Travels with Butch Thompson: A Sideman’s Memories

Working with the late Richard “Butch” Thompson was always a memorable experience.

The Butch Thompson Trio—with himself on piano, bassist Bill Evans and drummer George “Red” Maddock—was a key element of Minnesota Public Radio’s A Prairie Home Companion, created and hosted by Garrison Keillor. When Red Maddock passed away in 1987, I became the regular drummer with the Trio, commuting to engagements from wherever I happened to be living.

By the 1980s, PHC’s nationwide popularity resulted in bookings for the Trio from coast to coast: Augusta, ME; Long Beach, CA; Blue Mountain Lake, NY; McKinney, TX; White River Junction, VT; Las Cruces, NM; Durham, NH; Red Wing, MN; Jonesboro, AR; Circleville, OH; Red Oak, IA; Yuma, AZ; Ft. Wayne, IN; Bozeman, MT; Boston, Denver, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Seattle, New York City, San Diego, St. Louis, Chautauqua, Mackinac Island, Port Townsend …The Butch Thompson Trio’s concert itinerary was the living embodiment of “I’ve been everywhere, man.”

Even when the musicians were jet-lagged, worn out from a marathon drive, or dealing with food poisoning, Butch delivered a World-class concert every time. Once, a misunderstanding regarding the start time of a concert caused the Trio to make a frantic 200-mile drive, at speeds considerably over the limit, all the way to the performing arts center. We had only minutes to set up the drums and bass, pull on our uniform coats and loop neckties before the curtain went up. But as our leader strolled onstage looking calm and collected, no one in the audience could have guessed that we barely arrived in time for the matinee!

Butch believed in the credo of “the show must go on.” Out-of-tune pianos, malfunctioning sound systems, broken bass strings, and decrepit drum sets never caused Butch to lose his cool. If he was able to make a humorous comment regarding the situation, he took the opportunity. He would also look up from the keyboard and smile at us, acknowledging the problems and encouraging us to make the best of the situation.

On one occasion, a fan who was familiar with Butch’s clarinet playing in the Hall Brothers Jazz Band expressed disappointment with the lack of a clarinet feature during the Trio’s concert. Butch tried to explain that the music might sound a little strange if the chord instrument suddenly dropped out. But after thinking it over, he brought his clarinet to the next concert, stood up from the keyboard and played a version of “Mood Indigo” that clearly stunned the audience. After that, a clarinet number was always included in the program.

Hall Brothers Jazz Band
Hall Brothers Jazz Band. From left to right: Stan Hall, Mike Polad, Butch Thompson, Russ Hall, Bill Evans, Doggie Berg, Charlie DeVore

Introducing the clarinet gave Butch a great opportunity to display his subtle sense of humor and, simultaneously, his talent on both instruments. He would say that he had only figured out how to play one song on both instruments at the same time. Then he would set up a Boogie Woogie bass figure in F with his left hand on the keyboard, while holding the clarinet with his right hand and blowing a single F note for 12 bars. The audience always got a kick out of that demonstration.

Butch ThompsonMidwestern audiences roared with laughter at Butch’s Upper Mississippi River humor—even when he was reciting the hoariest of jokes with the most obvious of punchlines. Concertgoers in the East, South, and West were charmed by the jokes from a bygone era as well as the down-to-earth manner of the softspoken man seated at the keyboard. After Butch wed Mary Ellen Niedenfeuer, her comments regarding the shiny spots on Butch’s tuxedo pants (from wrapping his leg around the piano bench) and the frayed cuffs on his coat (a result of using his left arm for the “roar” effect on “Tiger Rag”) became a regular part of the show.

Some Prairie Home Companion fans obviously expected Butch to be a cartoon character from “Lake Wobegon,” in a red flannel shirt, canvas pants, snow boots, and a cap with earflaps. It was amazing to watch their expression as they were introduced to a well-dressed, well-spoken individual carrying a briefcase with a copy of The New York Times folded under his arm!

Butch was unfailingly polite to PHC fans and laughed easily as they recited favorite quotes from the program. But dealing with obsessed fans required a special kind of diplomacy. One time, an overzealous PHC listener took things right to the edge. Inspired by Garrison Keillor’s fictional cereal “Raw Bits” (a takeoff on Grape-Nuts) with the slogan “Are you qualified for ‘Raw Bits’?” this individual literally got in Butch’s face before a concert. Spewing partially-chewed trail mix everywhere, he shouted, “I want you to get me qualified for ‘Raw Bits’!” Butch was initially taken aback, but recovered quickly and joked “That’s not my department.” The “Raw Bits” guy then took on an accusatory tone and sprayed even more seeds and nuts as he said, “I don’t think you’re GENUINE!” Butch smiled, wiped his face, neck and collar, then turned away with an exaggerated eyeroll that only we could see.

No matter what events preceded the concert, the audience would hear masterful versions of compositions by Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, Willie the Lion Smith, Scott Joplin, and oftentimes the music of unique stylists such as Bix Beiderbecke, Dink Johnson, Jimmy Yancey, Joe Sullivan, and Little Brother Montgomery. If the clarinet feature went over particularly well during the concert, Butch would blow a couple choruses on it during the final number. That usually resulted in a lot of whistling, foot-stomping, and calls for “more!” over the din of the applause. Butch was always happy to oblige with an encore or two!

The master musician is gone now; mourned by fans and musical colleagues around the globe. Whether performing in Portland, Oregon or Portland, Maine, I can still picture Butch seated at the keyboard, eyes closed, lost in the music playing a haunting version of “Mamie’s Blues” to a hushed audience. As the last note faded away, the audience would always show their approval with enthusiastic applause. They could not believe their good fortune in being able to hear a performance like that. And I can hardly believe my good fortune in being able to play music for so many years with such an incredibly talented friend. R.I.P, Butch.

Hal Smith is an Arkansas-based drummer and writer. He leads the Jazzologists and the
Mortonia Seven and works with a variety of jazz and swing bands. Visit him online at
halsmithmusic.com

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