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Off the Beaten Tracks: Danny Thompson, ace of double bass

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IN previous columns I have mentioned the great Danny Thompson in connection with favourites such as Bert JanschJohn MartynJune Tabor and Maddy PriorNick DrakeTim Buckley and the Incredible String Band. But these are mere fragments of an illustrious musical career spanning more than half a century which involves jazz, folk, blues, world, country and pop. Who else could claim to have played with Roy Orbison, Sandy Denny, Richard Thompson, Donovan, Marc Bolan, Rod Stewart, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, Loudon Wainwright III and Marianne Faithfull plus a host of jazz greats? Not to mention on Cliff Richard’s Congratulations and TV’s Thunderbirds Are Go. Phew! Where to start?

Daniel Henry Edward Thompson was born on April 4, 1939 in Teignmouth, Devon. His father, a miner from the North East and one of 12 siblings, joined the Royal Navy at the beginning of World War II and was killed in a submarine battle. Danny, a toddler at the time, later learned that his father had been a good singer who loved the tune Danny Boy so much that he named his son after it. In 1945 the remaining Thompson family moved to Battersea in South London, then a rough area yet to be gentrified. Between bouts of fisticuffs with neighbourhood toughs, young Danny took up the trombone, encouraged by uncles who had played in colliery brass bands. However football was his first passion and he played for Chelsea juniors at the beginning of a lifelong infatuation with the club. He then took up boxing, telling the Daily Telegraph’s Martin Chilton: ‘I lost my first fight and swore I would never lose another one. And I didn’t, in 22 fights. That was one of the reasons I gave up the trombone, because a smack in the chops is not very good for that.’  

While at grammar school Danny also tried trumpet, guitar and mandolin but settled on the double bass as his instrument of choice. ‘I made my own tea-chest bass and at 14 I would get on the London buses with it to go to gigs and play in skiffle bands.’ The tea chest was replaced by a proper bass bought from ‘an old boy in Battersea’.

Following a brief stint with the British saxophonist Tubby Hayes, Danny joined Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, playing on the 1964 LP Red Hot From Alex. That same year he contributed to the theme tune for the Gerry Anderson puppet series Thunderbirds.  

‘We used to get a lot of recording work in the Fifties and Sixties where you would arrive not even knowing what music you were going to be playing, or who with,’ he told Chilton. ‘If you asked who you were going to be playing with, the booking agent would mockingly say, “Who is it, you ask? Are you bloody free or not?”’

Thompson made several more albums with Korner while contributing to LPs by Davy Graham, Julie Felix, Marianne Faithfull, Dorris Henderson, the Incredible String Band and Wally Whyton (remember him?)

In 1967 Pentangle was formed, comprising Thompson on bass, Bert Jansch and John Renbourn on guitars, Terry Cox on drums and Jacqui McShee on vocals. It was an eclectic mix, with Thompson and Cox grounded in jazz, Jansch loving the blues, Renbourn interested in early music and McShee traditional folk. Their eponymous first album came out in May 1968, the same year that Danny played on Congratulations, the Eurovision Song Contest runner-up for St Cliff. He remembers turning up for the session at Abbey Road Studios. ‘I saw George Chisholm and Ronnie Scott waiting outside in the street, so I knew it would be fun. I got nine shillings, 10 pence and 15 bob portage (a total of £1.24 in today’s brass) for playing on Congratulations.’ Highlights of The Pentangle include Let No Man Steal Your Thyme and Waltz. 

In November 1968 came a double LP, Sweet Child, a mixture of live and studio recordings, the former including Market Song and Bruton Town. The following year’s Basket of Light included Light Flightwhich provided the theme for BBC 1’s first drama series in colour, Take Three Girls. Sally Go Round The Roses features sterling work by Danny. As does Willy O’ Winsbury on the band’s final album, Solomon’s Seal.

Thompson stuck with Pentangle until they disbanded in 1972, having become increasingly frustrated with their traditional repertoire. ‘There was no reason for me to stay, no incentive, no enthusiasm . . . we were just continually rehashing old traditional songs,’ he said.

By this time he had built up an enviable reputation as a session player thanks to his work on albums such as Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left, Rod Stewart’s Every Picture Tells a Story and John Martyn’s Bless The Weather. Thompson and Martyn became great mates, united by a huge thirst for alcohol, and would engage in drunken arguments on stage while the crowd waited for them to carry on playing. ‘We used to drink a great deal together,’ Martyn once said. ‘I got really drunk one night and woke up and he had nailed me under the (hotel room) carpet. I couldn’t move my hands or feet. I was very dry and had a hangover and I said, “Danny, please . . . get me, get me a drink.” So he stepped over my helpless body, went to the phone and in a very loud voice said, “Can I have a glass of orange juice for one, please? Breakfast for one, please.” I was screaming blue murder by this time. I was furious! He met the guy in the hall, so the guy couldn’t get into the room and see what was happening. He sat in front and downed the orange juice and had the breakfast.’

Thompson, in turn, recalled: ‘We had a fight in Hull, a real fight in a hotel and he had two black eyes and his thumb was in a bandage because I got hold of his thumb to get him because he does all these dirty tricks. He was shouting and screaming about doing the gig and so on. I had some superficial damage. So we came out on to the stage and he sat down with his Martin guitar and we hadn’t said a word because we really had the needle with each other. I went up to the mic and said, “Old Black Eyes is back!” And he just cracked up!’ For much more of the same I can recommend this brilliant programme An Evening With Danny Thompson, with the master raconteur on top form.

Martyn’s superb albums Solid Air and Inside Out, which contains my two favourite Martyn songs in Fine Lines and Ways To Cry, owe most of their brilliance to Danny’s lyrical bass work. ‘We never spent time discussing what we were going to do,’ he said. ‘It was a musical conversation with John, taking in all strands.’ As I wrote here, Thompson worked on the Sunday’s Child album (check out his wonderful work on Spencer the Rover ) but on 1977’s One World he featured on only two tracks. By the end of the Seventies Danny had tackled his alcohol problem but John’s struggles with drink and drugs were getting worse. The two men remained staunch buddies, however, playing live together whenever possible and Thompson was devastated when Martyn died in 2009. ‘I miss John all the time,’ he told Chilton in 2014. ‘I never understood grief until he died. We had great times and loads of rucks but it was a true friendship. Good times with all the lumps. We were very fortunate that the music between us was so natural. It was something we never talked about. I thought about chucking it all in when he died.’

Following the demise of Pentangle Danny remained close to Bert Jansch, producing a couple of tracks on his classic 1973 album LA Turnaround and playing on several more records, including the 1979 instrumental collection Avocet. Listen to his amazing contribution to this track, Kingfisher

Come the 1980s and Danny was still in hot demand as a session player, appearing on albums by, among others, Donovan, Kate Bush, Talk Talk, Loudon Wainwright III, Ralph McTell, June Tabor (on her jazz album Some Other Time), Billy Bragg, David Sylvian and Dagmar Krause. In 1987 he made his first solo album, Whatever, with guitarist Bernie Holland and Tony Roberts on saxophones, Northumbrian pipes and woodwinds. The following year came Dizrhythmia, a combination of rock, folk, jazz and Indian music. Another world-flavoured collection from 1988 was the excellent Songhai, with kora player Toumani Diabate and the flamenco group Ketama.Whatever Next was released in 1989. To get an idea of the sheer volume of the Thompson oeuvre, here’s a link to his discography. 

Danny kindly agreed to look over this column before publication and he pointed out that he played on stage with stars such as Little Walter, Josh White, Brook Benton, Joe Williams, Art Farmer, Freddy Hubbard, the Who (acoustic), Five Blind Boys of Alabama (two albums with them), Eric Bibb and tours with Roy Orbison plus many, many more.

During the early 1970s Danny and Richard Thompson (no relation) were rivals in their bands Pentangle and Fairport Convention. There was no antagonism, however, and Danny came to play on many of Richard’s albums, including 1982’s Hand of Kindness, 1988’s Amnesia and a collaboration between the two men, Industry,  about the demise of the mines and steel mills. Danny’s uncles Albert and Harry both appear on trombones. Another family note – his son Danny Junior was the drummer in Hawkwind between 1985 and 1988, and thereafter with Hawklords.

In that 2014 interview with Martin Chilton, which coincided with a series of gigs to mark his 75th birthday, Danny reminisced: ‘I’ve played with some wonderful musicians of all sorts and enjoyed the differences. I have no prejudice as far as music goes. I’ve played with great jazz men such as Humphrey Lyttelton and I love playing folk, too, and have played with many of the modern greats, such as Richard Thompson. As long as I have my hands on my upright bass, I am the luckiest bloke in the world.’

Asked if he still practised as hard as ever, he replied: ‘I still do at least an hour a day to keep the oil working in the fingers. I always think of when the cellist Pablo Casals was interviewed on his 94th birthday and was asked that and he said he practised around two hours a day. And when the interviewer expressed surprise that a maestro should be doing that, he said, “Well I’ve just started to see some improvement”.’

PS: Thanks to Danny for his time, and to Andy Marshall for help and suggestions.

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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