In an interview a few days before a Fox Theatre concert last May 1 to celebrate his 70th birthday, Colonel Bruce Hampton told ArtsATL that his daily mantra was “Brato Ganib,” an expression that came to him in a dream and means “universal peace.” He also expressed his gratitude that he had been able to build a career “running my hands over a piece of wood.”
Hampton’s reach went far beyond his own music. He was a legend in Atlanta music circles, friend and mentor to scores of musicians, many of whom had gathered at the Fox to pay tribute to him. The four-hour concert featured performances by such musical royalty as Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeshi, Warren Haynes, Chuck Leavell of The Rolling Stones, Peter Buck of R.E.M., members of Widespread Panic, Tinsley Ellis and dozens of others whose lives Hampton had touched.
At the end of the show, Hampton had returned to the stage and collapsed while performing one of his favorite songs, “Turn On Your Love Light,” the first tune he remembered ever performing on stage. He never regained consciousness.
To mark the anniversary, ArtsATL has gathered some our stories about Hampton as a tribute to his memory. Hampton told us last year that one of his lessons learned was to go with the flow of life. “I never plan anything — good, bad or ugly, I just go with it,” he said. “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.”
In his remembrance of the Colonel, Managing Editor Scott Freeman shares his own memories from his friendship with Hampton, along with those of the Rev. Jeff Mosier and Tinsley Ellis and others. The article looks at Hampton’s history in Atlanta, including The Hampton Grease Band and The Aquarium Rescue Unit, his introduction to Frank Zappa and his place as a Yoda to several generations of musicians. “I’ve never met anyone in the music business as universally beloved, or as trusted, as the Colonel,” Freeman wrote. “My standard joke was that Bruce was best friend to about four percent of the world’s total population, and the other 96 percent simply hadn’t had the chance to meet him yet.”
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Hampton met ArtsATL‘s Brenda Stepp at one of his favorite Buford Highway restaurants for what would prove to be his last in-depth interview. In the article, Hampton reflected on his life, the musicians he mentored through the years and the most important lessons he had to teach them about music and life. “It’s about the freedom to play and not to just do anything you want, because with playing comes discipline,” he said. “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.” Oh, and he also explained why Neptune was his favorite planet.
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In 2015, Hampton reorganized his most famous band, The Aquarium Rescue Unit, for a national tour to mark the 26th anniversary of the group’s founding. In this interview, Hampton names the most interesting musician he’d ever met, and discusses his role as a mentor. “Music is tension and release,” he said. “Many people don’t understand that. Just playing an instrument well doesn’t make you a great musician. . . . The great ones have a sensitivity — almost a sixth sense. Maybe 10 percent of musicians have it. To be really great, you have to think of others and you have to listen and you have to anticipate. Most don’t — they just play the music and listen to themselves.”
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In 2012, a full-length documentary about Hampton’s life — Basically Frightened: The Musical Madness of Colonel Bruce Hampton — was released and premiered at the Plaza Theatre during the Atlanta Film Festival. When Freeman arrived at the Plaza for the premiere, there was a line that snaked all the way to the Majestic Diner. Hampton showed up minutes later and got into the line beside him and began to wait with everyone else to get in. “Colonel, you don’t have to stand in line,” someone exclaimed to Hampton. “It’s your movie!” In this story, Hampton talks about the documentary, his role as Morris in the hit movie Slingblade and his legacy. “It’s very strange,” he said. “I’ve never felt I’ve existed or lived a life, really. I feel I’ve had a soul rotation, that I’m living somebody else’s life. I’m supposed to be a shy accountant with two-and-a-half cars and two-and-a-half kids and a white picket fence. Something happened at birth; I’m an experiment. [Laughs.] A definite soul rotation happened, because the guy on stage and the guy sitting here — it makes no sense. None.”
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Last December, Widespread Panic lead guitarist Jimmy Herring — who gained his first fame with Hampton and The Aquarium Rescue Unit — talked to ArtsATL’s Brenda Stepp about the band’s New Year’s Eve concerts, which would bring them to the Fox Theatre for the first time since Hampton’s death. Herring talks about the influence of Hampton on his music and his life. “Bruce helped me find music,” Herring said. “He was pretty tough on me early on because he wanted to make sure I loved music and not just the guitar. So he insisted that I listen to music which didn’t have guitar in it, and I loved that. That lesson is still with me. I rarely listen to music that has guitar in it. If you listen to only other guitar players for your inspiration, you’re going to sound like your hero. So, it’s really critical for musicians to listen to all music, so we can absorb the music rather than only our instrument.”