Tommy Bolin began playing in bands around Sioux City as a youth before moving to Boulder, Colorado, in his late teens. He had played in a band called American Standard before joining Ethereal Zephyr, a band named after a train that ran between Denver and Chicago. When record companies became interested, the name was shortened to Zephyr. This band included Bolin on guitar, David Givens on bass, and Givens' wife Candice Givens on vocals. The band had begun to do larger venues, opening for more established acts such as Led Zeppelin. Their second album, entitled Going Back to Colorado, featured a new drummer, Bobby Berge, who would pop up from time to time in musician credits in album liner notes from Bolin's later projects.
1973 found him as Domenic Troiano's replacement, who had replaced Joe Walsh, in the James Gang. He had two records with this band: Bang! in 1973 and Miami in 1974.
In the start of 1975 Bolin contributed some studio guitar assistance to Canadian band Moxy during the recording of their debut album; the original and obscure vinyl LP for Moxy is especially sought after by die-hard Bolin fans these days. Later in 1975 saw the release of Bolin's first and highly anticipated solo record, Teaser, on the Nemperor label, and Deep Purple's Come Taste the Band on the Purple label. The Deep Purple world tour that followed in 1975 and 1976 allowed Bolin to showcase one song per night from Teaser. During this period, however, it became apparent that he had a heroin addiction. This addiction led to a rumor that some of Deep Purple's overseas concerts were marred by Bolin being unable to play due to a paralyzed left arm, the result of a bad injection. Subsequent reports state that Bolin did ingest morphine and fell asleep on his arm the wrong way that caused nerve damage,in fact they went to an acupuncturist to cure it.
Bolin's tour for Private Eyes would be his last. The cost of keeping a band on the road and his heavy drug addiction forced him into the restrictive position as a supporting act. In his last concert dates, he opened for Peter Frampton and Jeff Beck, though said dates were marred with technical problems and unreliable performances. However, his final show, in which he opened for Jeff Beck on December 3, 1976, encored with a rendition of "Post Toastee." He also posed for a photo with Jeff Beck after the show. In one account of his last hours, Bolin was found unconscious shortly following the show. The management, who by some reports did not want any additional negative publicity about the tour, had him taken to his room with his new girlfriend in order to look after him. By morning, Bolin's health had become worse. Valeria, his Swiss girlfriend, feared for his life and called for an ambulance. When paramedics arrived, Bolin was pronounced dead. He was 25 years old. In other accounts, his death followed a night of hard partying that had involved beer, champagne, barbiturates, cocaine and finally morphine. This combination caused his throat muscles to constrict severely and he suffocated throughout the course of the night.