An Interview with Bobby Berge

Jeff Cook, Tommy Bolin, Tom Stephenson, Stanley Sheldon, Bobby Berge
Tommy's Parent's Apartment, December 14, 1972
Photos courtesty of Bobby Berge, Tommy Bolin Archives, and The Bolin Foundation

Bobby Berge (pronounced ”BERG-ee” - the ”g” is hard) is a versitile drummer who has played with lots of big-name artists. He is best know to Tommy Bolin fans as the one musician who can claim to have been with Tommy pretty much “from beginning to end”!

Although Tommy's musical career was relatively short, it was shared with many musicians as he transitioned from the midwest, to Colorado, to L.A., and to the world. Bobby Berge joined him for Zephyr's second album (Going Back to Colorado), then played with him in Energy, The Tommy Bolin Band, and recorded on both “Teaser” and “Private Eyes” (Tommy's only two solo outings, the latter being released shortly before Tommy's death in 1976). It's been a pleasure meeting Bobby over the past 6 years, and especially to have been part of this brief interview which I think, dear Bolin Fan, you will agree is a special window into the past of some truly great American musicians. ~ Scott McIntosh, Summer, 2002

Bobby Berge Interview: TBF=Scott McIntosh for the The Bolin Foundation

TBF: Thanks for doing this interview! First question: Where did you play your first and last Zephyr gigs?

BB: I know the very last Zephyr gig was a reunion at “Art’s Bar and Grill” May 2, 1973. The night was recorded and a CD was later released of that performance in 1997 by the Tommy Bolin Archives. That was an extraordinary night and that gig was an exceptionally good one for the whole band. Everybody played great and we totally kicked ass. What a great way to end the “Zephyr” band as it had been from 1970 till '71. Before the reunion, I can’t recall the first or last gig before we actually broke up but some of the early and most memorable concerts included “Mammoth Gardens” in Denver, in front of the CU campus library in Boulder, and also a couple outdoor concerts at the Boulder band-shell and Hancock Park in the foothills of Boulder.

TBF: How did Tommy do things differently as a recording artist between “Going back to Colorado” and “Private Eyes”?

BB: Generally speaking, the songs Tommy recorded on “Going back to Colorado” were rock but at that time there seemed to be some country, country rock, and blues influences on a few of the tunes that he helped write. Of course Tommy loved Jazz and the recordings during the “Energy” period reflected his versatility in the Rock, Jazz, Fusion realm. We all listened a lot to the top Fusion-Jazz groups of the early 70’s and loved to cop some of their grooves and jam out on them. Following Tommy’s lead, we all had the opportunity to stretch out quite a bit and do a lot of improvising. As we all know, Tommy also showed his remarkable Jazz-Rock-Fusion capabilities on Billy Cobham’s “Spectrum” album and Alphonse Mouson’s “Mind Transplant”. From the time of the recordings with the “James Gang” till the “Teaser” and “Private Eyes” albums, to me, Tommy definitely matured as a person and a recording artist and he seemed to be leaning more towards main stream “Rock”.

I heard a lot of funk influence on the James Gang stuff, and then a lot of versatility on “Teaser” and “Private Eyes” with Funk, Reggae, and Jazz mixed with Heavy Rock. This is kind of a tough question tho, because like I’ve said before, technically I can’t tell you what he was doing. I never tried to analyze what Tommy did, I just listened, dug it, and played along with him. Tommy, since the early days till later, always played great, whether it be live or in the studio. He never failed to surprise you and would come up with unique, creative, and beautiful melodies that would blow your mind. His dazzling technique and command of rhythmic syncopation and odd time signatures was mind boggling.

TBF: You were with Tommy and recorded a lot with him - from the afore-mentioned Zephyr's “Going Back to Colorado” all the way through his final recorded work, “Private Eyes” (An amazing legacy!) -- How would you describe the differences in the recording experiences?

BB: “Going back to Colorado” was done early fall of 1970 at “Electric Lady Land Studios” in New York City and “Private Eyes” was recorded at “Cherokee Studios” in L.A. in June of 1976. When I listen to how I played during the sessions for “Going Back to Colorado”, I’m struck by the way I played then, which was much busier on the drums than the “Private Eyes” sessions. I used to think “More Was Better” in the earlier days and I practiced incessantly developing a lot of “Chops”.

This by the way tied over into the “Energy” recordings and gigs where I was in great shape and could play very fast but also intricate jazzy licks. I can’t recollect well enough to go into detail about the actual studio sessions in N.Y. but a general overview of the month spent there would have to include staying at the infamous “Chelsea Hotel” and going down to this little cafe every night after recording for late night cheese-burgers.

It was fun hanging out in the “Village” and Tommy, John Faris, and I went to see some Jazz Greats like “Charlie Mingus” and “Mose Allison”. I also remember some late night pool and Heineken tournaments between Tommy, John, and me resulting in some nasty hangovers which we would walk off the next day in “Central Park”. The studio itself was very nice and was named after Jimi Hendrix’s second album. Jimi had passed away earlier that year. Man, Tommy and I both loved Jimi and he was such a big influence on us!

We worked and hung out w/Eddie Kramer, a great engineer. I guess the main difference in the feel of each recording period was first, the N.Y. sessions were focused pretty much on “Zephyr”, although I did get to play on a couple tracks for Carly Simon who also was recording. I’m not sure if Tommy or anyone else helped out on her songs.

I did very much enjoy the “Zephyr” days and the sessions in N.Y. For me this was part of the hippy, Psychedelic Era. Our sound did get pretty tight as we had been playing together a lot since May of that year. Now 1975-76, the “Teaser” and “Private Eyes” sessions were a whole different story, like on another planet you might say. It was 5-6 years later and now it’s “Party Time” out in Big Bad L.A. “Teaser” was done at the “Record Plant” in L.A., and this place was incredible!

There was studio A, B, C, and maybe D. It was all spread out, separated by long hallways, where it would branch out. There were also sauna’s, hot tubs, and back rooms hidden away for extra-curricular activities. Man, I saw more “Stars” than Carters got little liver pills. There’d be Bad Company in studio C, Buddy Miles in studio B, and Tommy in studio A. It wouldn’t be unusual for somebody like David Bowie, Joe Walsh, or Stevie Wonder to pop by, even the late George Harrison. The list goes on and on.

I just have to mention the “Teaser” sessions before “Private Eyes” because of the totally awesome scene that was going on. I was doing sessions w/Buddy Miles at the same time that I was recording w/Tommy for “Teaser”. I’d play a track or two in studio B w/Buddy and literally run down to studio A and get going on some drum tracks for the “Grind” and “Lotus”. It was exciting and quite a surprise to also get to do an unexpected late night Jam w/a couple Bad Company guys and Robert Plant!

  Now, recording w/my main man Tommy Bolin on “Teaser” and “Private Eyes” was a dream come true. I loved Tommy’s music ever since the first Zephyr album and now I was actually playing on his records. The sessions at Cherokee studios for “Private Eyes” were done about a year after the “Teaser” sessions. This was a smaller place w/a big studio and a smaller one. We used the smaller one. My drums all got ripped off in L.A. so I had to rent some tubs which were huge see-thru Vistalites. I thought Dennis MacKay made them sound even bigger and really beefed them up though the board. There was some heavy partying going on at this time but can you imagine “Rock and Roll” with out it? Now I can, but it was part of the territory back then and it did cause some up’s and down’s, not to mention the in and out’s, HA! Compared to “Going Back To Colorado”, my drumming now was more straight-ahead and I would bash it out w/simple, solid grooves. This is what both Buddy Miles and Tommy encouraged me to do, so I went for it, and it was fun to not think so much about what to play and just concentrate on laying it down heavy.

It was a blast in the studio playing w/the “Private Eyes” line-up and Tommy’s variety of tunes gave me the chance to express myself on the drums in a few different ways. Like on “Gypsy Soul”, I did this fast sweeping thing w/my right hand using a wire brush, while clicking a Bossa Nova beat w/my right stick. From funk, ballad, and reggae to “Balls to the Wall” Rock, it was a Gas! I did finally succeed in capturing on record what I wanted to do for so long and that is on the last part of “Post Toastie” where we start jammin out and I’m bashin the hell out of the drums and cymbals. Reggie is right there with me and we are “Locked in the Pocket”! And of course Mark Stein, Norma Bell, and Reggie McBride are great on the whole album. But Tommy plays so damn good, it makes you want to cry!! He never ceased to amaze me!!

TBF: What was your impression of various Tommy Bolin Band versions?

BB: To me the first main Tommy Bolin Band was with Mark Stein, Reggie Mcbride, Norma Bell and Michael Walden. They were fantastic! But let me back up and go through some earlier versions.

When Tommy was still w/the “James Gang” in 1974, he would come back to Boulder once in a while and he’d get some close friends together and play in Boulder or Denver. We did an informal Tommy Band at the “Good Earth Club” in Boulder which consisted of Russell Bissett and myself on drums, Stan Sheldon on bass. This was 1974 and later that year this same line-up including Jeff Cook on Vocals and Archie Shelby on Congas, played at “Ebbitt’s Field Nightclub” in Denver/hence the “Live At Ebbitt’s Field” gig of '74.

This was a great gig and you might call this the first “Tommy Bolin Band” although it wasn’t official. Tommy was in rare form and just played some awesome things on the guitar. There was so much excitement surrounding Tommy and his music, you can hear and feel it when you listen to the CD released from that performance!

Next thing I know is Tommy is calling me from LA (January 1, 1975) of all days and asks me if I want to come out and play in his own band which I guess you could call the first official “Tommy Bolin Band”. It was an attempt anyway as it didn’t get off the ground. That band was me, Stan Sheldon, and Ronnie Baron on Keys/Vocals. Had an impressive audition w/Record Co. but nothing happened and the band fizzled out.

Around this time, I hooked up w/Buddy Miles, an old friend from Sioux Falls, and started recording and playing live w/him. Stanley hooked up w/Peter Frampton and Tommy took Ritchie Blackmore’s place in “Deep Purple”. Throughout '75-'76, tho, we would get together and hang out, jam, or do demos occasionally.

The next version which I always felt was the first main “Tommy Bolin Band” as previously mentioned was simply incredible! In '76, another gig at “Ebbitt’s Field” was recorded w/this line-up. This band had amazing players! Reggie McBride has to be my all time favorite bass player as I never played w/anyone who could play so ballsy and funky. I always loved “Vanilla Fudge” and Mark Stein's strong, huge keyboard sound always impressed me. I had nothing but total respect for Norma and Michael, who’s drumming is extremely intense! I’m not sure what happened w/ Michael Walden, but I became the next drummer in the band and started recording “Private Eyes” w/Tommy, Mark, Reggie, and Norma. (Picture: Norma Jean Bell, Reggie McBride, & Bobby Berge)

My impression of this version - What can I say? I was in 7th Heaven to say the least! It was absolutely fantastic to be playing w/Musicians of this caliber. Of course, there were some ups and downs, but I believe “Private Eyes” speaks for itself and I know we had some Great Moments!

NEXT, Johnnie Bolin takes over on drums, a man I admire as a person and a drummer. He’s very solid and driving and can Bash Out w/the best of them! The last version which included Norma, Jimmy Haslip, Max Carl, and Mark Craney was another awesome combination of talented players. I listened to the last “Miami” gig recently and was blown away! They were really stretching out and Kickin Ass!- pushin the Rock, Funk, Fusion thing to the limit! I had the privilege of playing w/Max in Energy when he became our Singer/Keyboardist. His soulful singing style was so cool. Had the chance to play w/Jimmy Haslip earlier that year for an audition w/some Columbia Record people. We both played w/a guitar player, Phil Brown who writes some great material!

Mark Craney, who is a fellow Sioux Falls native has always been an inspiration to me, what a great drummer! And of course, I loved Norma’s sound and stage presence. That double horn thing was pretty cool! Technically, I can’t explain what these musicians played, but I DO KNOW what sounds GOOD and they sounded fucking great and it was a REAL TREAT to be able to play and record w/them!

TBF: How do you think Tommy changed as a person between his time w/Zephyr and his “Private Eyes” album?

BB: Well, We’re talking about a 6 year span from 1970 to 1976. Basically, Tommy kept his good nature and humor throughout this period. He came from a very loving family so was able to keep an upbeat attitude thru good and bad times. In fact, this always impressed me about Tommy. He always seemed up, positive, and could always crack silly jokes. Of course there would be a natural change in a person who moves from the Boulder, Colorado mountain setting to Big City L.A., and who also would naturally mature as a man during this 6 year period. There most definitely would be a lifestyle influence on Tommy as a person including increased alcohol and drug use.

When I joined Zephyr in 1970, we all lived in Boulder and these we’re still the hippie-dippie days. Tommy was pretty health conscious and didn’t eat any red meat. Just stuff like fish, rice, and he was really into granola. I stayed w/him when I first moved to Boulder and slept on his couch, till I could find my own place. Compared to later on, Tommy was relatively pretty straight, and would only smoke a little herb in the evening. I think there was more of an innocence about him during these earlier years but that’s probably true about all of us! I’d have to say, that during this time, he was Naturally more outgoing, friendly, and funny.

After Zephyr, during the Energy days, Tommy always kept his high spirited enthusiasm and made the opportunity to play w/him a real joy! He never was demanding or pushy. His gentleness and politeness made it easy to follow his musical directions and he always treated everyone w/the utmost respect. What was great about the Energy days was the seemingly effortless and natural way our musical ideas and abilities developed. In my mind, this was directly influenced by Tommy’s relaxed leadership. He made you feel extremely comfortable. This feeling extended thru 1974 when Tommy was w/the “James Gang”, and we would still throw together a band once in awhile and play in Boulder or Denver.

  After moving to L.A., I didn’t see Tommy as much as in Boulder, and gradually saw less and less of him, the busier he got. It was just a whole new ballgame out in L.A. and you might say Tommy and I started drifting apart on a personal level. Understandably so, as he personified the typical “Rock Star” and would be gone a lot, flying all over the world w/ “Deep Purple”, or just busy doing his own thing in L.A. As I mentioned before, Tommy was always a kind, warm, and friendly person but something happened between 1975 and 1976. I’m sure the hectic lifestyle and alcohol and drug use played a part in this change.

I know it changed me and I saw how it all went from, you might say “Uptown” to “Downtown”. I noticed how '75 was a year of excitement and high energy connected w/the release of the “Teaser” album. But there was a lot of coke and alcohol usage and spirits were HIGH to say the least! Then the whole mood changed in '76 as I think some burnout seemed to creep in to the picture. I feel the change in Tommy is reflected in the darker flavor of his music on “Private Eyes”. Still Great Music tho, but just a whole different type energy than the previous year. I think heroin use contributed to this new sound and darker mood. Although I saw him very sporadically during '76, Tommy was still lovable Tommy and I always believed in him and was very happy for his success!

I must be honest tho, and admit that due to my own over-indulgence, 1976 was a hazy period to try to recollect and there is the fact that it was all starting to catch up with me also.

TBF: What does it mean to you to continue to be a part of this ongoing musical history?

BB: It means a great deal to me because I’m as big a fan of Tommy as anybody and still enjoy his music so much and want to help keep his memory and music alive! To pay tribute to him each year is a great thing to a part of. I remember how excited I was the first part of January, 1996 when Mike Drumm [President, Tommy Bolin Archives, Inc.] told me that there would be an “Energy” re-union and tribute concert January 23, 1996. I had visited Mike and Bob Ferbrache the previous summer and donated pictures, posters, and tapes to the “Tommy Bolin Archives”. Anyway, that first tribute concert was pretty rough around the edges but I loved the spontaneity and excitement that was generated! People really got off on the music and there was a big turnout even though the Denver area received a huge snowstorm the day before. Shortly there after, the decision was made to try an official “Tommy Bolin Tribute Concert” in August of that same year. This made more sense since Tommy was born in August, and the weather would also be a lot nicer.

This Concert in August 1996 at the “Bluebird Theater” was much more professionally done and we actually rehearsed for it! An excellent CD and Video resulted from the show. Everybody involved did an incredible job putting the Tribute Concert together. I’ve been at every Tommy Tribute in Sioux City since 1997 and played at every one except two. I did drive out to Denver in 1998 with my girlfriend, Karla, and sat in with Jeff Cook and the Tribute Band. It was a gas jammin out on “Goin Down”! Glen Hughes and Johnnie B. kicked Major Ass that night as they had done the previous year at the “Zephyr Reunion”.

It’s been a hell of a lotta fun every year and I’ve met many great Tommy fans who I look forward to seeing again, hopefully! This thing seems to be growing and growing each year. What’s really cool now is that I’ve been on the internet for a couple of months now communicating with a couple dozen or more Fans, some of which will be coming to the next Tommy Fest. It will be great to see these people and since we’ve already exchanged E-mails and info, it will be like I already know them, somewhat. The main point though, is that it’s just great to be a part of an ongoing tradition to keeping Tommy’s Spirit and wonderful music alive!

I do want to personally get involved in sharing music and info with all sincere Tommy Fans. Musically speaking, I also want to do more jamming with various Tommy Fans who play instruments and who love to play Tommy’s material. In fact, I’m very much looking forward to that, and it will be happening at John Nash’s “Crosstown Cafe” again this year as it has in the past!

TBF: What current musical projects are you involved with?

BB: Not nearly as many as I would like to be! Backing up a few years or so, I moved back to the Sioux Falls, Sioux City area in '97 for a house band gig in Sioux City with the group “After Alley”. We played every weekend that summer and pretty steady for the next year or so. The “off the wall” name, by the way, came about after Johnnie Bolin left his hometown band “Bolin’s Alley”/hence the name “After Alley”. I replaced Johnnie when he became very busy with “Black Oak Arkansas” and couldn’t do the gig anymore. Anyway, “After Alley” fell apart and since then the gig’s have dwindled in the past 2-3 years.

It seems I’ve gotten back to my roots in the past few years and have been doing some occasional Be-Bop Jazz, Blues, and Classic Rock gigs. I listened a lot to Blues, Jazz, R+B, and Rock as a youngster and find myself listening to a wide variety of music again since I’ve been back. There just isn’t a whole lot of work though in this area. I’ve done a little teaching at a school close to where we live and tried to help out a few students there. I used to teach drums in Boulder, Colorado at Prosound Music for a year and a half back around 83-84. I’d like to teach more around here as I know I could help young guys get started the right way, with rudiments, basics, and reading etc.

There’s a couple of Rock gigs coming up in June and July with some local friends and of course the “Tommy Bolin Fest” is in August. I’m determined to hussle up more bookings in the near future. To keep my sanity, I must still “Rock Out” once in a while and put to use my new Mapex kit. I still practice and jam out on my own and always will just because I’ve always had a passion for drumming and music since I was 12 years old. I’m going on 54 {but don’t look a day over 42, HA!} and still have a little “Piss and Vinegar” left in me. Listening to a lot of the old “Energy” material recently has “Fired Me Up” and rekindled the “Spirit of my Youth” and brought back to mind some of the musical ideas I had way back then! I plan on creating the opportunities to play and utilize these newfound feelings and inspirations!

TBF: Anything not asked that you want to tell your fans out there?

BB: Well, I just feel honored and delighted that after all these years, people are still listening to what I did with Tommy, Energy, and Zephyr. Fans have expressed their gratitude and have been very complimentary, which I appreciate so much!

For so many years, our material was buried and hidden away, so to speak. Thanks to the “Tommy Bolin Archives” and the many great Fans, Tommy’s music is still alive and well. His Spirit lives on and I feel extremely grateful to be a part of it all. Thank you all so very much!

TBF: Thank you for your time with this interview! Please stay in touch, and we all hope to see you at all the upcoming Tributes and Fests!


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