Drummer Tony Thompson, who died in an Encino, Calif., hospital yesterday (Nov. 12), proved his freewheeling musical approach at his first audition for Chic, according to producer-guitarist Nile Rodgers, Thompson’s longtime partner in the funk-disco group.
“We were playing a simple R&B tune, but his approach was like the Mahavishnu Orchestra,” Rodgers recalls to Billboard.com with a laugh. “He threw in everything but the kitchen sink.”
Thompson — who distinguished himself as a top session drummer on numerous ’70s and ’80s R&B and rock hits — had been suffering from renal cell cancer, and underwent surgery earlier this year. He died three days before his 49th birthday.
Born in New York in 1954, Thompson got his start with the R&B group LaBelle. In 1977, he took the drum chair in Chic, which scored the No. 1 R&B hits “Le Freak” and “Good Times.” The signature lick from the latter song became a rhythmic linchpin in Grandmaster Flash’s groundbreaking 1981 rap single “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel.”
After Chic dissolved in 1981, Thompson often worked on producer Rodgers’ sessions. One of the most memorable was for David Bowie’s 1983 album “Let’s Dance.” Rodgers recalls that Thompson and former Chic bassist Bernard Edwards were called in to work on a couple of tracks, and nailed the takes within 15 minutes. “That kind of virtuosity and that kind of musicality was the essence of what Tony did,” Rodgers says.
Thompson also played behind artists as diverse as Madonna (on “Like a Virgin”), Mick Jagger (on the solo album “She’s the Boss”), Debbie Harry, Sister Sledge, Diana Ross, Rod Stewart, Jody Watley, Duran Duran and Robert Palmer.
In 1985, Thompson teamed up with Palmer and Duran Duran’s John and Andy Taylor in the rock unit the Power Station. The group’s self-titled album contained two top-10 hits, “Some Like It Hot” and the T. Rex cover “Get It On (Bang a Gong).”
The same year, Thompson joined surviving Led Zeppelin members Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones, along with second drummer Phil Collins, for a semi-Zeppelin reunion at the star-studded Live Aid concert. Says Rodgers, “How many people can fill [the late Zeppelin drummer] John Bonham’s shoes?”
There was talk that Thompson would take Bonham’s seat in a reformed Led Zeppelin, but recording sessions came to a halt after the drummer was involved in a serious car accident in 1986.
He worked with decreasing frequency in the ’90s. Rodgers believes that Thompson, who he describes as “the loudest drummer I ever worked with,” may have suffered severe hearing loss. Recalling a session for the 1993 Jimi Hendrix tribute “Stone Free,” the producer says, “I remember playing with him and realizing, ‘Oh my God, it’s a different guy.'”
Thompson is survived by his wife, Patrice Jennings, and her two children. Fans can make donations in Thompson’s honor via the TonyThompsonfund.com Web site.