Farewell to a Friend
By: Ellis Millsaps, Contributing Writer
- Special to The Chronicles -
April 30, 1947 - May 1, 2017
My friend Bruce Hampton died recently. I didn’t hear about it until after the fact, but then our mutual friends have lost contact with me.
I first saw Bruce when The Hampton Grease Band played in the courtyard of Dobbs Hall, my dorm at Emory in 1969. I didn’t meet him then.
I next saw Bruce at the Uptown Cafe in Atlanta in the mid-seventies. He was doing a standup comedy act in which he pretended to be Babe Ruth swinging a an inflatable woman’s leg as a bat. I didn’t meet him then either.
I met Bruce in the late seventies when he came to play in a poker game I’d organized. We played every Wednesday night for twenty years.
The regulars in the game were Bruce, Mark Methe, who owns Wuxtry Records--Peter Buck was working at his Athens store where he met Michael Stipe, a frequent customer--David Simpson, then chairman of the Communist Party in Georgia, Bob Dorlan, a guy from Minnesota who had a pig valve in his heart until it finally stopped working, and Ben who played for the Atlanta Symphony until they involuntarily retired him, and me.
Bruce didn’t drink or do drugs like the rest of us, but he lived off a steady stream of cigarettes and caffeine. I always assumed he’d done those things heavily at a younger age and reached his tolerance, but I never asked.
Hampton was the smartest person I ever met, and through twenty years of schooling I’ve known some very bright people. He and I would sit at this poker game discussing Iris Murdoch, Howlin’ Wolf, and string theory while he regularly took our money. I concede he was even more abrasively funny than I.
Although he declared his profession to be accounting, Hampton for five decades fronted a variety of cutting edge bands, touring regularly, but usually back on Wednesdays for poker. Rolling Stone raved about The Hampton Grease Band’s initial release “Music to Eat,” but legend has it that it was Columbia Records second worst selling album ever. It was, and is still, ahead of its time. Bruce appeared in the film “Swing Blade” with his friend and fellow musician, Billy Bob Thorton.
Ben, the aforementioned symphony player was old and slow to make up his mind. It was customary for us to wait minutes for him to decide whether he was going to play or bet. We would say his name and still have to await his decision. One Wednesday in the early nineties, we went through this routine for ten minutes before we realized he was dead. When the ambulance took him away we dealt another hand, agreeing that Ben would have wanted it that way.
I tell this story because Bruce died on stage under similar circumstances. You can watch him dying online. It occurred at the Fox Theatre during an encore for a tribute concert honoring his seventieth birthday. Everybody who was anybody in southeastern rock (except for Marshall McCart and Tedo Stone) was on stage when Bruce collapsed. He was such a card that everyone assumed it was part of his schtick and finished the song, but Bruce didn’t get up.
He is survived by three of the six poker players and thousands of fans worldwide.
Ellis was an attorney by trade (now recovering) but has worn many hats over the years: father, bus boy, stand-up comedian, novelist, wiffle ball player, rock'n'roll band manager, and at one time wrote a popular and funny column for The Covington News. A Fannin Co. mountain boy originally, Mr. Millsaps now stays at the mill village of Porterdale by way of 20 years in Mansfield. Usually funny and at times irreverent and subversive, he leans left in his political philosophy but can always be counted on for a pretty darn good write-up. The Chronicles are proud to have him involved. You can read his past works at TPC by visiting his Contributing Writer page.