Hayden Thompson lives in Highland Park and makes his living as a chauffeur, but he has a past that includes playing rockabilly music at countless road gigs all over the south, and recording at Sun, the very same studio that hatched Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Roy Orbison. And although there was a time when he thought he’d hung up his rock ‘n’ roll shoes for good, now his blood is running again.
Thompson was born in Booneville, Mississippi, and formed his first band, the Southern Melody Boys, while still a high schooler in 1953. Late the following year, the group entered the studio of radio station WERH in Hamilton, Alabama, to cut their first record, “I Feel the Blues Coming On”/”Act Like You Love Me.” The single–released on Von, the same tiny label that would also launch the careers of Johnny and Dorsey Burnette–hardly burned up the charts, but it did become a prized collector’s item. Both sides are actually quite wonderful: charming slices of country blues dressed up with down-home fiddle and lap steel guitar. Here, Thompson doesn’t yet sound like the hipster he would soon become. On “I Feel the Blues,” you can hear hints of a lonesome yodel in his voice.
After Sam Phillips of Sun Records sold Elvis Presley’s contract to RCA in 1956, Presley broke big nationally and the face of southern music was forever changed. Thompson embraced the new sound, formed a new band, and toured the southern theater circuit with the movie Rock Around the Clock. Around this time he also wangled his first recording session at Sun. The results weren’t released, but he was sent out on a package tour with Sun artists Billy Lee Riley (“Red Hot,” “Flying Saucers Rock ‘n’ Roll”) and Sonny Burgess (“My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It”). The following year saw Thompson’s first and only release on the new Sun subsidiary label, Phillips International. Unfortunately for Thompson, his “Love My Baby” (featuring a then-unknown Jerry Lee Lewis on piano) with “One Broken Heart” on the B side came out concurrently with Bill Justis’s “Raunchy,” which was on the same label. “Raunchy” exploded on the charts and demanded all of Phillips’s attention and resources, leaving Thompson’s record without the promotion it deserved.
Disappointed, Thompson moved north to Chicago in 1958, assembled a new band, and began a long residence at the Tally Ho Lounge in Highwood, meanwhile cutting new demos. He had a few singles released here and there on minor labels, none of which clicked commercially. After a subsequent attempt to make it as a country-and-western artist, and a similar lack of success, Thompson quit music in 1975. He might never have performed again, had it not been for the large and devoted audience for vintage rockabilly music that has long existed in Europe. Labels like Charly in England and Sunjay in Sweden were leasing old masters of Sun recordings, and in the late 70s, Hayden Thompson tracks began to turn up on European compilation LPs. “The name got scattered around,” says Thompson, “and in 1981 this agency out of London wanted me to come over and do some shows. But I didn’t feel like I was up to trying to get back in it. Years pass by, we all get older, lose confidence. Anyway, ’84 rolls around, and they invite me again.” This time, Thompson accepted. He played seven major rock ‘n’ roll shows in Holland, England, and Sweden, recorded for the first time in 11 years, and got more airplay and press coverage than he’d ever enjoyed in his career.
The European albums draw largely on old stuff: the Southern Melody Boys single, the seven tracks Thompson cut at Sun, various demos he recorded with band backing in Chicago, and assorted solo tapes and acetates Thompson has from the 50s and early 60s. When first approached by European labels about putting out these musically first-rate but technologically dated recordings, Thompson was skeptical: “I was presenting this stuff to Dave Travis when we were putting the album together. He said, “What have you got laying around that we might use?’ And I was ashamed to play him some of this stuff. But he just flipped over it!”
That assessment is easy to agree with, given the stark beauty of, for instance, “Mighty Big Wall,” a demo Thompson cut in 1964 in hopes of selling the song to Johnny Cash. In the song, an inmate in a prison yard is staring at the wall. He wonders how he can get over it, and whether he can realistically expect his woman to wait 20 years for him if he doesn’t. The vivid simplicity of the song is complemented perfectly by Thompson’s unadorned guitar and vocal delivery.
Thompson seems bemused by the enthusiasm of his new audience. Of his first recording, “I Feel the Blues Coming On,” he says: “Would you believe me if I told you they like that song in Europe? Because of it being old, and the simplicity of it? They’re so wrapped up in anything that’s old. I’ve never sung that on stage over there, but the comments I’ve had from reviews and people who’ve talked about it. . . . It always throws me when they say how much they like it.”
Now Thompson has a new record out, a 45 cut with Bud Hudson & the Hornets at Timothy Powell’s Metro Mobile facilities in suburban Glenview and released on Sunjay. The A side, “What’m I Gonna Do,” written by lead guitarist Hank Strongg, is a bouncy number in which Thompson’s spirited vocal–grown gruff and resonant with the passage of time–triumphs over competent-but-lackluster backup. But Thompson’s hopes for the disc are now pinned mainly to the flip, “The Boy From Tupelo,” a dignified paean to Elvis Presley that has actually received some airplay on local radio programs commemorating the anniversary of Presley’s death.
“I wrote it in ’79,” Thompson explains. “And I sent it around to people after I wrote it, to Nashville and to Memphis, and everybody agreed it was a pretty good song, but I never had a chance to record it until ’84 when I went over to England.” Though the story in Thompson’s tune is awfully familiar–recounting the genesis of Presley’s career in Memphis and informing us that Elvis “could sing sweeter than a bird”–it’s catchy and does rock, avoiding the maudlin sentimentality in which some other Presley fan discs have wallowed. That “Boy From Tupelo” has enjoyed more airplay than the record’s A side clinches it for Thompson: “I’m sold on the song,” he says. “I think it’s a hit.”
Since the resurrection of his performing career in Europe, Thompson has also begun playing intermittent gigs locally at clubs like FitzGerald’s and Justins. This Saturday at 11 PM, he’ll be performing at Gaspars, 3159 N. Southport (871-6680); cover is $5. “I’ll be doing some of my Sun material,” says Thompson, “and some of the standards–you know, ‘Blue Suede Shoes,’ ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll,’ standard rockabilly music–plus my new record, of course. No country, I’m positive. ‘Cause I tried doing a little country at a couple of clubs in the city, but people really didn’t come to hear me sing country, I found that out real quick.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.