Backstage Pass: Tommy Bolin, gun for hire

If one could write the story plot of a guitar hero’s rise to fame, it might go something like this: Get a guitar, practice every day, form a band, join a better band, play on master musician’s solo album, join a well-known rock band, join even better-known rock band, and finally, embark on a solo career.

For Sioux City, Iowa’s, Tommy Bolin, this was his life, and it played out like a long, sweet guitar solo, before his premature death at 25. But, in his short life, Bolin played guitar like few before him. He could play thundering fusion licks, throw down a slippery funk groove and then blow your mind with a shattering Echoplex-drenched solo. His genre-crossing ability seemed limitless, and his accomplishments in such a short time were extraordinary.

Bolin picked up the guitar as an early teen and was soon jamming in local Sioux City bands. He moved to Denver and formed American Standard before joining jazz/blues rockers Zephyr. The group released two albums with Bolin but failed to make much noise. He formed the fusion-flavored Energy, which failed to find record company favor; however, Bolin had evolved into a formidable musician and was in demand by his contemporaries. Fusion drummer Billy Cobham recruited Bolin to play on his groundbreaking Spectrum album in 1972.

The following year Bolin joined The James Gang and stayed around to cut two albums before moving on to session and solo work. In 1975, he joined Deep Purple, replacing the departed Ritchie Blackmore. After Purple broke up for good in 1976 (to reform in 1984), Bolin’s future looked bright with a promising solo career ahead. But, it would end too soon. Following a gig as opener for fellow guitar wizard Jeff Beck, Bolin took the party too far and died the following morning.

Fortunately for music fans, Bolin was a prolific recorder. According to his brother, Johnnie, Tommy recorded nearly every day and amassed enough material for 25 albums of music, much of which has been made available to fans through the Tommy Bolin Archives (

Now, the best of the best of Bolin’s archives has been beautifully re-mastered and packaged in a 3-CD digipak set titled Tommy Bolin, The Ultimate: Redux. Courtesy of Friday Music, the 31-track set abounds with acoustic demos, live shows and alternate takes of Bolin playing with Zephyr, Energy and his own Tommy Bolin Band. Goldmine spoke with Tommy’s brother, Johnnie, and Friday Music’s Joe Reagoso, who remastered the tracks, about the CD set and Bolin’s prodigious talent.

How did the Redux set come into being?
Johnnie Bolin: Mike Drumm and I started the Tommy Bolin Archives in ’97. Since then, we’ve had about 25 records out. They’ve all done pretty well. Some have had major distributors; some were picked up.

It was kind of weird — some would end up in Tower [Records] and some wouldn’t. We still have a lot of material left. We put out like three a year, and it was getting to be a little too much — the fans couldn’t keep up — so we slowed down in the last couple years. Joe Reagoso at Friday Music was hip to… he had found out about the Archives and did some research, and then, he called Mike Drumm.

They started talking back and forth. Mike got a hold of me; I got back a hold of Joe, because they [Friday Music] were releasing [Deep Purple’s] Come Taste The Band, and they wanted me to do the liner notes. And then, I just started talking with Joe, and he said, “I’d like to do something with your brother’s stuff that’s in the Archives” … next thing you know, Steve Vai’s doing the liner notes. From 25 records, you have to decide what is the best and what should go on there

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