Born April 3rd 1949 in North London, Richard Thompson remains one of modern music’s best kept secrets. The son of a policeman, Richard developed his formidable guitar style in fledgling bands like Emil & the Detectives and Tim Turner’s Narration. At seventeen he became a founding member of the band Fairport Convention the foremost British folk-rock ensemble.
Playing an inventive musical mix of blues and ‘West Coast’ style rock, Fairport Convention quickly established a reputation as the ‘new Jefferson Airplane’. They were ‘discovered’ playing at the Happening 44 club in London’s Soho by producer Joe Boyd, who secured the band a recording contract and their debut album was released in 1968.
Over the next four years, Fairport Convention gradually developed a more personal and British based music including stunning arrangements of traditional songs and ballads. Through albums like ‘What We Did On Our Holidays’, ‘Unhalfbricking’ and ‘Liege and Lief’ – all three recorded and released in 1969 – they invented the British version of folk-rock. ‘Liege and Lief’ has long been regarded as a milestone recording, defining British rock in the same way that ‘Music From Big Pink’ was to define North American rock with traditional roots. It was this album that finally revealed the extent of Richard’s talent as a songwriter – writing contemporary songs whilst drawing upon deep traditional modes.
1970 saw the release of ‘Full House’ – Mr Thompson’s last album with the band. It was also during that year that the group made their long overdue American debut, touring with Traffic and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Richard left Fairport soon after the tour.
‘Henry The Human Fly’ – his first solo album – was released in 1972 and is regarded by many as a classic. Songs like ‘Poor Ditching Boy’ and ‘The Angels Have Taken My Racehorse Away’, instrumental colourings from accordion and silver band, all helped to establish an overtly English voice. Significantly for the once reticent singer in Fairport, this album was the first declaration of his singing abilities.
In the same year Richard married folk singer Linda Peters. The combination of her superb vocals and Richard’s talents as a songwriter and guitarist subsequently led to the recording of six albums by the duo. The first, ‘I Want To see The Bright Lights Tonight’ was released in 1974 and met with universal critical acclaim. The title track providing a brief UK hit single.
The next year saw the release of two albums by Richard and Linda Thompson – ‘Hokey Pokey’ and ‘Pour Down Like Silver’ – containing such classic Thompson material as ‘Never Again’ and ‘Night Comes In’, both demanded in concert to this day.
After a period of semi-retirement, they returned to live performance in 1978 and soon released ‘First Light’ and ‘Sunnyvista’. The former album includes ‘Don’t Let A thief Steal Into Your Heart’ which was later covered by the Pointer Sisters. In 1981, Richard recorded the solo instrumental album ‘Strict Tempo’. This is an exuberant collection of tunes from the British Isles and North Africa performed with Thompson’s by now signature guitar style. The record is also notable for it’s recording of Duke Ellington’s ‘Rockin’ In Rhythm’ with the well-known horn lines arranged for guitar and mandolins.
‘Shoot Out The Lights’ proved to be the Thompsons’ most successful album. Originally produced by Gerry Rafferty, but for a number of reasons unreleased, the collection was re-recorded with Joe Boyd and released on his Hannibal label in 1982. The record was a success, critically and commercially, on both sides of the Atlantic and was subsequently voted into Rolling Stone magazine’s ‘Top ten Records Of The Decade’. Although including some of Richard’s best loved songs such as the title track and ‘Wall Of Death’ and some of Linda’s finest vocal performances on ‘Walking On A Wire’, it was to be their last recording together.
Mr Thompson returned to the studio to record ‘Hand Of Kindness’ in 1983. This album saw the introduction of a brass section for the first time, saxophones trading solos with Richard’s guitar. The resulting Big Band tour was rapturously received both in Europe and America. As a ‘Big Band’ they included Glenn Miller and Lord Rockingham numbers in the set each night alongside vintage Thompson like ‘Calvary Cross’ and ‘Tear Stained Letter’.
‘Across A Crowded Room’ released by Polygram in 1985 marked the beginning of a successful association with Christine Collister and Clive Gregson. Since then Christine has appeared as a backing vocalist on all of Richard’s albums and frequently appeared in the Thompson touring ban. Thompson’s songwriting genius was by now detailing serial murders and political incest, as well as gossip and dancehall romances. This record was quickly acknowledged a critical and commercial success worldwide.
1986’s ‘Daring Adventures’ marked the start of a new era for Richard, being his first recording in Los Angeles with Mitchell Froom as producer. Contributors to the album included the legendary Jim Keltner on drums and Jerry Scheff on bass – both had recorded with Elvis Presley and Elvis Costello. Constantly in demand as a live performer both as a solo artist and leading a band, Thompson now divides his time more equally between Britain and America.
The past decade has also seen the recording of several soundtracks for film and television – ‘The Marksman’, ‘Hard Cash’ and ‘Sweet Talker’, and collaborations with John ‘Drumbo’ French, Fred Frith and Henry Kaiser on two eccentric and frequently odd-ball albums – ‘Live, Love, Larf and Loaf’ and ‘Invisible Means’.
Moving to Capitol records in 1988 Thompson released ‘Amnesia’, followed by ‘Rumor And Sigh’ in 1991 and ‘Mirror Blue’ in 1994 – a trilogy of albums that united the strengths of the LA based rhythm sections with Thompson’s profound understanding of traditional song forms and an often humorous desire to experiment with texture and technique whilst in the recording studio. The Capitol albums and the three cd ‘Watching The Dark’ retrospective have consolidated Mr Thompson’s awesome critical reputation and begun to achieve a wider commercial success.
Two tribute albums – ‘The World Is A Wonderful Place’ (1993) and ‘Beat The Retreat’ (1994) – stand as evidence of the remarkable esteem in which RT is held by his fellow musicians.
“Personally, being somewhat envious of Richard’s songwriting and guitar playing, it’s somewhat satisfying he’s not yet achieved household-name status. It serves him right for being so good.” David Byrne
“Richard Thompson could say more in one line than I could in a whole song.” John Cougar Mellanchamp
“I thought the guitar playing on ‘Shoot Out The Lights’ was really really good. I was absolutely stunned when I heard it…” Lou Reed
“I suppose there’s music that I want to hear that I don’t hear other people doing, and because it doesn’t exist, I have to do it. Or else become a seething psychopath.” Richard Thompson