Bolin began his musical career on drums when he was thirteen and played them for two years, then switched to guitar for a year, played keyboards for a year and a half, and then went back to guitar.
He dropped out of high school at age sixteen and began playing in bands around the city as a youth (“A Patch of Blue” among others) before moving to Boulder, Colorado, in his late teens. He had played in a band called American Standard before joining Ethereal Zephyr in 1968, a band named after a train that ran between Denver and Chicago. When record companies became interested, the name was shortened to Zephyr. This band included Bolin on guitar, David Givens on bass, and Givens’ wife Candy Givens on vocals. The band had begun to do larger venues, opening for more established acts such as Led Zeppelin. Their second album, entitled “Going Back to Colorado”, featured a new drummer, Bobby Berge, who would pop up from time to time in musician credits in album liner notes from Bolin’s later projects.
In 1972 Bolin, at the age of 20, formed the fusion jazz-rock-blues band Energy. While the band never released an album during Bolin’s lifetime, several recordings have been released posthumously. After serving a blues apprenticeship on the road with Albert King for a year, he made his way to New York and its budding jazz-rock scene in 1973. His reputation had expanded to the point where Billy Cobham picked him for the session work.
Bolin played on Billy Cobham’s “Spectrum” album, which included Bolin on guitar, Billy Cobham of Mahavishnu Orchestra on drums, Leland Sklar on bass and Jan Hammer (also of Mahavishnu Orchestra) on keyboards and synthesizers. Jeff Beck often credits the LP as a major influence in sparking his jazz pursuits.
In 1973, Bolin became Domenic Troiano’s replacement (who had himself replaced Joe Walsh) in the James Gang. He had two records with this band: “Bang!” in 1973 and “Miami” in 1974. After the “Miami” tour, Bolin wanted out of the group, and went on to do session work for numerous rock bands and also with a number of jazz artists including Alphonse Mouzon’s album “Mind Transplant”, considered “one of the best fusion recordings of all time” by Allmusic reviewer Robert Taylor. He also toured with Carmine Appice and The Good Rats.
Bolin soon signed with Nemperor records, and plans to record a solo album, and decided to do his own vocals on the album as well. Session players on this record included David Foster, David Sanborn, Jan Hammer, Stanley Sheldon, Phil Collins and Glenn Hughes.
In the start of 1975, Bolin contributed some studio guitar assistance to Canadian band Moxy during the recording of their debut album. Later in 1975 saw the release of Bolin’s first solo record, “Teaser”, on the Nemperor label. After Ritchie Blackmore left Deep Purple, the band had a meeting and discussed whether to disband or try and find a replacement, and chose the second option. David Coverdale had been listening to the Billy Cobham LP “Spectrum”. He decided he wanted Tommy in Deep Purple, and invited him over for a jam. Tommy showed up thin as a rail with his girlfriend in tow wearing a see through mesh mini-skirt. He plugged into 4 Marshall amps and jammed with the band for 4 hours. The job was his. The band then relocated to Munich, Germany, to begin work on “Come Taste the Band”. Bolin wrote or co-wrote seven of the record’s nine tracks, including the instrumental “Owed to G,” which was a tribute to George Gershwin. “Come Taste the Band” was released in late 1975, and Australian, US and Japanese tours ensued, with some of the recordings released as “Last Concert In Japan” in 1977.
After Deep Purple disbanded in March 1976, Bolin was back on the road with his solo band with plans for a second solo record. The band had a rotating cast of players which included Narada Michael Walden, Mark Stein, Norma Jean Bell, Reggie McBride, Jimmy Haslip, Max Carl Gronenthal and eventually Bolin’s younger brother Johnnie Bolin on drums.
By mid-1976, CBS signed Bolin and he began recording “Private Eyes”, his second and last solo record. Opening for Peter Frampton and Jeff Beck, Bolin’s tour for “Private Eyes” was his last one. In his final show, he opened for Beck on December 3, 1976, and encored with a rendition of “Post Toastee.” He also posed for a photo with Beck after the show, then hours later, died from an overdose of heroin and other substances, including alcohol, cocaine and barbiturates. He is buried in Calvary Cemetery, Sioux City, Iowa.
In 1999, Bolin’s former Deep Purple bandmate and good friend Glenn Hughes, embarked on a 4–5 city tribute tour in Texas. Bolin’s brother, Johnnie (of Black Oak Arkansas) played drums, and Rocky Athas and Craig Erickson (Cedar Rapids, Iowa) played guitar as they performed a roster of Bolin’s songs.
Dean Guitars currently makes a Tommy Bolin tribute guitar, based on one of Tommy’s favorites, being modeled as a superstrat, with 3 single coil pickups and a maple neck/fingerboard. It has a special inlay at the 12th fret, as well as a graphic modeled after his album “Teaser” on the body.
In 2008, a book titled “Touched By Magic: The Tommy Bolin Story” by author Greg Prato was released, which featured all-new interviews with former band mates, family members, and friends of Bolin’s, which recounted his entire life story. The same year, a photo of Bolin was used for the front cover for the book “Gettin’ Tighter: Deep Purple ’68–’76”, by author Martin Popoff.
In 2010, several well-known artists gathered to create a tribute album titled “Mister Bolin’s Late Night Revival”, a compilation of 17 previously unreleased tracks written by the guitar legend. The CD includes works by HiFi Superstar, Doogie White, Eric Martin, Troy Luccketta, Jeff Pilson, Randy Jackson, Rex Carroll, Rachel Barton, Derek St. Holmes, Kimberley Dahme, and The 77’s. A percentage of the proceeds from the project benefited the Jackson Recovery Centers.
Producer Greg Hampton (who has previously worked on such archival Bolin releases as “Whips and Roses”) co-produced (with Gov’t Mule leader Warren Haynes) a star-studded tribute to Bolin, “Tommy Bolin and Friends: Great Gypsy Soul”, which was released in 2012, and featured contributions from Brad Whitford, Nels Cline, John Scofield, Myles Kennedy, Derek Trucks, Steve Morse, and Peter Frampton, among many others.