Danny Thompson - Bassing for the A to Z of music


Danny Thompson asks permission to drop a few names. What this actually means is, he’s going to read, from his diary, some of the people who called on his instantly recognisable double bass skills last year. These include The Who (Acoustic), Mark Knopfler, Kate Bush, bluesman Eric Bibb, Tom Paxton, Norwegian chanteuse Anne Marie Almedal, and erstwhile Blur guitarist Graham Coxon.


So, 2009 was a fairly typical year. Look back through Thompson’s career – and this, just to give a flavour, you understand, is a man whose CV includes Basil Brush’s predecessor, Fred Barker, strip clubs, Cliff Richard, and Jeff Buckley’s dad, Tim – and his diaries would be full of the kind of names people like to drop. Yes, even Fred Barker.


“I’m glad you brought that up,” says Thompson in his matey, diamond geezer way as he prepares to take part in Celtic Connections’ Nick Drake tribute. “Because that show with a glove puppet bought me my first house. All the money I used to earn on jazz gigs used to get blown before I got home but the fees from that one, Five o’clock Club, Tuesdays and Thursdays with Muriel Young, every schoolboy’s dream, went straight into the bank. So I was able to be sensible for once.”


Thompson’s bandmates on that 1960s television series weren’t too shabby either – it was actually a version of British blues godfather Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated with Thompson’s future partner in Pentangle’s rhythm section, Terry Cox, on drums, an admirably informed choice for a children’s programme.


By the time he fetched up as a regular on tea-time television, Thompson was already a veteran. Having begun playing bass at the age of fifteen in the mid 1950s, working nights while holding down a job as a trainee window dresser, he’d swiftly earned a reputation as Mr Dependable, taking on whatever gigs were available – weddings, bar mitzvahs, strip joints, jazz rhythm sections – through observing the “commandments”.


“Time, tone and tuning, the three Ts,” he says. “Without them, you’re lost. You can learn harmony and all the more advanced stuff later but I’ve always enjoyed the responsibility of being the foundation of a band. I’m not saying that I always played all the right notes. Tubby Hayes used to tell me, Some of the notes you play hurt my eyes but at least we can hear them.”


Hayes, one of a select group of British jazz musicians who were on a par with the Americans at the time, was Thompson’s employer for many years. As was Ronnie Scott, in whose famous club’s house rhythm section Thompson got to play with jazz legends including trumpeters Freddie Hubbard and Charlie Parker’s former frontline partner Red Rodney. At the same time he was becoming the go-to guy for other visiting Americans, including blues singers Josh White Snr, Little Walter and John Lee Hooker and singer-songwriters Tom Paxton and Tim Buckley.


“Playing with someone like Josh White was unbelievable for me because when I was about thirteen, all I wanted to do was be Big Bill Broonzy,” he says. “I got to see Big Bill, although I didn’t get to play with him, and what struck me about him and all the other blues players was the strength of their guitar playing. They’d played for dancing, with just acoustic guitars, no amps, and I’m not putting myself on their level but that’s how bass players coming up in my day developed their sound: with just their fingers.”


Thompson’s sound particularly impressed Buckley, who’d leave his own bassist in the States and hire Thompson to tour Europe. Thompson remembers Buckley as a wonderful guy but very naughty, a description he applies to another, longer term partner, John Martyn.


“They were very similar,” he says. “They didn’t play to the rules. You couldn’t define their music as folk, blues or jazz, although all three styles were in there, and they both liked a drink, as I did at the time.”


Thompson stopped drinking in 1978, by which time it had ceased to be fuel for a roaring good time and become an addiction. He’d also lost a number of good friends and musical accomplices who died far too young, including Hayes, Nick Drake, Sandy Denny and Marc Bolan, not necessarily through alcohol, but their passing gave him pause for thoughts on his own mortality.


When he and Martyn hooked up in 1971, Thompson was coming to the end of his love affair with Pentangle, a relationship that had progressed at quite some speed from informal Sunday sessions in a Tottenham Court Road pub to world tours and massive album sales.


Just as his Pentangle colleagues John Renbourn, Bert Jansch and Jacqui McShee had enjoyed the jazz element Thompson brought to the band to complement their folk roots, Martyn loved Thompson’s ability to somehow simultaneously roam freely and nail the chord changes.


“We never spoke about what I was going to play or how I should approach a song – I have the same relationship with Richard Thompson – we just got on with it,” says Thompson. “I listen to some of the stuff we did now and I sound like I’m all over the place but that’s what you do when you’re young. You overplay because you can and because you’re excited by the music. But the reason why John’s music – and Nick Drake’s and others like Sandy Dandy – is timeless is because it wasn’t cosmetic. It was from the heart.”


Thompson and Martyn had their adventures – the time Thompson nailed Martyn to a floor, wrapped in a carpet is often recounted – and Thompson often used to be asked how they managed to play so well when they were patently drunk onstage (answer: “Because we rehearse drunk”). They formed a bond like brothers, though, and as he speaks, Martyn’s death almost exactly a year ago, is clearly still affecting Thompson.


Part of his own Celtic Connections concert, Connected (he also appears in the Transatlantic Sessions next weekend) will be dedicated to Martyn, with whom he enjoyed a last waltz in New York a few weeks before Martyn died.


Connected is almost an understatement for Thompson, who is calling on mates such as singer-guitarists Darrell Scott, Martin Simpson and Luka Bloom, Eddi Reader and bluegrass siblings Tim & Mollie O’Brien to visit some of the musical stopping places he’s visited over the past fifty-five years.


“I’ve never been prejudiced about music,” says Thompson, whose 1990s trio Whatever was named to illustrate its unsuitability for easy pigeon-holing. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s all there to be enjoyed and if you can play it with friends, so much the better. Sometimes you just know when you meet people that you’ll be able to play with them. John Martyn was one example – because he was so real and wore no affectations – and I’ve been lucky to make that kind of connection a lot in my time.”


And with that he leaves me with the image of himself and Darrell Scott, going all Easy Rider, motorcycling from Nashville to Louisiana and sleeping under the stars, and getting ready to do it again later this year when that diary yields some spare time.


From The Herald, January 28, 2010.


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