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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.
"Everybody wants me to play again," he says. "I try to explain, 'Man, I can't carry my amp or my guitar. I'll need somebody to carry them for me.'
"They say, 'Hey, man, we'll work it out.' They say, 'You might become famous now. You'll be the only bass player around with no legs.'" Thompson leans forward in his chair and laughs. His daughter Vickie and his little granddaughter Tia laugh along with him. Thompson's on a roll now: "But they say, 'You've got to find another way to keep your rhythm going, 'cause you can't tap your foot.'" Again, the three Thompsons share a laugh.
Thompson is so quick to poke fun at himself, it's easy to forget what an amazing career he's had in music. He was a member of the Tads, one of the great, early musical forces on the Phoenix music scene. They shared concert bills with Fabian, opened for strippers at the now-defunct Guys and Dolls (on 32nd Street and Washington), and recorded the original version of "Bumble Bee," a song covered by LaVern Baker ("she changed one word and wanted writer's credit").
After dabbling on drums, he realized there was a shortage of bass players in Phoenix, so he bought himself a bass, teaching himself to play by imitating the bass lines of his favorite records. After playing for a few years with Duke Draper, he moved to Buffalo for a year to play with a band called Carl LaRue and His Crew.
He came back to Phoenix for three weeks, and swiftly relocated to Los Angeles where he hooked up with a slick R&B show group called the Harlequins, which soon became known as the Seven Souls.
"We played mostly Top 40, show tunes and things like that," he recalls. "I was the funky singer in the band. Of course, we had the pretty singer, who was the lead singer, and one guy, the sax player, who was writing all the songs."
The Seven Souls had a millionaire sponsor who took them to Europe, where they played swanky venues in cities like Paris, San Tropez, Geneva and Cannes. When Sargent Shriver was U.S. Ambassador to France, the Seven Souls were invited to a party in his honor, where they met Brigitte Bardot. Whenever they cut a new record, it was on European radio the next day.
They eventually came back to the U.S., where they swiftly duplicated their European success. They opened for James Brown in Long Beach, and for the Young Rascals in Hawaii. They established residencies at Las Vegas' two most popular hotels--Caesars Palace and the Sands--where they shared bills with Mel Torme, Buddy Greco and Eartha Kitt. When the Sands threw a big party for Sammy Davis Jr., Thompson and the rest of the band were invited, where they got to schmooze with the Candy Man himself. When Bobby Kennedy was pushing hard to win the 1968 California primary, the Seven Souls played benefits for him, including one in San Diego only two days before he was assassinated.
After the Seven Souls broke up, Thompson put aside his bass and concentrated on carpentry. Only adding to the tragedy of his recent illnesses is the fact that they happened at a time when he was rediscovering the joys of making music again after so many years away from it. But Thompson refuses to succumb to his limitations, and he's slowly warming to the idea of performing again. Hopefully, that will be bolstered on Wednesday, June 9, when a group of his musical friends play a benefit show for him at the Rhythm Room.
"I'm not gonna give up," Thompson says. "I'm gonna hang in there."
California Dreamin': Funk ensemble Polliwog is moving to Ocean Beach, California, at the beginning of June. The band will subsequently focus on extensive touring of the western states, with Arizona stops coming only once every couple of months. The group's local farewell show will happen Monday, May 31, at Sail Inn in Tempe. The music will run from 3 p.m. to about midnight, and will include such performers as High Grass Pickers, Thoughts, Shawn Johnson and the Foundation, Laura Martin, and Joe Mama.
Contact Gilbert Garcia at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org