Three weeks ago at Betty’s Blue Star Lounge, on the corner of Grand and Ashland, Hayden Thompson and Dale Hawkins took turns fronting the club’s usual Wednesday-night band, Rockin’ Billy& His Wild Coyotes. It was a rare treat for the country and rockabilly fans who’d caught wind of the underpublicized show: Hawkins is the man who wrote and originally sang “Susie-Q,” back in 1957, and at around the same time Thompson was recording at Memphis’s legendary Sun Studios. Thompson opened his part of the set with “Love My Baby,” a song he cut at Sun with producer Cowboy Jack Clement, and later he and Hawkins joined forces for a rousing rendition of Big Joe Turner’s 1954 R&B smash “Shake, Rattle and Roll.”
The crowd was enthusiastic but not especially large. Though Thompson, a Mississippi native, has lived in the Chicago area for almost 50 years—he’ll turn 70 in March—his audience here consists mainly of hard-core fans and other, younger rockabilly musicians. (Thompson and Hawkins both make guest appearances on the new Rockin’ Billy album, Top Dead Center.) Most of Chicago’s sizable roots-rock and alt-country audience doesn’t seem to know about Thompson, and that’s a perfect crime. His career can be read as a strange tale of unlucky breaks and missed chances, but his reputation, such as it is, rests on a remarkable amount of excellent music. His discography spans more than half a century, beginning in 1955 with a wonderful country single by his group the Southern Melody Boys—”I Feel the Blues Coming On” b/w “Act Like You Love Me”—and culminating, at least for now, with an eponymous CD released this spring on the Bluelight label.
For rockabilly aficionados, Thompson’s Sun sessions are his most important credentials. His 1956 recording of “Love My Baby”—a cover of Junior Parker’s up-tempo blues in the same vein as Parker’s “Mystery Train”—featured a then unknown pianist named Jerry Lee Lewis. Released on the Sun subsidiary Phillips International, it got some airplay in Memphis and around the south, but unfortunately for Thompson, Bill Justis’s instrumental “Raunchy” came out on Phillips International at the same time. When “Raunchy” exploded on the charts it demanded all the label’s attention, and its other releases that month didn’t get the promotion they deserved. Thompson’s single failed to chart, and the seven other tunes he’d recorded at Sun would go unreleased until the late 70s.
Disillusioned, in 1958 Thompson moved to the Chicago area, where he’s lived ever since. He played residencies at a few venues, including a four-year, five-night-a-week stretch at the Tally Ho Club in Highwood and a shorter stint at the Rivoli Theatre on Elston near Montrose. Through various independent labels he put out several singles and, in 1966, an LP of straight country. Nothing he did raised his profile, though, and in 1975 he quit music to make his living driving a limousine. He wouldn’t perform again until 1984, at the height of the rockabilly revival, when he started to say yes to the booking agents who’d been offering him festival gigs in Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and Great Britain. Since then he’s made the trip to Europe two or three times a year to play for adoring crowds.
Thompson is quick to point out that he is not now and never has been strictly a “rockabilly” artist, even though his tune “Rock-a-Billy Gal,” recorded at Sun Studios in 1957, contains what must be one of the earliest uses of the word. “I think this term rockabilly was created in Europe,” he says. “We just didn’t use it back in those days. Maybe a little bit, but not like it is now. It was just rock‘n’roll, you know?” And the rockabilly look, he says, has changed over the years. “You didn’t see a whole lot of tattoos in the 50s, you know, at Sun Records.”
In any case, Thompson says, European audiences are often quite receptive to something more than a stereotypical rockabilly show. “I’ve been going to Europe since ’84, and they know me from the Sun stuff. I had nine songs down there, and I’ll usually do at least six or seven of them on each show. But there have been nights when I could throw in a little country, because a lot of times you get an older crowd. And they like the older country music, the older songs.” He’s played far less often in Chicago in recent years—I first saw him this past May at Martyrs’, and that was only his third local appearance of any kind since ’89.
Since his retirement from chauffeuring in 2002, however, Thompson has kicked things up a notch or two. In 2005 he released his first collection of new recordings in 15 years, an entirely respectable genre workout called Rockabilly Rhythm (St. George), and this spring he put out Hayden Thompson. Recorded in Finland, of all places—with a Finnish band that’s convincingly mastered the nuances of American roots music—it’s a beautiful album reminiscent of 60s mainstream country, replete with hard-won gravitas and dignified longing. It doesn’t deliver the cartoonish rockabilly stomp some of Thompson’s fans may crave, but in its own way it’s as good as anything he did at Sun, carrying the listener through a variety of much richer and more three-dimensional life experiences.
Hayden Thompson includes songs by Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Ian Tyson, and Charlie Rich, but even in that company Thompson’s own “Sixteen Dollars Eighty-Eight Cents” is a clear standout. Its rueful lyrics recount his early days in Chicago, struggling to make his name in the big city—he’s washing dishes in a restaurant kitchen to earn the $16.88 he needs to buy a train ticket back to the south. “I originally recorded it in 1966 on the Kapp label,” Thompson says. “We cut it here in Chicago. And that song, from 41 years ago, was the whole reason that the new album came about—because the guy in Finland fell in love with that song. [The new recording] is almost identical to the way I cut it in ’66. It’s just better, but it’s in the same style. Of course I wrote that song from the heart, and buddy, it told my story at that time. Because I was a long way from home—I was here in Chicago. So you can believe every word of it.”
As great as Thompson still is on disc, though, very few of his recordings even approach the excitement of that Martyrs’ show in May. Backed by members of the Western Elstons, who provided exactly the sort of sparse, fleet-footed rhythm backing his music demands, Thompson drew equally from the rock and country sides of his repertoire, playing Sun songs like “Love My Baby” and “Fairlane Rock” as well as a medley of old Johnny Cash tunes that fit his gentlemanly stage presence and still-resonant baritone like a well-tailored suit. For that gig he’d delegated the task of assembling a set list to bassist Jimmy Sutton, figuring Sutton had a better feel for the Martyrs’ crowd. “The place was new to me, and he’d worked there,” Thompson says. “He kind of picked out the songs, you know, and what he felt would go over. I thought he did a fine job. So if he wants to pick out another program, that’s fine with me.”
For Thompson’s gig at Martyrs’ this Saturday he’ll be backed again by members of the Western Elstons, including Sutton, guitarist Joel Paterson (also of Devil in a Woodpile), and keyboardist Scott Ligon (subject of a recent Reader cover story). The show should be a lot like his Martyrs’ date in May—and that’s a good thing.v
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