The Colonel left doing what he loved

Published 2:45 am Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The song was in my head when I opened my eyes this morning. It was odd because it is not one of my favorites or a song I’ve ever listened to much.

Nevertheless, I heard the group Bread and I started singing softly as I dressed.

“Who draws the crowd and plays so hard

Baby it’s the guitar man

Who’s gonna steal the show

You know baby, it’s the guitar man…”

The music was still playing in my brain when I read the headline posted on social media. I did a quick check to make sure it wasn’t fake news before calling my husband to tell him what I’d read.

“Colonel Bruce Hampton died during a concert celebrating his 70th birthday,” I told him when he answered the phone. “He was on stage when he collapsed.”

I discovered Colonel Bruce Hampton‘s wild-ride music through my husband, a connoisseur of all types of music, but who particularly enjoyed the Colonel. In fact, just recently we almost made a trip to the beach to see him perform because he was one of the people my husband hoped to see in person.

As I read about the concert in Atlanta that was a celebration of his legacy, I kept hearing the lyrics to Guitar Man playing in the background.

“He can make you love

He can make you cry

He will bring you down

Then he’ll get you high…”

I think my husband liked Gustave Berglund III, Colonel Bruce’s birth name, because he was an individual with a unique outlook on life who had his own unique way of expressing it. He marched to his own drum and sometimes that march was a trip through his special brand of madness.

Jam bands aren’t my thing, but those who are fans knew the Colonel as a legend they dubbed the “granddaddy of the Atlanta jam scene.” And at age 70, the granddaddy was still going strong right up to the end.

Proof of that was the fact the concert to benefit the Fox Theatre and celebrate his birthday was a sold out four-hour show featuring a host of his friends and fellow musicians, including actor Billy Bob Thornton. It was a wild, fun party right up to the point when Colonel Bruce came onstage to play an encore performance of “Turn on Your Lovelight.”

They didn’t notice at first when he collapsed and slumped over an amplifier In fact, those who knew him best probably wondered if it was one of the pranks he was so famous for playing. However after several moments, it became apparent that it wasn’t a joke and they rushed him offstage. He died a short time later.

As I read about this man and how he lived, I imagined that if there was a movie about his life, this is how you’d script the ending. What better way for him to exit than onstage surrounded by friends.

I know that’s how I’d like to end my story. It would be great to go out right in the middle of doing something I love with people I love. Perhaps a quote from his friend Jeff Mosier, who was there taking part in the birthday celebration, says it best.

“I’ve never seen Bruce happier. I’ve never been sadder. I’ve dreaded this day for years, but could have never imagined a more joyful departure…”

A joyful departure — what a great way to leave this life.

Thinking about that, I clearly heard the final verse of the Bread song.

“Then the lights begin to flicker

And the sound is getting dim

The voice begins to falter

And the crowds are getting thin

But he never seems to notice

He’s just got to find

Another place to play…”

Colonel Bruce Hampton played his last show to a crowd that was anything but thin, and from what I read there was no falter to his voice. And wherever his spirit is today, I bet it’s found another place to play.



Nancy Blackmon is a former newspaper editor and a yoga teacher.