Named by Rolling Stone Magazine as one of the Top 20 Guitarists of all-time and the recent recipient of both an Ivor Novello Award for Songwriting and the 2006 BBC Lifetime Achievement Award, the iconic British folk rock legend is one of the world's most critically acclaimed and prolific songwriters. His work is admired and recorded by such artists as Bonnie Raitt, David Byrne and Elvis Costello. From his teenage years as a founding member of the 1960's pioneering group Fairport Convention to duo work with his then-wife, Linda Thompson, and over 20 years as a solo artist, to scoring Werner Hertzog's 2005 documentary 'Grizzly Man', Richard Thompson's astounding body of work includes over 40 albums of lyrical wit anchored by such a singular acoustic and electric guitar delivery that Newsweek recently announced, 'like all genuine art, it satisfies completely.'
The 60's and 70's
After earning a reputation as a fine guitarist in school bands like Emil and the Detectives, Richard had his first brush with 'fame' as a teenaged founding member of the 1960's folk-rock pioneers, Fairport Convention. Playing an inventive musical mix of blues and California-style rock, the group was quickly dubbed "the new Jefferson Airplane". The band's founding members (Iain Matthews, Judy Dyble, Richard Thompson, Simon Nicol, Ashley Hutchings, Martin Lamble) were discovered playing in London's Soho district, by American producer Joe Boyd. Boyd secured them a recording contract and their eponymous debut album was released in 1968. Shortly thereafter, the band's lead vocalist, Judy Dyble, was replaced with the ethereal songstress, Sandy Denny.
Other personnel changes followed and over the next four years, Fairport Convention gradually developed a more personal and British based repertoire. 1969's Liege and Lief, long regarded as a milestone recording in defining British Rock, revealed the extent of Richard's talent as a songwriter. Here he penned contemporary songs that drew upon deep traditional genres, a writing style that would follow him throughout his career. Other 1969 releases included What We Did on Our Holidays, and Unhalfbricking.
Richard's last album with the group was Full House, released in 1970.
That year the band also made its American debut, touring with Traffic and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Richard subsequently left the group in 1971. The next year was extremely significant for Richard. The release of his first solo album Henry the Human Fly, regarded by many as a classic and “must have” by his loyal fan base, is reported to have the dubious distinction of Warner Brothers' worst selling album of all time. Still, it yielded songs like Poor Ditching Boy, The Angels Have Taken My Racehorse Away, and some well-developed instrumentals, which helped establish him as a talent in his own right. This venture brought the once reticent singer in Fairport Convention to the forefront, displaying his vocal abilities and typically twisted humor (Nobody’s Wedding).
In the same year Richard married folk singer Linda Peters.
The combination of Linda's throaty vocals and Richard's talents as songwriter and guitarist subsequently led to the recording of six albums by the duo. The release of 1974's I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight met with universal critical acclaim, and it’s title track provided Richard with a hit single in the UK.
In 1975, fans saw the release of two albums by the duo, Hokey Pokey and Pour Down Like Silver, containing such classic Thompson material as Never Again and Night Comes In, both still demanded in concert to this day.
After a respite from the music industry, the couple returned to the stage in 1978 and soon released First Light and Sunnyvista, the former including Don’t Let a Thief Steal Into Your Heart, which was later covered by The Pointer Sisters.
In 1981, Richard recorded the solo instrumental album Strict Tempo, an exuberant collection of tunes from the British Isles and North Africa, performed with Thompson’s signet guitar style. Also notable is its recording of Duke Ellington’s Rockin’ in Rhythm.
Released in 1982, Shoot Out the Lights proved to be the collaborators' most successful effort. The record was a success, critically and commercially, in America and UK, and was voted in Rolling Stone Magazine's 'Top Ten Records of The Decade'.
Gerry Rafferty originally produced a different version of the album in 1979. Since the original sessions did not create the desired result, the project was shelved until 1982 when the couple returned to the studio with Joe Boyd, and re-recorded a stripped-down version in just three days.
Although the release included some of Richard's best loved songs such as the title track and Wall of Death, and some of Linda's best vocals, it was their last recording together. The couple divorced in 1982.
Richard returned to the studio to record Hand of Kindness in 1983, which introduced the use of a brass section. For the first time, saxophones traded solos with Richard's guitar. The resulting 'Big Band Tour' was ecstatically received in both America and Europe. The ensemble performed Glenn Miller and Lord Rockingham numbers in the same set as vintage Thompson material like Calvary Cross and Tear Stained Letter.
In 1985, Richard married Nancy Covey, and Across a Crowded Room was released by Polygram. This album marked the beginning of his musical affiliation with Clive Gregson and Christine Collister, which lasted several years. Gregson and Collister provided an additional layer to the Thompson compositions as backing vocalists in the studio, and performers on tour as part of his band.
In 1986, Richard began his long association with American producer Mitchell Froom. He felt it was time for a departure from the 'expected' result of his association with producer Joe Boyd and his longtime friends from the Fairport line-up. Daring Adventures underscored that departure. Richard has said that he found working with Froom inspiring, stimulating and exciting, and the result of their first partnership remains one of Thompson's most distinctive albums to date. Contributors to the album included the legendary Jim Keltner on drums and Jerry Scheff playing bass, a definitive change from the stable rhythm section of Pegg and Mattacks.
Between recording and touring, Richard also found time to collaborate with Peter Filleul writing and recording music for film and television soundtracks. One of these projects resulted in the spin-off album Hard Cash, a collection of specially recorded material by a number of respected British artists, based on the theme of exploitation in the workplace.
Richard also collaborated with John French, Fred Frith, and Henry Kaiser on two albums, Live Love Larf & Loaf and Invisible Means, which provided another vehicle for Thompson's songwriting, particularly demonstrating his acerbic and frequently oddball humor.
In 1990, Richard and Peter Filleul recorded the soundtrack of Sweet Talker, a full-length motion picture starring Bryan Brown and Karen Allen.
Released in 1991, the soundtrack album produced the well-known popular song, Persuasion, with music written by Thompson, and lyrics later added by Tim Finn of Crowded House.
The same year also found the release of the album Rumor & Sigh, which included such current concert favorites as I Feel So Good, I Misunderstood, and 1952 Vincent Black Lightning. The later is written in a traditional ballad form, complete with intricate Appalachian-style guitar work, and is often at the top of internet polls and college radio station 'most requested song' lists.
Rumor & Sigh remains Richard Thompson's best selling album, reaching #32 on the UK charts, and in America, the release brought him a Grammy Nomination in the 'Best Alternative Music Album' category. Even though the Grammy escaped his grasp, Thompson instead received the Orville Gibson H. Guitar Award the day before the Grammy ceremony.
In October, the year was punctuated by an invitation to the Guitar Greats celebration in Seville, Spain, as the special guest of Bob Dylan. Richard was excited by the prospect of meeting the man who had opened the door for lyricists like himself, and who had written some of the best songs in Fairport Convention's early repertoire.
Although Richard's next new album, Mirror Blue, was not released until 1994, he was still constantly in demand as a live performer. Hence Richard spent much of this time between releases touring as a solo acoustic artist. This arrangement was important for at least two reasons. It lent Thompson the versatility to perform any material he wished, and it offered him an opportunity to connect with his audience on a more intimate level. His set lists varied from The Who's Substitute to Hank Penny's Don't Roll Your Bloodshot Eyes at Me, intermingled with his original material. Songs he previously played with an electric band were pared down to fit his acoustic format, and he alone stood center stage with nothing between him and his fans. The result was an endearing public, one who appreciated his quick wit, wry humor, and extraordinary talent.
Another musical incarnation Richard began to enjoy in the 90's was as the front man of a duo with double bass player, Danny Thompson (no relation). Although they'd known each other since the 60's, the two Thompsons were great friends before bandmates. Best known as a member of the 60's folk-rock band, Pentangle, Danny's other musical associations include work with John Martyn, Nick Drake, Little Walter, Josh White, Donovan, Cliff Richard and even Engelbert Humperdick, among others. The pairing proved both enjoyable and successful, so Danny Thompson became a permanent part of the line-up. Since 1993, Danny has toured extensively with Richard, in both acoustic and electric band formats.
Watching The Dark, a 3 CD compilation overseen by Ed Haber, was released in 1993. Often dubbed by longtime fans as a wonderful starting point for the novice, it showcases all eras of Thompson's varied and extensive work. Particularly noteworthy is the inclusion of From Galway to Graceland, a previously unreleased soul-stirring song about an obsessed Elvis Presley fan. The "mini-boxed set" also contains plenty of material for the Thompson aficionado, (47 songs at 215 minutes) including many live, rare and previously unreleased recordings.
In 1995, the latest of several Thompson tribute albums was released, called Beat the Retreat. REM, Bonnie Raitt, Los Lobos, Syd Straw, Bob Mould, The Blind Boys of Alabama and others performed cover versions of Thompson's songs. These efforts illustrated the artists' reverie for Thompson, and brought some his songwriting achievements to previously unexposed listeners.
Be it positive fan reaction to the live performances on Watching The Dark, or the continued proliferation of bootleg recordings, Thompson decided in '95 to begin releasing 'official' live performances. The first release, Live at Crawley, chronicled a 1993 performance with Danny Thompson. Since that time, several additional live CD's have been released. Such releases provide Thompson's loyal fan base with supplemental entertainment between commercial releases, and Thompson himself with a less structured vehicle of expression.
In 1996, Richard released his first 'double album' with you?me?us?. Showcasing his versatile abilities in both acoustic and electric formats, Thompson devoted one disc to each. The 'Nude' disc features pared down, poetically emotive arrangements, and the second disc, 'Voltage Enhanced', demonstrates his blistering electric guitar work with a full band.
In 1997, a joint project Richard and Danny Thompson had been nurturing for some time was released, simply entitled Industry. Featuring a variety of musical and vocal styles, Industry was the basis for a BBC documentary, which aired in UK in May of that year. Featuring compositions based on themes from the industrial revolution to Britain's faltering mining industry, the album was performed live, in its entirety, at only 5 locations in Britain.
Two years later, Thompson released Mock Tudor, produced by Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf. The album, "Dedicated to the suburbanites of London" is loosely based on memories of Thompson's youth, and the current day metropolis. Again, featuring a mix of acoustic and electric numbers, Thompson proves he is a definitive master at both.
The New Millennium
In 2000, Island Records released Best of Richard & Linda Thompson - The Island Records Years and in 2001, Capitol Records released the Action Packed -The Best of the Capitol Years compilation, including 19 tracks in the time span from 1987 onward. October 2001 brought a long awaited Thompson appearance (as a trio) on the PBS program, Austin City Limits.
In June 2002 Thompson launched his Official website - Beesweb, and simultaneously made Semi-Detached Mock Tudor available, chronicling his band tour that supported the 1999 studio release.
During August 2002, Richard appeared at the Cropredy Festival commemorating Fairport Convention's 35th anniversary.
To round off the year, Bluegrass legend Del McCoury scored a hit with a cover of Thompson's 1952 Vincent Black Lightning , a version that became the International Bluegrass Music Association's 2002 Song of the Year.
A new studio album, The Old Kit Bag, was released in 2003. The album was produced by John Chelew, and supported by a major band tour in the US and Europe. During its first week of sales, the album was rated #5 on Billboard's Top Independent Records chart.
In April, Thompson released More Guitar, through his website's merchandise page. Recorded direct to digital 2-track in 1988, the CD also features John Kirkpatrick, Clive Gregson, Pat Donaldson, Kenny Aronoff and Christine Collister.
In May, Dimming of the Day (performed by Richard and Linda Thompson) appeared on T-Bone Burnett's soundtrack production Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood .
Elsewhere in 2003, Richard Thompson can be heard contributing to Loudon Wainwright III's So Damn Happy, the Blind Boys' first-ever holiday album Go Tell it on the Moutain, the NBC Television show's Crossing Jordon Sountrack, with an astounding version of Donovan's Season of the Witch, Los Lobos Wreck of the Carlos Rey from their CD entitled The Ride, the re-release of The Bunch Rock On, and the live band internet only release, Ducknapped.
In recent years, Richard has occasionally performed a show called 1,000 Years of Popular Music. Those lucky enough to see the show have been treated to highlights such as a ballad about the Battle of Agincourt fought in 1415, a number from the 1885 Gilbert and Sullivan operetta "The Mikado" (performed with Judith Owen), and even a rendition of the Britney Spears' hit, Oops I Did it Again.
First performed at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the show later surfaced in London, New York and Chicago during the Autumn of 2003, and would become an extensive touring format for Thompson, with greater than thirty near sold-out shows in many other major U.S. cities.
The idea for the project came from Playboy Magazine. Richard was asked to submit a list, in late 1999, of the ten greatest songs of the Millenium. He called their bluff and submitted a genuine thousand-year selection. That they failed to print his list among others submitted by rock's luminaries did not deter, but instead spurred Thompson to develop and present an evocative, entertaining repertoire.
In Summer 2004, a BBC documentary was broadcast, called Solitary Life, filming Richard at home in both London and Los Angeles - the first time such intimate access has been granted.
Later in the Summer the Richard Thompson Band harkened back to one of it's veteran lineups: Richard Thompson, Danny Thompson (no relation), Pete Zorn and Dave Mattacks. The familiar foursome toured U.K. and the U.S. extensively, treating ecstatic audiences to songs from the most recent studio release, Old Kit Bag, as well as older favourites. Improvisational treats included Desmond Dekker & The Aces' Song: Israelites.
The next internet only CD, Faithless, was released in July, spotlighting another vintage band tour (1985) with Richard Thompson, Clive Gregson, Rory McFarlane, Gerry Conway and Christine Collister. This CD was quickly followed by The Chrono Show, Live Versions of Vintage Favourites, and the first Richard Thompson DVD, Live in Providence in October/November.
Returning to the film soundtrack genre, December 2004 found Thompson in the studio, with Werner Herzog, working on the polemical documentary, Grizzly Man, about Timothy Treadwell, who spent years in Alaska filming and living among the Grizzly Bears, and who was tragically killed by them in his thirteenth season.
The Herzog film debuted at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival and won the prestigious Alfred P. Sloan Award. The DVD release included a 'Making of' segment called 'In the Edges' that chronicles the creation of the score for Werner Herzog's documentary. A group of musicians, including legendary guitarist Richard Thompson, improvise a musical accompaniment while watching the film and create a lyrical original score.
Of Herzog, Thompson states, "It was a great thrill to work with Werner, whose work I have admired for many years, and who has produced, for me, some of the most striking and poetic images in cinema history."
On March 1st, 2005, The Queen opened the doors of Buckingham Palace to the music industry for the first time, with an event to celebrate its contribution to British culture. Approximately 500 musicians and industry figures, including Richard Thompson, attended the reception given by Her Majesty and The Duke of Edinburgh, representing the first time the Queen has recognised the music industry en masse.
Soon after the visit Thompson reported, "I got my 20 seconds with the Queen. I was introduced to her by Tony Wadsworth, head of EMI, who described me as a singer and songwriter. Her Majesty remarked, "Oh! How lovely for you!" I said I hoped it was lovely for everyone else as well, at which Her Majesty laughed and moved along. I was part of a larger group chatting to Prince Philip, who was telling jokes and being one of the 'chaps'. The Duke and Duchess of Kent, and the Duchess of Wessex were also there. The latter was very nice, and probably the most interested in music." With tongue firmly planted in cheek, he added, "I was disappointed the Queen didn't ask me about working with Nick Drake."
In addition to a solo tour, the balance of '05 brought a new solo acoustic album, recorded in Richard's home studio, entitled Front Parlour Ballads, and an Austin City Limits DVD and CD immortalizing his stunning July '01 performance.
The New Year opened with an extensively praised UK Tour, in a duo/acoustic format, with long-time compeer, Danny Thompson.
February 2006 was doubly significant for Thompson, with the release of Free Reed's multiple-CD boxed set entitled "RT - The Life and Music of Richard Thompson", and Richard's receipt of a Lifetime Achievement Award at BBC 2's Folk Awards, presented by Mark Knopfler:
"From his groundbreaking early work with Fairport Convention to his current luminous solo career, Richard has been recognised as one of the era's finest songwriters as well as a peerless guitarist. For almost four decades a producer of classic albums, gripping performances and songs covered by dozens of artists, his energy and abilities show no sign of diminishing with the passage of time...."
Also at the 2006 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, Liege & Lief was voted 'Most Influential Folk Album of All Time'.
Launched in December 1969 on the Island Records label, Liege & Lief spent 17 weeks in the LP charts during 1970. It was hailed as a masterpiece at the time and has continued to win plaudits ever since.
After the ceremony, Richard performed solo, and also with the surviving members of the Liege and Lief line-up of Fairport Convention.
In addition to this award, the line-up also received a Gold Disc at Cropredy 2006 from Universal Music Catalogue for Island Records, almost 37 years after the seminal album was released.
The year also brought a 1,000 Years of Popular Music DVD, and work is well underway on the three volume, long awaited Richard Thompson songbook.
When asked about the flurry of recent product, Thompson quipped, "I'm sure we can work out some easy payment plan for the fans."
In late 2006, Richard returned to the studio and plugged in for a new electric studio album entitled Sweet Warrior. His first work of all-new material since 2005 Front Parlour Ballads, and his first electric disc since 2003 The Old Kit Bag, fans will see May/June 2007 releases in US, UK, Australia, Japan, and elsewhere.
Besides a two leg solo tour, Richard found time to assist friends and family in the studio. His 2007 studio work included sessions with Rufus Wainwright, Judith Owen, Richard Shindell, Loudon Wainwright III, and daughter, Kamila Thompson.
Richard also scored the Harlan Ellison documentary entitled "Dreams with Sharp Teeth", produced and directed by Erik Nelson.
In June, The Richard Thompson Band returns to the road in support of Sweet Warrior.
August will find Richard celebrating Fairport Convention's 40th Anniversary at Cropredy. The highlight of the festival will be when the original line-up of the seminal Fairport Convention album Liege & Lief (with the obvious exception of Sandy Denny) re-unite to perform the work in its entirety.
The 1969 line-up, which includes Ashley Hutchings, Dave Mattacks, Simon Nicol, Dave Swarbrick and Richard Thompson, will be joined on stage by Chris While for a 50-minute set.
When asked what he seeks to accomplish musically, but thus far has not, Richard replies,
"Probably a longer form. Songs are one discipline, you have to get things expressed in a few verses, and I enjoy that challenge. I've started a few longer pieces, musical plays, or song cycles, but I've never got it quite right. That's what I'd like to achieve at some point."
What keeps him going?
"It's just a drive...you're driven to do it. If you're not driven, maybe you shouldn't bother. If you haven't written a song for a couple of weeks, you get itchy...you start twitching. You have to get it out there, whatever it is. I've been twitching for 40 years, which is great. It's wonderful to still be enthusiastic about what is basically one's employment, and to have been that way all the way through. I still guiltily look over my shoulder sometimes, thinking, 'This is too much fun.' "
For four decades, Richard Thompson has consistently set songwriting and performance standards to which others aspire. He has long been acknowledged as both a sensitive writer and an innovative guitarist.
Over the course of his career, Thompson has earned numerous awards and honors, including the Ivor Novello Award for songwriting, the Orville H. Gibson Award for Guitarists, and the #19 spot on Rolling Stone's 2004 list of all-time guitar greats.