You’d be hard-pressed to find a story more rock n’ roll than the life and death of Col. Bruce Hampton, the so-called “patriarch of the jam scene,” who grew up in Atlanta and headed a series of mega-talented bands that electrified the music scene in the Southeast and beyond. In 2017, Hampton collapsed onstage during the finale of his 70th birthday show at the Fox Theater, playing alongside two dozen titans of music, all close friends of Hampton’s. He died at Emory University Hospital several hours later, a loss that left the music community reeling.
Hampton’s unexpected passing was both an untimely tragedy and an outrageously epic end to an extraordinary life. After his death, writer Jerry Grillo, who’d been close to Hampton for years, penned a moving tribute to his friend for this magazine. Last year, University of Georgia Press published Grillo’s biography of the artist, The Music and Mythocracy of Col. Bruce Hampton, a lively ride through Hampton’s storied musical career. Grillo was recently nominated for a 2022 Georgia Author of the Year award for the book.
We sat down with Grillo to find out more about his friendship with the Colonel (who never served in the military but earned the affectionate nickname from his grandfather), and how he managed to chronicle a larger-than-life kind of life.
Can you describe the first time you hung out with Bruce Hampton?
I saw him play up here where I live in Sautee Nacoochee. We used to have a music festival called the Sautee Jamboree—Bruce played that quite a bit, and I went to see him around 2006. I loved it immediately.
Fast forward three or four years later, we had lunch together. My friend who was the producer of the festival introduced us. I was a little scared, because I had heard the stories —I’m thinking, God, am I going to be able to keep up? We went to eat in Helen, and Bruce immediately started with the trivia questions—it was like we knew each other. He treated you like that. He called me by my last name: “Alright Grillo, top five NFL players of all time.” He was Mr. Sports Trivia! But he didn’t know that I have game when it comes to sports trivia, so I was answering all these questions.
So that’s how we clicked, over sports trivia and cheap Mexican food in a fake German town in Northeast Georgia.
How did idea of you writing Hampton’s biography come about?
Maybe not too long after that, I got up the guts to ask him about doing a book. I’d been looking for a project like that; I knew enough about his career to think there might be something there. I asked him, Hey, has anybody done a book about you and, would you mind if I did? And he said, I was wondering when you were going to ask. Like he was expecting it, because he was very mystical that way.
He told me that some other guy had tried to do a book, but Bruce read the manuscript and hated it. It was about crazy stuff like spies and aliens, all the stuff that Bruce was known to tell tall tales about. And I said, No, no, I’m a serious journalist—I’m going to get the facts. I’m trying to be Mr. Serious, putting my press hat on. I go over to his house, I turn on the recorder, and start asking him some broad questions and he says, Let me tell you about these spies and aliens!
So he had me from the start. I was hooked. He really knew how to tell a good story. And it wasn’t hard to just stay interested in it.
You mention in the preface that writing the book was a bit like doing an extensive oral history project. What was it like interviewing all these wild characters?
It was a real treasure hunt, following a map in Bruce’s head. A lot of times it would lead to dead ends, and a lot of times, it would lead to wonderful stories. Most of the time, people were happy to talk because they really liked Bruce. I jokingly say in the book that he knew about 4 percent of the world population, so the trick was knowing when to stop reaching out to people.
They were my road map, you know; talking to these people helped guide me in the story. One person would say, Hey, did you talk to this person, or did you hear this story? And I maybe I hadn’t, or maybe Bruce had told it a different way. So that was part of the treasure hunt. I tried not to let the facts get in the way of a good story, but I also tried not to let a fabulous detail interfere with might be an even more interesting truth.
You were at Hampton 70, where Bruce tragically—but also epically—collapsed onstage and died later the same night. How did his death change the trajectory of your book?
It changed everything. Up until that point, I hadn’t taken the book project completely seriously. I had done the due diligence, had done many interviews, but Bruce was a moving target, he had all these other irons in the fire. I’d get together with him maybe once a month for trivia night at a bar or a restaurant, and I’d interview him a little, get a few more things I needed, and I would piece things together.
But then he died. I had only written, until that point, maybe 70 pages. The night he died, I had pages with me that I was going to give him at the after-party. I was trying to have something together so that within a year or two after the big concert, we’d have a finished book, right?
When he died, that changed the focus, and the pages I was going to show him, I almost ripped up. I was so depressed. I put it down for a few months to really rethink it and get over the depression. But about four or five months later, I talked with some of our mutual friends who said, No, we need to do it. Get it done, because Bruce would have wanted that.
I have to admit, I was skeptical about the guessing birthdays thing (Hampton could famously rattle off people’s birthdays just by looking at them; no one knows how he did it). But so many people you interviewed mention it, that by the end of the book, I was convinced. Do you think Bruce had a touch of the otherworldly in him?
That question really gets to the heart of Bruce, in many ways: how much of it was him being a master at working a room, and how much of it was a touch of the other?
It’s hard for me to say, admittedly. But I’d like to believe that Bruce had a touch of the other, that he was able to tap into something else. Jeff Mosier (a musician and close friend of Hampton’s) had the best explanation I’ve heard: Jeff likened Bruce’s ability to a cell phone, which usually goes to 5 bars, but Bruce had a few extra bars. I think that aptly describes what Bruce was able to do; just something else with the brain that that most of us can’t do.
Part of Bruce’s legacy is his contributions to Atlanta’s rich music scene. What do you think is unique about this city’s music culture?
One of Bruce’s friends, Ricky Keller, started a music studio called “Southern Living at its Finest.” I think the name of that studio is perfect. It sums up Atlanta. I mean, music is part of our food here, whether you’re going back to some weird fiddle playing or modern hip-hop. I feel like there’s always been this undercurrent of real, adventurous musical artists, and then occasionally it bubbles up and becomes mainstream.
You know, not that Bruce ever became mainstream, but a lot of the mainstream artists in Atlanta knew and loved Bruce. He really was part of this scene.