Hayden Thompson - Rockabilly Rhythm


Hayden Thompson was interviewed at the Rockin’ 50’s Fest III in Green Bay, Wisconsin, on May 17, 2007. His "Fairlane Rock" (recorded for Sun in 1957 but unissued until the revival when it was recognised as a rockabilly classic), was one of the highlights of his set. In fact, Thompson had only one release from the handful of tracks recorded in Memphis, but "Love My Baby" (released on Phillips International label), with Jerry Lee Lewis backing him, did wonders for his later career. The five-day festival featured over 150 acts from the United States, United Kingdom, Spain, Holland, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Japan, and South America

This is just one day’s lineup at Rockin’ 50’s Fest III ! Pink highlight means I saw the complete show. Yellow highlight means I saw part of the set. Star indicates great or notable performance.

Hayden Thompson : I grew up on country and gospel and the big names of the day in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s when I really started to enjoy music. My dad played a little guitar and was able to show me a few chords. My mother played the harmonica. That’s something about Southern people. They’re very musical ; they love their music.

I had that first guitar very young, played here and there in schools and churches, but it stuck and I finally ended up with a little band and radio show Saturday morning. Like so many other guys we were all singing country music. I did Hank Snow’s “I Don’t Hurt Anymore,” George Morgan’s “Candy Kisses,” Eddy Arnold’s “Bouquet of Roses,” Webb Pierce, the stars of the day. They used to come through with the bass fiddle tied to the top of the car, a big old long car packed full of guys and luggage and clothing, playing little schoolhouses, doing it the hard way but that’s the way everybody started out. They weren’t making the money that the superstars make, and [now] everybody has a jet or big bus or whatever.

I always liked blues. I used to listen to a station out of Nashville called WLAC, with Big John Richbourg [disc jockey known as John R.] late at night. All of a sudden one day on the radio I hear “That’s All Right Mama” and it hit me just like it hit everybody else : here’s something different. I was very fascinated with Elvis, like everybody else was. He came along and showed us that we could all sing this stuff. We didn’t know how until he came along and pulled it out of us. You see how many people make a living now singing like Elvis ? I’ve always said that singing like Elvis was not all that difficult. It’s just singing as good as he could and he did it first. He had the whole package to go with it : the looks, talent, personality. You don’t see thousands of people out here doing a Johnny Cash show or a Beatles show. So many people have got that foot in the door by sounding like Elvis.

But I was totally impressed with him. When he first started—hearing his stuff on the radio—I was playing with an older group of guys and we were playing at the Von Theatre and I would throw in “That’s All Right Mama” with Hank Snow on a Saturday night. The guys would almost chase me off the stage : “This guy’s never going to last, nobody wants to hear that stuff.” It wasn’t country. We had a steel guy, a fiddle player, a guitar player, and a bass man. It was something new to them and they’d played country all their lives, whereas I’m 16 years old, raring to go. Then once he started buying Cadillacs, well, the rest of us felt if he could have four, we could have one at least.

I used to go see him quite often. We all knew Elvis. Talked to him many times. Didn’t know him on a personal basis. The last time I had a chance to talk to him was at the Von Theatre. He actually played there two weeks before he did the Dorsey show, just before he exploded, late ’55. He was on the show with David Houston, who was a country act, and Johnny Cash. The place held about 300 people and that particular night Cash stole the show. Today you can build a star in a month’s time with all the exposure, with TV and the stuff that you’ve got today. Back in those days you built an artist one record at a time. Sam only put out five records on him [Elvis]. He did not put that record out until that last one had done everything it was going to do. That’s good business.

As he got really going, everybody else jumped on the bandwagon. Everybody flocked to Memphis. Then you’ve got Carl Perkins and Warren Smith, and Orbison. Then I got out of high school and by that time we had dropped the fiddle player and the steel man and I’d added some of my Sun stuff like “Fairlane Rock.”

I’m just fascinated with the way rockabilly has lasted. It only had two years of real popularity. When you think about the people who walked through Sun and only maybe six superstars came out of there, that’s amazing, isn’t it ? Look at Jerry Lee Lewis. They still love Lewis, one of the greatest showmen I think that ever walked on a stage. He played on [Hayden’s] “Love My Baby,” he was hanging around ; he hadn’t recorded anything at all. He was hanging around the studio the day we worked on it. So they said “You want to play some rhythm - it’s fine.” It’s been a nice story for me all these years.

Craig Morrison : Somebody said he’s the only piano player that’s influenced every piano player in the world since. You can do one little thing and people will say, “I know where you got that from.” You also recorded on the Von label.

HT : That was my very first recording. That goes back to about ’54. At that time I was playing a Saturday morning radio show and we’d play a little dance. I had the fiddle player and the steel guitar player, bass, and electric guitar. Everybody was older than I was and we cut that at a little radio station - the Von record. It was owned by a fellow by the name of Lynn MacDowell and Sam Thomas. Later on I think Eddie Bond’s father might have bought into it but they only had three releases. The Burnette brothers had one of the releases ; the other release was Lloyd McCullough, a Memphis guy. He finally changed his name to Lloyd Arnold later on in life.

CM : Is it true that he committed suicide ?

HT : Yes he did. Back in ’67 or ’68.

CM : Did you know him ?

HT : Yes. The thing that he recorded for Von was called “Watch That Gal” and I can’t remember the other side of it. I can’t even remember what the Burnette Brothers did.

CM : They did “Go ’Long Mule.” For years I didn’t know where that came from and then I heard Uncle Dave Macon’s version from in the ’20s or so – I don’t know where the Burnettes got it from. The other side of that was an early version of “You’re Undecided” which they re-cut later. For a label that put out three records people are still talking about it.

HT : You know, on eBay the other day that ol’ record was listed was $650. I didn’t bother to keep too many of them.

CM : How many do you think they made ?

HT : Not many. It was a local thing and that was ’54 and they had a little theatre there called The Von Theatre and we had a little Saturday night miniature Grand Ole Opry type thing. I had the staff band and they’d bring in people like Eddie Bond and Lloyd and some of those Memphis boys, the Burnette Brothers, Charlie Feathers, and it was a big deal. It went out over the radio, maybe a 25-mile radius. These guys would come down there to Booneville and the place wouldn’t hold but about 300 people and probably barely made gas money. People talk about that.

CM : How far is Booneville from Memphis ?

HT : A little over 100 miles kind of southeast. Booneville’s up in the northeast corner of the state [of Mississippi]. Just north of Tupelo about 25 miles.

CM : We always think of Mississippi as blues territory. Out of the rockabilly guys whose work I’m familiar with you have more blues than most. Could you attribute that to any kind of Mississippi background ? Some guys have much more of a country side. You’ve got strong blues.

HT : I enjoy singing it all – I love blues and I love rock and roll and I love singing that smooth country. Cutting this last thing with these super pickers in Finland [an eponymous CD in 2007] was one of the most – it was something I never thought I’d get a chance to do again at my age. This guy took the wife and I and five musicians and set us out in the country to an old schoolhouse. With a sauna and a pond, a lake and a cook that came in morning, noon and night, and with the birds and the bees and the pine trees and the rocks, and said let’s cut a record. Nobody around to bother you. We cut 18 songs in two days and a half. The pickers – it could not have been cut any better in Nashville. I’ve read about artists being able to – especially rock artists – being able to do something like this. I’ve always wondered how nice that must be not watching the clock and worrying about what it’s costing. In this short period of time the reviews have been the best reviews I’ve ever had on anything. Country Music People just did an awfully nice review. We were even getting some reviews in pop magazines, Now Dig This, UK Rock, Blue Suede News.

I had a rock and roll group and we traveled the theatre circuit with the movie Rock Around the Clock for about eight months after I got out of school. We carried the reel with us. We’d come to town, do a show of 45 minutes to an hour, maybe a 7 o’clock show, they’d play the movie and we’d do a show after the movie. Bear Family [label] has a great album cover out with the little trailer that hooked behind a ’56 Ford—that’s where “Fairlane Rock” came from—it said “you ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog” on the back of it and it lit up at night as we went down the road, red and white to match the red and white ’56 Fairlane. Those were the days. We didn’t make a lot of money but had a lot of fun.

CM : I’ve got a section on my website where I’ve put song lyrics that I’ve transcribed from records [click for the rockabilly lyrics], and your “Fairlane Rock” is there. I tried to get every word exact : “Did he just say ‘alligator slippers’” ? Did you ?

HT : Yes !

CM : So I got that part right. The way you sing “exhaust” on that, dragging it out, where did that come from ?

HT : I don’t know. I got some of that Hank Snow in my nose ; I hadn’t got it all out of there. I don’t know why I started doing it that way but there’s been so many people mentioned that to me.

CM : I saw some guys in the audience tonight, when you weren’t singing it that way, they were singing it ! Did you know Rosco Gordon ?

HT : I met Rosco in ’85 or ’86 for the very first time. He cut “Cheese and Crackers” in ’56 I think. I left it on the piano. I was working on it up in the studio and we didn’t end up using it and I walked out of there with the words laying on the piano and he had a session the next day. He came in and picked it up – “Where did this come from ?” “Hayden left it here.” So he put his own melody to it.

CM : So those are your words ?

HT : Yeah.

CM : Did you record it yourself ?

HT : No. Never have recorded it.

CM : How do you see yourself now ?

HT : Here I am 69 years old and to be able to walk out there and be accepted like tonight, it’s very rewarding. To be able to cut a record like this new one is very rewarding. I’ve been very lucky : good health, fine wife, fine parents. Very lucky, no complaints. But I would like to have had a hit. I would have liked to have been able to make a living with my music. I’ve always had to keep a regular job and dabble in it. I’ve been in and out of it. When I first started going to Europe in ’84 I’d been out for about nine years. I’d worked off of the Kapp album that I did in ’66. It got a lot of airplay but I’d pretty much drained – I’d played all around Chicago and Milwaukee and Indiana. I did the bar circuit. I grew very tired of playing to a bunch of people that really didn’t care. Nobody was knocking on my door to record. I said if this is the best I can do maybe I should just hang it up. Not knowing at the time that this stuff from Sun – see I only had the one release on Philips International with “Love My Baby” and “One Broken Heart” and so I had no idea that all these compilation things had been put together in Europe and they were bringing over people like myself.

I went to see Narvel [Felts] play one night in northern Chicago and I knew him from the ‘50s. He’d been coming over to Europe, and he said, “If you ever get another chance to go, they know you over there. You won’t make a lot of money but it’s worth the trip.” They asked me to come over in ’81 and at that time I was afraid to go. I was getting older and had every excuse in the world. That’s a long way to go maybe to get booed off the stage ; I didn’t know what I was going to find. So in ’84 they asked me again so we took our boy out of school and figured we’d just make a vacation out of it ‘cause we’d never get there any other way. Got over there and I just could not believe it. I played with Carl Mann up in Holland ; Dave Travis was the backup band, and three other acts. It was a festival at a place call Eindhoven, a big deal. I couldn’t believe it. I think I worked maybe four shows in England, a couple up in Sweden. Seven or eight shows, and I cut that album that Dave [Travis] produced, that had “Eenie Meenie Minie Mo” on it, and Charly picked it up and so did Sun Jay under a different name. Sun Jay used Rocking Country Man and Charly used Booneville Mississippi Flash. Then Dave put together a bunch of stuff that I had cut over the years that had never been released and Charly called it Rockabilly Guy and Sun Jay called it Early Days. So it got my blood circulating a little bit. I started making a few trips. I’ve made over 30 trips and my wife’s been with me just about on all of them.

I just kept hanging on and hanging on. It always seems like when I’d get a little bit down something would pop up to keep me going. So who knows, here it is all these years later. When I get on stage like tonight and see the crowd having a good time, I’m 19 again.

CM : And you had a great band.

HT : You’re only as good as the band behind you. I don’t give a damn who says differently. We’d get to rehearsal—I can always tell when somebody can play the guitar to “Love My Baby” [that] they did their homework. All I asked them to do was try to play as close to the original as possible ‘cause it helps me sing it better and it helps the crowd that knows what it’s supposed to sound like so if you’re hearing it similar to the record you have you’re gonna enjoy it more. Am I right ? I could have stayed out there for an hour tonight.

CM : How would you like to be remembered ?

HT : A man that enjoyed his music. I would have liked to have had the hit. I’m still trying, so I’ll probably continue to try as long as I can. A half-way decent guy. I’ll loan you a buck once in a while when you’re down on your luck. ‘Course I’ll charge you interest.

CM : A lot of guys that never had a hit record wouldn’t have been able to go to Europe 30 times.

HT : That’s just it. I’ve been so fortunate. See I only cut nine songs at Sun. They have been released and re-released. So much mileage out of nine songs. To a lot of the kids over there “Love My Baby” and “Fairlane Rock” and “Rockabilly Gal” and “Blues Blues Blues” they are hit records. It’s a nice feeling.

CM : Tell me a little bit about Slim Rhodes.

HT : Greatest group of people I ever had any connection with. We cut “Rockabilly Gal” with Slim Rhodes. I worked with him about I guess four or five, six months, Slim and his two brothers, Speck and Dusty. Speck was the clown that—as a matter of fact I signed an album tonight of a picture of him—back in the old days country acts always had somebody, usually the bass man, to act silly. The Grand Ole Opry had Lonzo and Oscar, and String Bean, to break it up a little, tell corny jokes. It was a family thing. Three brothers and then Dusty married and his wife sang. Slim worked the Arkansas-Tennessee-Mississippi area, radio, television in Memphis and he always had a front singer, a fellow name of Brad Suggs. When I worked with him I was somebody extra, not a front man. They’d do the country and I was doing the rock and roll thing. What nice people. They never really got out of that area. They were big for a long time in their general area and made a nice living but wonderful country people. Sonny [Burgess] knew them. Billy Riley knew these people and I don’t think you’d find anybody saying anything bad about the Slim Rhodes bunch. Speck went on to play with Porter Wagoner, as his sidekick. Still dressed up in the funny clothes.

CM : What caused you to move to Chicago ?

HT : I finished up in Memphis with Slim Rhodes and at that time they were just beginning to – they were no longer on television and they lost their sponsor. Really wasn’t doing that much. A fellow in Chicago from over in Mississippi had been in Chicago a long time. He bought a nightclub and he called me and said would you like to come up and maybe do a little – see if you’d like to work for me. And I came up in early ’58 and stayed. Did you mention the Tallyho Club a while ago ? I worked there for about five years. Four or five nights a week.

This Rockabilly Rhythm CD I cut it two years ago on St. George [Records] out of Chicago. Did you know the name ? He had Barrelhouse for many years. He was a big Charlie Feathers fan.

CM : Yes, I have an album by Roy Hall [the piano player that co-wrote “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”] on Barrelhouse, called Rock-A-Billy Or Else !

HT : George Paulus called me 20 years ago to see if I’d be interested in doing something. I’d just started going to Europe and told him no. Out of a clear blue sky he calls me up late ‘03 and he says I’d still like to get you in a studio with a rockabilly band and turn back the time. “Not really, I don’t care, I really don’t want to do that.” So here comes 2004 and George says “I don’t hear anybody out there pounding on your door to go and record someplace. What have you got to lose ?” “Alright fine.” He sent me all these songs. I did one of them tonight : “Mama’s Little Baby.” He picked out all the songs, We did Elvis’s “Milkcow Blues Boogie.” He put me with a bass, drums, lead guitar, and I played rhythm. Then he brought in a fiddle player. This was his idea. He says, “Show me how you do ‘Reeling and a Rocking’ [the Chuck Berry song]. He sent me the cassettes of all these guys singing different songs that were recorded. I had to learn the words. But “Reeling and a Rocking” I put that down with the piano the way I would do it. So he said, “Now I’m going to add the fiddle to take the lead on this.” Fiddle on Chuck Berry. So that’s how this thing came about.

As it turned out, he put it out, we get to the last song, maybe this is what you’ll appreciate the most. He said. “We need one more song.” I said, “What do you want to do ?” He said, “Well, ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky.’ I said, “Which style ?” He said, “Well, I want you to picture yourself down on the back porch down in the country with your hound dog, a guitar, a bottle of booze, and a can of tobacco. Sittin’ there and look at the stars, and just sing to me.” I said, “Okay, what kind of instrument ?” “You on guitar and we’ll use the fiddle.” I said. “You’re out of your mind,” and he says, “Well, let’s try it”. So we did, and it sounded okay and I said, “Let’s take another cut.” “Well, I liked that one.” We took about three or four more cuts – he ended up keeping the first cut. There’s been so many comments on this song. There’s a thing on it called “Chicago River Blues.” We did a Junior Thompson number. We did the Burnette boys’ “Rockabilly Boogie” and a couple of things that he wrote. We did a Lloyd McCullough thing called “Down at the Corner.” Got a lot of feedback on it. He’s a little company, no promotion. We sent out records. I fought him all the way through it. I fought him tooth and nail and it finally started sounding pretty good. After a while it sounded real good.

You talk to one of us…We all went through the same thing. Everybody went to Sun. A lot of talent walked through there that never got much past the door. Recorded stuff that got stuck on the shelves. You see what Charly has put out and Shelby Singleton and all this stuff. Some of it good, some of it not so good.

CM : A lot of it is good though.

comments or questions ? email me

I have also posted several interviews with musicians from the 1950s and 1960s. To go to the index page, click here.

is an ethnomusicologist, teacher, author, and musician
based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada
7 Nights Music Communications, 2006