Finding the Piano
Bob Thompson (1924-2013) was born in San Jose, California and is best known for his Space Age Pop records of the late 1950s.
In the 1930s, Bob's parents moved him from San Jose to Auburn, a rural California town at a higher elevation, because he suffered from asthma. When he was 10, he discovered a piano on a fairground covered with a tarp. Bob spent the entire day playing it in the dark and emerged a musician. Bob developed into a rebel at heart with an irreverent sense of humor. His first piano teacher made the comment: "I don't know anyone alive that plays that fast!" The high-school aged Bob replied: "Do you know anybody dead?"
Bob, like many people of the era, discovered music from the radio. Duke Ellington entranced him and he made his way under his piano at a Sacramento gig. He also discovered the French Impressionist composer Ravel at this time, who would inform his later work. When World War II broke out, Bob was sent to basic training in Mississippi, but was soon declared 4F because of his lingering childhood asthma. On his return from Mississippi, he stayed in a room lent to him in San Francisco's Marina District and landed a job as a page boy at KGO Radio in San Francisco.
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Bob went to UC Berkeley for a year and was soon frustrated by the musical conservatism of his teachers, and equally inspired by be-bop music emanating from Telegraph Avenue's record stores. Some of these be-bop harmonies were considered "improper" by his teachers, which reminded Bob of the limitations of his "square" high school music teacher. He left college but continued to take private instruction from a like-minded professor of music. Soon he was back at KGO, writing arrangements for the house orchestra. This experience and weekly tutoring sessions with Dr. Denny turned Bob into a formidable arranger of music.
At Berkeley Bob also formed life-long friendships with Gordon Conell, a Broadway actor of some note, and Stanley Cavell, who went on to become a professor at Harvard with expertise in American Film. Bob and Stanley would go to movies and analyze film scores on paper restaurant placemats afterward. This exposed Bob to the Great American Songbook, in particular Gershwin and Kern, whose songs appear on his RCA records. Bob had played Jazz piano since his Auburn days, and was picked by Barney Bigard, Duke Ellington's clarinet player, to play gigs in Sacramento. Hearing the boppers around town, he concluded: "I could never be the best Jazz player but I could be the best pop arranger."
The Water's Fine
Next, Bob traveled to Paris to work, and arranged for Jacqueline Francois and Gloria Lasso. But it was hard to make a living as an ex-pat arranger, so he returned to California. He drove his Model T from Auburn to Los Angeles to seek out musical possibilities there. He met a working musician at the Formosa Bar in Hollywood who welcomed him by saying: "Come on in, the water's fine." This was the start of a 40-year, wide-ranging musical career that included a series of Space Age Pop albums that later made him a hipster music icon.
Bob's Los Angeles career started slowly, gigging in bands and playing in piano bars. It was at the bar in the legendary Taix Restaurant that Bob met his wife, Paula, who was on a lunch break from the Proctor and Gamble factory. Bob was of modest means, living in a garage in Hollywood.
Soon Bob and Paula went on tour with Mae West, the vampy singer and nightclub performer. Mae forbade Paula from visiting backstage, etc. because Mae wanted to be the center of attention. Mae was a believer in the paranormal and handed Bob a napkin with lyrics about the Hollywood psychic, Criswell. Bob held his nose and wrote the music behind Criswell Predicts, one of the strangest songs of the era. (Criswell was later portrayed in the film Ed Wood.)
Just for Kicks: The RCA Records
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Now in his thirties, Bob began getting attention as one of the best arrangers in Hollywood, starting a dazzling run at RCA. During the late 1950s, the label also had Juan Garcia Esquivel, Billy May, and Nelson Riddle on its roster. There he began a long friendship with Rosemary Clooney, for whom he arranged several albums including Clap Hands! Here Comes Rosie and Thanks for Nothing (later re-issued as Love). The pair had a sad brush with history as they were present when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel.
It was at RCA that Esquivel was creating truly experimental pop records which later became known as Space Age Pop. At the other end of the spectrum, RCA's "suits" engaged Bob to make albums that sounded like Ray Coniff, a strictly pop orchestra composer and arranger. Bob did not care for Coniff's work and gave them a product that was very "Bob." In these compositions and arrangements, you can hear Bob's rebellious spirit, Jazzy freedom, sense of humor, classical influences, and a fascination with percussion resulting from his early experience playing drums.
The Sound of Speed
The genesis of The Sound of Speed (Dot, 1960) was different than the previous three records. Bob had been fascinated by flight since a ride in a biplane at a county fair. "SoS" is a Space Age Pop concept LP. Recorded at the dawn of the space age, each composition evokes a different mode of modern transport from Vespa scooters, to Le Mans racers, to rocket ships.
The vehicular vignettes are book-ended by authentic sound effects, with vivid stereo motion. For example, the classic Starfire starts off with its famous blast off sound. Nearly all of the tracks are original compositions, and reflect Space Age Pop's fascination with stereo, a new technology, as sounds bounce from one speaker to the other. It was Esquivel who most fully explored the possibilities of stereo in his creations, but Bob carved out his own niche of clever experimentation. Long out of print, long-sought, The Sound of Speed is an overlooked gem from a bygone era of orchestral sophistication. It was re-released in the 2000s.
It was during this time that Bob began composing for commercials, a job that would take up the bulk of the next thirty years of his career. The early commercials for Texaco, Banc Americard and others reflect the Space Age Pop sound. The all-percussion Texaco theme song from 1960 was singular; it rated an on-air comment by newscaster David Brinkley. Several of Bob's commercials garnered Cleo and other awards. He was able to move out of the garage.
Resurgence and Recognition
Bob's resurgence began in the early 1980s. Irwin Chusid, of the free-form independent radio station WFMU, began playing his LPs. On the West Coast, Vale of RE/Search publications also became a fan and included Bob in his Incredibly Strange Music book series. Another early champion was Byron Werner who coined the term Space Age Bachelor Pad, an alternate name for Space Age Pop.
In fact, the genre of Space Age Pop came to the fore on the talents of Esquivel, whose work epitomizes the movement and brought listeners to other Space Age Pop artists. In the 90s a Cocktail Music movement took hold, and record companies realized they were sitting on a gold mine. Bob's musical work was reissued in US compilations, while MMM Nice, On the Rocks, and Just for Kicks were released in Japan. MMM Nice was reissued in Japan again in 2005. The 90s also saw the start of cocktail bands influenced by Space Age Pop, such as Combustible Edison and Italy's Transistors. Bob's music also began appearing in commercials as ad agencies recognized a sound that epitomizes retro fun and sophistication.
When the Internet's popularity surged in the late 1990s, a few key websites emerged about Space Age Pop, including Wild's Scene and spaceagepop.com. Bob's original work was also discovered by his son, who had, to that point, only knew him as a Jazz player and commercial music maker, and who used the Internet to research a small but enthusiastic subculture. In 1998, Bob's son launched this website, which attracted licensing deals and fan emails from Australia to Siberia (really).
In the last decade, feature articles on Bob have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Cool and Strange Music Magazine and Atomic Magazine. Recent Bob Thompson music appearances include: TV (Sex and the City, the Late Show with David Letterman, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy), Soundtracks (Six Ways to Sunday), and compilations. Bob's concept album, The Sound of Speed, considered his finest work by Space Age Pop connoisseurs, was re-released and a compilation has recently landed on iTunes.
Bob passed away in Los Angeles at age 89.