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Space Age Music Maker

Bob Thompson

  • Born 22 August 1924, San Jose, California
  • Died 21 May 2013, Los Angeles, California

The following interview appears in Issue #14 of Cool and Strange Music Magazine

Bob Thompson Interview, 12 April 1999

Space Age Pop: You were born in San Jose--did you grow up there?

Bob Thompson: No, we moved up to Auburn, California, a little town outside Sacramento after that.

How'd you get interested in music? Did you study it in school?

No, there really was no music taught in school. I felt very isolated at the time. I was interested in music, I wanted to write music, but there was so little around. I really got turned on from hearing bands in Sacramento on the weekends, people like Duke Ellington. I talked to a few people about music, and pretty much taught myself. I never even learned to play the piano very well--I just went directly into arranging.

There was one radio station out of Berkeley that I used to listen to a lot, and when I went to college at U.C. Berkeley around 1943, I wanted to be around music as much as possible. So I got jobs working as a page boy at the ABC and NBC radio stations in San Francisco. I did get a chance to arrange for a student show at school--"Lady in the Dark"--and I got some work as an arranger on the strength of that. I found it so much more compelling than anything I was studying in class, I began to gravitate to wanted to hear people play things I'd written.

So you ended up going to work full time?

Yeah, I got hired as the staff arranger at the NBC station, and I ended up working there for seven years. Back in those days, you didn't have stock music--the staff orchestras filled in all the time that wasn't used for network shows or other stuff. It was a great education--there really isn't any better way to learn than by doing it, and I was doing everything. I got to pick my own stuff, a lot of which was arrangements of Jerome Kern, Gershwin, Harold Arlen--writers I admired. It was a medium-quality pop orchestra, but I was very fortunate to get that amount of practice. I was taking private lessons with one of my professors from Berkeley, and going to matinees of the San Francisco Symphony. I even arranged a few pieces--some folk songs, for example--for the Symphony's Sunday show, sort of a Boston Pops thing. I was immersed in music at that time.

Seven years was a long run for an arranger in those days. How did you come to leave that job?

Well, they eliminated the staff orchestras at the radio stations as they started to use recordings more and more. I figured I had a choice of L.A. or New York, and New York really intimidated me. So I moved to L.A.

I got a little work playing and conducting at the start. I worked on music for acts performers would take to Las Vegas and on the road.

That's how you got involved with Mae West?

Yes, I conducted and arranged the music for her "Muscle Man" act. She was kind of part her prime by then and it seemed like she was dragging all of us down with her. She had amazing timing, she knew just what an audience wanted, but she was a tyrant, and cheap. She left us stranded in New York, when no one had the money to get back to the coast.

What'd you do?

I scrapped around the Poconos for a few weeks, then went back with her when she started up the tour again and headed back to California. She was so difficult, prying into your private life and stuff like that--she made every other artist I had to work with after her look easy!

You stayed in California after that?

Yeah. It was a struggle at first. I survived doing demo work. Songwriters or singers would record these demo records for almost nothing and then take them to the major labels to get them interested in a song. I was hired to do a few of these, and eventually, from that, I got better known and got some arranging jobs.

One of the early ones was with Bud Freeman. Bud liked some work I'd done for him on some demos, so he asked for me when it came time to record "Songs of Couch and Consultation." Bud wrote the lyrics for these "psychological folk songs" and Leon Pober wrote the melodies. I did the arrangements and got to conduct the orchestra on the recording. Bud brought in Katie Lee, who was a folk singer--she's living in Sedona, Arizona, now, and still singing Western songs, I understand. I got to pick the musicians I wanted to work with. We had Lou Bush--better known as Joe "Fingers" Carr--playing a barrelhouse piano. I was very pleased with how it turned out.

Then you arranged Fantastic Percussion for Felix Slatkin on Liberty.

Yes, that was a bit later. Felix was quite a serious musician who did these popular things on the side, more to pay the rent than anything. He and his wife, Eleanor, led their own string quartet for years. The album was the sort of showy stereo thing that was in demand then, and I tried to supply what they were looking for.

How'd you end up doing your albums for RCA Victor?

The business was so different then--agents didn't mean a thing. Mostly it was over the transom. You did something, somebody else heard about it, you got a call on another job.

I actually owe a lot to Ray Conniff. He was doing so well with his albums on Columbia. He had this consistent sound, his chorus singing without words in place of the brass and sax sections. And a steady rhythm throughout his numbers. He used Al Hendrickson, a guitarist who played with Artie Shaw, to lay down this steady beat...

"That Happy Beat!" [title of a Conniff album]

Yeah. Well, in those days when something was a success, everyone wanted to copy it. I guess RCA thought I would do it for them. Unfortunately, I got more involved and got a little more cutesy, and ended up only doing 4 of the five albums they contracted for. Conniff was lucky--Columbia was a class act in those days. RCA--well, once they signed Elvis, it was, "Goodbye, everybody." They really let it run down hill.

Anyway, I picked all the songs and pushed to get a few originals of my own included. And I picked the musicians I wanted. There were so many great musicians in Hollywood in those days. The studio orchestras were breaking up, so you just told the music contractor who you wanted. I worked with Shelly Manne, Bud Shank, Frank Rosolino, Pete Jolly, Don Fagerquist, Milt Bernhart, the Candoli Brothers.

These guys were big on the West Coast jazz scene, too.

There was this period when the big bands began to fall apart and guys settled down in L.A. because there was work. Most of these guys had been playing very difficult music, playing on the road. So they could do anything. I really miss the quality of musicians I got to work with.

And singers, too?

The singers in L.A. are still amazing, but there's just not the work there was. I didn't pick the individual singers so much. I used guys like Randy Van Horne and Thoreau Ravenscroft, and they pulled from this pool of singers, whoever wasn't on some other job.

You've been called "the American Esquivel." Do you consider him an influence?

I met him, but I never really knew him, but I was always impressed by his inventiveness. He was always coming up with new ways to do things. I remember seeing him one time when he had two orchestras in two different studios recording at the same time, getting this maximum stereo effect, I guess. I wondered how in the heck he was going to pull that off.

But there were some many great arrangers on the scene, too--another result of the big bands breaking up. Billy May was a big influence on me. He had this sly way of slipping in new ideas. You know how they say some people never take things seriously? That was Billy May in every way. Pete Rugolo was another one. And Johnny Mandel--he gets better every year. He is THE writer. I don't mean to class myself with those guys.

Your last album was "The Sound of Speed."

That was during the start of people having stereo setups at home. I knew the producer, Tom Mack, and he asked me to write 12 originals for a full orchestra, playing up the stereo effects--ping-ponging, very noticeably, actually moving the sound back and forth, creating the sensation of movement. It was a very gimmicky thing, but I was happy to be working with a full professional orchestra.

It was recorded by the Orchestra di Roma. Did you go to Italy to for that?

No, I just handed them the scores and back came the tapes from Rome. Then I got involved in mixing in the sound effects. All the numbers had a common theme of movement, motion, transportation, so we mixed in things like jet airplanes taking off and railroad engines. Ping pong quickly became passe, but I enjoyed working with the effects. [Note: "The Sound of Speed" has recently been reissued on CD and is available for sale at www.bobthompsonmusic.com/the_sound_of_speed.html.]

I did a few singles after that, and then I spent a few years mostly working with singers. I worked a lot with Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney, and a little bit with Judy Garland, on one of her concert albums.

Then you spent many years writing music for commercials.

Yes. I got called to do a commercial for Texaco, and then I did some more for them. And that led to other jobs, and I ended up doing that for over 15 years. I worked with Goodyear for 11 years, and got a Clio award for one of those ads. I did a bunch for GM, Chrysler, most of the other American and Japanese car companies. Kawasaki--"Let the Good Times Roll!" I did the music for the ads introducing the Ford Mustang. The "Hallmark Hall of Fame" theme. And some forgettable stuff--the Pillsbury doughboy was one. I figure that between radio and TV, I did something like 1500 commercials.

Looking back, I should have been writing songs instead of commercials, so I could be collecting the royalties now. But publishers were so crooked then and it was so hard to make it writing songs. I've seen a publisher's name on a piece I composed, taking the credit from me. I had a record that sold really well in France and I never knew about it until I traveled there and happened to hear it.

Commercials were so clean compared to that. Get a call, write a theme for Brand X, get a check. Now they actually track the copyrighting on commercial music, which is one reason they're reusing old material more now. But not when I was doing most of my work.

I did find the work interesting. I got plenty of practice at composing. And commercials were longer then, sometimes as much a 3 minutes, so this was like scoring little pictures. That's all gone now--everything's 30 seconds and less.

You worked on television and movie projects as well.

Yes. I've done quite a bit of orchestration on movies, sometimes the whole score, more often just pieces of it. I worked on "Popeye," "The Long Hot Summer." I orchestrated the main title for an old Peter Sellers movie, "I Love You Alice B. Toklas."

And at one point, when rock and roll was coming in, I worked on an album with Duane Eddy, and somehow I got the reputation of being a guy who understood how to do rock. So I got called in to do lots and lots of "source music"--the music that's playing on a radio or record player in the background of a scene.

Is that how you came to work with the Harpers Bizarre?

No, I got into that through Van Dyke Parks. He was working with them and Warner Brothers and brought me in. He's used me a few times over the years. He's an amazing guy, an incredible talker--speaks in whole paragraphs--and he's done such a diversity of work over the years. Now he's pretty much established as a film composer.

Do you consider yourself retired now?

I consider myself out of work! I moved up here to northern California about 8 years ago. There was just nothing for me in L.A. anymore. There aren't many arrangers still working down there. Bill Holman and Bob Florence somehow still manage to pay a band and put out a recording every so often. I don't know how they do it. And Bill just keeps getting better--his CD of Thelonious Monk's tunes is so good that you just can't think about it. One of the best things of the last twenty years.

Are you aware of the renewed interest in your music?

I catch bits of it. I'm still not sure if they like the albums for the music or the camp covers. But I'm happy that people are still using my music. I understand a piece of my is used in a recent film that was showing in New York--"Six Ways to Sunday." I'm hoping that will come out this way so I can hear it.

Bob returned to southern California several years after this interview. He fell victim to Alzheimer's disease and died in a Los Angeles nursing home in 2013.

For more information on Bob Thompson, check out the Just for Kicks website, set up by Bob's son.

  • Just for Kicks, RCA Victor LSP-2027
  • Mmm Nice!, RCA Victor LSP-2117
  • On the Rocks, RCA Victor LSP-2145
  • With Rosemary Clooney, Clap Hands, Here Comes Rosie!, RCA Victor LSP-2212
  • Wildcat, RCA Victor LSP-2357
  • The Sound of Speed, Dot DLP 25153

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