The Artistry of Danny Thompson: Part 1, The 1960s

I have been toying with the idea of writing an article about Danny Thompson for a while. His playing is a common thread across so many albums I cherish, that dedicating an artist profile article to him seemed inevitable. But where to begin, what to cover? There are over 400 album credits with his name on it, spanning almost six(!) decades. The task seemed monumental, given my inability to avoid digging deep into my chosen subjects. I finally decided to take the plunge and go for it. So here is the first article in a series (what else?) that will cover a few decades of his unique career. This one here is dedicated to his work in the 1960s.

Danny Thompson was born in 1939, taking his name after ‘Danny Boy’, the song his miner father loved to sing. He tried his hand with various instruments including trumpet, mandolin and guitar, but the first serious instrument was the trombone, an instrument of which he said: “It is the only one I had much success with, probably because it’s an instrument of judgement, just like the bass.” He gave up on the trombone due to his love of boxing: “I lost my first fight and swore I would never lose another one. And I didn’t, in 22 fights. That was one of the reasons I gave up the trombone, because a smack in the chops is not very good for that.” His desire to play with his mates in a skiffle band led him to the bass as a DIY project: “I made my own tea-chest bass and at 14 I would get on the London buses with it to go to gigs and play.” The entrepreneurial lad had the foresight to build hinges into his bass, making it collapsible and easily transportable on a bus.

At the age of 15 Thompson bought Victoria. Don’t leave in disgust, no basic human rights are violated in this story. Victoria is a French bass circa 1860 built by Gand, a famous string instrument builder. This was the beginning of a beautiful love affair with a musical instrument. Thompson tells the story: “I bought her for a fiver from an old man who I promised to repay at five shillings a week. I collected her and the same night did a gig in a Wandsworth pub for fifteen shillings [three weeks’ money!]. On the way to the pub it was drizzling and she got quite wet and when I started to wipe the rain from her, all the beautiful varnish came through making the trumpeter remark: ‘blimey it’s probably a Strad or somethin’!” Victoria is not a Strad, but its worth was many folds what Thompson paid for it: “The next day he took me to Foote’s bass shop in Brewer St, Soho and they offered me £130. I took her back to the man and said ‘this is worth £130, not a fiver’. But he said ‘look son, if you want to play it, just give me the £5’. I think back to that a lot and think that it was meant to be, especially as it turned out that this was an extraordinary instrument that I now cherish. She’s been on countless recordings from the 1960s until now – and she is beautiful.” Danny Thompson remarked that for him to play on a different bass “it’s as though I’m being unfaithful. It feels like I was sleeping with some other woman while my wife is in hospital delivering my baby!”

Danny Thompson with Victoria

Danny Thompson joined the army as a marching band musician, opting to play the trombone, an instrument much more practical than a double bass in that context. He left the army “absolutely totally broke”. Soon after he got his first break in the music business when in 1963 he was offered a tour with Roy Orbison. That was a few years after Orbison’s big hits ‘Only the Lonely’ and ‘Crying’ were released and the new single ‘In Dreams’ was playing on the radio. Orbison was a big name, but still, Danny Thompson has not heard of him. The offer was to play a bass guitar, an instrument he never played before. He recounts the story: “I said ‘I don’t play bass guitar. They said ‘It’s alright, we’ll show you’. So I said ‘I haven’t got one.’ ‘We’ll get you one.’ They got me a bass, they got me an amp and 40 quid a week. I said I’ll do it.” It ended up being the famous tour that Orbison did in the UK with The Beatles. He was supposed to get top billing, being the big American star, but thousands of screaming girls following the fab four everywhere convinced the tour promoters to drop his name a notch.

This was the first and last time Thompson played the electric bass: “I found it effected my left hand, playing electric bass so I never ever played it again. But I can say the only time I played electric bass was with: ROY ORBISON.”

At the end of 1963 Danny Thompson joined one of the most important British bands of the early 1960s, Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated. Formed in 1961, the band included in its early days drummers Charlie Watts and Ginger Baker, keyboardist Graham Bond and bass player Jack Bruce. It was one of the very first amplified rhythm n’ blues bands and it was hugely influential on young musicians who would soon stir up the genre’s revolution in the UK, including Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart, Paul Jones, John Mayall and Jimmy Page. The band comprised of an ever changing cast of musicians. At the time Danny Thompson joined the Blues Incorporated it included great reed player Dick Heckstall-Smith. The two would meet again later in the 1960s recording with Davey Graham.

With Alexis Korner’s band in 1963. Thompson up a lamp post.

The first album Thompson recorded with Alexis Korner was Red Hot from Alex, released in 1964. The sleeve notes included this paragraph: “Danny Thompson – a name to be noted for the future – is one of the best of the new crop of young bassists who have suddenly started appearing in Britain.”

Drummer John Marshall, who would join the band later, noted that all members of the group shared a love for jazz music and had a soft spot for the music of Charles Mingus. Here is the band’s interpretation of Haitian Fight Song, one of Mingus’ best known compositions. A great spotlight for Danny Thompson early in his recording career:

Like many musicians at the start of their recording career, Thompson took any session work that came his way. These sessions required versatility with musical styles, reading skills and chops with the instrument. Thompson had all these, and his ability to feel at home in recording settings very different from each other proved to be a great asset throughout his life. Recalling one recording session that crossed the boundaries of classical and jazz he said: “One time I turned up and it was to play Nuages with John Williams. They wanted someone who knew Django Reinhard’s music and Williams did not want it to be someone from the classical world.”

Back in those days you had to be on your toes when you entered a recording session, sometime not having any idea what the session was about: “We used to get a lot of recording work in the Fifties and Sixties where you would arrive not even knowing what music you were going to be playing, or who with. If you asked who you were going to be playing with, the booking agent would mockingly say . . . “Who is it, you ask? Are you bloody free or not?”

One session in 1964 led Danny Thompson to play on one of the most famous TV themes of all time, for the legendary Supermarionation that created Scott, John, Jeff, Virgil and Alan Tracy and of course Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward. If you did not guess it yet, these were the Thunderbirds. The series is still hailed for its special effects and the musical score, composed by Barry Gray. Danny Thompson probably did not know it at the time, but this is one of the most famous tunes he plays on:

In the mid-1960s Danny Thompson kept busy working with Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated and its rotating line up. In 1966 he participated in the recoding of the group’s album Sky High, with Terry Cox in the drummer’s seat. The two musicians also formed a trio with Alexis Korner that performed on the children’s TV show ‘Five O’Clock Club’. Korner was musical director of the show and guests included everyone from the Tornados and the Tremeloes to The Zombies and the Yardbirds. The show may have not been Thompson’s artistic peak, but it paid the bills: “That show with a glove puppet bought me my first house. All the money I used to earn on jazz gigs used to get blown before I got home but the fees from that one, Five o’clock Club, Tuesdays and Thursdays with Muriel Young, every schoolboy’s dream, went straight into the bank. So I was able to be sensible for once.”

With Terry Cox Thompson also played in blues singer Duffy Power’s group, sharing the stage with a young guitar prodigy named John McLaughlin. These music connections kept morphing into new groups and recordings. In 1967 The Danny Thompson trio with John McLaughlin and sax player Tony Roberts recorded a radio broadcast date. Here is the track Gotta Go Fishing, demonstrating Danny Thompson flexing his jazz muscles, and an early preview of McLaughlin just before Miles Davis, Mahavishnu and hundreds of decibels:

During these years Thompson learned not only the skills of an all-around bass player, but the ability to project his sound by relying only on the strength of his fingers. He said of that period: “When I played jazz with people like Tubby Hayes at Ronnie Scott’s, they didn’t tootle around – you were either a silent bass-player, or you managed to cut through. I was always recognized as someone who got really stuck in, although people used to laugh at me with blood pouring from my fingers. I don’t want to give the wrong impression, mind, because Tubby used to grimace at some of the notes that were coming out, but at least they could hear them.”

The Tubby Hayes Quartet featuring Mike Pyne, Danny Thompson and Tony Levin, the Ritz Ballroom, Bournemouth, April 22nd 1966. Photos from the archive of Chris Bolton-Levin

Folk music represented a good portion of Danny Thompson’s musical diet in the mid-1960s. He played on Marianne Faithfull’s 1966 album North Country Maid and on a number of songs on the album Watch the Stars, a collaboration between guitarist John Renbourn and singer Dorris Henderson. The African American folk and blues singer moved to Britain from the US in 1965 and started working with John Renbourn as a duo. Their album makes an interesting listen and combines well the folk disciplines from both sides of the pond. Here is the opening track from that album, When You Heat Them Cuckoos Hollerin’, featuring the fine fingerstyle guitar playing of John Renbourn:

In 1967 Thompson participated in the recording of an album that was released at the peak of the summer of love. It is a psychedelic folk gem from one of the most exciting bands of the late 1960s. We are talking about The Incredible String Band, with two of Scotland’s finest, Robin Williamson and Mike Heron. Full of exotic Middle Eastern and Indian instruments and the duo’s offbeat compositions, The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion is a wonderful relic from that year in music. Danny Thompson recalls the experience of working with the two: “I was used to characters on the jazz side but the Incredible String Band did flip me a bit. When I met them, it was the full hippy bit, sitting on the floor with bits of carpet and tapping drums and finding out there’s a spare track on the tape and going out to get a trombone to play on it.”

The Incredible String Band – The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion

The album was recorded at Sound Techniques studio in London, with Joe Boyd producing and John Wood engineering. Thompson would return to collaborate with that mighty team, so critical to the evolution of electric folk in Britain in the late 1960s. What convinced Thompson to work on The Incredible String Band’s album was the songs: “Mike Heron and Robin Williamson played me all these tunes and the experience of playing with blues guys like Josh White where there’s no form definitely helped. But the songs were extraordinary and the first one I worked on, The First Girl I Loved, is one of the great love songs. But it was still like two different tribes meeting.”

The song was later covered by Judy Collins and Jackson Browne. Mike Heron remembers the recording of the song and Danny Thompson’s contribution: “Robin does a spine-shivering ‘First Girl I Loved’, just weeks after he’d written it. Y’know, it’s totally uncontrived, it hasn’t had time to get contrived or have any arrangements done to it. And it’s a brilliant ‘take’. It comes pure, it’s just completely beautiful. It has Danny Thompson’s bass-playing – which is lovely.”

You are 2,000 words into the article, and it is time to introduce THE band that most people associate with Danny Thompson. In a recording career that has him listed on 400+ album credits that must be one helluva band, you say, and it is. Its name is Pentangle and as the name suggests, it has five members. Its roots begin in a TV show called Gadzooks, a pop music program which aired on BBC2 in 1965. John Renbourn and his music duo with Dorris Henderson were regulars on that show which also featured Alexis Korner and his band, with Danny Thompson and Terry Cox. By that time Renbourn had already met guitarist Bert Jansch and the two started recording together. John Renbourn remembers: “‘I met Danny and Terry on Gadzooks. Alexis Korner had the house band. We all met up at Cousins because Alexis liked to play there with Danny and Terry as a trio. In effect we borrowed them, having jammed there, before moving on to the Horseshoe.”

In 1966, after Dorris Henderson left to the US, John Renbourn asked Jacqui McShee to sing on his album Another Monday. All members of Pentangle knew and worked with others in the band before they started playing together as a quintet.

Pentangle, 1967

In 1967 they started performing at a club located in the Horseshoe Hotel on London’s Tottenham Court Road. On Sunday nights the club hosted folk music courtesy of Pentangle, although that name was not yet penned, and usually Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and Jacqui McShee were advertised. McShee recalls: “Those Sunday nights at the Horseshoe were actually more like rehearsals. Sometimes we’d rehearse a song in the afternoon and not have it quite ready but do it anyway, just to see how it would work out.” The Horseshoe performances were a critical part in the evolution of the band, sort of a woodshedding experience that melded together five distinct musicians into a very unique and cohesive sound. Danny Thompson: “We’d play these folk tunes. I’d always add my improvised bits and I’d say to Bert, ‘Instead of playing the regular pattern why don’t you repeat this little section while John does a solo?’ That’s how those improvised bits came in, which was pretty new. That became the Pentangle sound.”

Pentangle, 1968

Pentangle’s debut album, The Pentangle, was released in May 1968. The opening track, Let No Man Steal Your Thyme, was released as a single in the US. The band was categorically listed as a ‘Folk’ band, but a quick peek at the clip below demonstrates that they were far from just that. Although the song is a traditional British folk ballad, Danny Thompson’s mastery with the bow, the guitar accompaniment by Bert Jansch and John Renbourn and the sensitive brush strokes by Terry Cox show the classical, blues and jazz influences all musicians share. And then, of course, there is Jacqui McShee’s voice and presence:

Due to excellent booking skills of their American manager Jo Lustig, the band quickly became quite successful. In 1968 alone they played 11 BBC Radio 1 sessions, performed at the prestigious New York Carnegie Hall and the Paris Olympia and on a number of music festivals. On June 29 that year, they performed at the London Royal Festival Hall, an event that was recorded and released on the album Sweet Child. A magnificent performance that many consider a peak in the band’s career. The record was released as a double album, the second consisting of studio recordings. Together they make one of the finest 80-minutes of music captured on vinyl, with the band moving effortlessly among an amazing array of styles. Here is the title track from the studio recording:

1969 brought with it Pentangle’s most successful album, Basket of Light. It climbed to the top 5 of the UK album chart, propelled by the selection of the single Light Flight as the theme song for the TV series Take Three Girls.

Pentangle’s Basket of Light in good company, Melody Maker’s albums chart, March 1970

Take Three Girls was the first TV series in full color on the BBC, telling the stories of three girls sharing an apartment in London. It is unclear how a song that moves between meters of 5/8 and 7/8 in its verse and then to 6/4 later in the tune was selected for a popular TV series, but kudos to whoever had that foresight. At any rate, Pentangle became the material of Top of the Pops and were featured in pop magazines in the early 1970s. A very unnatural and uncomfortable scenario for all members of the band, none of them with an iota of the glitz teenyboppers look for. Here is Light Flight:

And if you are curious, this is how it sounded during the opening titles of the Take Three Girls TV series:

In 1969 Pentangle toured the US, including a performance at Fillmore West sharing a stage with The Grateful Dead. Danny Thompson commented on how the media and audiences in the UK and US seem to differ regarding the band’s versatility with multiple genres of music: “In America it didn’t bother them. They didn’t look upon us as anything, just as British music. Surprisingly, even the folk purists over there went wild about it all – and they seemed particularly pleased about the acoustic idea. They seem to think we’re bringing it back from the 14th century.”

Summarizing his work with Pentangle, Danny Thompson tied all that success to their roots at the Horseshoe club: “We’d have extended sections of solos and whoever was soloing would give a little lick that we all knew and that would be the cue for everyone to come back in. It worked really well. I’m amazed that we used to do three hours at the Albert Hall, sold out a month before-hand – every gig was the Horseshoe, really.”

Pentangle at the Cambridge Folk Festival in 1969

We will come back to more of Pentangle in the next article in this series, but we have more 1960s material to cover here, as Danny Thompson became one of the most sought-after bass players in the exploding folk scene of the late 1960s.

In 1968 Thompson played a key role in Davy Graham’s album Large as Life and Twice as Natural. The British guitarist, famous for his instrumental piece Anji from his debut EP 3/4 AD in 1962, has been a major influence on many younger folk guitar players in the sixties, including Thompson’s Pentangle band mates Bert Jansch and John Renbourn. Graham and Thompson have already collaborated on Graham’s 1965 album Folk Blues & Beyond, and in 1968 the mix of styles Graham experimented with expanded to include blues, jazz and ethnic music from India and the Middle East. The cast of musicians on the album is fantastic, featuring Harold McNair on flute, Dick Heckstall-Smith on saxophone and Jon Hiseman on drums, the last two at the time with jazz-rock outfit Colosseum. Thompson plays a number of duets with Graham including Bruton Town, a traditional song that Pentangle performed on their debut album the same year. His contributions on bass are pretty high in the sound mix, showcasing his competence with all the styles played on the album. In the sleeve notes Graham described him as “a poised and elegant musician who often smiles though seldom laughs.”

Here is one track from the album, a very unique cover of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now. Thompson’s playing throughout the track is exemplary, starting with the bowed notes in the intro and accompanying Graham’s vocal two and half minutes into the song:

Towards the end of 1968 Danny Thompson participated in the recording of Bert Jansch’s solo album Birthday Blues. Jansch looked no farther than the inner circle of Pentangle when recruiting a rhythm section for his album, and both Thomson and Terry Cox are on board. As you might expect, some of the songs could have easily been featured on a Pentangle album, but others have a different vibe about them. One example is Poison, a song that also features Duffy Power on Harmonica. The blues musician was likely invited by Thompson, the two connecting after their brief work with Terry Cox and John McLaughlin a couple of years earlier.

1968 also brought with it a track featuring Danny Thompson that along with The Thunderbirds theme was to be his claim to commercial fame. Its artistic value was somewhat more dubious. We are talking about Cliff Richard and his Eurovision Song Contest hit Congratulations. The song was released a few weeks ahead of the competition and expected to bring the hosting nation of England an easy win, but it came second losing by one point to Spain. Non-essential trivia and a skippable song compared to the rest of the material in this article, but still a memorable experience for Thompson: “For the Cliff Richard recording we turned up at the Abbey Road studios and I saw [Scottish jazz trombonist] George Chisholm and Ronnie Scott waiting outside in the street, so I knew it would be fun. I got nine shillings, 10 pence and 15 bob portage for playing on Congratulations.”             

1969 was a busy year for Danny Thompson. Outside the increasing activity with Pentangle, he can be heard on a number of excellent albums recorded that year. The first is Times of Change, the debut release by Magna Carta, a new band formed by guitar player and singer Chris Simpson. Equally influenced by folk music from both sides of the Atlantic, the trio excelled in weaving together lyrical guitar parts and pastoral melodies. An acoustic bass was a perfect fit for their sound, and Danny Thompson contributes well to some of the songs on the album. Here is one fine example, Romeo Jack:

We skip a few recording sessions that took place in the late 1960s on albums by Donovan (Barabajagal) and Michael Chapman (Rainmaker), and close this article with a bang. Producer Joe Boyd remembers the first time he listened to the music of Nick Drake after the recluse singer left a demo tape in his office: “On a winter afternoon in 1968, I put the reel-to-reel tape on the little machine in the corner of my office. ‘The Thoughts of Mary Jane’, then ‘Time Has Told Me’. I played the tape again, then again. The clarity and strength of the talent were striking. There was something uniquely arresting in Nick’s composure. The music stayed within itself, not trying to attract the listener’s attention, just making itself available. His guitar technique was so clean it took a while to realize how complex it was.” Boyd knew he had to record Nick Drake, but also that the songs could benefit from additional orchestrations and guest musicians. His strong connections in the emerging folk rock community as producer of The Incredible String Band and Fairport Convention made it easy to invite some of that talent to the recording sessions. Nick Drake’s debut album, Five Leaves Left, is a fantastic album. The songs would have probably sounded great just with Drake’s voice and guitar playing, but they were made better due to the contributions of mainly two artists: one is orchestrator Robert Kirby, to whom I dedicated an article on this blog. You only have to listen to songs like Way to Blue, Day is Done and Fruit Tree to understand the beauty of his work on this album. The second is, you guessed it, Danny Thompson. He plays on five out of the ten songs on the album and as usual, his contributions are world class.

Joe Boyd remembers the interaction between Danny Thompson and Nick Drake, two gifted musicians with personalities a world apart: “Danny was a great figure in those sessions. He’s such a great spirit, and he adored Nick. A lot of us who are very fond of Nick were very careful of him, because he seemed very delicate, and so we kind of tiptoed around him a little bit. But Danny would come into a session and clap Nick in the middle of the back very hard, ‘Wotcher cock’ and give him a Cockney rhyming slang greeting, and tease him. ‘Come on Nick, speak up,’ and Nick loved it. Nick adored Danny.”

Thompson talked about the recording sessions for that album: “I was left to get on and do what I do, which was pleasurable for me. Some people assume that it was just me and Nick in there, having a fag and talking about crumpet and playing, but it wasn’t at all. He was in one corner of the studio not even playing – his tracks were already down. He was watching as I played, he had a grin on his face. There was nothing written for me. There was that instant rapport that a musician has with another musician who realizes that that’s what he wants.”

One more guest in the studio was Fairport Convention’s guitar-extraordinaire Richard Thompson, Joe Boyd’s go-to guitar player on many recording sessions he produced at the time. The opening song from the album, Time Has Told Me, finds Richard Thompson and Danny Thompson play on the same recording, a feat they will repeat many times in the coming decades:

Books have been written about Nick Drake and his constant battle with depression. Danny Thompson offers his perspective: “A lot of people ask about Nick Drake after gigs, usually people like him – very sensitive, withdrawn, tortured souls. I tried everything with Nick: I was horrible to him, I was nice to him, I was patronizing to him, anything to try and get something out of him. When I’ve been suicidal, thinking, ‘What is this all about, sitting on this silly rock, plummeting through space?’ I’ve understood him.”

In the next article we will focus on Danny Thompson’s activity in the 1970s, a decade of personal turmoil but also an amazing output of recordings on albums by Pentangle, John Martyn and many others.

The following sources were used during the writing of this article:

Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music, by Rob Young

Pentangle: A History in Several Parts, Colin Harper

THE SUNSHINE BOYS TOUR booklet


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7 replies »

  1. Nitpicking: the time signature of ‘Light flight’ changes from 5/8 to 7/8; there’s no such thing as 5/7. The repeatin phrase can also be seen as two bars of 5/4 and then one bar of 2/4.

    • Thank you, fixed. In theory a 5/7 time signature is possible. A time signature with a denominator that isn’t a power of 2 is called an irrational time signature. But yes, I meant 5/8 and 7/8.

  2. Great article. It’s amazing just how many records I’ve been listening to and thought ‘that bass sounds like Danny Thompson’ only to check the credits and see it is indeed him. One of my favourite albums he is all over is Ralph McTell’s ‘Not Til Tomorrow’ on which his playing is as ever, superb.

  3. Wonderful to read this. I’m looking forward to reading about the rest of his career. I was lucky enough to see Danny and Victoria a number of times with RT. I would have loved to have seen him with Pentangle, a band that I absolutely love.

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