Throughout his long, award-winning journalism career, Jerry Grillo concerned himself with one thing when it came to reporting – “just the facts, ma’am.”
But when writing his first book, “The Music and Mythocracy of Col. Bruce Hampton: A Mostly True Biography,” Grillo found at times that facts were often elusive when dealing with Hampton, regarded by many as the “father of jam bands” and an influential Atlanta-based musical figure for parts of six decades.
In 2017, Hampton – who was perhaps best known as the leader of the band Aquarium Rescue Unit – died of a heart attack a few hours after collapsing onstage at the Fox Theatre during the encore of a tribute concert for his 70th birthday. Performers on the Fox Theatre stage that evening included members of Widespread Panic, Phish, Leftover Salmon, Drivin’ ‘n’ Cryin’ and the Rolling Stones.
Hampton’s death was the stuff of stories he’d relish telling. Never one to let facts get in the way of a good yarn, Hampton reveled in the hyperbole, and Grillo – who made friends with the larger-than-life musician in 2007 – did his level best to separate the wheat from the chaff when detailing his subject’s very active imagination.
“He left in his wake all kinds of mythocracy,” said Grillo, who worked as the sports editor for the Rockdale Citizen from 1993 to 1997. “And I loved it because it never bothered him…He never came across as somebody who was trying to cover his tracks. He loved doing that because a lot of his great heroes did that.
“If you knew him, he didn’t have to wink for you to know he was (embellishing) some story. But some people would take it seriously and really didn’t like or appreciate it. And I have to respect them and their feelings.”
Grillo, who now lives in Sautee Nacoochee with his wife Jane (also an award-winning journalist) and their son Joe, said he had planned to show Hampton about 75 pages of his manuscript on the night of his death (“He never saw it,” said Grillo, “and I didn’t wind up using much of it”).
His research included interviews with about 150 associates of Hampton and the book is being published by the Athens-based UGA Press; there’s an interesting Athens connection to Hampton’s story as his grandfather, W.A. “Alex” Cunningham, coached the football team at the University of Georgia (before they were called Bulldogs) from 1910-1919.
“Music and Mythocracy,” which includes a forward by Rolling Stones’ pianist Chuck Leavell, is Grillo’s first book (“But it’s not the first book I’ve ever started,” he quipped), a fitting progression for someone who began his career in letters at New York Newsday, covered both the 1996 Summer Olympic Games and the 1995 World Series for the Citizen and spent years writing on-point business features for Georgia Trend.
For the last seven years, Grillo has worked as a communications officer for Georgia Tech’s Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience.
“I’m on the mad scientist beat now,” he said of his gig at Tech. “In terms of stories, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s all science and research. You have to write something that a general audience understands that also has to be vetted by all these research professors. It’s brain-melting. It’s a step outside my comfort zone and it’s fun.”
He and Jane have also been tireless advocates of the disabled community. Their son, now 20 years old, has spastic quadriplegia, cerebral palsy, development delay and visual impairment, and they work tirelessly on Joe’s behalf and the behalf of others.
When asked about his next book, Grillo said he’s leaning toward writing about his son.
“I think writing about Joe would be the most helpful and useful thing I could do,” he said. “Jane would have a big part in it because she’s the CEO, so I think we would both write something. I’ve started on it a few times, and I’m always trying to figure out how should Joe be involved in telling his story.”
Thinking about family, Grillo added that his first book might not have been possible without his daughter Sam, who grew up in Rockdale County and now lives in Michigan. Grillo said that Sam provided a discerning editorial eye as he was finishing the book.
“It was supposed to be a 70,000-word book and I was already over 75,000 and still had four chapters to write, with a deadline coming up,” said Grillo. “Sam was heartless! She edited the hell out of it and also did a great job on the index.”
For more information about “The Music and Mythocracy of Col. Bruce Hampton: A Mostly True Biography,” visit www.ugapress.org.