Tony Thompson

Precise and powerful drummer with Chic

Saturday 29 November 2003 01:00

Tony Thompson, drummer: born New York 15 November 1954; married Patrice Jennings; died Los Angeles 12 November 2003.

The powerhouse drummer with Chic, Tony Thompson helped shape the influential disco sound on infectious worldwide hits such as "Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)", "Everybody Dance", "Le Freak", "I Want Your Love" and the much-sampled "Good Times". Described by Chic's front man Nile Rodgers as "the loudest drummer I've ever worked with", Thompson also played on several defining records of the Eighties including David Bowie's "Let's Dance", Madonna's "Like a Virgin" and Robert Palmer's "Addicted to Love".

Joining forces with Palmer, the bassist John Taylor and guitarist Andy Taylor of Duran Duran, Thompson's explosive technique propelled the spin-off group the Power Station into the charts on both sides of the Atlantic with their original composition "Some Like It Hot" and their muscular take on T. Rex's "Get It On (Bang a Gong)" in 1985.

The same year, Thompson also joined his childhood heroes Led Zeppelin, replacing John Bonham, who had died in 1980, for their Philadelphia appearance at the Live Aid charity concert with Phil Collins as second drummer fresh off a Concorde flight from London:

The Power Station also did Live Aid at around six and I went out with Led Zeppelin at eight. I was glad we had a rehearsal. I got the chance to play with the guys I grew up listening to.

Born in Queens, New York City, in 1954, Tony Thompson defied parental expectations to become a drummer. "My major influences as a kid were Ginger Baker from Cream and John Bonham from Led Zeppelin. He was just so good, you couldn't copy him," he said:

Another one of my idols was Tony Williams. You could never anticipate what he would play next - he would always throw you a curve. He had the ability to play behind or on top of the beat at will. I always dug that and tried to emulate it. I also saw Billy Cobham, the most awesome performance ever.

By the mid-Seventies, Thompson had played in various rock groups but also enjoyed funk and jazz-rock fusion and took lessons with Narada Michael Walden, the virtuoso drummer with John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra. The young Tony joined Patti Labelle's backing band and met the guitarist Nile Rodgers at an audition in 1976. "He kept my number and called me up to say he was starting a band with Bernard Edwards on bass. That was the beginning of Chic," recalled Thompson:

When I first joined, Nile felt I played way too much and Bernard told me to get rid of most of the cymbals and stop showing off. They helped me immensely in learning to groove. We actually started as a rock band. At the time, no one would hear of three black brothers playing rock'n'roll! So Bernard and Nile came up with the whole disco thing. I didn't even know what disco was. We pressed "Dance, Dance, Dance" ourselves as we didn't have a record deal. We took it to a club, the DJ played it and people just freaked. From there, we signed to Atlantic.

Adding the vocalist Norma Jean Wright, who was soon replaced by the glamorous duo of Alfa Anderson and Luci Martin, Chic exuded a sophisticated image reminiscent of the big band era. Not content with filling dance floors and the singles charts with "Le Freak" and "Good Times", they also defied expectations by selling huge quantities of their albums Chic, C'est Chic (1978) and Risqué (1979) throughout the late Seventies.

The songwriting and production team of Rodgers and Edwards also masterminded the rise of Sister Sledge and made the four sisters another staple of the disco era with the hits "He's the Greatest Dancer" and "We are Family", cut in one take with the mighty Tony Thompson on drums. The Chic triumvirate had the Midas touch; in 1979, they turned the French Sixties singer Sheila into the proto-Madonna Sheila B. Devotion on "Spacer" before overseeing the album Diana and the singles "Upside Down", "My Old Piano" and "I'm Coming Out" for the former Supreme Diana Ross in 1980.

The following year, Thompson played on Koo Koo, Debbie Harry's first solo album, which was produced by his Chic colleagues, and in 1982 he laid the groove for Carly Simon's comeback hit "Why".

Sadly, all these outside activities weakened the Chic brand and the group split after the albums Take It Off (1981) and Tongue in Chic (1982) flopped, although Thompson remained a constant presence in the careers of both Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, recording with David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Jody Watley and Rod Stewart.

Over the last two decades, Thompson's precise and powerful performances with Chic and the Power Station have proved a fertile source for samplers, but the drummer stressed there was no real secret to his dynamic sound:

Everyone always assumed that there was some kind of special knobs turned when we did that first Power Station record. All it basically was, was a brand-new Yamaha kit, which I still play, in a very live, brick, recording studio in London called Maison Rouge. I hit the drums very hard, that's it,

he admitted, somewhat ironically since the group was named after the Power Station studio in New York where they had all met in the mid-Eighties.

We did "Some Like It Hot" and everyone had all these stories about tricks that were going on. Samples weren't around back then. So, bottom line, the sound came from a good kit, hit hard, in a nice live room.

Thompson's drumming also became the engine behind Robert Palmer's breakthrough hit, "Addicted to Love" in 1986. The musician said this was "the first time anyone had spent time to get a drum sound like that".

After his performance at Live Aid, Thompson took part in secret rehearsals with Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Paul Jones in 1986 but the much-mooted reformation of Led Zeppelin proved jinxed as the drummer was involved in a serious car crash. In the mid-Nineties, Thompson lived in Europe for a while, flitting between Spain, England and also Italy, where the Power Station reunited to record the album Living In Fear (1997), which was produced by the Chic bassist, Bernard Edwards, the year before he died in Japan.

Thompson subsequently contributed to the album Fragile by the goth-electro rockers Nine Inch Nails and also collaborated with the former Kiss guitarist Bruce Kullick on tribute albums to Jimi Hendrix, Queen and Aerosmith. Even when diagnosed with renal cancer earlier this year, Tony Thompson never stopped working.

The session drummer par excellence, he felt he'd "really been blessed. Mick Jagger, Madonna, I've played with just about everybody."

Pierre Perrone

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