Danny Thompson: Part 2, The Early 1970s

In the previous article we looked at Danny Thompson’s recording career in the 1960s, including the first three albums by Pentangle, guest appearances on albums by Nick Drake, The Incredible String Band and many more. Read the article here:

Danny Thompson: Part 1, The 1960s

We are now in 1970 and midway through the career of the original Pentangle lineup. Following the release of their most successful album Basket of Light towards the end of 1969, the band spent a large portion of 1970 touring. After a tour of the UK, they immediately crossed the pond and kicked off their US tour with a performance at the prestigious Carnegie Hall in New York City. This was no doubt the work of their American manager Jo Lustig. New York was his hometown and that performance meant something special to him. Danny Thompson recalls an emotional Lusting backstage after the show with tears in his eyes.

Jo Lustig on his wedding day 1967. Dee Daniels (right), with American folk singer Julie Felix on the left. Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images

Lusting was known to many as an aggressive loud-mouth New Yorker who burned a few bridges during his lifetime. But he was also a brilliant PR man and Danny Thompson remembers him favorably: “When Pentangle was looking at becoming a serious thing I said we need a manager and I got Jo Lustig. He was a serious old school Jewish businessman. There were a lot of criticism about financial stuff but I say without Jo Lustig it wouldn’t have happened and that’s the truth. He loved the band. He called us the MJQ (Modern Jazz Quartet) of folk.” Lustig’s early clients included Nat King Cole, the Birdland jazz club and George Wein’s Newport Jazz Festival, and the two shared a love of jazz and bonded during the long tours. Danny remembers a funny episode: “I was sharing a room with Jo in Australia when Pentangle was on tour and we had the TV on. They were talking about Leonard Bernstein and the Australian presenter said ‘the very late Leonard Bernstein…’ So Jo went to the phone, got through to ABC and said ‘You just killed my client! I want to you retract what you said about Leonard Bernstein. He is alive in New York.’ When he put the phone down I said to Jo ‘You don’t manage Leonard Bernstein.’ he said ‘I know, but if did, that’s what I would do.’ That’s the kind of man Jo was.”

Another funny Jo Lustig story, or maybe this one is more about Danny Thompson’s love of music: “Pentangle sold out the Albert Hall, six thousand people. The next night I was working a pub around the corner with a great jazz group – Danny Moss on tenor sax, Phil Seaman. Jo Lustig saw the advert in the music press. He phoned me and lambasted me ‘Danny! How can you do that? You do a sell-out concert at the Albert Hall and then next night you are working in a pub!’ I said ‘It’s great music. Why Not?’”

Pentangle, Central Park New York May 1971. Photo: Robert Altman

Shel Talmy, producer of the first three Pentangle albums, had a fall out with Jo Lustig and his personal opinions of the manager differ widely, but still he praised his work as a PR man. He also held the band in high esteem: “It was probably the most rewarding stuff I ever did, because we did everything from medieval chants to modern jazz, and all the stages in between. And that was just great. Every session was a new session. They were the best, I thought, of their representative fields.” While he did not socialize with most of the band members, he did with Danny Thompson: “I got along better with Danny, who I’m still friendly with, by the way, and Terry Cox, than I did with the other three. Danny didn’t give a shit because he’s Danny, and he has a great sense of humor. He wouldn’t take shit from anybody.”

Jo Lustig’s relentless PR got Pentangle very busy with touring and TV performances in 1970. One important TV appearance was on BBC’s ‘In Concert’ series, produced by Stanley Dorfman. Danny Thompson recalls: “They did Tom Paxton, Dylan, Bobbie Gentry. He phoned the BBC and said ‘I got a group that fills up the Royal Albert Hall in 3 days and they are British and you don’t give them a spot. Disgusting!’ I was doing a lot of work with the BBC at the time and Stanley Dorfman said to me ‘Danny, we’re gonna have an ‘In Concert’ program with Pentangle. If only you can get your manager off my phone!’”. Lustig may have been annoying to some, but without him we wouldn’t have had this great footage. Here is Pentangle playing Hunting Song in 1970, originally from the album Basket of Light:

The band was used by now to perform in venues that usually feature amplified rock bands. Only a year earlier that experience was a shock to them. Danny remembers: “We go on stage at the Fillmore West and Bill Graham says ‘If you want loud and you want rock n roll then go home and watch John Wayne movies. The group I’m going to introduce you to from England is the sound of silence – Pentangle.’ We were on stage with Rhinoceros, Canned Heat. It was unbelievable. Five nervous English people.”

In August of 1970 the group performed in front a crowd that dwarfed anything they experienced before. This was the third and final year of The Isle of Wight music festival in its original form. The band had already played the festival in 1969, but this time they played in front of a crowd estimated at 600,000 people. Their set was spoiled by numerous disruptions, including the Rolling Stones helicopter hovering over the stage, a bad sound system and finally, as Jacqui McShee remembers: “This woman got up and trod on my foot and said, ‘This should be a free festival!’” Pentangle’s performance was sandwiched between Donovan and The Moody Blues on the last night of the festival, to be followed by Jethro Tull and Jimi Hendrix.

Pentangle at Isle of Wight 1970

Everything is big in America, and that goes for sizes of venues and audiences. Danny Thompson in an interview at the time: “We’ve worked bills with James Taylor, Tom Paxton and John Sebastian – in university gymnasiums which hold 15,000 people. You imagine the Albert Hall holding six and a half thousand and then realize that we’re regularly playing to eight thousand; I just can’t get a hold of it all. I honestly didn’t expect this kind of reception, and the kids in America are talking about us in terms of a legendary group.”

The group had its taste of indulgence as was the norm for touring bands. They were performing next to all sort of bad boys, many times sharing the same hotels and transportation. Danny recalls: “We were this quiet, sounds of silence group onstage but we did shift some booze in our day; our love lives were amazing too. When we toured with Jethro Tull they used to get stick for damage to hotels but they were the quietest, meekest bunch of fellers you’d ever want to meet. The damage was done by Pentangle, the Sounds of Silence.”

Pentangle. Photo: David Redfern

But the constant touring took its toll. The four lads and one gal were not cut out for that kind of life on the road. Rock ‘n rollers they were not and Danny Thompson in particular was always on the look for jazz gigs, not your typical activity for a bad boy on tour: “We were working at The Village Gate in New York, and just around the corner was Miles Davis, and also in the vicinity was the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band and Doc Watson. When you’re competing against those sorts of people you’ve got to play well.”

Between 1970 and 1972 the band released three studio albums, one each year. The first was Cruel Sister, released at the end of 1970. The band opted to feature only traditional songs, but the eclectic influences that were abound in the previous albums are all still here. The album’s centerpiece is a side-long interpretation of Jack Orion, a tour de force for all five musicians:

One facet of playing in Pentangle that most appealed to Danny Thompson was the freedom he was allowed within the musical constraints of playing in an ensemble: “I used to get a lot of space within an ensemble like that. The fact that Terry was a very sympathetic percussionist, and he wasn’t all over the drum kit, gave me that space, and I did take liberties.“

Musically the group functioned very similar to a jazz quintet, with plenty of room for each musician to express their ideas either during ensemble pieces or solo spotlights. Bert Jansch: “We used to have solos in the band. That would involve a 20-minutes solo from Danny. We got into the jazz habit of actually leaving the stage. We could leave anybody on the stage. We got to the point that when we wanted to have a drink, we would devise it so that Jacqui will be left on the stage on her own and we all managed to get to the bar. Sometimes we would forget that she was still up there.”

In 1971 the group released the album Reflection. The fantastic title track is a great example of Danny Thompson’s ability to squeeze sounds and emotion out of the double bass. The studio version of this tune starts with him layering three tracks of bass parts. We are lucky to have great footage from a 1972 studio performance for the Belgian TV performing that song:

In 1971 Danny Thompson was featured in the TV program Music Room, hosted by folk guitarist and music educator John Pearse. Danny showcased his great technique playing an improvised solo before taking up the cello on a duet with flutist Ray Warleigh in a beautiful interpretation of Scarborough Fair:

Danny remarks in the clip before starting to play the cello: “Pablo is not around.” A Pablo Casals story as told by Danny: “Pablo Casals, in a TV special on his birthday in the 1990s was asked ‘maestro, how do you spend your day?’ and he says ‘well, I do two hours practice, and…’ and the interviewer says ‘What? One of the greatest maestros in the world, genius virtuoso, you still do two hour practice?’ and he says ‘Yes, because I’ve just started to hear some improvement.'”

That story is consistent with Danny Thompson’s modesty about his ability and role as a musician: “I am quite happy to play one note for half an hour if it is the right thing. I heard a track with Ray Brown, probably with Oscar Peterson. During the tune he goes pi di dun dun dun dun (drops the pitch lower and lower). This friend of mine says ‘He just played a scale!’ I said ‘Yeh I know, but it was perfect!’ Someone else would not have done that, but because he is such a brilliant musician, he played what was needed – a simple scale.” Profound words from a virtuoso.

Danny Thompson

A less familiar chapter in Pentangle’s musical activities in the 1970s is their involvement with film music. After they saw success with the music they contributed to the TV series Take Three Girls including the hit Light Flight (covered in part 1 of this article series), Jo Lustig was on a quest to find them more opportunities in that field. At the end of 1969 they were contracted to write music for the movie Tam Lin, a British retelling of the legendary traditional ballad, starring Ava Gardner and Ian McShane. The movie ended up a flop, and the promise of a soundtrack album sank with it. But we do have the film, and here is a clip:

Another opportunity came up in 1971, this time for a documentary that told the story of Christian the lion. The wild cat was purchased by John Rendall and Anthony Bourke at Harrods (this was before the Endangered Species Act in 1976 that ended this practice), and raised in captivity in London. It was later released in the wild in Kenya under the trusting hands of conservationist George Adamson, known as the one who raised Elsa the Lioness. The movie ends with a reunion between John and Anthony and Christian in Kenya. Here is that emotional scene with Pentangle’s music:

But time was running out for Pentangle. They had a great run of six years, with the same number of studio albums. Danny Thompson remembers the recording of Cruel Sister in 1970 as the beginning of the end: “After a long time together it became like a recipe: let’s take a folk tune, let’s put a little bit of jazz. Cruel Sister was a very satisfactory album, but it led to me thinking ‘maybe it is time for a change for me’ because I didn’t want it to become a recipe.”

By 1972, after more touring and recording, the band ran out of steam. Danny recalls: “In 1972 we were in the studio and I said ‘look, I think I better move on, but I don’t want to destroy what’s happening. I can recommend a really good bass player who comes from a jazz background.’ That never happened. It became a little bit too safe. I’m a very selfish person. I want to be excited. My three commandments where: Good people. Good music. Paid. I found it harder and harder to try and get excited. Someone leaned over to me and said ‘you got to admit Danny, it’s really boring but its good money.’ I thought ‘That’s it. Why carry on?!’”

Summarizing his time with Pentangle and the band’s legacy, Danny said: “It was a very important group at the time. Nothing like it before. It never occurred to me that we were changing anything. Only later when people talked about how important that group was for many reasons. And it was, all the time that we had that spirit.”

Pentangle

During the Pentangle years Danny Thompson kept a busy schedule of recordings with other artists. In the previous articles we reviewed late 1960s recordings he did on classic albums by Donovan, Nick Drake, The Incredible String Band and others. The trend continued in the 1970s, as touring allowed.

1970 was a busy year for Pentangle, with over 100 performances in the UK and the US, plus TV shows and an album recording. Still, Danny Thompson found time to guest on a few albums. The first is by gifted saxophone and flute player Harold McNair, with whom Danny Thompson played on many jazz sessions in the 1960s: “Harold McNair was a wonderful player and a really fine gentleman. He came over from Trinidad. We had a big influx of Caribbean musicians, Shake Keane, Coleridge Goode, Joe Harriott. They worked extensively in London. I became part of the Harold McNair quartet. There was a good amount of work for these bands, the same rhythm section with different front lines.”

McNair, who played with Charles Mingus when the bass player visited London in the early 1960s, released two albums in 1970 that feature Danny Thompson: Flute & Nut and The Fence, both produced by Sandy Roberton. Here is a fine example of both musicians’ skills on flute and double bass on a big band number from the album Flute and Nut:

Harold McNair had an unhealthy weakness for tobacco. Danny Thompson remembers: “He was a phenomenal player but unfortunately had a love of Rothman’s cigarettes.” Sadly McNair died from lung cancer in 1971, at the age of 39.

In 1970 Danny Thompson played on the album Earth Mother by singer Nadia Cattouse. This was the last album she released, and by that time she amassed a fine career as an actress, singer and songwriter. The short opener B.C. People is another showcase for Danny Thompson, who gets the honor to play the first notes on the album:

As can be expected from a musician who amassed thousands of live and studio dates, some of these dates from 50 years ago are now lost to memory. Danny had no recollection of the Nadia Cattouse session, but he still had a story to tell: “I was asked to do an album with the keyboard player from Level 42. I’m in the studio and he started to play the first piece. I played and he stopped and I looked at him. ‘I’m sorry’ he said ‘I just can’t believe I’m working with you. I’ve been listening to you since I’ve been about four’. I said ‘I usually get 16 or 17, but 4?’ He said ‘Yeh, you worked with my mom, Nadia Cattouse.’” Cattouse married composer and arranger David Lindup and their son Mike Lindup is the keyboard player in the band Level 42.

One more from 1970. Bread, Love and Dreams formed when Angie Rew and Carolyn Davis met David McNiven in Edinburgh. After their debut album in 1969 they were at risk of being dropped by their label Decca, but producer Ray Horricks secured a recording studio for a week in 1970 in which they recorded enough material for two albums, The Strange Tale of Captain Shannon and the Hunchback from Gigha (what a great name) and Amaryllis. The sleeve notes thank Danny Thompson and Terry Cox for “taking time off from Pentangle to help.”

Here is the title track, showcasing again Danny’s dexterity with the bow:

1971 rolls in and brings with it a large number of guest appearances by Danny Thompson due to reduced amount of touring with Pentangle. I will have to skip a few, including Shelagh McDonald’s fantastic album Stargazer, Therapy’s album Almanac and Tudor Lodge’s self-titled album. Let’s start with something different, an album by classical guitarist John Williams titled Changes. Composer, conductor and producer Stanley Myers, who worked extensively in the movie industry as a composer of film scores, knew Danny Thompson well from various film sessions. He wrote the music for the movie Tam Lin we discussed earlier, among many others. He brought Danny and a large cast of very accomplished musicians to the recording. This was a work out session compared to the material Danny was required to play on albums of folk music. Danny remembers: “It was a really difficult reading session, especially that track, the theme from Z. Complicated rhythms, it was unbelievable. I remember running across the studio, getting into the drum booth and saying to Terry Cox ‘can you sing the rhythm for me? papata-tatatat, tata-tatatat. I went back to the bass. The cellos, that never used to look at a part, they were so blasé about it, even they were panicking.” I listened to that track, written by famed Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis, and it is indeed very complex rhythmically. Here goes:

The album sold poorly on release, but saw success several years later following the movie The Deer Hunter in 1978, for it included the original recording of the film’s theme song Cavatina. The beautiful melody, written by Stanley Myers, was re-recorded for the film, but our Danny is on the original track. He has a funny story to tell: “I was invited to a small party in Malibu by a producer. I went there and was having a glass of water, and Robert De Niro came in. There was a piano player there and he started to play that theme. I thought ‘how embarrassing, for Robert De Niro to walk in and someone is playing that theme, that is so sickening.’ and I thought, what would be more sickening is for me to go to Robert De Niro and say ‘hey, I was playing bass on this.’”

John Williams – Changes

One more story about that album, this time featuring a jazz classic written in 1939. Danny: “There were other bass players on there – Joe Mudele, Chris Lawrence, serious classical bass players. When we finished, Stanley said ‘Thank you very much gentlemen, that is all. Oh Danny, could you stay?’ I said ‘Why?’ ‘We want you to do a duo with John’. ‘What? Use one of these guys’ they said ‘No, no, no, we want you to play that Django Reinhart piece, Nuages.’”

Aside from the many esteemed classical musicians, guest musicians on this album include John Williams’ future Sky band mates Herbie Flowers and Tristian Fry, and one Rick Wakeman, shortly before joining Yes. Danny was impressed: “Rick Wakeman plays on that recording. He was fantastic, he could read anything, Rick.” Danny has fond memories from that session and its leader: “John was a lovely man. You usually find that all the great ones are pretty nice people. They don’t have to be flash.”

Danny Thompson

Next is a single and a rare opportunity to see Danny Thompson listed on a single cover. A little background is due: In the 1960s Celia Hammond was one of England’s top models, including modeling of fur coats and accessories. After learning about the cruelty that fur hunters inflict upon seals in an annual massacre in Canada, she turned from being a model to an advocate for animal rights. In 1971 Donovan, with whom Danny Thompson collaborated in the 1960s, dedicated a song to her in his album HMS Donovan.

Donovan – Celia of the Seals single

The song was released as a single and although it did not make a dent in the UK charts, Danny gets the honor of being credited on the single cover, albeit misspelled. Danny thinks there may have been an ulterior motive here: “Maybe because Donovan never paid me because it was a charity, he gave me the credit.” At any rate, it is a lovely song about a disturbing topic, with very effective delivery by the two musicians:

In 1971 John Renbourn released the album Faro Annie. After playing traditional songs on his previous album The Lady and the Unicorn, here he showcases his bluesy side on the electric guitar. Producer Bill Leader, who also worked with Pentangle, Bert Jansch and a host of British folk acts at the time, remembers: “He marshalled all his girlfriends for that one – Sue Draheim and his previous young lady, Dorris Henderson, who hit the studio like a bomb. She was a very exuberant lady. Perhaps Sue felt a little awkward, but not much ever fazed Dorris! A lot of time was spent in the pub; a lot of Pernod was drunk by John, I seem to remember. But there was some good playing.’” Here is the title track with a prominent bass line and fine playing by John Renbourn and Sue Draheim on violin:

In the late 1960s and early 1970s Tony Visconti and Danny Thompson worked in similar circles. That period shows a number of folk albums in Visconti’s resume as a producer and arranger: Strawbs, Magna Carta, Bert Jansch, Ralph McTell and others. A bass player himself (electric bass), when he needed an acoustic bass on his productions he knew who to call. One such album was close to his heart: Earth Song/Ocean Song by Mary Hopkin, his girlfriend at the time and soon to be his wife. Trapped in an image of a pop star after her quick rise to fame with her first single Those Were the Days and an appearance in the 1970 Eurovision Song Contest, Mary Hopkin was a folk singer at heart. Planning a new album with Tony Visconti, they conceived an acoustic recording session with strings. In his autobiography Visconti remembers telling her: “’Why don’t we use my mates Ralph McTell and Dave Cousins on guitars and Danny Thompson on bass.’ Mary’s eyes lit up because she knew them by name. The British folk scene was fairly small but already had its icons in those days: Danny Thompson was the first-call bassist for virtually all British folk recordings.”

This is a wonderful album featuring great playing by all involved and beautiful string arrangements by Visconti. One such song is Martha, written by Harvey Andrews. Mary Hopkin remembers: “That was fun to do, quite spooky. I’m a great fan of discordant music. I love musical seconds, and weird sounds coming in – the chance to get something dark or creepy in there. Danny’s part is amazing. It continues a thread that runs through the whole album.” Tony Visconti adds: “The bass fiddle doesn’t often go up in that register, playing lead. But Danny does it so well.” Here goes:

Danny Thompson remembers the album fondly: “She did not like that fame thing, she is very shy, very modest. Air Studios. Lots for friends together. Tony would have been the real leader, because he did the arrangements and we would all have charts. It was a well-constructed album. It still stands up now.”

The album was followed by a one-time concert at Royal Festival Hall. It was recorded but had to wait until 2005 for a release on an album named Live at The Royal Festival Hall 1972. Another great opportunity to hear this acoustic stripped-down setup with Danny Thompson on bass, Brian Willoughby, a string quartet conducted by Tony Visconti and Mary Hopkin’s beautiful voice.

Mary Hopkin – Earth Song

One more from 1971, this time with a rock celebrity and the album that made him a star. We are talking about Rod Stewart and the album Every Picture Tells a Story. Danny Thompson plays only on one song on this album, but a fine song it is. No, not Maggie May. No double bass on that one. Danny plays on the album closer “(Find a) Reason to Believe”, written by Tim Hardin. Before it fell in Rod Stewart’s lap, the song was recorded by Tim Hardin himself, Bobby Darin, Glen Campbell, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and the Carpenters. But Rod Stewart’s version eclipsed them all, propelled by the fact that the song was the A-side on a double single that had Maggie May as the B-side.

We can’t leave a rock royalty without a story, so here is Danny with one, this time involving fancy transportation at the end of the recording session: ”Rod said to me ‘I’ll give you a hand with the bass.’ I put the cover on my bass and said ‘I’ll have to go out and get my car.’ I got the car and came back to the studio and he came out and went ‘What? You got an S1 Bentley, that’s the car I want to get. (percussionist) Ray Cooper got a black and white one – I’m gonna try and buy it off him’. Now he’s got Maseratis, Ferraris.” The story lit my curiosity concerning that Bentley. I asked Danny about the circumstances of acquiring such a classy automobile: “I had some very good friends in south London. One of them said ‘Danny, it is ridiculous that someone like you is driving around in a silly car. You should have a Bentley. I’ll get you one.’ They turned up with a Bentley. I took it down to Rolls-Royce for an inspection and the mechanic said ‘Ooh, I can see 2,000 pounds of work needs doing.’ So I took it back to my friend, so he said ok and turned out with another one. That happened a third time until I got the one Rod Stewart saw. The guy at Rolls-Royce said ‘Where are you getting these from?’ I said ‘I got a friend.’”

In the next article we will continue rummaging through Danny Thompson’s discography in the 1970s, including his work with John Martyn.


Read the previous article in the series, covering Danny Thompson’s musical activities in the 1960s:

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