In Memoriam: Kofi Burbridge, 1961–2019
Multi-instrumentalist Kofi Burbridge—who is best known for his keyboard and flute work in Tedeschi Trucks Band, The Derek Trucks Band and Aquarium Rescue Unit—has died following complications surrounding treatment for an ongoing cardiac issue. He was 57.
Born in 1961 in Bronx, N.Y., Kofi and his family moved to Washington, D.C., two years later. He grew up playing music informally with his younger brother Oteil, who was originally a drummer, and received early praise from his family and circle of friends for his perfect pitch.
Kofi grew to become proficient on a number of instruments, including flute, organ and keyboard, and spent his early professional years playing in a variety of Southeast R&B and pop cover bands. The Burbridge brothers eventually landed in Atlanta, where they formed Knee-Deep with future Aquarium Rescue Unit drummer Jeff Sipe. The three musicians quickly fell in with Col. Bruce Hampton, the spiritually rich jamband godfather who hosted weekly improv jam sessions in the city.
Both Sipe and Oteil were part of the original version of Aquarium Rescue Unit—the touring ensemble that developed out of the free-flowing jams in 1988—and Kofi joined the band after Hampton’s departure in 1993. A few years later in 1999, he joined another Hampton disciple, Derek Trucks, then still a teenager, in his nascent Derek Trucks Band, serving as a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter. Kofi remained with The Derek Trucks Band until they went on hiatus in 2009, appearing on all of their studio releases including their Grammy-winning final LP, Already Free.
In addition to his work with DTB, Kofi was known for a range of side-projects and supergroups, such as the Allman Brothers Band offshoot Frogwings, which also featured Oteil, and the Soul Stew Revival, which drew in the members of DTB, Trucks’ wife Susan Tedeschi and drummer Duane Trucks. He also occasionally sat in with the Allman Brothers Band, which grew to include Oteil in 1997, even filling in for Gregg Allman a few times during the band’s latter years.
Along with Trucks, Tedeschi, Oteil, DTB singer Mike Mattison, drummers Tyler Greenwell and J. J. Johnson, and an evolving horn section, Kofi co-founded Tedeschi Trucks Band in 2010, and the group has served as his primary musical outlet ever since. The ensemble has picked up numerous awards, notably the 2012 Best Blues Grammy for their debut, Revelator, as they have moved from small venues to amphitheaters and multi-night runs at iconic theaters.
Trucks has hailed Burbridge’s role as a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and arranger, naming him as “our secret weapon and a supreme badass.” By way of example, in our current cover story, Trucks points to “Strengthen What Remains,” on the group’s new album, Signs, and observes, “There’s some good air on the record. When you get to ‘Strengthen What Remains,’ the drums are gone, the bass is upright and there is an acoustic guitar. The flutes are outrageous and the strings that Kofi wrote are just gorgeous. That’s one of my favorite moments.”
In June of 2017, Kofi suffered a heart attack and underwent emergency surgery. He rejoined the band during their annual run at New York’s famed Beacon Theatre and was a key part of their new studio recording Signs, which was released yesterday, even arranging the record’s string parts. The album dealt indirectly with a number of recent losses in the Tedeschi Trucks Band family, including the deaths of Col. Bruce Hampton, Gregg Allman, Butch Trucks and B.B. King.
The band posted a note that Kofi had suffered a “health setback” in early January and that he planned to take some time off the road to recover. Derek Trucks Band drummer Yonrico Scott broke the news of his passing yesterday, posting, “Today we have lost one of the most beautiful people on the planet. My brother Kofi Burbridge has made his transition; he put up a hard fight. My heart goes out to the Burbridge family. Also to the DTB and TTB family. My love is with you… brother Kofi has touched so many souls, thru his spirit and music… I’m at a [loss] for words now. RIH brother Kofi.”
A message posted to the official Allman Brothers Band Facebook page said, “The Allman Brothers Band Family lost another member last night, Kofi Burbridge. Kofi a master of keyboards and flute came into the family through his brother bassist Oteil. He died in Atlanta on February 15, following complications surrounding treatment for an ongoing cardiac issue.He regularly sat in with the Brothers, over 20 times listed on ABB web site, but there were more shows not listed. His warm smile, subtle personality and expert music skills made him a welcome addition every time he was at a show. Kofi had a standing invitation to play, some times he just came to watch, or wandered off. His flute solos on ‘Elizabeth Reed’ were unique and memorable. His keyboard contributions were masterful. Our broken hearts and grief go out to the Burbridge and Tedeschi Trucks Band families on the loss of Kofi. His memory, talent and contributions to music will be with us all forever.”
Tedeschi Trucks band were performing in Kofi’s hometown of Washington, D.C. on the day of his passing. At the Warner Theatre, the group performed Signs in its entirety with the exception of “The Ending,” as well as a few nods to Kofi like “Midnight in Harlem,” “Bound for Glory” and “Space Captain.” The following evening, TTB returned to the Warner, which paid tribute to Kofi on the venue marquee. The band placed flowers on stage in front of the keyboards in memory of their late bandmate and included the Elmore James blues classic “The Sky Is Crying” in their Saturday setlist.