Thompson: Return of a Space Age Swinger
a moonlight swim without the encumbrance of superfluous apparel;
an impromptu plane flight to Las Vegas or Miami; a cha cha contest
at a lease-breaking party; an all night discussion of philosophy
while sobering up on café espresso. These are some of the things
which imaginative people do 'just for kicks!'"
from the liner notes of Bob Thompson's first RCA album,
Just For Kicks (1958)
I was asked to co-host a "Thrillville" radio show on Berkeley's
KALX. My shyness is legendary, but I agreed. It was my pal The Cali
Kid's show, after all, and, along with the usual B-movie soundtracks
and rare lounge LP cuts, he wanted to pay aural tribute to two recently
deceased lounge legends: exotica god Arthur Lyman and Juan Garcia
Esquivel, the creator of the singularly suave and silky musical
genre known as "space age bachelor pad music". I said sureas
long as we could add Bob Thompson to the mix.
was recording at RCA at the same time Esquivel was, in the late
1950s, but he is not nearly as well known, even though his own
contributions to the retro-futuristic musical genre also known
as "space age pop" were equally essential. Many ATOMIC readers
may know Thompson's music (if not the name) from several cuts
on two CD compilations from the '90s: RCA's Space Age Pop
trilogy and Rhino's Bachelor's Guide to the Galaxy. I have
those CDs, but I was totally ignorant of Bob's achievements until
his son, Spenser, gave me a promo CD of his space age pop's music,
which I played on the air at KALX. The Cali Kid also dug up a
CD of Harper's Bazaar promos, which Thompson produced in
the mid-1960s. Spenser told me Bob's landmark RCA albumsJust
For Kicks (1958), Mmm Nice and On the Rocks
(both 1959)are currently only available as CD reissues in
Japan. If you visit Spenser's Website, www.bobthompsonmusic.com,
you'll see why this is a musical crime against nature.
Cali Kid and I were happy to do our small bit to re-introduce Bob
Thompson to modern musicologists, but this limited local exposure
wasn't nearly enough. His music is still as vital and vibrant as
ever, and Thompson is in fact still alive and kickingas he
told me himself in a recent phone interview.
with Bing Crosby & Rosemary Clooney
Image: Bob Thompson
Bob was born 78
years ago in San Jose, California, and raised north of
there in the town of Auburn. He went to San Francisco
right out of high school and got a job at KGO radio as
a pageboy. After hobnobbing with the local musicians,
he got a regular gig as a composer/arranger for the station's
staff band, a job he kept for seven years, even while
he spent a few months knocking around Paris and soaking
up the French culture.
was twenty-five and went over there to see what I could do. It
had been a dream of mine, I was fascinated with French music and
the whole French scene. I was lucky to keep my job by airmail,
but five dollars a side wasn't very much. I only lasted four months
he lacked formal musical training, he also worked as a self-taught
pianist for hire in juke joints from Oakland to Sacramento, tinkling
the keys for Duke Ellington's clarinet player Barney Brigard.
"Some musician just recommended me. That was a great thrill,"
with his love for jazz and R&B, Bob was also inspired by classical
music. "I studied privately with Professor Denny at UC Berkeley,
studying 16th century rudiments and principals," he explains.
"Bach was a very heavy influence, because of the structure, not
the actual notesit's lasted three hundred years so far!"
eventually the Bay Area gigs dried up and Bob headed south, determined
to follow his real dream: "The job disappeared, New York thought
they were wasting money or something, and I took off for LA. I've
been chasing music all my life. I was too young to be as frightened
as I should have been. There was a massive amount of talent down
there. I started out making demos for people, and playing piano.
I never took piano seriously, it was just something I did. I don't
think of myself as a pianist, because I had no formal training.
I always wanted to write and arrange my own stuff."
and Paula in their Ford Fairlane
Image: Bob Thompson
scored freelance jobs writing and producing for various artists
in Hollywood, making friends with legends like Johnny Mandel,
Billy May and Nelson Riddle, jamming in the studios with the likes
of Shelley Manne and Bud Shank. While making the circuit as an
itinerant composer, Bob met and traveled with show biz bombshell
first time I went on the road with her, she had to have all young
guys. No women around her at all," he recalls. Bob's young wife,
Paula, a poet, was kept far away from Maeat Ms. West's request.
But Bob maintained a professional relationship. "I wrote music
for her act, with two other guys. They wrote the actual jokes,
and I wrote some music. She later recorded them for an album.
She was a very complicated personality, to say the least. She
believed very much in the spiritual world. There was a columnist
named Criswell, and she wrote lyrics to a song called 'Criswell
Predicts,' and I wrote the music!" Criswell, of course, was later
made famous by filmmaker Ed Wood in the classic Plan Nine From
it was in 1958, when RCA decided they wanted their own version of
Columbia's hit artist Ray Coniff, that opportunity and posterity
finally came knocking on Bob's door. He recorded four albums altogether
for RCA, the first three already mentioned, all featuring incredibly
sensuous covers with an unknown beauty. There has been speculation
that the model was a young Mary Tyler Moore, pre-Petrie, but Bob
denied it. "You'd have to hire a private detective to find that
out," he jokes. "You have to understand, once an album was recorded,
the artist, that's a big word, but anybody recording in those days
had very little to say about covers or anything."
with Sy Rady
Image: Bob Thompson
musicsort of a cross between Esquivel and Raymond Scott
but with its own unique personalityconjures up images of
sharkskin suits, tinkling tumblers, backyard barbecues, cruising
Cadillacs and most all, stylish sex.
admits he was creating sounds of seduction: "I always tried to be
kinda sexy," he says, somewhat sheepishly. During this time Bobwhile
remaining monogamouswas also a guest at Hugh Hefner's famous
pool parties at the Playboy Mansion, a popular gathering place for
musicians and other artists of the day, including pals Frank Capp
and Jimmy Rowles. Thompson's song "Playboy" perfectly captures
this dangerously romantic and joyfully erotic mood. It was an era
of newfound freedom and experimentation, and his music reflected
this explosive emancipation.
more on Bob Thompson
and Space Age Bachelor Pad Music, check out:
the same time, Thompson's innovative arrangements of standards
like "Ain't We Got Fun" and novelty numbers like "The Little Black
Box" were bold statements of individualityhe wasn't trying
to be Ray Coniff, he was taking the opportunity to express himself.
Sales were relatively slow, however, without a hit single to promote
was proud of it (the music)," he says now, "but success is ityou
either have a hit or you're nobody. I had what was known in those
days as a 'turntable hit,' meaning I got a lot of play around
final LP for RCA was a studio soundtrack recording of Lucille
Ball's Broadway musical flop, Wildcat. "I was just assigned
to it, I never met Lucy. It was kind of a warning to me that I
had run up too big of a tab for them."
next album, The Sound of Speed, was for Dot, recorded in
Rome, and it is the soundtrack to every hipster's soul, a lounge
lizard's lifestyle set to music. Two of his signature tunes, "Star
Fire" and "Early-Bird Whirly-Bird," (which appear on the Rhino
comp), resulted from these sessions, and these tracks have been
used unauthorized in TV shows and advertising spots for years.
work as an arranger and composer was truly epic. Over the years,
he worked with Judy Garland, Julie London, and even Jerry Lewis,
who recorded Bob's spoof of Liberace, "Candelabra Boogie." But
perhaps his most rewarding collaborations were with Rosemary Clooney,
with whom he toured as bandleader for twenty years, performing
for the Kennedys, in New York's fabled Copa Room, and all over
Europe. Bob met Rosey when he was assigned to her album with Bing
Crosby, How the West Was Won. He went on to produce her
first RCA LP, 1960's Clap Hands, Here Comes Rosie. Currently
available on CD is Rosie's great album, Thanks for Nothing,
retitled Love for the reissue, featuring several stellar
Thompson arrangements. As Clooney herself put it, "Bob Thompson
is one hell of an arranger."
also worked extensively in television and films, co-scoring classics
like Paul Newman's The Long Hot Summer with Alex North,
as well an obscure hippie road movie, called Thumb Tripping.
However, he was never able to establish himself as a film composer
like his RCA contemporary, Henry Mancini. And the recording industry
was changing for everyone, as a new generation of performers was
rising through the ranks. Bob recalls one day in particular at
RCA back in 1956 when he was just wrapping up a recording session
and into the studio walked the future of popular music: "A guy
came in with a black leather jacket with about five other guys
in five leather jackets. It was Elvis Presley. Things were never
the same after that. [Rock 'n' roll] wiped out any other kind
of music completely. The secret of music is not really secret,
it just keeps changing."
even as tastes changed, Thompson's genius knew no bounds. Drawing
on his interest in R&B, he composed several Duane Eddy albums,
including the lounge-rock hybrid Silky Strings, and the
Top Ten single, "Because They're Young." Producer Lee Hazelwoodlater
famous for his collaborations with Nancy Sinatrahad brought
them together. Bob says that Duane "was (Lee's) puppet. That song
he wrote, 'These Boots are Made For Stompin' (sic), that was Lee's
personality! He came up with that one chord for Duane to play,
then just put some strings behind it."
continued to freelance as an arranger and composer throughout
the 1960s into the '70s and '80s, eventually winning three Cleo
awards for his commercial jingles (one was for Goodyear.) And
although unknown to Bob at the time, he had indeed made his mark
earlier in his career, his albums fast becoming icons of the era,
rediscovered by generations of fans born years after their recording.
His current project is a string quartet version of Gershwin tunes.
"I am not retired, just out of work," he laughs.
does Bob Thompson feel about being a living lounge legend?
never understood that termyou mean like cocktail lounge?
Back then we didn't really have a name. They were just orchestral
albums." But he understands the current thirst for his brand of
melodious mirth, a growing yearning for romance and idealism in
this age of social hatreds, global tensions and an uncertain future,
all of which is reflected on the contemporary sales charts.
music popular now is illiterate, meaning it can't even be written
down," Bob laments. "In another twenty-five years, there will
be very few live musicians around. The idea of rap and having
no melodic interest at all. Now it's just anger."
Thompson's legacy lives on. Recently, a Bay Area theremin band
called Project Pimento added his cheesecake cocktail anthem "Mmm
Nice" to their repertoire, and his legions of admirers are growing.
Bob is bemused by the resurgence of interest in his classic music,
but also grateful. "It is nice to finally be recognized. I appreciate
that. I had no idea when I did it that it would have a second
you listening, RCA?