RANDOM RAMBLINGS OF THE MUSICAL MIND

A peak into the mind of John Hampton

An Evening with Chris Bell

As usual, I was late. But this was one band rehearsal I didn’t want to be late for. I FINALLY get to play with Chris Bell.

My brother Randy had called a couple of nights earlier, and said that Jody Stephens, the regular drummer for the Baker Street Regulars was going … I forget …somewhere, and he and Van were wondering if I could play drums with them. I had heard the Regulars at every gig they had done, because ever since the melt down of Big Star, my favourite Memphis band, I had watched them morph* into this current line up of Van Duren on bass, my older Irish twin Randy Hampton on guitar, Chris Bell on another guitar, and Jody Stephens on drums.

THIS was a great  rockband. It was parts of Brit-Pop Big Star blanded with parts of the best Brit-Pop cover band around, with Van’s Paul Mac meets Paul Carrack lead vocals, Jody (a Memphis version of John Bonham), and Randy, who could play about anything on guitar. And throw in Chris’ Yardbirds meets Zeppelin style (I could just say Jimmy Page meets the South…). But Chris introduced an additional recklessness, ala early Todd Rundgren, that one would expect from a talent of high calibre who, like Alex Chilton, kept finding himself being tripped up by life situations that kept that Platinum record and deserved recognition a breath away. Damn. Unbelievably unfair, at least to Chris’ slowly surrendering soul. I wanted to re-kindle his waning spirit. But who was I?

It worked for awhile. Van, Randy and I had been playing since high school. With us three being good friends, alienating Chris was a constant concern. That  could get wrong, so I (and I’m sure all of us) went a little out of our way to make sure Chris was being “musically nurtured”, because I KNEW he could bolt in a heartbeat … and would …at the slightest negative look, word, motion … I was on eggshells at the first rehearsal, but, as always, we all began melding ideas and he was instantly attune to our high regard of him, and returned the thought by showing off with performance he KNEW we would respond to. We kept an eye on each other through every song, as did he and Van, and whenever I played a stupidly great drum fill, he would act like he didn’t notice by looking away. But his facial expression betrayed his seeming lack of validation – he’d be grinning. But when he blew ME away with something, I would yell how awesome it was. That would fuel him more, and the synergy would finally take over and sweep the entire room into a wild-man musical experience. WOW! This was gonna be good. The Regulars ROCKED! (we rocked)

We finally got our first gig (that’s short for engagement, you knuckleheads). One of Chris’ million sisters was getting married and we were going to be the music at the reception. Having met some sisters, this felt more like someone was doing Chris/us a favor, as his whole family seemed to be a bit too conservative to want us. Then again, if we kept to Beatles covers, obscure Rundgren and Badfinger, and threw in Chris’ and Van’s originals, we might just pull it off.

The gig was Saturday night at 8:00, and Randy and Van and I were there an hour early, our usual thing. But no Chris. Hmmmm. We went ahead, setting up personal gear and we always combined efforts to set up the sound, since it was usually big speaker cabinets and about a hundred wires, plus 4 vocal mics. Yeah, I sang back-up with Randy.                                                                       Our genetically tuned harmonics made us ideal for                      ☝                                combining voices.                                                                          Still no Chris.

At 7:45, Van called Chris’ home. No answer. So he must be on his way. Right? Any minute now, I’m sure.

8:00 PM and all is not well. Where is Chris. Being the pros we were, we started playing 3 piece. I gotta admit we were pretty good. No applause, as I figured. That’s when I looked over and saw Chris, finally, at about 8:15 coming in through the well calculated center of the crowd assembled on the dance floor. Chris was indeed fashionably late. Wearing his whiter than white tennis sweater tied around his waist, whiter than white tennis shorts, whiter than white Hanes socks with tennis shoes, and, of course, a white of all whites Polo tennis shirt I expected what ever was resting on his shoulder to be a HEAD Racket. But it was Keith Sykes’ Fender Telecaster! Where was his red Gibson that sounded so great? And what amp was this? A Fender Concert combo, no naugahyde, was in his other hand. Chris had already stolen the show.

We got off the stage, Van was saying something about a technical problem, we’ll be right back. As Van approached Chris, I’m sure to bitch about his timing, Chris had already plugged in the amp, and the guitar into it. Oh hell … he just maxxed out the knobs! In slow motion, as Van’s mouth opened to speak, a sound straight out of Hell came out of the amp. It was the first lick of Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker” solo. Van kept talking as Chris’ eyes combed the room, surely to see the how many girls were covering their ears. About 60%. Good work, Chris! With Van now talking AT him, Chris decided too much top end, lowered the treble on the amp, and played the lick again, this time with a little more conviction. Which is exactly how Jimmy Page starts the solo on Heartbreaker. Does that mean … Yep. Chris blazed through the rest of the solo, note for note, but he added good where Page went bad. UN-BE-FRIGGIN-LIEVABLE! Van gave up, and as the end of the solo got near, Chris once again peruses the room, which by now had all but cleared out, pushed out by the sheer volume. Finally, when he saw my approving smile, he smiled back. I guess we both had a little anarchist in us. The gig went from there without a hitch, but that solo was forever burned into my synapses. It was as if he was showing everyone how good he could be if he chose to be, so back off. Quite the statement.

After that there was, according to Randy, one more gig with Chris before that band imploded. Jody was just gone, Chris was going into running one of his family’s Danvers burger joints, Randy had finally decided to go back to school, I was becoming interested in recording music and would run into Chris later. Van went looking for a band that would stay together for more than 2 gigs, which meant doing a lot more cover songs, which really was where the money was for the long term musician in Memphis … until you get a record label to come along and give you a chance to break out.

A couple of years later I got a phone call at 7AM from my best-friend-in-the-world-that-still-doesn’t-know-it. In an unusually subdued voice he told me that Chris had been killed in a wreck while he was trying to fight telephone poles. He lost. I had no response except the normal nonsense of wheres, whens, and hows. I was talking to God right after that call, and asked him the question only He could answer, which he didn’t.

Why?

To this day, I can’t think of one person on the PLANET who didn’t like Chris. Almost everyone I know LOVED Chris. I did. He just grows on you. He and his brother David are some of the finest around. And, I guess, that’s why that call that morning just did not register. But, it is registering deeply as I write this. We will ALWAYS love you, CB.

Next Question …

*(morph 3 |mɔ(ə)rf| |mɔːf|verb
change or cause to change smoothly from one image to another by small gradual steps