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!