Rock around the block: How Hayden Thompson caught up with rockabilly stardom
By Mark Guarino
Last month, as most seniors in the Chicago suburbs might have been planning for holiday celebrations or retreating to Florida to escape the pending winter, Hayden Thompson walked onstage in France, turned up his guitar, and made the 1,000 or so people in the audience shake, rattle and roll.
He later signed autographs, posed for pictures and met the major of Autun, a city 100 miles Southeast of Paris. “They rolled out the red carpet,” he said. “You left there feeling like a million dollars.”
Thompson, 67, is only today enjoying the fruits of a life he set out to create in 1956, when he recorded for Sun Records, the Memphis label that should have made him a star like it did other wild Southern mavericks like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis. It is a career path that has required a lifetime of patience. Although the songs he recorded would later be hailed as prime gems of 1950s rockabilly, Thompson was scuttled by bad luck, shifting popular taste and the white noise of competing up-and-comers like him in an explosion of music that would only be sorted out and appreciated in the decades to come.
After his brief stint at Sun and many recordings later, Thompson hung up his guitar and resigned himself to driving a limo full-time. Years later he discovered his recordings had traveled further than he ever did, first to record collectors in the U.S. and overseas, and then to the first generation of punk rockers that fed on the energy of those early recordings. What followed is what Thompson became what he always dreamed of: a star.
“Hayden typifies what the righteous rockabilly cat will do. You have a mixture of country and Southern vocal, it moves like hell and there’s a bluesy undertone. That’s what made Elvis,” said George Paulus, a Chicago area record collector who just recently recorded Thompson’s new album, “Rockabilly Rhythm” (St. George).
“My one desire in life was to make good music. I’ve wanted to be in the business as long as I can remember,” Thompson said, sitting at the kitchen table of his home in Wheeling. “But I’ve always been smart enough to know that sometimes it doesn’t happen.”
Son of Sun
Thompson was born three years after Presley, in Booneville, Miss., just 25 miles north of Tupelo, Presley’s hometown. An only child to parents who both played instruments, he sang and performed music in church and school. “Same old story. Everyone got a guitar. It’s a musical part of the country,” he said. When he was nine, his mother arranged to have him sing on a local gospel music radio show one Saturday morning. His fishing trip that day was pushed back.
As a teenager, he joined the Southern Melody Boys playing country music at parties and on the radio. The owners of The Von, a 300-seat theatre in town, also ran a tiny label. In 1954, Thompson cut his first single, “I Feel the Blues Coming On,” becoming only one of three artists the label would ever produce. Needless to say, the records are highly collectable today. “They made great skeets,” he said, laughing. “But I didn’t know 50 years ago somebody would want to buy them.”
That same year, Sun Records, a local label run by Memphis entrepreneur Sam Phillips, released “That’s All Right Mama,” a cover of a song by blues singer Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup and sung by a newcomer called Elvis Presley. Sun had earlier focused on recording local black singers and licensing them to Chess Records in Chicago. In Presley, Phillips had recognized his dream of selling black music to white audiences.
“It sounded so different from anything we had heard. And we didn’t know if he was black or white,” Thompson said.
As Presley started to travel throughout the South to play shows and his reputation slowly built, musicians including Thompson started dropping his songs in their sets. Thompson’s band grumbled, insisting the phenomenon would soon fade. It didn’t and the next year the group was hired to accompany the film “Rock Around the Clock” as it toured the Southern movie theatre circuit, playing frenzied live sets before and after it screened.
Thompson remembers talking to Presley after a show at The Von as he stood out back alone, next to his signature pink and white Cadillac. “People couldn’t figure out if they liked him or didn’t like him,” he said. “He was standing out there all by himself.” Time has since erased what the conversation’s details. “What do 19-year-olds and 16-year-olds talk about? Music. I was a big fan,” he said.
At that point, record companies in the South were in a race to find their own Elvis and Thompson was only too happy to oblige. “Everyone wanted to make money and drive a Cadillac. We all figured if Elvis had four, we should have one apiece,” he said.
He was invited to Sun Records in 1956 with a new band, the Dixie Jazzlanders. They recorded four songs: “Blues Blues Blues,” “Fairlane Rock,” “Mother Goose is Rockin’” and “You Are My Sunshine.” Sun shelved them all and they remained unreleased until the late 1970s. Later that year, Thompson broke up the group and returned to Sun to record, among other things, “Love My Baby,” a cover song written by blues singer Little Junior Parker.
“Love My Baby” became Thompson’s signature song and the one that later enthusiasts would hail as one of the best rockabilly singles of the era. Thompson’s slurpy vocals mirrored Presley and its train car beat came courtesy of Jerry Lee Lewis, who happened to be in the studio that day and agreed to join in. The song became Lewis’ first-ever Sun recording.
Thompson’s big break came at a time when Phillips was scouring for hits. He had sold Presley’s contract to RCA Records for $40,000 and wanted to replicate his success with his new label, Phillips International. In October 1957, Phillips released both “Love My Baby” and “Raunchy,” an instrumental by tenor sax player Bill Justis. “Raunchy” became a smash and Phillips put all his resources into promoting it. “It left the rest of us treading water,” Thompson said.
“You couldn’t hold it against him. He didn’t have a lot of money at that time. If something took off, he promoted what people were buying,” he said.
Dejected, Thompson hung out in Memphis, performing and recording. “I couldn’t get anything,” he said. When a friend contacted him in 1958 and asked if he would like to lead the house band in a club he bought in Highwood, a northern Chicago suburb, Thompson left the South and never returned.
“It was quite a scene,” Thompson said of the lively strip of bars and nightclubs that lit up downtown Highwood, a stone’s throw from Fort Sheridan. Thompson was one in a stream of white Southerners who were setting up new lives in the area, coaxed up North by bountiful factory work. Because of its proximity to Fort Sheridan and the fact that the surrounding communities were largely dry, Highwood became the center of nightlife for the Navy population, the new working class and North Shore locals thirsty for a drink, said Peter Alter, curator at the Chicago Historical Society.
“Highwood wouldn’t have existed without Fort Sheridan,” he said. The Tally Ho, the nightclub where Thompson played five nights a week for five years, was the primary music club in what was then called “Whiskey Junction.” According to Alter, Highwood once held the Guinness World Record for having the most bars of any metropolitan area per capita.
Thompson was a novelty at the Tally Ho, to the Midwesterners who had never heard rockabilly music onstage. He added to his mystique with his flashy clothing, which included black and white shoes, striped coats and checkered shirts. “I think people came to see the monkey. The point is, they came. It was just a happening place. Nobody was doing what I was doing,” he said.
But rockabilly was in its decline. Presley, its king, entered the army. Many artists of the era like Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis were battling the law. The raw energy and danger that early rock music thrilled its audience with would not reappear until the British Invasion of the 1960s. It was a time when artists from the Sun era turned a corner and met a brick wall.
“When the rockabilly sound died, people had to make a change into pop, a la Fabian,” said Paulus. “Some people are capable of doing that, some people are not. And a lot of those guys couldn’t change.”
Luckily for Thompson, country music was taking hold in urban centers like Chicago. Thompson returned to his country roots and found a job as the bandleader at the Rivoli Ballroom, at Montrose and Elston on Chicago’s Northwest Side. There, he accompanied the flood of new country artists who came to town, including Bobby Bare, Waylon Jennings, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. Through the encouragement of country music superstar Roy Acuff, Thompson was invited to perform at the Grand Ole Opry three times in 1966. It led to recording a country album and after that, more singles and recordings on a variety of small labels that, once again, didn’t have the resources for promotion. The attention kept him in music but because he was in Chicago, not Nashville, nothing really took off. By 1972, he decided that living a life playing small bars for little change would not work. A job shuttling businessmen from the North Shore to O’Hare would have to be it.
“I told my wife, I said, ‘I’m just tired of it.’ I just quit. I had beat the bushes, made records and played the nightclubs and done everything in the world except get that door open,” he said.
He had periodically driven cabs and buses in Chicago, so he was prepared for his new fate behind the wheel of a limousine. “I wouldn’t even talk about the music business. Once in awhile someone would say, ‘I remember you from the Tally Ho Club’. I felt bad about it,” he said. “But you can’t cry over spilt milk.”
Across the kitchen table, he looks at his wife Georgina, who he met at the Tally Ho and married in 1966. In explaining how he dealt with the blow over time, he added, “She’s part of it. We’ve been connected a long time.
Rockabilly is the first incarnation of rock and its closest cousin to country music. Performed with an upright bass in a small band setting, the music has the high energy of bluegrass with an even more insistent beat. Its stripped down aesthetic and driving rhythm is what connects it most to punk music of the 1970s. While many rockabilly artists like Thompson thought they were forgotten, a new generation of record collectors and music fans were steadily searching out the music.
“Just because you weren’t heard of doesn’t mean one of your records wasn’t a classic,” said Michael Gray, a curator with the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. “These people rediscovering these artists didn’t care if (the artists) were known or not. They would find one terrific record by a guy like Hayden Thompson or Ronnie Dawson and they were instant heroes.”
In the U.S. bands like the Cramps, the Blasters, Gun Club, the Stray Cats and X were redefining rockabilly, but in Europe, the attention was more widespread. Record labels like Bear Family in Germany, Charly in Britain and Sunjay in Sweden were reissuing every Sun single they could find on compilations. To their audiences, the rockabilly era didn’t die and songs like “Love My Baby” were significant hits.
One reason why the music became so easy to market was volume. Labels like Sun recorded hundreds of records by a deep well of artists, yet only a small percentage ever made it to the top, with the rest resigned to a shelf. It became easy for labels to keep satiating fans with music and concert promoters to organize tours. All they needed to do was hunt the artists down, convince them they were readymade stars and bring them overseas to see for themselves.
That’s what happened to Thompson in 1984 when he was invited to play Holland, Sweden and Britain by British concert promoter Willie Jeffries. It took three years to convince Thompson, his wife and their son to make the trip.
“She’s excited, the boy’s excited and I’m a total wreck,” Thompson said, remembering. “I walked (onstage) and there were 3,000 people. I couldn’t believe it.”
His most recent trip to France marked his 28th trip to Europe, where he often shares bills with other rockabilly veterans like Billy Lee Riley, Wanda Jackson, Sonny Burgess and others. In recent years he has played major concert halls, from Lincoln Center to Wembley Arena. His song “Blues Blues Blues” was recorded by the Cramps. He said he is struck by how informed fans are of the tiniest details from the Sun era: what microphones were used, the make of guitars. “They know so much,” he said.
He has since quit his limo job and started recording again. He was contacted by Paulus, a lifelong record collector who first heard Thompson’s music after he bought a large cache of Sun Records from the label’s warehouse in 1967. Obsessed by blues and rockabilly ever since he first heard musicians playing on Maxwell Street at age 17, Paulus said he made it his mission to record Thompson once more. “I’m preserving the art,” he said.
“I had to convince him that this was a project worth doing. After the third song (Thompson) said, ‘this is starting to sound like something’. After that, he put 100 percent what he had into it. There’s a life to that music. It’s played live and it’s played real,” he said.
Indeed, if you did not notice Thompson’s picture on the cover, the music sounds transmitted directly from his teenage years. His voice shows little element of age and the understated playing is of an era where precision and attitude worked in tandem.
“I think he’s at his peak now,” said Steve King, overnight host on WGN radio and who has often invited Thompson to play in the studio. “I’m a Sun Records geek but with all due respect, he sounds better now than when he was younger. Part of that maybe because he’s concentrating on it full time again and he’s not distracted and completely focused on his music.”
Thompson today lives a secret life many of his neighbors know nothing about. He’s happy to fill in the details after they notice how proficient he is on the guitar or that he’s often slipping out of town for weekend trips to Los Angeles, Las Vegas or Lyon, France. I’m not on vacation, he can finally say. I’ve got a gig to play to his fans.
“Sometimes it’s not easy for a man my age to crawl onstage,” he said. “But once I’m up there, I forget.”