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Preview: “Hampton 70” celebrates life of Atlanta music icon Col. Bruce Hampton

If Col. Bruce Hampton didn’t invent Atlanta’s rock scene, he certainly helped create it with the seminal Hampton Grease Band that played for free on Sunday afternoons at Piedmont Park along with a new and upcoming band from Macon, The Allman Brothers Band.

Twenty years later, Hampton helped spark the “jam band” phenomena when he formed his most famous group: Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit. Although you’ll never hear him take any credit, Hampton served as the inspiration and mentor for most of the most recognizable faces in the genre, from members of The Allman Brothers Band to Widespread Panic to Dave Matthews.

As years and decades have passed, Hampton seems to have changed by not changing at all. His often zany and unorthodox style thumbs its nose at convention. Styles change, tastes change, but Hampton stays true to himself. He has often said that while he takes his music seriously, he’s learned not to take himself seriously.

Col. Bruce Hampton

Along the way he’s also acted in films (most notably Sling Blade), he’s been the subject of an acclaimed documentary (Basically Frightened) and he’s even been a pro wrestling manager. He is Atlanta’s most eclectic “character” in an era where “characters” are no longer allowed.

Monday night, friends and fans will gather for “Hampton 70: A Celebration of Col. Bruce Hampton” at the Fox Theatre. The all-star lineup is a clear indication of his far-reaching influence: Widespread Panic’s John Bell, Dave Schools, Jimmy Herring and Duane Trucks; R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, Chuck Leavell of the Rolling Stones, Warren Haynes of The Allman Brothers Band and Gov’t Mule, Kevn Kinney of Drivin’ N Cryin’, John Popper of Blues Traveler and actor-director Billy Bob Thornton among those scheduled to appear.

All the proceeds from the event will go to the Fox Theatre Institute, as well as charities to benefit musicians.

ArtsATL recently sat down with Hampton for lunch at one of his favorite dive restaurants on Buford Highway and talked about his career, his philosophies about life and whether rasslin’ is real.

ArtsATL: Many musicians would love to come on your stage, given the successful track record of those who have passed through the Col. Bruce Hampton University and gone on to become musical stars. What causes you to invite a musician to enroll?

Colonel Bruce Hampton: If I can see they mean it and there’s intent — that will cause me to feel comfortable to give them the freedom to join.

ArtsATL: I’ve been told by countless famous musicians I’ve interviewed who have played with you that you gave them the freedom to be themselves. What does that mean to you?

Hampton: Well, it’s about the freedom to play and not to just do anything you want, because with playing comes discipline. But, hopefully, you’ll have the freedom to find your voice. To me, the most important thing is having your voice. Nothing else matters. Some people think it’s having technique, but that’s not it; nothing else matters but just being you. It’s OK to borrow from everybody else you listen to, but, then, you have to follow your heart — not your mind — because that’s just going to get you into trouble. In the words of Immanuel Kant, “You do what you do out of duty or you do what you do out of inclination.” You gotta feel it. And when you feel it, that translates into freedom.

Hampton (right) with The Hampton Grease Band.

ArtsATL: Can you expound upon why you think that might be more important to a great musician’s journey rather than he/she relying on “learning” to be a great musician? 

Hampton: Well, I personally don’t want anybody to rely on learning anything from me because I don’t know anything and I don’t know where anything is. But I’d just say, instead of playing the guitar, or bass or drums, play yourself. Play a song about your son or your grandmother; don’t just play the music — go beyond it. And, like anything, you have to have that initial instinct. You just about have to start by 16. You gotta play Little League if you plan on playing pro ball. But this business will choose you. You don’t choose it. And, it has to choose you in order for you to stay in it. I’ve been in it since 1963. I just collapse into place and never consciously try to put anything into place. It has to fall where it’s going to fall.

ArtsATL: What would cause you to not invite a player back on your stage a second time?

Hampton: Ego. If I can hear you, I don’t want to hear you. Blend in; don’t stand out. You should sound good four hours after you’ve left the stage.

ArtsATL: Name two musicians — dead or alive — you haven’t played with but would love to have played with.

Hampton: Ralph Towner. He’s a very good friend. But I neither have the talent nor the chops to play with him. He’s one of my favorite musicians on the planet and there are only about three people who have the skill to play with him. He’d be first on my list. And Zig [Joseph Ziggy Modeliste] of The Meters would be another one. He’s one of the greatest drummers in the world to me. I’d love to pay with Zig, also.

ArtsATL: How did the celebration of bringing so many of your friends together to honor you for your 70th birthday develop?

Hampton: A few friends got together — Duane Trucks and Kevin Scott  and Matt Wilson initiated putting it together and got everybody together. I’m a reluctant invited guest. But it does look like a wonderful event, and all the money goes to charity. So I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.

ArtsATL: Speaking of friends, you have a lot of them, so many I’m not sure the Fox Theatre can hold them all. In your opinion, what makes a good friend?

Hampton: Oh, god, wow. Quietude, loyalty and gratitude. And, keep showing up.

ArtsATL: You must wish everybody you know and love could play. Are you struggling a little with the fact they can’t all play that night?

Hampton: Oh, it absolutely hurts. There are so many people I’d love to invite, but there are 53 coming and only a couple of hours to get them all in. Some of the people are only getting ten minutes, and they’re all simply great. Thank god I had nothing to do with it and that was left to the musical directors. I’m just doing what they tell me and coming when they tell me to show up.

ArtsATL: The list of musical giants playing that night is outstanding — Chuck Leavell, the boys from Widespread Panic, Kevin Kinney, Phish, Denny Walley, Oliver Wood, Pete Buck, Jeff Mosier, Johnny Knapp — to name a few. They seem to have quite profound things to say about you, most notably that you are their mentor, their “Papi.” Many would say this is a huge contribution to music on your part. But, what would you say is your contribution to music? 

Hampton: That I put some people to work. About 250 people have worked with me over the past 30 years, so that’d be the positive. That’s it. So, even if they only worked one day, I’ve helped keep some of the mentality ill employed for a very, very long time (chuckles).

Hampton with the Rev. Jeff Mosier.

ArtsATL: When you’re performing, you keep your eyes closed for most of the performance. Why?

Hampton: That’s a great question. I do that just because it feels like the natural thing for me to do so I can feel everything coming.

ArtsATL: So, closing your eyes helps you open up a channel to see without using your eyes?

Hampton: Absolutely. Nothing is distracting that way. It causes me to hear better. It’s the only time when I can really get in touch with the internal. And, I try to meditate during the whole thing or hope to meditate through it. I let it take me where it’s going. Some nights, it’s not great and, then, some nights it’s absolutely wonderful, almost spiritual.

ArtsATL: Do you think music is a religion?

Hampton: Completely. And I want the small church in nowhere, that’s where the magic lies. Of course, religion — as most people think of it — is organized chaos. But when you’re on your “A Game,” you can definitely have spiritual moments with music. There’s no money to be taken in, there’s no agendas. The only thing you have to do is take in the moment.

ArtsATL: Do you have a favorite song you perform, as in one that always brings a smile to your face when you do it?

Hampton: “Love Light” by Bobby Bland. I started doing it in 1963 and I still do it today. “Sentimental Journey” is my other favorite; it was my mom’s favorite.

ArtsATL: Could you have ever imagined when you started in 1963 the journey music would take you on?

Hampton: No. And after 47 years, I’m still trying to find the tonal center, the pitch, the key — and still having a tough time. But, I’m still loving it all and can, at least, see it now. But this business is no party as many people believe. Being on the road takes its toll. You definitely have to learn how to survive.

ArtsATL: Speaking of being on the road, you still travel across country in a van. What lessons does the van teach?

Hampton: The van teaches you everything. You’re not merely a musician; you’re a psychiatrist, a lawyer, a team player, and you learn how to spread your energy. Safety becomes a priority. Virtually everything comes out. You can’t even imagine.

ArtsATL: For example?

Hampton: You go to a gig with the flu in Omaha and it’s 10 below and you get to the club and it’s burned down and you have a case of peanut butter and nine dollars. That’s when you learn whether you want to do this or not. And everyone has that moment. It’s planet earth and paying the dues. The van will teach you how brutal this business is and that it’s not a job you can plan things like a family around. You just have to learn to go up and down and show up. The van never lets up. And the older you get, the more intense it gets. Your feet start talking to your knees and such. But you know, B.B. [King] did it until he was 89, and our piano player, Johnny Knapp, who is that age — and started with Lois Armstrong — will jump in the van in the summertime driving through the South with no AC or in the heart of winter in the north with little or no heat, and hop out and whip everybody. He doesn’t care. He just smokes it with absolutely no complaining. He’s the master of intention. He exemplifies that in the end, the van will always tell the truth.

ArtsATL: How has your perspective changed toward music over time? Or has it?

Hampton: It changes for me daily. Every day I feel as though I’m just getting started. Other than the fact that I’ve finally learned how to hold a pick, all of it is new to me every single day. I never plan anything — good, bad or ugly, I just go with it. I must say that I’ve always just wanted to play music — not work music, not earn music, just play music and make joyful noise. And I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but I keep doing it — show up and play.

ArtsATL: You now have a standing gig every Thursday night at Atlanta’s new listening room, The Vista Room at Napoleon’s. How’s that going?

Hampton: It’s going great. We’ll be there for the next seven years from about 8:20 until 11:30 each Thursday night. In addition to our regular band, we feature five or so people each gig. We’ve had bluegrass pickers from Nashville and Motown players, and we’re gonna invite more and more great players as we go along.

ArtsATL: I hear that some of your superstar musician friends plan to pop in and play on occasion. Can you confirm this?

Hampton: Oh yeah. They’re coming. They’re all coming.

ArtsATL: Do you have a personal daily mantra?

Hampton: Yes, “Brato Ganib.” I say it, at least, once before noon every day. It means Universal Peace. It first came to me 40 years ago in a dream — every day for three months. A voice said “Repeat ‘Brato Ganib.'” So I did. Most everything I get comes to me like that in dreams.

ArtsATL: Do you remember how old you were when you realized you had the ability to have visions and became aware of your third eye?

Hampton: Yes, I was eight years old and I remember the exact moment because I was with my family at a restaurant across from Piedmont Hospital. I jumped on top of a table and told everyone they were crazy. Then, I began talking in different languages nobody could understand. Weird things started surrounding me and happening to me from then on. But, they’ve been so enriching — to say the least.

ArtATL: To those who think of you as a prophet-like figure, what say you?

Hampton: I hope not. I really, really hope not!

ArtsATL: What is it about the planet Neptune that captures your attention?

Hampton: I love Neptune because it’s the only planet with aluminum and soup. Aluminum and soup — that’s why I’m drawn to it.

ArtsATL: After all these years, do you still believe wrestling is real?

Hampton: Oh yeah. And we’re in the age of pro wrestling now. If it sounds real and if it sounds good, it’s true. That’s gonna be my new motto.

ArtsATL: You’ve been making a lot of movies lately. How does that compare to the music thing for you?

Hampton: I love making movies, and the music and the movies are definitely two different things. I will say I have so little control with the movie making and I want more control. Since I was 18, I’ve always wanted to be a director.

ArtsATL: Why do you think that is?

Hampton: I look at movies and I look at life and I ask, “What would I do there? What would I change?”

ArtsATL: Would it be safe to say it’s on your bucket list?

Hampton: It absolutely is. Hopefully I’m going to do that within the next two years. I’ve actually been writing a movie for 30 years. The first 20 minutes will have nothing but cars blowing up and then the movie will start. But the cars blowing up will draw them in (chuckles).

ArtsATL: Speaking of what you’ve done in your life, do you feel things have played over the past almost 70 years as they were pretty much supposed to play out for you?

Hampton: I’ve gotten everything I’ve ever wanted – 20 years after I wanted it. And that’s been perfect for me to not get things when I want them because I’m not ready for them when I want them. It’s been a great lesson in patience. I always know exactly what I want, it just comes 20 years later; it blows my mind how that works. But I’ve been so lucky to be running my hands over a piece of wood and get paid. I’m not curing cancer or fixing water systems for thousands of people, so although I take the music seriously, I’ve never taken myself seriously. And for me, that’s been great because I feel maturity means to harden and I haven’t had to do that. It’s been a wild ride, and I hope it just continues for a long time.

ArtsATL: What do you wish for today — that you’ll, no doubt, receive in 20 years — when you’re 90?

Hampton: I’m wishing I’ll keep on keeping on, and still be 11 when I’m 90.