Danny Thompson is a master of the upright bass and has enjoyed one of the most eclectic and interesting careers in British music. Thompson has played with greats from the world of jazz, folk, country and pop, including Roy Orbison, Bert Williams, John Martyn and Kate Bush. He was a founding member of Pentangle. Thompson will be 75 on April 4, 2014, and to mark the event he is appearing in six different London concerts with some of his most celebrated musical sparring partners, such as Richard Thompson, Eric Bibb and Martin Simpson. Here he talks to Martin Chilton about his life in music.
• Your career has been remarkably varied…
I've played with some wonderful musicians of all sorts and enjoyed the differences. I have no prejudice as far as music goes. I've played with great jazz men such as Humphrey Lyttelton and I love playing folk, too, and have played with many of the modern greats, such as Richard Thompson. I suppose I am in a sort of rogues gallery with jazz but I love playing folk. As long as I have my hands on my upright bass, I am the luckiest bloke in the world. And playing different forms of music helps you play the other types. I just play intricate bass solos, I don't fly about on the bass. I am not given musical dots to join just because I'm playing country one minute and folk, blues or jazz the next.
• The line between folk and jazz was blurred in your work with John Martyn anyway…
Exactly. We never spent time discussing what we were going to do. It was a musical conversation with John, taking in all strands. I've done a lot of what you might call more commercial music – with Kate Bush, Rod Stewart and the like – and I don't play any different than when I'm down Ronnie Scott's or in a folk club. It's all free form. Someone like Kate is just a fantastic singer and a lovely lady, too, and it's as interesting working with her as with Tubby Hayes.
• You must miss John Martyn?
I miss John all the time. I never understood grief until he died [in January 2009]. We had great times and loads of rucks but it was a true friendship. Good times with all the lumps. We were very fortunate that the music between us was so natural. It was something we never talked about. I thought about chucking it all in when he died.
• Did you up on jazz and blues?
When I played with Joe Williams, he said: "Where did you learn to play the blues?" And I said that's what I grew up on. Doris Day singing show tunes. It was also from listening on the wireless to the Alan Lomax radio shows from the penitentiaries, that's what got me hooked on Leadbelly and Big Bill Broonzy.
• And later you were good friends with Stan Tracey…
I used to have lunch with Stan quite a lot, up until shortly before he died last December. We were like Statler and Waldorf, the two old boys from the Muppets, moaning about modern life. Stan would do his Will Hay voice and I would speak like WC Fields as we grumbled and told stories.
• Sounds fun…
It was. I miss Stan a lot. He was a great musician and taught me a lot when we played at Ronnie Scott's club. I recall doing a month there with the American jazz singer Mark Murphy and I also remember being nervous when I was going to play in Sonny Rollins's band and Stan said: "Don't worry Dan, he's only another bloke."
• Do you get fed up with people raving about you being the world's best acoustic bass player?
I would hate anyone to believe I thought I was anything like that good. I always knew my role. How could I play with Tubby Hayes and be big-headed? When I think of some of the people I have had the privilege to play with, Joe Williams, Jon Hendricks, drummer Art Taylor, trumpeter Art Farmer, I smile. I was so excited when I was playing in a band with Red Rodney. I thought "Wow, this is a man who had played with Charlie Parker." I always thought Red was better than Dizzy Gillespie. And I always thought of myself as the snotty-nosed white kid from Battersea playing with these titans of music. I played with the blues man Josh White, for heaven's sake when I was just about a boy. We were hurriedly getting ready for a TV show and he said 'Do you know John Henry?" Course I did! It makes me so happy to think of all those times. The names are coming thick and fast. I played with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Oh, I've been lucky. Roy Orbison, Little Walter, Freddy Hubbard, Sandy Denny, Marc Bolan.
• And, I say with all good humour, you also played on Sir Cliff Richard's Congratulations?
Yeah I did [laughs] and on the theme song for Thunderbirds are Go! We used to get a lot of recording work in the Fifties and Sixties where you would arrive not even knowing what music you were going to be playing, or who with. One time I turned up and it was to play Nuages with John Williams. They wanted someone who knew Django Reinhard's music and Williams did not want it to be someone from the classical world. If you asked who you were going to be playing with, the booking agent would mockingly say, "Who is it, you ask? Are you bloody free or not?" For the Cliff Richard one we turned up at the Abbey Road studios and I saw George Chisholm and Ronnie Scott waiting outside in the street, so I knew it would be fun. I got nine shillings, 10 pence and 15 bob portage for playing on Congratulations.
• Were your family musical?
I never knew my father at all. He was in the Royal Navy and was killed while on duty in a submarine in World War Two, and I was just a toddler at the time. I had a really bad childhood but I did find out later that my dad had apparently been a good singer and his favourite song was Danny Boy, hence my name. He was one of 12 children, six boys and six girls, and two of my uncles were trombone players. One became a trombone professor at the Royal College of music. They had been a mining family so had played in colliery brass bands. Some of those bands were of a good standard.
• And you played that instrument for a while…
Yes, I played the trombone and I tried the guitar and mandolin. Eventually I made my own tea chest bass and at 14 I would get on the London buses with it to go to gigs and play in skiffle bands.
• Was that the point at which you decided music was going to be your career?
I went to a grammar school and kids would talk about the career they wanted to follow. In those days it was possible to think about having a good career in all sorts of ways. But I wanted to be like the man from George Lewis's New Orleans band, the 85-year old bass player Alcide 'Slow Drag' Pavageau. I loved his melodic approach. People go on about technique, blah, blah, blah, but I was also so taken with 'Slow Drag' and with Big Jim Robinson's trombone sound and his way of doing counter melodies. He was an enormous influence and affected me almost without it being consciously.
• And you still have your beloved bass called Victoria…
Victoria was made by the French maker Gand in 1865 and I bought it from an old boy in a shop in Battersea when I was still so young. He said he could tell that I was someone who knew how to play without an amplifier. You have to have your own tone and personality on an instrument. When I started with Tubby Hayes I had to fight to be heard and it was a Eureka moment. The sound is the sound.
• In your seventies, do you have to practice as hard?
I still do at least an hour a day to keep the oil working in the fingers. I always think of when cellist Pablo Casals was interviewed on his 94th birthday and was asked that and he said he practised around two hours a day. And when the interviewer expressed surprise that a maestro should be doing that, he said: "Well I've just started to see some improvement". I like to keep up to scratch and I certainly don't want to be like one of those boxers who is on a fight too many. It's actually tougher physically in the quieter times. The more you are playing, the easier it is. There is no substitute for live playing and sometimes after a break you take a few minutes to get going but then the adrenalin helps.
• You've found a great way to celebrate being 75…
We are doing six nights of music with different guests. It sounds pretentious to call them concerts because I think they are more like a birthday bash. To be honest, I have been to so many funerals of musicians where people have been remembering the good times and being excited about the music they played and I thought that it's terrible that the bloke who would have loved it most isn't there. The dead one is missing out. That is why I am having a week of celebrations while I'm still here. There was talk of doing the concerts at the Southbank or the Barbican Centre but I spend a lot of my formative years at the Half Moon in Putney and I thought that is where I want them to be. I'm in the lucky and selfish position that there are so many fine people I have worked with who wanted to be involved. Darrell Scott is coming over from Nashville and Eric Bibb changed his tour of Australia so he could be there. It's going to be a room full of real mates and we are going to have a good time before the door closes. That was apparent to me when I played at the Royal Festival Hall tribute concert to Bert Jansch last year. There was no spotlight on any individual and I knew if Bert had been there he would have loved it.
• And Richard Thompson is playing one of the birthday gigs…
Richard is just a real close mate and we have never let business get in the way of friendship. I was thrilled when he rang up and said: "I want to be there, I'm looking forward to it immensely." All these gigs are with great geezers, with mates, who just happen to be world class musicians.
• Who is the musician you would loved to have played with?
Frank Sinatra, without a doubt. That's one gig I would love to have done. That would have really been kicking it up. I grew up listening to Sinatra and all those wonderful songs with the Nelson Riddle string arrangements. A long time ago, the promoter Derek Block said to me that the next time Frank Sinatra comes over, I should come and play in the big band with him. But when he came over to the UK he had already sorted his rhythm section so the opportunity never came up.
• Sinatra was a tough guy but you must have been too, with your boxing career?
Football was my first love. I've always been a Chelsea fanatic and in fact I played for their juniors in the Fifties. They had a left winger called Billy Gray, who was also a northeast boxing champion, and he got me into the Chelsea team and then into boxing. I cried my eyes out when we lost the 1950 FA Cup semi-final replay to Arsenal. I later became mates with Peter Osgood and Ian Hutchinson in the Sixties. That was the pre-Abramovich days of the Chelsea when you were 3-0 up and still thought you'd lose 5-3. But in fact I moved away from playing football to doing a lot of boxing. I lost my first fight and swore I would never lose another one. And I didn't, in 22 fights. That was one of the reasons I gave up the trombone, because a smack in the chops is not very good for that.
• You've hung up your gloves but not your bass. Are there things you still want to do in music?
I love composing and doing that is still on the list of things I want to do when I have time. And you never know. If I'm still around at 90, we might be back in the Half Moon.
Danny Thompson plays The Half Moon Putney on March 30 (with Darrell Scott); March 31 (with Eric Bibb), April 2 (with Martin Simpson); April 3 (with Ralph McTell); April 4 (with Richard Thompson) and April 5 (with Donovan).