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Big-T & the Bada-Bings


Bob Thompson: Return of a Space Age Swinger
by Will Viharo

"Picture 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)

Image: Bob Thompson
Recently 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 sure—as long as we could add Bob Thompson to the mix.

Thompson 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 albums—Just 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,, you'll see why this is a musical crime against nature.

Bob with Bing Crosby & Rosemary Clooney
Image: Bob Thompson
The 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 kicking—as he told me himself in a recent phone interview.

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.

"I 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 or something."

Although 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," recalls Thompson.

Along 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 notes—it's lasted three hundred years so far!"

Bob and Paula in their Ford Fairlane
Image: Bob Thompson
But 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."

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 Mae West.

"The 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 Mae—at 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 Outer Space.

Bob with Sy Rady
Image: Bob Thompson
But 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."

The music—sort of a cross between Esquivel and Raymond Scott but with its own unique personality—conjures up images of sharkskin suits, tinkling tumblers, backyard barbecues, cruising Cadillacs and most all, stylish sex.

For more on Bob Thompson
and Space Age Bachelor Pad Music, check out:
Bob Thompson Music
Space Age Pop
Space Age Pop-A-Go-Go
Ultra Lounge

Bob admits he was creating sounds of seduction: "I always tried to be kinda sexy," he says, somewhat sheepishly. During this time Bob—while remaining monogamous—was 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.

At 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 individuality—he 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 the LPs.

"I was proud of it (the music)," he says now, "but success is it—you 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 the country."

Bob's 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."

His 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.

Thompson's 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."

Thompson 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."

But 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 Hazelwood—later famous for his collaborations with Nancy Sinatra—had 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."

Bob 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.

How does Bob Thompson feel about being a living lounge legend?

"I never understood that term—you 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.

"The 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."

Fortunately, 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 life"

Are you listening, RCA?

Behind in your reading?
Check out past ATOMIC features.

Dear Dottie
1999 Articles List
2000 Articles List
2001 Articles List
2002 Articles List
2003 Articles List
2004 Article List
Little Joe Cook
Stephen E. Ambrose
Deke Dickerson's Dream
Surprise Attack
For the Love of Tiki
Bob Thompson: Return of a Space Age Swinger
WWII Comes to Life at Reading Airfield
Calling All Gearheads and Pin-Up Girls–Rockabilly Weekend Update
Beatin' The Chops—G'nite Whitey
Broadway By The Year
ATOMIC Wins Industry Accolades
Naptown Stomp Swings Past the Hype
The Many Moods of Arthur Lyman
Off The Wall:
Pin-Up Artist Don "Rusty" Rust
The Making of an ATOMIC Girl
Remembering Gene Kelly
A Night At The Argyle
Hot Rod Heaven at The Hootenanny
Living History Events for WWII Buffs


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