Thursday, August 14, 2008
Ron Thompson has shared the stage and held his own with the best blues music players in the world. The Bay Area musician has jammed with B.B. King at the legendary bluesman’s Universal City club. He got up on stage with soul singer Bobby “Blue” Bland in Fresno a decade ago. Even more impressive: the fact that Thompson was blues icon John Lee Hooker’s bandleader in the Coast-to-Coast Blues Band for five years in the mid-’70s.
In Thompson’s press materials, the founder of the San Francisco Blues Festival Tom Mazzolini praises the multi-instrumentalist. “I’ve always felt Ron is the most talented blues guitarist I’ve ever seen,” Thompson says. “He can do it all. He’s extraordinarily gifted. What many folks aren’t aware of is that Ron was a huge asset in the re-emergence of John Lee Hooker. He was the foundation for that boogie sound.”
Another big fan of Thompson’s is Fleetwood Mac’s founding member and drummer Mick Fleetwood. Fleetwood was so impressed with Thompson’s playing that he formed a blues band with the guitarist called Mick Fleetwood’s Blue Whale.
In a 1995 Los Angeles Times article called “Whale-Balanced Career,” Fleetwood describes his musical and personal relationship with Thompson. “I’m a very big fan of Ron’s, and we’ve become very close friends over the years,” he says. “It’s sort of an unlikely marriage. I think he was shocked at first by this strange Englishman he didn’t quite understand. He was at least aware of [original Fleetwood Mac guitarist] Peter Green’s work from the old days of the Mac, so it helped lessen this bizarre connection. He’s very down to earth, and he’s come up the hard way. He knows his stuff. He comes from this genre of music. He’s not a lightweight, and that’s what really struck up this relationship.”
Thompson says he discovered the blues when he was just 10 years old. Initially, he was drawn to the recordings of Jimmy Reed. “I really liked the phrasing of it,” Thompson says.
Right after high school, Thompson got his knowledge of playing blues music by performing at East Bay clubs including The Playboys Club and The Deluxe Inn with old timers like Little Joe Blue and Jimmy McCracklin. “It was a different world,” he says. “It was eye opening in the way you play it.”
In the mid-’70s, Thompson became the bandleader of John Lee Hooker’s group. After almost five years of touring with the icon, Thompson headed out on his own, released his debut, Treat Her Like Gold, in 1983. Since then, the bluesman has had some industry successes– a Grammy nomination for his 1986 album Resister Twister, being proclaimed the Best Live West Coast Blues Act and the Best West Coast Blues Guitarist/Modern by Real Blues Magazine– but never achieved his deserved level of fame.
Listening to his songs makes one wonder how come he is not better known. His “Freight Train (Let Me Ride)” features a searing blues-rock lick reminiscent of John Lennon’s guitar work on “Revolution.” It also has such a classic blues sound that it is hard to believe it was put out by Thompson just two years ago. Thompson also tackles Chicago blues with “The Gamble” and nails the old-timey acoustic Delta blues sound with the ominous “Prayer for the 21st century.” Meanwhile, he proves to be equally adept behind the piano as on guitar on the rollicking “RT’s Piano.”
Thankfully, Bay Area audiences are aware of what a treasure Thompson is to their community. Last fall, the bluesman joined an elite group of San Francisco icons like Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia and longtime S.F. 49ers coach Bill Walsh when Mayor Gavin Newsom declared Sept. 5 “Ron Thompson Day.”
Ron Thompson plays 7pm Saturday, Aug. 16, at Monterey Live, 414 Alvarado St., Monterey. $20. 375-LIVE.