When Col. Bruce Hampton slowly fell to his knees during the finale of his star-studded birthday concert, fans and musicians alike thought it was another one of his quirky performance acts.
Fourteen-year-old guitar phenom Brandon “Taz” Niederauer tore into a blistering solo as the 70-year-old man lay motionless just feet away, his arm draped over a speaker.
For several more minutes, dozens of musicians — including John Popper of Blues Traveler, Warren Haynes of The Allman Brothers Band and John Bell of Widespread Panic — jammed away to one of Hampton’s favorite songs “Turn On Your Love Light.” The fans danced and the musicians smiled as they waited for him to get up.
But Col. Bruce never did.
The eccentric guitarist and singer known as the forefather of the jam band scene died after collapsing Monday night at the end of the show billed by Atlanta’s Fox Theatre as “Hampton 70: A Celebration of Col. Bruce Hampton.” He had turned 70 a day earlier.
“As I played tonight, I had a joy that I’ve never had … But it was eerie,” banjo player the Rev. Jeff Mosier said in a tearful Facebook post. “And then at the end, Bruce looked like he was jokingly worshipping that young guitar player. And he got down on his knees and I was getting ready to do the same thing. … I was lucky to know him and I was lucky to be there.”
Hampton founded several bands, including the Hampton Grease Band and the Aquarium Rescue Unit, and had a knack for surrounding himself with talented musicians, including Derek Trucks of the Tedeschi Trucks Band and Jimmy Herring of Widespread Panic. While wealth and fame eluded him, he was widely acknowledged as an influence on other leading musicians. He also played the role of a songwriting band manager in Billy Bob Thornton’s 1996 film “Sling Blade.”
Thornton joined Hampton on stage for the “Love Light” encore and beamed as Hampton belted out the first part of the tune with his bluesy growl. Hampton paced across the stage and teased the audience by pretending to leave before he re-emerged. Then he fell to his knees.
When people began to realize this was no stunt, the band abruptly ended the song and a hush fell over the crowd. Stunned fans looked at one another and asked, “What just happened?”
“We’re going to take care of business backstage here,” Thornton said. “Thank you so much. We love you so much. Thanks for honoring Bruce Hampton on his 70th.”
Outside, fans gathered on the street as an ambulance and firetruck arrived. Hampton was carried out of the theater on a stretcher. People cheered when he was loaded into the ambulance and shouted “Brrruuuccccee” as they had done throughout the night.
Longtime Atlanta musicians such as Michelle Malone took to social media Tuesday, pouring out their admiration for the man they say encouraged and inspired them. “I will miss your wry sense of humor, your big weird brain, your great big kind heart, and your genius and endearing approach to music,” Malone wrote. “Thank you for refusing to accept almost any boundary in music.”
The Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed the death to The Associated Press.
The Tedeschi Trucks Band, also on the lineup, posted a statement on its official Facebook page from Hampton’s family.
“After collapsing on stage surrounded by his friends, family, fans and the people he loved Col. Bruce Hampton passed away. The family is asking for respect and privacy at this difficult time,” the statement said.
Hampton showed no sign anything was amiss before his collapse. He appeared on stage early in the four-hour night, conducting and singing with a band. Later, he played and sang several tunes, including “I’m So Glad” as well as “Fixin’ to Die,” a song he had performed many times before. This time, though, the lyrics turned out to be prophetic:
Feeling funny in my mind, Lord
I believe I’m fixing to die
Well, I don’t mind dying
But I hate to leave my children crying