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Henry "Mojo" Thompson sits in his wheelchair, hunched over his kitchen counter, jotting down notes in a spiral notebook. His one-room South Phoenix apartment has the near-empty look of someone who's either moving in or moving out. The only furnishings are a TV and VCR that both rest in one corner on the floor, and a small couch that leans against a wall. To the right of the couch is Thompson's prized Fender bass guitar.
Thompson's apartment door is wide open, and as I enter, he has his back toward me. I say hello, he turns in my direction, and, for a fraction of a second, I wonder if I've entered the wrong apartment. Thompson seems so much older and more frail than the person I remember meeting less than a year ago at the Rhythm Room, at a benefit show in his honor. But as soon as he starts speaking, with that old-world courtliness and self-deprecating sense of humor I've grown familiar with, I realize I've come to the right place.
The 61-year-old Thompson has plenty of reason to look frail at the moment. He just got back from the hospital last month, after having both his legs amputated at the thigh. In fact, Thompson's legs were actually cut twice, with doctors initially cutting below the knee, and later determining that the numbness he continued to experience would require further amputation.
This horrible experience was only the latest--and most severe--health setback for this unfailingly gracious man who's one of the secret pioneers of the Phoenix music scene: someone who sang with late-'50s doo-wop legends the Tads, played bass with local heavyweight Duke Draper, and toured the world with L.A.'s Seven Souls.
Until he was about 50, Thompson had been remarkably robust, one of those people who was never sick, a man who'd spent half his life playing music and the other half building cabinets at his own carpentry shop. Even after open-heart surgery in 1989, he says he emerged "rejuvenated, feeling like a 13-year-old kid."
But more than three years ago he was diagnosed with diabetes, and his life has since become a series of life-threatening complications, extended hospital stays, and major operations.
He's endured stomach operations, groin operations, and two separate amputations of his toes, not to mention his most recent nightmare.
It all started when he was onstage at Warsaw Wally's. Thompson had just moved back to his old hometown of Phoenix, after spending much of his adult life in Los Angeles. He'd returned to Phoenix to be close to his three adult children (two daughters and a son).
When Thompson came back to town, he couldn't find work, and he knew that he couldn't handle carpentry because he'd recently had an angioplasty. Although he hadn't played music for 15 years, old friends encouraged him to get a band together. To his amazement, the City of Phoenix actually offered to buy him a new bass, under the rationale that a workman needs proper tools to find employment.
"They wanted to know what else I could do [aside from carpentry], so I just told them what I did in music, and my case worker was a trumpet player. He said, 'Do you have anything you could show us, any memorabilia?' So I went home and brought it back to him, and it really impressed him, 'cause I've got pictures and everything. And he took it to his supervisor and a couple of weeks later they gave me a voucher to go out to Milano's Music in Scottsdale to pick out what I wanted."
Thompson put together a brassy, up-tempo blues quintet, similar in spirit to some of B.B. King's latter-day groups, and was steadily building a local following. Suddenly, while onstage at Warsaw Wally's, his body began to shut down.
"All of a sudden I couldn't breathe, and I had to throw up," he says. "Being onstage, I couldn't throw up, I had to hold it. So when I got offstage, then I went to the bathroom and threw up. That night, I was laying up in bed and I couldn't hardly breathe, and so my friend and his wife got up and they rushed me to the hospital."
Thompson was taken to Phoenix Memorial, where he was given medication that helped him with his breathing. He thought he was doing fine. But he says he was subsequently given an angiogram, and that--coincidentally or not--he began to experience new and disturbing symptoms: a hematoma in his left leg and a soreness in his right foot so bad that he couldn't put on his shoe.
A year later, he had two toes amputated, and the following year a third toe was removed. This January he went to Good Samaritan to have his legs amputated. He didn't leave the hospital for three months. "I got so tired," he recalls. "I said, 'You gotta let me out of here.' You start feeling like you were born there."
Thompson punctuates that last line with a contagious laugh that would best be described as an older man's version of Eddie Murphy's famous chortle. His ability to laugh at his own suffering is alternately awe-inspiring and heartbreaking. He even finds levity at the thought of going onstage again.