KING 4345; MARCH 1950



How many dances do you think Sonny Thompson and his band played over the previous two years since they’d scored the biggest hit in rock?

A hundred? Two hundred? Five hundred?

Remember now, they were musicians who weren’t allowed to work in the studio for the first of those years thanks to a recording ban and despite having two consecutive Number One hits that year – both of which Thompson himself wrote – their royalties, assuming they got any at all, would probably barely be enough to buy them all cheeseburgers and fries for dinner each night.

That meant to put bread on their tables they had to go to clubs and play, night after night, city after city, using their name recognition garnered by those records to get the people in there and then using their ability to deliver the sounds those people wanted, beyond just the familiar hits, to KEEP them there and keep them coming back.

This then is exactly the kind of song they’d have whipped up on the bandstand to satisfy those needs.


The World’s Largest Crop
We can assume by the writing credits – Thompson / Bernard – that this was not in fact created on stage during a long set in some sweaty club, for “Bernard” was actually a pen name for Henry Glover, King’s producer who was a legitimately great musician himself, and one of the first black men to be given control over a prominent label’s output. He was also a gifted songwriter and so this was surely something they collaborated over in an office or studio.

But the description of the song and the likely impetus behind such tunes remains applicable… if anything it might make the concept behind the song more likely.

Glover, like Thompson, knew those long nights on stages firsthand having been a trumpeter for Lucky Millinder’s band for much of the 1940’s. The style of music they played was slightly different of course, but the general idea behind these songs remained the same – appeasing the audiences urge to shimmy around the floor, keep them moving (and thus keep them happy) yet at the same time not be so ostentatious and over the top about it that you’d scare off those in the crowd who were too shy to strut their stuff in public.

In other words, bands were getting paid to draw people IN those clubs via their music, so the music has to keep them there. Those who came to dance need songs reasonably appropriate for that activity, while those who came mainly to socialize need to be able to not lose their hearing as they tried to hold a drunken conversation.

Songs like Sugar Cane are perfectly suited for both ideals. It’s got a nice consistent groove to it, a Thompson specialty, a steady rhythm to loosen inhibitions, a catchy melody to assuage the wallflowers who still want to feel involved in the music even if they’re sitting “this one” out (and the next and the next and the next in case any one asks).

But if you turn your attention away from the song so you can order another drink, or ask for a match or strike up a conversation with someone else at the bar, the music not only won’t overwhelm you, but it’ll be just omnipresent enough to fill in any awkward silences as you and this other person size each other up.


Natural Sweeteners
Does all that sound somewhat unambitious for serious musicians?

It isn’t. In fact, it’s the cornerstone of almost all good live club sets in almost any type of music and Thompson’s ability to consistently fill this need – on stage and in the studio – was one of his greatest strengths as a songwriter and bandleader.

Let’s start with the rhythm of Sugar Cane which is evident on the first notes of Thompson’s piano that’s immediately buttressed by a pulsing bass and thwacking drums. In just eight seconds your shoulders are already grooving even if you remain glued to your seat. If you’re standing up those shoulders are going to tell your hips to get ready to move next, even if your feet are reluctant to head onto the floor.

When the horns join in though your hips have conspired with your thighs to tell your knees to get your feet in gear and now you have little choice because none of those body parts are consulting your head and the many insecurities which lay within that cranium.

The horns are playing two simultaneous patterns that make their form of seduction hard to resist. The baritone sax is churning in place, circling around and around in a tight loop almost if it’s waiting to pull you into the fray on the next go-round. Because it doesn’t stop you can’t avoid it, eventually you’ll make eye contact with that rhythm and you won’t be able to say no.

Meanwhile the other horns, higher pitched but still aimed low enough to attack your midsection, are drawing their pattern out, playing a riff that has a droning opening to get you to lean forward in anticipation, followed by a stuttering refrain to provide release and closing it out with a second held note to bring you back into the fold again.

The two distinct lines work in tandem so that if you try to avoid locking in on one then the other will surely get you, and because they’re so compatible chances are you’’ll be wedged between them before long, unable to squeeze yourself free.

Granted none of it is too complex but then again it’s not meant to be. Its simplicity is part of its appeal, allowing you to pick up on it almost instantly, even if you just came back from the bathroom or wandered in off the street. Like constantly running streetcar, you’ll always be able to grab a ride on it.

Cane Cutting
Melody and rhythm intertwine throughout the song. The middle section of the aforementioned horn riff hints at a melody, as does the next appearance of the baritone sax following that section, an unlikely lead instrument for a melodic section rather than a rhythmic one perhaps, but effective all the same.

What’s not quite as effective is Thompson’s turn in the spotlight on piano that follows. It’s not that he’s playing poorly, but rather that it’s got the feel of an interlude… that is, a break between one section you really like and another to follow that you’re eagerly awaiting. The choppy two-fisted keyboard work isn’t rhythmic enough, nor melodic enough, to make for the best bridge between the two. A briefer transition played the same way would’ve been fine, kind of like a stutter step effect to get you to realign your feet as you head on your way, but this is too many notes jumbled together to keep you comfortably in stride.

But then again take another look at the artist credit for Sugar Cane and you can understand Thompson’s desire to take a bigger role.

Now on stage this might not have been the worst thing in the world, especially if the song dragged out for five or six minutes or more, which is entirely likely, rather than being forced to confine itself to a three minute single. Then such modest indulgence would’ve been met with a better reception, if only because when you’re out on the floor you want to build to something more communal to give you that ability to cut loose again.

Sure enough when he steps aside the horns do just that, jumping back in with a flourish, headed up by the tenor which is improvising over the now familiar rhythmic patterns that form the bedrock of all this. What the lead horn is doing isn’t explosive unto itself but combined with all of what we’ve heard so far it acts as a form of musical liberation, a sign that it’s okay to just do your own thing out there on the floor and let it all hang out.

Of course Thompson’s got a tight crew with him who know how and when to pull everything back together so it doesn’t dissolve into chaos and when the pieces start falling back into place it gives off a vibe of close-knit security that brings everybody in the club together.

Having been on the same musical journey, some riding on that train others standing on the platform looking on with envy, it’s probably reassuring to know it’ll be pulling back into the station and soon everyone will climb off again, milling about, getting their bearings and greeting new faces and waiting for the next song to come along and take them somewhere else.


In 1950 the club scene was still rock’s bread and butter in many ways with the singles acting as the advertisements for those nights on the town. As rock ‘n’ roll became more ubiquitous however the singles were becoming the focal point and before long it’d no longer be necessary to get your fix for music by frequenting nightclubs.

For the time being though the two held each other up and songs… err… records like Sugar Cane served both masters pretty well.

It might not be distinctive enough to be a hit but it was catchy enough to be appreciated wherever and however it was heard… on your own turntable, a jukebox, a late night radio show aimed at your degenerate tastes or at some hole in the wall club on a night when you had little more to do than get lost in the atmosphere they were laying down.


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