Two decades after arriving in Los Angeles, music industry bigwigs have all noted that session guitarist Michael Thompson '75 has moved to the head of the class.
|Photo by Chuck Place|
Anyone who has come within earshot of a radio over the past decade has most likely heard the guitar playing of Michael Thompson '75. One of L.A.'s premier studio musicians, he has played on innumerable gold and platinum records with some of the biggest names in the pop music industry. His credits include sessions for divas Celine Dion, Cher, and Madonna, Latin stars Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez, and Gloria Estefan, rockers Great White, Mötley Crüe, and Scorpions, and r&b artists Peabo Bryson, Anita Baker, and Toni Braxton as well as many others.
The sounds he creates are as diverse as the artists with whom he works. Thompson, with a little help from his wife Gloria, has collected a formidable arsenal of instruments that enable him to produce whatever guitar sound might be called for. If the track needs baritone guitar, electric sitar, a Rickenbacker 12-string, steel- or nylon-string acoustics, or any number of Fender or Gibson electric tones, Thompson can deliver. His musical sensibilities, command of numerous styles, and affable personality have made him the first choice of top producers like David Foster, Babyface, and others. He has a reputation for bringing magic to a recording session and those seeking his platinum touch willingly pay him triple scale.
Thompson grew up in Port Washington, New York. As kids, he and his brother Todd always had a garage band. After high school, Michael came to Berklee. He stayed around Boston for four additional years honing his skills on the club and college circuit with a popular r&b group led by singer Ellis Hall. In 1979, he moved to Los Angeles, determined to find his place in the music industry.
Thompson's is not an overnight success story. True, during his first week in L.A., he landed a brief tour with Joe Cocker, but a few weeks later he was back in town and scuffling a bit. He spent the next year driving a cab waiting for things to open up. Slowly, gigs and calls for demo sessions for songwriters, music publishers, and foreign record producers came in. Business steadily picked up over the next several years. Thompson became the demo king, working on up to a dozen songs weekly. Indications that better gigs were on the horizon came when he started getting called back to play his demo parts on the master sessions of the songs that made the cut.
Greater opportunities came Thompson's way in the late 1980s. When studio guitar kingpin Dan Huff departed L.A. for Nashville, he recommended that the producers and contractors he worked for call Thompson. That boosted Thompson's career and the breaks began to multiply. These days, many artists and producers just drop their tapes off at Thompson's home studio and let him add whatever he wants. It is a convenient, low-pressure way to work, but Thompson says he still loves to interact with other musicians at the big studios. "It's a nice way to get out of the house," he says.
Last year at the Grammy Awards show, while waiting to go onstage with the Backstreet Boys, the guitarists for Whitney Houston, Ricky Martin, TLC, and Marc Anthony each stopped by the dressing room to shake Thompson's hand. They wanted to meet the guy whose guitar parts they have memorized and played night after night on tour. To Thompson it brought the realization that he has made a bona fide contribution to the legacy of American popular music.
|Photo by Chuck Place|
How did you become interested in music?
There was some talent in my family. My grandparents were musical and my mother played piano. I started out playing clarinet in fourth grade, but I had no feel for it. For Christmas when I was nine, my brother Todd and I were given one guitar. From that day on, I just took to it. I got with a good teacher, Danny Perry, when I was 12. His big gig was playing with Paul Anka. It is ironic; now Paul Anka is one of my biggest accounts. I have written arrangements for him and done about 50 tracks for his live shows. He has a great live band but likes to use enhanced guitars and drum machines in the P.A. system. At Anka's house, there is this picture of him singing at the Copa, and you can see Danny Perry in the background.
At what point did you decide to come to Berklee?
I heard about Berklee when I was 13. A friend of mine was in a band with a drummer who had gotten into Berklee. There was this feeling then that if you wanted to be a musician, you had to go to Berklee. When I was in high school, my parents sat down with me to talk about college. My mother had a book about colleges and started mentioning schools for me to look into. I remember her saying, "Oh look Mike, SUNY New Paltz [State University of New York at New Paltz] even has a little music program!" My father asked me what I really wanted to do, and I told him I only wanted to go to Berklee. He booked a flight and we flew up to check it out. I remember walking down the halls seeing all the guitar players and I was so stoked.
I ended up working with a local band for a year after high school before starting Berklee. I'm glad I did that. I met some people from New York City and got to do some recording sessions. I also started to study with an incredible guitar teacher named Joe Monk. I'd never had a teacher who could show me things about jazz. He pointed me in the right direction before I went to Berklee.
Who was your guitar teacher at Berklee?
I had Pat Metheny. He only taught there a little while. He was amazing and I love him, but during the lessons he could be such a jazz snob. I remember playing on a tune with him. He took about seven choruses and played all this incredible stuff. Then it was my turn to solo. I took one chorus and then he critiqued me. He said things like, "It was going pretty well until you started playing those octaves . . . that sounded really stupid." I remember just shriveling up, but he was only being honest.
A while after that, he came to see me play with the Ellis Hall Band. I was playing the style that I was most comfortable with--rock and funk. He said he really liked the way I played when I was trying to be me. When I was trying to be a jazzer, he used to tear me to shreds. I see where he was coming from now. There are only a handful of guys I can listen to in that style. There is nothing worse than bad bebop.
Did you have any friends at Berklee who contributed to your development?
I remember walking down the hall and I heard this guy playing who sounded amazing, like Joe Pass. It was Mike Stern. I met him a little later and we got together to play with a third guitarist. Stern chewed the other guy out because he was really rushing, but he told me that he thought I had a great sense of time. That was a moment for me. Mike has this metronomic sense of time. Before I met him, I never thought about how important that was and how I should work on it. We got together a lot and he came to my gigs to hear me play.
What was your first post-Berklee career move?
|Photo by Freddy Lopez|
After leaving Berklee in 1975, I continued working with Ellis Hall for four more years and then moved to L.A. Within a week of getting here, I had a gig playing with Joe Cocker. A keyboard player I knew from Boston named Jim Lang was working with Joe and told me they were auditioning guitarists. I got the gig. I was a huge Joe Cocker fan. He had a three-week tour of Europe doing something called Woodstock in Europe. It was 1979, 10 years after Woodstock. Joe was the headliner. For me it was amazing. I had only been in L.A. one week and then I was on tour in Europe playing "Help From My Friends" with Joe Cocker in front of 10,000 people.
After that, reality set in. It ended up that Joe didn't tour much at all for the rest of the year. I had to call home twice to ask my father to send me money for rent. I wasn't even thinking about moving back home to New York. I was here to make it, come hell or high water. I ended up taking a job driving a cab and did that for almost a year. It was humbling. "Can I get your bags sir?" That was me.
Next, I auditioned for Cher's band. It was a total cattle call--about 75 guitar players showed up. Getting that gig ended my cab-driving career. A guitarist from L.A. named Marty Walsh who I had met back in Boston also helped me. I had stayed in touch with him and when I got here, he gave me sessions and auditions he didn't want to do. Twice he got me on sessions that he was on.
It was a long, very gradual process to break into studio work. In a period during the mid-1980s, I was the demo king. I started asking $50 per tune. Gradually over the years, I got up to $150 per tune with the stipulation that I would be paid the same day because the publishing companies were notorious for taking months to pay for sessions. At the peak, I was doing 10 or 11 songs each week with different writers. I eventually went from working with lame writers to real hit songwriters. Back then, I worked with Glen Ballard and others who have ended up writing hits. My reputation grew by word of mouth. I was kind of standing in [session guitarist] Mike Landau's shadow. People started to say, "Hey, this guy plays as good as Landau, and he's only 100 bucks."
How did you get connected with major record producers?
One lucky break I got was working with an engineer that David Foster was using. Foster actually had a cool period after producing lots of hits in the early and mid-1980s. In the late 1980s, I just thought he was laying back, but according to him, he couldn't get arrested for a few years. I met him at the tail end of that period. He was producing a track for Paul Anka as a favor. It wasn't like doing an important Whitney Houston track where he needed the best guy in town. The engineer recommended me. It's everyone's dream to work with a producer that big. The session went well; Foster liked what I did.
A year went by before I heard from him again. He had another last-minute session for a movie he scored called One Good Cop. He remembered me from the other session and called. This was around 1990. I became part of his team as he started producing a new string of hits that lasted through the '90s. At first, I thought that since he had done so many highly arranged songs for Chicago and others, that he would tell me every note to play and it would be really hard. It was the opposite. He has the big picture but still appreciates the performance and the ideas of the players.
What has been his approach with you?
He builds a track. Most times, I'll play down the tune for the first time, and he might hear two or three things that he likes--a lick or the way I played a chord in the chorus--and he'll keep those. Then he asks what else I've got. I might show him a new guitar, pedal, or sound that I've been working on. He has a very strong sense for developing a tune. He works with you to get a cool intro, then he might tell you not to play on the first verse. At the first B section he might want a little thing. At the chorus he wants you to find a part. On the next verse he might want something rhythmic.
So he leads, but is counting on your creativity and spontaneity to flesh out the track.
He brings the ideas out in me and orchestrates them. I've learned so much working with him. I was ready for this when it happened. Sometimes I wonder if I would have been ready if I had met him when I first got to L.A. I think about [drummer] John Robinson ['75] who came out here and started working with Quincy Jones right away. He was ready for it. When I came out here, I thought I was ready for something like that but in retrospect I wasn't ready to do the things that have become my contributions to songs. I had a lot more learning and demos to do before I could be at the level to work with David Foster. Working with him was like getting a stamp of approval. When people saw that I was on all of the records he was doing, it put me on the map.
What were some of the first songs you worked on for him?
The first one was "The Power of Love" by Celine Dion. That was when she was fairly unknown, she may have had one hit. It was a milestone session for me. I was able to bring a lot to the tune--I even played bass on it. The song was built on a guitar arrangement with 12-string, cranked-up guitar, and other parts. After it was on the radio, David told me that Peter Asher called to ask who was playing guitar on it.
Things have changed in pop music from the days when everyone knew that it was Larry Carlton playing on a Steely Dan song. The way pop music has gone, it's not as easy to stick out on a track. I do a lot of icing in the background, where you hear something but don't know that it is a guitar. It's been great to play on records where you can really hear the guitar and people notice the part.
When did other producers like Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds start calling you?
I had worked with Foster for about five years, so it was about 1995. I was working with him on another Celine Dion album at the Record Plant and Babyface was working down the hall in another room on songs for the film Waiting to Exhale. My rig was kind of near the door and he could hear me through the wall. He is a good guitar player himself and was asking his engineer Brad Gilderman who was playing on the Foster session. We really hit it off as guitar players. He ended up having me play on about eight songs on that album. I became part of his team. He asked me to play with him on an MTV concert that became his MTV Unplugged NYC 1997 CD. It has been a real honor for me to work with the two producers I look up to the most.
How much TV and movie work do you do?
Though I am not a big movie guy, I have worked on many scores by Stewart Copeland and Stanley Clarke. They call me for everything they do. Over the years, I have gotten to work with Hans Zimmer, James Newton Howard, Randy Edelman, and others. The Tina Turner story What's Love Got to Do with It was one movie where I got to do a lot of playing on the underscore.
Would you agree that a first-call studio player has to bring a lot more to the table than instrumental competence?
Yeah. You have to create magic. The producers have to walk away feeling like they had to have you. I have been drawn to pop music since I was a kid listening to the radio. This is where my heart is. It's not like I just do this for money and what I'm really into is Coltrane. I like pop music, but at the same time, I don't consider all the stuff I play on to be high art.
To do this work, you need to have the confidence that comes from knowing that people have loved what you played. When you are coming up through the ranks playing demos, Joe Schmo may like your playing, but is David Foster going to? You wonder how you are going to fit into the world. After 10 years of playing on hit records and sitting with the biggest artists in the world playing stuff that pleases them, I have gained confidence. But I never approach a session thinking, hey, I'm going to ace this. You can't. Each song is different and you have to come up with new stuff all the time.
I recently did a session for Neil Diamond. He has been around a very long time and has worked with everybody. After the session, he told me he loved everything I played for him. I was driving home thinking how much I enjoy making people happy with this work. You are working on a song that someone has put heart and soul into. Seeing big smiles on their faces as they hear your parts bring the song to life is what you strive for.
Have you had any studio nightmares?
These days, there aren't any bad sessions. There used to be a lot of times in the '80s where I'd leave thinking I could have played better or that the sound wasn't good. But there came a point when all the sessions became good and people liked what I was doing. I am given the props of having people want to see what I will come up with. They play the track, and I start getting ideas and I think of what I'll try. I feel like God has blessed me. When I was 32, I became a Christian. I was probably the last guy anyone would think would go that way. I wasn't an atheist before, but I never thought twice about Jesus. I firmly believe that God had a plan for me. I have been able to do more than I thought Michael Thompson from Long Island would ever do. I feel like I am blessed every time I sit down to work.
What outlook will best serve a young musician coming to L.A. to be in the music business?
You need to be realistic and be getting some indications. If everyone is saying that you are burning, your recordings are great, and you are turning heads at rehearsals, gigs, and sessions, that's an indication. The opportunities for studio players have shrunk since the late 1970s when there were three sessions a day with full rhythm sections and two or three guitar players. I am playing on records almost every day, but there isn't room for 20 guys to do that kind of work. There have always been about three or four guys getting all of the A-plus work.
I wanted this so badly that I drove a cab so I could to stay in L.A. and get a foothold. It is a sure thing that someone else is going to do it. Sometimes I wonder how I got to do this. For me, it is good that it has worked out . . . it's the only thing I can do.