Farewell to Hiram Bullock (1955-2008)

written by Bobby Broom for Jazz Voicings, his bimonthly Chicago Jazz Magazine column

Hiram Bullock probably became best known as the barefoot guitarist in Paul Schaefer’s band for the Late Night with David Letterman show during the early eighties. But he amassed a massive resumé playing alongside many of contemporary music’s brightest stars including James Brown, Miles Davis, The Brecker Bros., Paul Simon, David Sanborn, Kenny Loggins, Billy Joel, Barbra Streisand, Burt Bacharach, Roberta Flack, Steely Dan, Spyro Gyra, Eric Clapton, Al Green and James Taylor. Hiram’s hybrid style was an unabashed, organic blend of rock, blues, funk and jazz that has and will continue to influence like-minded guitarists for generations to come.

I first heard Hiram live when I was still a teenager in New York City. He was playing at a club called Mikell’s, located in my upper west side neighborhood, with a band comprised of veteran and future all-stars that included Lenny White on drums and Marcus Miller on bass. I remember that I recorded the gig on my big, hulking cassette player/recorder and recall enjoying reliving the band’s funkier version of George Benson’s hit Breezin, which featured the alternatively spaced-out, echo-laden, blues-rock from Hiram’s guitar replacing George’s classic part. As huge a Benson fan as I was, I wasn’t so blindly faithful that I’d miss the beauty of what took place on that tune that night. Confidently using his personal style like a singing voice, Hiram’s reading of the melody and his solo stood apart from the Benson recording and moved me just the same. It was probably 1977 and Hiram was just 22 years old.

I’d hear about him often as the years passed and his reputation and associations grew. I’d also see him around New York from time to time – sometimes at that most popular – hang – for us musicians at that time, 55 Grand Street. This was he jazz club/after hours spot in the village where a who’s who of musicians would gather to play music, recreate, or both. For example, I remember being on stage there one night jamming with Benson and Mike Stern. Anyway, for whatever reason, Hiram and I never really hit it off as friends, but I hope there was an inherent feeling of respect toward him coming from me, because if I had had the burning desire to pursue that style, Bullock’s playing definitely would have been one interpretation of jazz-rock guitar that I would have tried to follow.

At the time we were all still in our twenties and most likely trying to figure out just who we were or wanted to be, musically and otherwise. For me there weren’t many young, up and coming hollow body jazz guitar superstars to chase after, so I was kind of on my own in my passion and pursuit of the clean tone. And really, this style of classic, jazz guitar was not very popular at all in 1982, so to remain a viable candidate as a modern jazz guitarist for hire I was experimenting with my sound and style a bit, trying to take and incorporate some of the essence of what John Scofield was doing. It was clear that Mike Stern and John Scofield ruled the roost as far as what modern jazz guitar was supposed to sound like back then. But Sco was playing closest to my sound – not fully distorted – as opposed to Stern who would stomp on that ‘purple haze’ pedal as the highlight of his three-tiered improvisational process (clean-toned blues and bebop, then distorted everything).

I can’t say unequivocally, but it seemed that during that period in the early eighties Hiram may have been looking to Mike Stern for musical inspiration in a similar way as I looked to Scofield. Stern had more of a command of the bebop language and I remember getting the impression from seeing their interaction that Hiram wanted a little more of that for himself. Funny stuff if you add the fact that Hiram was already a ‘first-call’ session guitarist having played on hundreds of record dates and jingles with some of music’s biggest names. He also had the David Letterman Show job. His particular guitar style was already highly sought after.

By 1992 I had moved to Chicago and was pursuing my own sound and style. This was the year that Hiram released his third record as a leader, Way Kool. This record immediately became one of my favorites and is still to this day. The searing fusion of blues, rock, funk and jazz that makes up Hiram’s sound is a perfect blend of styles that becomes unique unto itself in his hands. His guitar playing is impeccable and incredibly soulful. The songwriting and production leave nothing to be desired. Even his better-than-adequate vocal work and the placement of those vocal songs in the sequence are just right. I can’t remember the last time that I listened to a record from start to finish, repeatedly, before I did with Way Kool a couple of weeks ago. I imagine that this record has got to be a perfect representation of Hiram Bullock’s lifework. I know I will enjoy it forever – Thank you Hiram!

Here’s an excerpt of Hiram’s tune, Never Give Up from the Way Kool CD

Way Kool

Way Kool

7 Comments on “Farewell to Hiram Bullock (1955-2008)

  1. Bobby
    I just read your article on Hiram. I was very close with him being his webmaster for 12 years and dear friends. I am webmaster at his site still as well as director of the Hiram Bullock archives. If you still have that recording from Mikell’s I”d love to ad it to his archives. I would also liek to keep in touch with you for a project I am working on in Hiram’s memory. Visit jackfrisch.com to see my work in the industry as a full time graphic designer, you’ll recognize my clients for sure. I’m art director for Marcus, Christian and many others as well as I am a voting member of NARAS. YOur contact info would be helpful to have.
    Sincerely
    Jack Frisch

  2. Bobby thanks for this commentary on Hiram.
    Hiram was the #1 funk jazz blues and r&b virtuoso guitarist ever in my opinion.
    I never heard him play anything I did not truly like. Eclectic and amazing riffs and rhythm.
    Fat tone and stage presence. He will be missed!!!

  3. Thanks for sharing. It’s always great to hear from someone who speaks from experience – that must have been quite a time back then. I was just starting out on guitar around then (used to play one of your tunes from “clean sweep”!).
    This is definitely one of my favorite recordings from Hiram. I’ve often thought about how much he and Stern share similar melodic concepts & phrasing – though Hiram’s funk & use of effects is in a league of it’s own. Thanks for keeping his music alive & keep doing your thing as well!!

  4. This was a nice article to read. It took me back to when I was was staioned at Lakehurst N.J. in 1977. I knew Hiram form before he went too New York from Miami. He wrote to me while I was in boot camp in the Navy in Orlando< FL while working with Godspell. He was a real character back in Baltimore. Yep….great musician…he made it look so easy…basck then he played with mostly white dudes so he didn''t have a lot of experience dealing withh many brothers….He was brilliant in many ways…Poly boy and all. (High School). I went to NY one night with a friend of from NY from Lakehurst on night. We went to Mikell's and Hiram was there. He wasn't playing. Just hanging out. My friend said, there's that dude Hiram Bullock you say you know. By then he was quite popular in many circles because of the Sandborn band and all the studio work he was doing. I talked to him about a friend of ours…Billy Jones, who use to follow Hiram around like a shadow when he was a teenager. He said billy moved to California. II saw Hiram tweo more times. Once with David Sandbrn in the Village that year in 1977 at the Other End in the Village in NY and lastly on ChARLES St. in Baltimore in 1990. I will miss him. I had a lot of fun with him. He had a wonderful sense of humor too. RIP my friend…I may have been at that concert he talked about when he switched to guitar…Oh he was an amazing bass player….lucky for Marcus Miller….

  5. Great concert last night here at the 2012 West Texas Guitar Festival, Bobby. Thank you, Greg, & Chris for the wonderful education in the masterclass and performance. We are grateful for your presence!