Inducted: December 3, 2019

Tommy Bolin

Born in Sioux City, Iowa, on August 1, 1951, Tommy Richard Bolin was arguably the best guitarist to find a home in the Colorado music scene of the 1970s. When Bolin died of an overdose in 1976, he was on a career path that would have taken him to icon status, with a style that incorporated jazz fusion, rock and elements of pop. His credits include two albums with Zephyr, two solo albums and two albums with Joe Walsh’s former band, the James Gang; he also collaborated with jazz drummer Billy Cobham on his seminal album, Spectrum, and replaced Ritchie Blackmore in the number-one psychedelic-rock band of the late ’60s, Deep Purple. But those are household names of the time. What’s less well known is the work that Bolin did with other amazing guitarists, such as Jeff Beck and Albert King, and musicians in bands like Energy and Tommy Bolin’s Dreamers, which included brother Johnnie (a member of Black Oak Arkansas for thirty years), bassist Stanley Sheldon (a longtime member of Peter Frampton’s band), drummer Bobby Berge, vocalist Jeff Cook and singer/keyboardist Max Carl (a founding member of Jack Mack and the Heart Attack, later with 38 Special and Grand Funk Railroad).

The legend began even before Tommy Bolin took up the guitar at age eleven.

His father, Rich Bolin, took him to see Elvis when he was only five and, according to his brother, had a dream that Tommy would follow in the King’s footsteps. Tommy studied guitar and lap-steel at Flood Music in Sioux City, as well as with a local country guitar-picker who lived across the street. He could play just about anything by ear, including jazz and riffs from recordings by the Ventures, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. He joined his first band when he was a teen, playing with Miserlous before he was asked to join Denny and the Triumphs (later called A Patch of Blue). He came to Colorado on a one-way bus ticket in 1967 after his high school suspended him twice for hair that was too long.

American guitarist Tommy Bolin

Bolin developed his signature powerhouse style in various bands, eventually as the featured soloist in Ethereal Zephyr.

After a jam session at the Buff Room on the Hill in Boulder, singer Candy Givens and her husband, David Givens, joined forces with keyboardist and flutist John Faris, drummer Robbie Chamberlin and Bolin to create Colorado’s first breakout ’70s blues-rock act, Zephyr.

Zephyr began writing originals and playing at the Sink in Boulder, managed by Chuck Morris (who went on to become CEO of the Rocky Mountain division of AEG and a Colorado Music Hall of Fame inductee in 2018); CU’s Glenn Miller Ballroom, opening for John Mayall; the university’s Macky Auditorium; Reed’s Ranch with the Grateful Dead; and various shows around the state. The musicians played in Phoenix, where they connected with acts like Steve Miller, Vanilla Fudge and David Lindley’s band Kaleidoscope.

They moved on to New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, where they played the Avalon Ballroom, the Whisky a Go Go and the Boston Tea Party. Of particular note was the Denver Pop Festival, where Zephyr was on the roster two nights, one with Jimi Hendrix. With shows that included spots with Led Zeppelin, Leslie West’s Mountain, Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen, Spirit, Fleetwood Mac and pretty much every top group of the era, the band established a fan base across the United States and seemed headed for a place in rock history. Zephyr recorded its first, self-titled album in 1969 in Los Angeles for ABC’s Probe Records; its second album, Going Back to Colorado, came out in 1971 on Warner Bros. Recorded at Electric Lady studios in New York around the time of Jimi Hendrix’s death, the album was caught in the confusion of that moment and never received the attention it deserved. It was at this point that Zephyr’s manager, Colorado promoter Barry Fey (another member of the Colorado Music Hall of Fame), turned his full attention to Bolin’s career, and Bolin left Zephyr to head out on his own journey.

In 1973, Bolin joined the James Gang after founder Joe Walsh recommended that he take his place. Bolin toured with the band and recorded Bang in 1973 and Miami in 1974; he was a co-writer on all but one of the songs on those two albums. In between the two James Gang albums, Bolin played on Mahavishnu Orchestra member Billy Cobham’s solo album Spectrum, along with Cobham on drums, Leland Sklar on bass and Jan Hammer (also of Mahavishnu Orchestra) on keyboards and synthesizers. Bolin was featured on four tracks on that iconic disc.

Bolin Live in Concert

Tommy Bolin

After leaving the James Gang, Bolin recorded with various jazz artists, and in 1975 began his solo career with Nemperor Records. Bolin gained confidence in his vocals, thanks to coaching from members of the Beach Boys, and he worked with David Foster, David Sanborn, Jan Hammer, Stanley Sheldon, Phil Collins and Glenn Hughes.

The year that Bolin recorded his first solo album, Teaser, members of Deep Purple approached him to take over the lead-guitar chair. Bolin not only stepped in for Ritchie Blackmore, but he wrote seven of the nine tracks on the act’s 1975 album, Come Taste the Band. After a difficult worldwide tour during which the bandmembers’ drug use detracted from their performance, Bolin again focused on his solo career.

In September 1976, with a stellar lineup that included Narada Michael Walden, Mark Stein, Norma Jean Bell, Reggie McBride, Jimmy Haslip, Max Carl Gronenthal and brother Johnnie Bolin, Tommy recorded and released Private Eyes on CBS Records. He began touring to support the record, doing shows with Peter Frampton and Jeff Beck, among others. In Miami on December 3, 1976, he was upbeat and told an interviewer that he was excited about the future, saying, “Don’t worry about me. I’m going to be around for a long time.” Sadly, Tommy Bolin died of an overdose that same night; he was only 25 years old.

“Tommy was a gift to us all, but I really didn’t realize what a keystone he was in my life back in the heyday of ’70s Boulder,” says Stanley Sheldon, Bolin’s former bandmate and bass player for Peter Frampton. “We were so young and having too much fun for that kind of deep introspection. We were playing incredible music, we were carefree and inseparable. Now the hurt of losing him lingers like a dark shadow, especially when I consider what we might be doing today if he were still with us. Really hoping to see you on the other side someday, Tommy.”

What is probably most telling about Tommy Bolin’s legacy is the number of guitarists who cite him as an inspiration in their own playing. From Warren Haynes of Gov’t Mule, who produced one of two tribute albums to Bolin, to blues legends Joe Bonamassa and Sonny Landreth, Bolin’s influence continues to outlive his all-too-brief time in the spotlight. The Colorado Music Hall of Fame was proud and honored to induct Tommy Bolin with the Class of 2019.

Tommy Bolin Discography

1969 – Zephyr


1971 – Going Back to Colorado

Going Back To Colorado

1975 – Teaser


1976 – Private Eyes

Private Eyes

1973 – Bang


1974 – Miami


1975 – Come Taste the Band

Come Taste The Band

Keep music history alive!
Donate to the Colorado Music Hall of Fame.

More Inductees