really a juggling act, but we got lucky during the 2011 NAMM show in Anaheim. Steve Morse and Joe Bonamassa were in town—as was Warren—so we zeroed in on the show dates and started shooting fish in a barrel, so to speak. We got a lot of stuff accomplished.

“Marching Bag” was an interesting one, because we comped that from multiple takes to create a 25-minute piece for all the guests to play on. There were issues with vocals and guitars leaking into the drum mics on the original takes, so we decided to have Prairie Prince overdub new drum parts to ensure a consistent drum sound throughout the comped tracks. They didn’t use a click track back then, so we had to record the new drums in sections so that Prairie could focus on any tempo fluctuations between edits. It took about six hours to complete recording the drums on this piece. Another problem was that Prairie had practiced to the original “Marching Powder” (from Teaser)—not the 25-minute comped version we retitled “Marching Bag.” He looked at us and said, “What the hell am I supposed to do with this?” It was a good thing that Prairie is as great a drummer as he is!

Some of the sessions were very emotional, too. For Steve Lukather, it was the first time he had played to a Jeff Porcaro track since maybe the week before Jeff passed away. It was a surreal thing for Luke, and we’d stop in the middle of a take if he appeared to be a bit shaken. Glenn Hughes was very close to Tommy and ended up marrying Tommy’s girlfriend, so there were some bittersweet memories going on during his sessions, as well. Now, we certainly weren’t using these situations to inspire great performances, but the emotional issues were there—we couldn’t get around them—and, as a result, the playing did turn out to be extremely heartfelt and impassioned.

Sadly, Bolin hasn’t been name-checked significantly for quite some time. We actually made him the cover artist for Guitar Player’s story on “101 Forgotten Greats” back in February 2007. So what is the main thing you hope this album will do for Bolin’s legacy?

Haynes: I’m really proud that the songs and music on Great Gypsy Soul still stand up today. I think a lot of people will go back and discover—or rediscover—Tommy’s music, because it holds up. It’s not nostalgia or a history lesson—although those elements are there. It’s relevant for players right now.

Hampton: Tommy’s music was way ahead of its time. You listen to the tracks on Great Gypsy Soul, and it’s like Tommy is here with us now, recording this amazing stuff. He shouldn’t be forgotten at all. He should be one of those truly great musicians that guitarists constantly refer back to for challenges and inspiration.

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