Goin’ Back to Colorado: Tommy Bolin & Zephyr for Colorado Music HOF

Tommy Bolin and Zephyr are set to be inducted into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame this Tuesday, December 3, at the New Mission Ballroom in Denver. They are among a half-dozen inductees on the evening. According to Cynthia Reaves, managing editor of The New Scene Magazine:

The Tommy Bolin Tribute Band … will be comprised of former members of Tommy Bolin’s band including Stanley Sheldon (longtime member of the Peter Frampton Band), Johnnie Bolin (Tommy’s brother and a member of Black Oak Arkansas), Max Carl (current lead singer of Grand Funk Railroad and former singer for 38 Special), Bobby Berge (formerly of Zephyr and Buddy Miles Band), Lucas Parker and Jeff Cook, (co-writer with Tommy Bolin) with special guests Joe Bonamassa and Warren Haynes.

As a freshman at Lehigh University in 1969, I was lucky enough to walk into the student-run radio stations (WLRN and WLVR) the very first day there (and damn lucky to walk out with a diploma four years later). Sometime around the New Year, we got an album in the station that just lit it up, and it had the coolest cover. The band was Zephyr, and we were entranced. You can set phasers to immolate, because I liked Candi Givens better than Janis Joplin.

In May of 1970, right around exam time, we discovered that Zephyr were going to open for NRBQ at The Electric Factory in Philadelphia for a Sunday afternoon show. My roommate and I hitchhiked to the show. Zephyr were spectacular. Mind you, I loved that album, but critics almost uniformly panned it. After the show, we approached Tommy Bolin, who was at 18 the same age as we were, and Candi Givens. They sat down with us for almost half an hour. I couldn’t tell you a single word that was said, only that they seemed to appreciate our interest. Bolin would do one more album with Zephyr, the excellent Going Back to Colorado, in 1971.

When Billy Cobham’s Spectrum album splashed in 1973, we were blown away by Bolin’s playing and how well he matched up with Jan Hammer on keyboards; Cobham and Hammer were at the time still in the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Songs such as “Stratus” and “Red Baron” are oft-covered tunes by fusion groups these days. Nobody tackles “Quadrant 4,” because, well, you just can’t…

Bolin would go on to join The James Gang, writing or co-writing all but one song on Bang (1973) and all of them on Miami (1974). He then joined Deep Purple (1975-1976) when Ritchie Blackmore left the band. Bolin co-wrote most of the songs on the one studio album he was part of, Come Taste the Band.

During that time, however, he managed to issue a magnificent debut solo album called Teaser. His guitar work was on point, his singing clear, and the album went in a variety of great directions. And this was certainly the first time many of us had heard the name and the alto saxophone work of Dave Sanborn, who had recorded plenty before this but perhaps not so out front.

Bolin switched labels from Nemperor to Columbia for his sophomore effort Private Eyes (1976), which featured the crushing “Post Toastee.” He was ready to go out on the road with his band to promote his album. He opened some shows for Peter Frampton, whose Frampton Comes Alive had shattered all sales records in 1975.

Then Bolin and band went on tour with Jeff Beck and Jan Hammer. After their show in Miami on December 3, 1976, Bolin succumbed to his heroin addiction and died overnight.

Tommy Bolin was scheduled to open for Beck and Hammer at Curtis Hixon Hall in Tampa the next night. I had my ticket (comped because I was writing for Music Media at the time), thankful to see Beck and Hammer again and especially thankful, or so I thought, to see Bolin as well. Some time in the afternoon, radio station WFSO-AM, a true rock outlet (daylight only), announced that Bolin had ODed the night before.

When we arrived at Curtis Hixon Hall, the only notice was a piece of notebook paper taped to the glass door that looked very much like this:

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