“It didn’t suck.”
That’s how original Molly Hatchet drummer Bruce Crump jokingly described playing in front of thousands and thousands of fans in a multitude of high-profile arenas in the U.S. and around the world at the height of the Jacksonville band’s fame in the late 1970s and 1980s.
But in the last decade, Crump didn’t consider himself a rock star, his widow, Kristin Crump, said in an interview last week.
“I was not married to a rock star,” Kristin says. “I was married to Bruce. He was just my husband; he was my best friend. He didn’t feel that way [a rock star] and, quite frankly, neither did I. It was history, his past, and that was it.”
What sucks is that Crump died unexpectedly early on March 16. He was 57.
He’d been fighting throat cancer since 2003, but despite the health issues and numerous associated medical procedures that took a toll on his physical health, he kept rocking on, even forming his own company to mentor up-and-coming drummers. Nothing stopped his love of playing drums with not one, but two local bands – White Rhino and China Sky.
The cause of the death has been determined to be from complications from his 12-year battle with the cancer. Fans of the band White Rhino said he was struggling with what seemed to be a bad cold during their show the previous Saturday night, March 14, though he was playing as hard as ever and the band put on a great show. Family said he had been sick all week, but he insisted on driving five-and-a-half hours from a family vacation in Naples to Dick’s Wings & Grill on Jacksonville’s Northside to complete an obligation to the band.
Husband-and-wife music photographers and videographers, Trevor and Eileen Bild, shared the last time they saw their friend.
“Bruce came out from behind the drums — they were doing a sound check — right out to the edge of the stage, stuck his hand out to welcome me whole-heartedly, which he has always done,” Trevor Bild says. Bild says Crump was suffering from what seemed to be a terrible cold, but during a break told him that no matter how bad he felt, it all went away when he was sitting behind his drums.
“I looked at him and said ‘passion.’ He looked at me with fire in his eyes, pointed at me, and said ‘Yes, it’s passion,’” Trevor Bild says.
When Crump first saw that Eileen was there, he left her with one last memory she says she’ll never forget.
“He smiled, perked up, then blew me a kiss,” Eileen Bild says.
What also didn’t suck, Crump told me in an interview last September, was his family life. He said he was very happily married, had six great kids — four of his and two of Kristin’s — and couldn’t ask for more.
Crump joined Molly Hatchet at 18, right out of high school. Rock and roll was always in his blood and he continued to carry on with his bands, playing with the same gusto he did when he joined the band that would go on to become world-famous.
Crump and his band members experienced the usual trials and tribulations of being rock stars — egos leading to members quitting, drug and alcohol excess — but almost all came back home. Crump split from the band in 1982 to seek more opportunities in California, then joined up with another rock outfit in Canada. But he came back in 1984 to rejoin Molly Hatchet and stayed with them until 1990, when the band decided to take a year off. What was supposed to be a year hiatus wound up being the end of Crump’s association with Molly Hatchet. Someone else bought the rights to the band and it continues, but with only one original member, founder Dave Hlubek, who sits in on only the occasional live show.
Crump eventually moved to Virginia, but returned to Northeast Florida last June to join China Sky and White Rhino. China Sky, with Crump on the drums, released a new CD in February that’s been globally well-received, members say.
Despite living in constant, agonizing pain since his cancer diagnosis and resulting surgeries and procedures, Crump rarely let on how he felt, friends and family say.
Richard Dappa Smith, bassist and original member of China Sky, said most people would have hung it up after going through so much. Not Crump. “Unlike what a lot of other people might have done, he was involved in a successful recording project right up until the day he died,” Smith says. Crump had numerous surgeries and procedures to address cancer-related issues, including many in his last weeks of life, but still made his final show.
Kristin Crump first met her future husband in 1987 during a Molly Hatchet concert, when she was 20 and attending Michigan State. She said she was first struck by his looks. Crump, while a fearsome drummer, had also become somewhat of a teen idol, his mug plastered across the pages of several of the day’s hottest music mags.
“He was just standing there in jeans and a sweater. I said to a friend, ‘Oh my God, that guy is so good-looking,’” Kristin Crump says. Her friend took it upon himself and approached Crump to introduce her, asking him what he thought about her. She says Crump replied, “She’s lovely.” They talked for a short while and then he said he had to go help the band, which is when she realized he was the drummer.
Skip forward 23 years to 2010. Kristin never forgot Bruce Crump and a friend who was on Facebook looked him up. They found him; the friend asked online if Bruce remembered her. He said no, but asked Kristin to start her own Facebook page so they could chat. She did, and one thing led to another, including six-hour phone conversations.
“We were totally, completely in love with each other before we saw each other again,” she says. “He was the funniest person and I am a funny person. We would laugh our asses off.”
When they did meet face-to-face, the deal was sealed. She moved from Houston into Crump’s Virginia home, then eventually moved to St. Augustine to take care of Bruce’s mother and with promises of steady band work for Crump.
The two married in July 2013 and were together for four years.
Crump, though always suffering pain and other side effects of his cancer, immediately jumped back into the Northeast Florida music scene, playing with White Rhino and China Sky and recording. He also started his own drum school.
And despite divorces, he was a loyal father.
“He was always there for us even when he wasn’t physically present in our life,” his oldest child, Jessica, 26, says.
His son, Bradley, 23, who had his father’s love of the drums at age 8, said his father was his biggest mentor.
“Our parents were divorced when we were very young, but he was always there for us,” Bradley says. “When I was about 13, he said things like, ‘holy shit.’ I was doing things he couldn’t do. But I still can’t play ‘Flirtin’ with Disaster’ like he did. I try, but just can’t get it down.”
Crump also had two other sons, half-siblings of Jessica and Bradley’s, Jaden, 13, and Kyle, 11.
News of Crump’s death reverberated around the world. The UK's Classic Rock Magazine ran an obituary. A fan from Finland posted on The Original Molly Hatchet Group’s page (which is administrated by Tom Nitzsche and formerly Crump and has well over 7,000 members): “Southern rock is popular in Finland. We mourn the loss of the hardest-rocking drummer in that genre, RIP Bruce Crump.”
Back home, original Molly Hatchet founder Dave Hlubek, upon hearing news of Crump’s death, said Crump was “a tremendous person and talent who will never truly be appreciated and that he is loved and will be deeply missed.”
Hlubek is one of only three surviving members of the original six — the other two are bassist Banner Thomas and guitarist Steve Holland. Original lead singer Danny Joe Brown died in 2005; guitarist Duane Roland in 2006. When Thomas left the band in the early 1980s, Riff West took over on bass. He died in November.
Crump’s recent bandmates say they have always been in awe of his drive despite the physical adversities he faced.
One of his closest friends, guitarist and founder of White Rhino, Steve Wheeler, remembers Crump driving up from Naples the day of his last show, despite suffering all week from something family members thought might be the flu; a demonstration of his loyalty to his bandmates and the business.
“That’s the kind of guy he was,” Wheeler says. “He was a joy to play with. The band can suck, but still sounds great because the drummer is great.”
China Sky bassist Smith said Crump, though humble and unaccepting of the role of rock star, made an impact on many people’s lives. “He didn’t stop. This is the legacy he leaves to most everybody. Bruce left a huge impact on people in and out of the music world.”
The celebration of Bruce Crump's Life and Legacy is held from 3-8 p.m. on Sunday, April 19, at Harmonious Monks in Jax Beach. Kristin Crump, Jessica Crump, Joey McLain, Tim McGowan, Billy Nail and Steve Wheeler are all scheduled to attend.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly credited Steve Wheeler with the founding of both China Sky and White Rhino. Wheeler is the founder of White Rhino, but not China Sky.