MY FIRST INTRODUCTION to Dickie Thompson was at Eddie's, a somewhat faded cocktail lounge on the far east side of town. The gig was with Cass Preston, a longtime pillar of Tucson's jazz community. I arrived early, and met the guitarist -- an older guy, quiet and unassuming. I heard him tuning up, and it sounded wrong. The familiar sound of the "E" string was missing.
"Oh no, this guy can't even tune his guitar," I thought to myself. Braced for the worst, we started playing the first tune of the night. During the melody and trumpet solo everything seemed okay, then came the guitar solo -- and my jaw hit the floor. Still brushing the carpet fibers from my goatee, I knew I'd just enrolled in the Dickie Thompson Graduate School of Jazz. During our stint at Eddie's, the band (including drummer "Uncle" Dave Jeffrey) played mostly for dancers; but soon word was out, and many of Tucson's budding young "swing" musicians were coming by to hear the real deal.
For the uninitiated, Thompson is a jazz legend in our midst. After a career encompassing jazz, R&B, rock and roll, and even a 12-year stint with Don Ho, Dickie "retired" to Tucson in 1991. He continues to perform and record sporadically, and still plays brilliantly with 67 years of guitar playing behind him.
Born in Jersey City, New Jersey, in 1917, Thompson started playing music as a hobby at age 15. Two years later, he was doing "shake dances" (playing for exotic dancers) and other gigs in the Jersey area. Like many left-handed guitarists, he learned to play by flipping over a right-handed guitar and playing upside down. The teachers he met wanted him to put the strings back in the right order, but Thompson stuck to doing it his way. Early on, he started tuning the guitar up a half-step (which is why it sounded wrong to me on that first night).
"I played with an older piano player who could only play in a few keys. The things I could do were in the wrong keys, so tuning up a half-step let me play [in key]," he says. The unusual tuning, combined with the upside-down stringing of his guitar, gives Thompson a unique sound, and confounds legions of young guitarists hoping to pick up some of his licks.
Active in the New York jazz scene from the '40s through the late '60s, Thompson worked with drummer Cozy Cole; Duke Ellington members Johnny Hodges, Lawrence Brown and Sam Woodyard; pioneering jazz organist Wild Bill Davis; Clifford Scott (saxophonist and composer of the R&B standard "Honky Tonk"); Harry "Sweets" Edison and Dinah Washington, among others.
"Back then there was so much music around, uptown and downtown, every joint had something going on," he recalls.
IN 1946, THOMPSON recorded some sides for Signature records, under the name Dickie Thompson and his Blue Five (Signature 1008). The music bridges the gap between blues and swing, with the added influence of the then-new bebop era. Thompson's playing back then was influenced by Django Rheinhardt and Charlie Christian, but his frequent string bending was considered cutting edge. "There was another lefty guitarist named Bill Jennings back in the '40s, who did a lot of bending," Thompson remembers. "I think I picked that up from him. He was a good player, but he had an accident and lost his fingers."
Another major source of inspiration for Thompson was the Count Basie horn section. "I still like horns more than the actual guitar," Thompson says. "I like what they can do. I'd rather hear four or five trombones playing together...When I play, I try to visualize a trumpet section."
Indeed, Thompson improvises complex chordal solos with the ease of water pouring out of a jar, and he packs the power of a big band in full swing. His single-note work is heavily blues-inflected, like T-Bone Walker might sound if he could play jazz. Having worked with Thompson over a three-year period, I can't recall him ever playing a note he didn't mean. Every phrase is right where it belongs, with nothing left to waste.
In the early days, his inability to read music kept him out of the studio scene. "Then the rock thing came along, and most of those records were head charts (made up on the spot) -- in fact, most of them were demonstration records -- and the cats took them and made masters out of them," Thompson recalls.
In addition to playing on some early rock-and-roll dates, Thompson worked on his songwriting. In the mid-'50s he wrote and recorded a tune called "Thirteen Women."
"Back then the standards of what was acceptable were different," Thompson remembers. "It got played for about two weeks, then they banned it because they thought the lyrics were too dirty. Then they gave it to Milt Gabler at Decca, he wrote a new verse and changed a couple of lines around, and they gave it to Bill Haley. It was the A-side, and the B-side was "Rock Around The Clock." When the movie Blackboard Jungle came out, they pushed that one instead."
Recently, Thompson and his wife of 50 years, Bette, went to see the remnants of Bill Haley's Comets play at a retirement community. With a stack of records under his arm, he walked in just as they were introducing "Thirteen Women," telling the crowd how it had been a big hit for them, but they never knew who wrote it. Excitedly, Thompson jumped up, yelling, "I wrote it!"
He was ushered backstage to meet the band that put his tune on the map 45 years ago. "Thirteen Women" has been covered by a wide range of artists, including Danny Gatton, Ann Margaret, Dinah Shore and Thrill Sphere. A new version, closer to the original, was released by local chanteuse Maebelle on her debut CD I've Got A Gun (Naughty Pine Records). Another Thompson composition on that disc, "Voodoo Doll" (an early example of "jungle-rock"), is given the full treatment with horns, bongos, and a 12-man "voodoo choir." Thompson plays throughout this CD -- it's an excellent opportunity to hear one of rock's pioneering guitarists play quirky, off-beat pop. Another long-lost Thompson composition, "Are You Buyin' Wine?" appears on the second Kings Of Pleasure CD, Pleasure Chest (Plez Records).
His longtime association with jazz organist Wild Bill Davis left a legacy of definitive blues/jazz guitar playing on record. Some highlights of that association are Free, Frantic and Funky (RCA), Live at Count Basie's (RCA), and Live in Atlantic City (RCA). A recent reissue of Wild Bill Davis' The Zurich Concert (Jazz Connaisseur [sic]) makes his astoundingly musical playing available to others besides hard-core jazz vinyl collectors.
From 1959 through 1964, Thompson toured with R&B legend Jackie Wilson as conductor and rhythm guitarist. "We did the Cotton Belt, south of the Mason-Dixon line," he recalls. Coming from New York, the racial climate of the deep South was another world. "They had white and colored Coca-Cola machines, water fountains...sometimes after the gig, the guys would say, 'Let's go drink some white water!' "
The political climate of the time would occasionally create some risky situations. They found themselves in Mississippi during a civil-rights crisis. "It wasn't a place to be," he says. "We looked suspicious, three or four cars with NY plates full of brothers drivin' around Jackson at 3 a.m. The cops checked us out, searched the cars and escorted us all the way to the borderline. It was scary, but when we got back to NY, you had to laugh."
At home in the Southwest, Thompson is far from ready to hang up his six-string. More lies ahead for the career of this swinging octogenarian. Recently, KUAZ-FM music director Steve Hahn approached Dickie and his quartet to do a studio recording as part of a grant received by the station to record local performers.
"We're especially excited to be recording Dickie because of his stature as a musician," says Hahn. "He's a legend, and we're very fortunate to have someone with his depth of experience in town -- he's a hidden treasure."