So I went to the Poor House Bistro Wednesday for their tribute to Ron Thompson; had a good time, met some new friends and spoke to some familiar faces, but I didn’t stay as long as I would have liked. My stomach was feeling a little queasy and it ain’t so much fun drinking water instead of beer, but also I still had work to do on my Sunday show.
I was surprised by the number of people already there when I arrived just before 6PM, which I thought was the starting time, but obviously I was wrong. I heard a few people recall tales about Ron and listened to videos of him performing at the Bistro. It was odd because I wanted to clap whenever the music stopped.
I was also surprised that no one seemed concerned about personal contact; no masks and everybody wanted to shake hands. I’m not paranoid about the virus but, mostly for other’s benefit, I have been avoiding hugs or handshakes, but not there.
I told a couple of people I would send them the tribute to Ron that I wrote so that is at the end of this note. I also wish to thank Kelly, one of those new friends, who called up when he heard me playing Ron’s music and I mentioned the essay I did. He took it upon himself to create a notice with a link to that blog and distribute it around the Bistro. Obviously, Ron Thompson still has some strong fans.
When I got home and opened my emails I discovered the building that houses KSCU will close at 7PM on weekends through March 28th and could go even longer if the Coronavirus precautions are extended. Oh well, put that show on hold until next year’s St. Patrick’s Day! You guys all take care; I can’t afford to lose any listeners!
Every time I thought about Ron Thompson in recent years, I wanted to kick my butt around the block a few times because I let a golden opportunity pass me by. It was a no-brainer. Certainly because I feel that I do interviews terribly, I never got around to inviting Ron to KKUP for an interview although I knew he was happy to do it. It would have been such a natural fit because my show ended at 5PM on Wednesday afternoons and Ron had a weekly gig a coupla miles away at the Poor House Bistro starting at 6PM. I often stopped by for a couple of beers and some Blues on my way home, but before I capitalized on the situation Ron’s health started a strong downhill trend and he had to give up the gig.
Ron was a big supporter of community Blues radio. He performed a couple or three times at KKUP’s Blues marathons and added slide guitar to one of Johnnie Cozmik’s J.C. Smith Band CDs. Speaking of Johnnie, there was a time when he was often unavailable as my alternating host so he made arrangements for Ron’s sister, going by the name Mercy Baby, to cover the shows he couldn’t make.
I first heard about Ron when I was living in Ben Lomond around 1978. A guy I met had him play at a party and, knowing I was into Blues, he was proud to play a tape from it for me. Later, in the early 80s when I started tending bar, a friend of mine who knew Ron played an LP for me because I was a big time Magic Sam fan and he figured I would verify what he already knew, that it was, indeed, not Magic Sam but Ron Thompson. I wasn’t very familiar with Ron, but it certainly was not anywhere near Sam’s style. The album, Just Pickin’, is one of the three CDs used on today’s playlist, along with Just Like a Devil and Magic Touch. I also have a John Lee Hooker live 1977 recording from the Keystone in Palo Alto, a 2CD set titled the Cream, which includes Ron and John Garcia on guitars and the harmonica of Charlie Musselwhite, so it may be included on a future show.
Ron, one of the most revered Bay Area Bluesmen in recent decades, was born in Oakland on July 5th 1953 and grew up in Newark. A multi-instrumentalist, Thompson mastered piano, harmonica and mandolin, but it was his guitar playing that most set him aside from the rest, whether it was alone on an acoustic country Blues or in a full band setting headed up by his vocals and electric guitar, especially powerful in the bottleneck slide style.
Ron began learning slide shortly after picking up guitar at the age of eleven. He spent about five years playing the Bay Area clubs on his own and backing other artists, most notably Little Joe Blue, in his late teens. In 1975, Ron joined John Lee Hooker’s Coast to Coast Blues Band where he stayed as bandleader for at least three years, then formed Ron Thompson and the Resisters in 1980. After signing with Takoma Records, Ron had his first release in 1983, Treat Her Like Gold. In addition to his own gigs, Thompson was still a popular backing guitarist for folks like Lowell Fulson, Etta James and Big Mama Thornton. Ron made a connection with Fleetwood Mac drummer Mick Fleetwood in the early 80s and came together in Mick Fleetwood’s Blue Whale, performing when the schedules of both musicians aligned.
His second album, Resister Twister, was released by Blind Pig in 1987, garnishing Ron a Grammy nomination, followed in 1990 by Just Like a Devil, a collection of tunes gleaned from his appearances on Mark Naftalin’s Blue Monday Party radio show and released on the pianist’s Winner label. Naftalin is probably best known from his part on the early Paul Butterfield Blues Band albums before he, like so many other white Chicago Bluesmen, moved to the Bay Area. (Think Michael Bloomfield, Elvin Bishop, Charlie Musselwhite.)
In 2007, Ron’s album Resonator showed him as an acoustic solo performer. His last album, Son of Boogie Woogie, came out in 2015 on keyboardist Jimmy Pugh’s Little Village Foundation label and Pugh’s 2018 comments to the Marin Independent are poignant. “Not only can he play the blues, he can sing it in a way that’s more convincing than practically anyone these days. He grew up in tough circumstances in East Oakland, and I don’t think you can find a better example of someone who’s that believable, that authentic. He’s the real deal.”
It takes a lot to impress Tom Mazzolini, longtime Blues DJ and for decades mastermind of the San Francisco Blues Festival (in its last years the longest running Blues festival in the country), but Ron managed to pull it off. “He played a long time with John Lee Hooker, and really got the Hooker style down. When I heard him play slide (guitar), I thought he was the reincarnation of Elmore James.” And, more explicitly, “I’ve always felt Ron is the most talented blues guitarist I have ever seen. He can do it all. He’s extraordinarily gifted. What many folks aren’t aware of is that Ron was a huge asset in the re-emergence of John Lee Hooker. He was the foundation for that boogie sound.”
The enthusiastic praise continues from Andy Grigg, music critic for Real Blues magazine, who wrote: “If you haven’t experienced Ron T. live, I can’t even begin to convey the absolute go-for-broke Blues rave-ups and sweat-soaked pandemonium Thompson and his Resistors dispense on a nightly basis. When it comes to slide guitar workouts, I would say he’s the Best in the World, and yet the man sings his ass off too.”
In addition to the Bistro, in recent years Ron played local venues such as Biscuits & Blues in San Francisco or Fremont’s Mojo Lounge, even San Jose’s JJ’s in its heyday. He honed his sound in East Bay clubs like North Richmond’s Playboy Club and Oakland’s Deluxe Inn or Eli’s Mile High Club.
Among his other domestic performances, which included many of the major Blues festivals, Ron’s international performances included the Jazz and Blues Sessions in Berne, Switzerland, as well as stages in Poland, Mexico, and Belize. The list of musical luminaries Thompson played or recorded with is extensive, notably Carlos Santana, Bonnie Raitt, Tina Turner, Elvin Bishop, Bill Medley, Huey Lewis, Dr. John, Bobby Womak, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Robert Cray, Z.Z. Top, Big Mama Thornton, Bruce Willis, Luther Tucker, Jimmy McCracklin, Pee Wee Crayton, Carla Thomas, Booker T. Jones, Percy Mayfield, Etta James, B.B. King, and Jimmy Reed.
When another Bay Area Blues legend, harmonica man Mark Hummel, assembled a lineup in 2013 for a tribute tour honoring Jimmy Reed, the Chicago Blues master who died in Oakland in 1976, with most notably Lazy Lester, Kim Wilson, Rick Estrin, Little Charlie Baty, Joe Louis Walker and Kenny Neal, Thompson’s long time friend Hummel emailed that “Ron stole the show!”
On tour after recording Chris Isaak’s San Francisco Days, Isaak warned the audience, “You might think these crowd barriers are here to keep you away from the stage. They’re not. They’re here to keep Ron Thompson away from you!” Steve Cropper, guitarist, songwriter and founding member of Booker T and the MGs, stated, “What this guy knows, you can’t get out of a book”, but perhaps John Lee Hooker put it best and most simply: “Ron Thompson, he’s my main man!”
Aside from his one Grammy nomination, Ron didn’t acquire nationwide acclaim reached by many he performed with; still, he was held in the highest local esteem, Mayor Gavin Newsom proclaimed Sept. 5, 2007, as Ron Thompson Day in San Francisco. He twice won Bammies (Bay Area Music Awards) and a Colorado Blues Society’s Lifetime Achievement Award. He also made it into the Blues Hall of Fame.
Ron passed away eight days ago on Saturday, February 15th at the age of 66 after long suffering the ravages of diabetes. He required a leg to be amputated in 2017 and had been in a coma for about the last month due to a hypoglycemic seizure. A memorial is being planned for April, according to Hummel. Although his website, rtblues.com, appears to have been last revised around 2014 you still might want to check it for any updates that may occur. Or maybe his Facebook page @ronthompsonofficial.
Ron told the Bay Area News Group in 2005, “Blues is like a medicine, or religion to me, It’ll cleanse your soul.”