Fairlane Rock

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Posted October 17, 2007 in Music

 Rock & roll, the frantic sound that sent Western Civilization into paroxysms of outrage and revulsion, has become such a well-established commodity that it’s easy to forget how the whole damn mess came into being. Spend a little while in conversation with Hayden Thompson, though, and it all becomes perfectly clear.

The veteran rockabilly singer-guitarist, who appears Saturday as part of the Rhythm Bound festival in Pomona, is a classic example of how that exotic cultural miscegenation arose, evolving from an isolated teenage dream into a global threat. Although churned out today by hordes of aspirants so assembly-line sound-alike that it seems more like a weird exercise in cannibalism than an opportunity for artistic expression, 50 years ago, one had to not only fervently believe, but also had to cross lines, shred taboos and stand defiantly, badass-tall in a thick, stinking swampland infested by squares and dullards.

Thompson hit it so early on that when he was recording at Memphis rockabilly epicenter Sun Studios, his session band included Jerry Lee Lewis, when the Killer was just one more anonymous cat burning with the devilish need  to further a revolution that had recently begun in that very room.

“I started at a very young age, grew up on country music,” Thompson says. “My mom and dad would take me, when I was just eight or nine, to go see the country acts who came to play, people like the Delmore Brothers and Kitty Wells. These were Grand Ole Opry package shows, they were travelin’ in cars with a bass fiddle tied onto the top. I cut my teeth on that, and, of course, radio—I liked Eddy Arnold, Hank Snow and Lefty Frizzell. By the time I was 13, I was doing a little singing on the radio in my hometown of Booneville, Mississippi, getting ready to set the world on fire.

“But as I got older, I started to tune in the blues from WLAC in Nashville. There was so much great R&B going on that I can’t even call all their names—Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, people like that—but I really loved rhythm and blues. I got a Saturday morning radio show on WBIP, just a small, family-owned thing, only covered a few counties, and I formed a little group called the Southern Melody Boys. This was about 1954, and in Booneville, we had the Von Theater, about 350 seats, and they ran a sort of miniature Opry there, and the Southern Melody Boys became the staff band.”

The fact that the Von shows were broadcast on WBIP, despite its weak signal, magnetically attracted touring acts who could also plug their club dates on the air, and soon Thompson found himself sharing the stage with hyper-rowdy Memphis thugs the Johnny Burnette Trio and rockabilly’s penultimate wildman Charlie Feathers (“He was quite a performer” Thompson says with a laugh), and before long, Elvis Presley began visiting. “The last time he played there was with Johnny Cash and David Houston, right before he went to New York to do the Dorsey Brothers TV show, and everybody jumped on the bandwagon, got away from the country thing and did rockabilly.” With a head already full of lusty, urban R&B and Elvis’ catastrophic, blues-informed impact, Thompson had no choice.

“We dropped the fiddle player and added drums, so it was guitar, bass, drums and myself on rhythm—the fiddler, he just passed away a few years ago, but I think he’s hated me this whole time!” Thompson says. “I came out of high school and we got a job traveling with the movie Rock Around the Clock. We’d play a show before and after. So that was my little package, played the Southern circuit, and that’s what led me to Sun. There was a big drive-in theater in West Memphis, Arkansas—we played there for four days, and Jack Clement came over one night and said, “Why don’t you stop by and see if we can do a little something?”

Songwriter/A&R man Clement was Sun head Sam Phillips’ chief cohort; it was September, 1956, the volcanic heart of rock & roll’s Big Bang. Thompson could not have asked for a better opportunity: “So we cut ‘Fairlane Rock,’ ‘Mama, Mama, Mama,’ ‘One Broken Heart.’ Sam had pretty much turned things over to Clement, Elvis had gone, and Cash was gettin’ ready to leave, but Jerry Lee was hanging around the studio and Clement needed an extra musician, so he played on the session. Did nine songs in all—Junior Parker’s “Love My Baby” was laying around the studio, so we started fooling with it.”

“Love My Baby” was a vibrant, way-gone performance, high rockabilly ka-pow with all the lurid trimmings, but by the time it was released a year later (on Sun’s sister label Phillips International), Jerry Lee had ascended to his own fiery infamy, in the process gobbling up all of Sam Phillips’ attention and promo budget. To his credit, Thompson carries no grudge; he simply rocked on, riding the big beat insurgency on a course of hopped-up one-nighters, continuing to record for various Southern indies and perfecting his natural gift for flipping lids (and he wasn’t just “ripping the brothers off,” either—when R&B great Roscoe Gordon discovered Thompson’s “Cheese & Crackers” laying around” at Sun, he cut it). But rockabilly’s implosion came sooner than later—the whole Elvis-in-the-Army/Buddy-Holly-on-the-coroner’s-slab bit—and Thompson moved up to Chicago, where he continued performing and, by 1966, scored a minor country hit, “$16.80,” that got him back on the road (and earned him three separate Grand Ole Opry appearances).

Thompson always took a profoundly relaxed approach to his career (recording with Clement and the Killer was, he says, “just another day in the life of a young guy who had no idea that in 50 years time people would still be talking about Sun Records and rockabilly”). He never even made it out to California until 2002, and that visit found him in fantastic shape, performing with a luminous, exciting combination of fang-bearing intensity and a deep, soulful involvement with his songs that delivered more raw, uncut thrills than a man his age has any business dealing in.

“I’m 68—too old to dream anymore,” Thompson says, “but I still love singing, and when I get onstage, I’m 20 again.”

 

The Rhythm Bound Festival in downtown Pomona with Hayden Thompson, Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys, Darrell Higham and others, 235 W. Second St., Pomona; www.rhythmbound.info. Sat., noon-2 a.m.  


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