KING 4431; FEBRUARY 1951



Three years ago Sonny Thompson was the biggest hitmaker in all of rock ‘n’ roll, proud possessor of two Number One hits and the master of the instrumental “groove”.

Back then he was the cornerstone of a small label who proved to be in far over their heads and they were unable to parlay his success into a solid operation and the company shut down just as the Nineteen Fifties dawned.

Now Thompson is on a label that was bigger, better and more ruthless than the rest, the King of the heap as it were… pun definitely intended.

But with this company Sonny Thompson has become something of an afterthought in many ways… a guy to fill out the release rolls, not to headline them.

The ironic part about that however is this is probably what Thompson actually preferred all along, musical anonymity with a steady paycheck.


O Henry
In due time Sonny Thompson would find his ultimate niche as a largely behind the scenes figure, playing piano, writing and producing for others with occasional releases of his own to satisfy whatever lingering creative urges he himself had as an artist.

For now though he was sort of biding his time and letting others handle the responsibilities of overseeing the content of his releases. But whereas in many cases that might be a detriment, with King Records in 1951 that was actually a smart move, for the top producer, songwriter and musical guru for the label was Henry Glover who was on par with – or even slightly above – any comparable name in rock, be it Maxwell Davis, Dave Bartholomew, Paul Gayten or Jesse Stone.

In Thompson he found an ideal artist to experiment with, as Sonny was a very good pianist with wide musical tastes. If you wanted to go in a pop direction, he was game. Jazzier sounds? No problem. A hint of the blues? Sure, he could do that too.

But rock was where the money was and where Thompson had made his name and so that was still going to be the primary outlet for their collaborations, but in the case of Smoke Stack Blues the two of them managed to seamlessly combine some jazz aesthetics, a bluesy feel and the kind of subversive slow rock groove that Thompson was famous for.

By now this sort of thing probably wasn’t going to be a hit, but it was also not going to be rejected out of hand by anyone who heard it because it was perfectly suited for whatever setting you required… as a backdrop to something nefarious or as a way to grind with your baby on the dance floor or merely as a placeholder between more rousing selections on the jukebox.


Catching Trains At Night
In a lot of ways the sounds Thompson – and Glover – were exploring as of late were laying the groundwork for a lot of things still to come.

Last time out on Blues For The Nightowls, their efforts were a clear template for a later song by Big John Greer which used roughly the same melody, added vocals and scored a big hit with Got You On My Mind.

This time around the connection isn’t quite as strong, but there’s a very definite ambiance that Smoke Stack Blues shares with yet another 1952 smash by another artist.

Even the titles are vaguely connected in that they both reference trains, but this time it’s not the melody so much as the atmosphere that ties it to Jimmy Forrest’s striptease anthem Night Train.

But while it’s widely known that Forest got the riff to his classic hit from Duke Ellington’s Happy Go-Lucky Local… yup, another train reference, I wouldn’t be surprised if he got the mood of his record from listening to Sonny Thompson’s group here, because it’s got the same striking combination of a crawling pace with an anticipatory vibe running through it.

Both records are like poisonous snakes laying out in the midday sun, moving slow but seemingly ready to strike at a moment’s notice. Whereas Forest does on his record (or at least the baritone does in response to Forrest’s riff), Thompson doesn’t here, choosing instead to just lull you into a drowsy state with his left hand on the keys while the horns – including Glover himself on trumpet (a rare appearance for him these days) playing the riff behind it.

The break finds Harold “Tina” Brooks on tenor sax creeping along, coiling and uncoiling without ever breaking a sweat before William Shingler’s guitar does likewise, both giving you different sonic textures while maintaining the same basic feel, all while Thompson’s left hand never slacks off, sticking to that root pattern until you’re hypnotized.

As a result the record is ALL anticipation and no pay-off, but that’s not as big of a let-down as it might seem because you remain transfixed on what they’re doing and for that matter you remain curious about what they’re NOT doing, or rather what they might do but never quite follow through with.

If at any second they shifted gears you’d be ready for it, expecting the pace to accelerate, another instrument to come barreling in, or the sax to start squealing. Maybe had they thrown in a stop-time break, trading off between the instruments in more abrupt fashion it might’ve been a more dramatic record, but I’m not sure it would’ve been a better one.

Sometimes you just want to ease back, relax and let the music carry you away, drifting downstream without a care in the world. This record will not only let you do just that, it will more or less insist upon it.


The Right Mood
With all of the focus on rock records as party starters, sometimes it helps to remember that during those parties you need to take a breather every now and then. If the music stops altogether though there’s going to be trouble and so you have to have something to act as a backdrop so the natives don’t get restless.

Smoke Stack Blues is perfect for that. You’d listen to this without complaint for as long as it went on – I’m waiting for someone to come up with a 12 inch club mix of this – and while it’s nothing that will stop you in your tracks, there’s something perversely alluring to it all the same and it’s one of those records where the more you hear it the more you fall under its trance.

File this one under rock’s mood music playlist and pull it out whenever the hour is getting late, the booze and weed are slowing your reactions, but you’re not yet ready to pass out because there’s still a long way to go before morning.


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