KING 4384; JULY 1950



Musicians with diverse backgrounds who could write, play and arrange with the best of them but only consented to sing under duress were always in a tough spot when it came to finding consistent commercial success in rock ‘n’ roll. Instrumentals could be huge, as Sonny Thompson showed before anyone, but they often seemed to be chalked up to blind luck or fate rather than due to rigorous planning.

So ambitious artists began to view their subsequent singles as ways to use their name recognition to explore different moods and vibes that on the surface didn’t always have an obvious commercial hook to them, but which promised some artistic kudos from those in the know which might help to ease the sting of a flop in the often fickle marketplace.


Exotica… In Cincinnati?
Having established his reputation as the master of the slow groove with his 1948 chart topper Long Gone, it would’ve been easy and predictable to spend a lifetime chasing another such hit by utilizing the same formula.

Not that Sonny Thompson didn’t try that – and succeed to a certain extent when Late Freight also mined the same ground and hit the same heights the following summer. But merely repeating oneself ad nauseum is hardly aesthetically rewarding and so Thompson began branching out in search of a different image with mostly disappointing results.

At his worst these efforts moved too far into the pop realm, featuring him playing pretty melodies on piano without a hint of rhythm that had been his stock in trade and not surprisingly audiences quickly turned on him as a result of his striving for upper class acceptance. So, needing to earn his keep yet still satisfy his artistic yearning, he began to move back to a stronger rock base from which build from, but with a more creative twist than might’ve been expected.

Having moved to King Records after Miracle Records folded shop at the end of 1949 Thompson either was reinvigorated by his new surroundings, or found renewed inspiration… or more likely was told in no uncertain terms to give them something better suited for the audience he’d briefly ruled and so he began to break down the groove-based approach he’d scored big with and added a few more off-beat elements to it in an effort to give songs like Palmetto a slinky and slightly dangerous feel to them.

With its vaguely exotic foreign sounding hook Thompson provided listeners with an active imagination a form of aural escape to go with whatever liquid or chemical escape its audience might imbibe in on a Friday or Saturday night.


When Thompson was the biggest artist on Miracle Records, a label clearly in over its head when it came to management, he was forced to juggle multiple tasks… from backing other artists and probably creating most of their arrangements to writing his own material and touring behind his hits.

But now that he’s with King Records the pressure is off. If he’s occasionally asked to sit in behind another artist – and he will be – it won’t be with their careers in his hands, he’ll just be a hired gun, paid to play, not organize.

While he’s still largely responsible for coming up with the material for himself he now has an equally qualified sounding board to help him out in Henry Glover, the former trumpeter turned writer/producer for King Records who is fast proving to be one of the best and most versatile behind the scenes stars in the entire business… not just rock either.

Palmetto was co-written by the two of them and whoever is responsible for that hook deserves a gold star. Since it’s played on trumpet I’ll assume it’s Glover who came up with it (John Hunt is the one playing it), but Thompson had certainly written songs in the past where the horns are the most prominent feature and so it’s not inconceivable he had a bigger hand in it than you’d expect.

It’s so captivating that you wish they’d emphasized it even more and bolstered the atmosphere considerably. Instead it was left to Johnny Otis to do so a few years later when he appropriated it for Midnight Creeper, accentuating the mesmerizing Middle-Eastern feel to it even more until you feel you’ve been dropped into a harem.

As distinctive hooks go it’s hard to beat something so evocative.


Or Mid-West?
That trumpet takes the first standalone spot to give the song an indelible vibe after the saxophone establishes the rhythmic pull in the intro. From there however Hunt wanders a little too much, letting the hook fade before his spot is over.

Once he steps aside Thompson comes in for an extended run on piano, contributing to the song’s quirky mood music ambiance as he seems in search of a melody but not exactly intent on looking too hard for one.

He plays well of course but it’s the kind of thing you aren’t inclined to notice and will appreciate more if it blends into the background. Luckily Lloyd Cooper’s drums never wander from their appointed rounds and when Frank Henderson’s saxophone comes in Palmetto picks back up and it becomes more of the kind of song we’re accustomed to.

Henderson exhibits a great tone, sensuously drawing out his lines over the entire range of his horn, from the lows he sticks to early on before gradually going up as it progresses, his lines straining but never squealing, giving the song an amazing flexibility.

He drifts a little by the end, though Pee Wee Moore’s baritone adhering to his own repetitive riff keeps the song from veering off course too far, and once the original hook returns with multiple horns working in lockstep this time around they take it to the finish line in comfort and though atypical for a rock instrumental you’re more than satisfied with the overall journey they took you on.

The Right Mood
The career path of Sonny Thompson has been more of a series of zig-zags so far rather than a definitive arc, something which makes us greet each record with curiosity and eager anticipation along with some creeping dread that he might wind up heading someplace we don’t care to visit.

He winds up hitting all of those checkpoints with this release but thankfully splits them between the two sides of the single, exploring his more uptown pop-jazz inclinations with Nightfall, a song for which only the title is worth so much as a penny of the seventy nine cent asking price for the record.

In truth that’s the kind of easy listening mood music most he could’ve probably made a career on in its own right, though it’s hard to imagine him being fulfilled by songs with mostly empty horn lines and dainty piano fills and where the rhythm section would frequently sit out altogether, possibly because they fell asleep.

But the manner in which King Records indulged Thompson’s urge for upward mobility was a smart one here. They gave him a chance to be as white-bread as he wanted on the one side, but then used Palmetto to satisfy the actual fan base who made him a star.

Which of these approaches Thompson preferred isn’t clear, a few times on Miracle his head got lost in the clouds on more pop-oriented stuff too, but he always returned to the solid ground of rock ‘n’ roll and would remain there consistently for the next decade as one of King Records’ most reliable contributors in a variety of guises.

This might not have been the kind of hit material they were after, but as artistic experiments go there’s a lot to like here if you’re in the mood for something a little off the beaten track.


(Visit the Artist page of Sonny Thompson for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)