Jam Band Icon Col. Bruce Hampton Dies at 70 After Birthday Concert

Jam band icon Col. Bruce Hampton (born Gustav Berglund III) died on Monday night (May 1) after collapsing during a concert celebrating his 70th birthday at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Hampton passed away a few hours after collapsing onstage while performing the encore of "Turn on Your Lovelight" at the "Hampton 70: A Celebration of Col. Bruce Hampton" benefit concert in his honor.

The musician known as the "grandaddy of the Atlanta jam scene," turned 70 on Apr. 30 and the sold-out show was a blow-out celebration of his long career in music fronting the Hampton Grease Band, Aquarium Rescue Unit and The Codetalkers. The four-hour show included performances by Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, Blues Traveler singer John Popper, The Wood Brothers' Oliver Wood, Widespread Panic's Dave Schools, Allman Brothers Band member Chuck Leavell and a number of other jam band players. A flyer for the event also promised appearances by former R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, Phish' Jon Fishman, guitarist Warren Haynes and actor Billy Bob Thornton.

The AJC reported that Hampton opened the sold-out show shortly before 8 p.m. "and appeared locked in a groove with his backing band as he sang with his eyes closed and his knee bouncing to the beat." After collapsing, Hampton reportedly died at a local hospital a short time later; no additional details about his death were available at press time. 

Tedeschi and Trucks posted about Hampton's passing a few hours after the show.

Hampton was born on April 30, 1947 in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and began his rise to prominence on the improvisational rock scene in the late 1960s with the avant garde Atlanta outfit Hampton Grease Band, which he fronted in his late teens. A description of the Band's wild shows from Phish.net captured the energy and spontaneous madness of the group's concerts. "The band’s shows were notorious, featuring freaked-out music with lots of on-stage weirdness, such as random people watching TV, friends of the band getting up and walking across the stage during the set, and Hampton’s occasionally violent singing (one time he jump kicked one of his band mates, who fell into the drum kit in the middle of a song). Buzz was generating around them, and Columbia signed them to record an album."

The resulting 90-minute opus and only Grease Band release, 1971's Music to Eat, was a mix of jazz, progressive psychedelic rock and surreal ranting that was compared to the work of Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart, with several tracks clocking in around the 20-minute mark. (It is also allegedly the second-worst selling album in Columbia Records history, behind only an album of yoga music.)

Hampton's on-stage antics and improvisational bent landed the band opening slots for the Grateful Dead and Allman Brothers during its brief run, which ended in 1973. After taking the fictional honorific Colonel Bruce Hampton, Retired, the guitarist and singer went on to form a series of experimental groups, including The New Ice Age, The Late Bronze Age, The Aquarium Rescue Unit, The Fiji Mariners, The Quark Alliance and his most recent project, Col Bruce Hampton and the Pharoah Gummitt. Over the years he also appeared on albums by Zappa, Tedeschi, Medeski Martin & Wood, Widespread Panic and Phish's Mike Gordon.

The Aquarium Rescue Unit, whose sound mixed jazz, country, bluegrass and swing, became a favorite on the jam band circuit in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and Hampton helped found the scene's answer to Lollapalooza, the H.O.R.D.E. tour. Hampton also branched out into acting, appearing as an extra in 1993's Tombstone and performing alongside Thornton in the Oscar-winning Sling Blade in 1996. A documentary about Hampton, Basically Frightened: The Musical Madness of Col. Bruce Hampton, Ret., was released in 2012.