Interviews & Features
How Michael Thompson Became “The Guy”
From Joe Cocker and Cher to David Foster and beyond…
By Jon Liebman
March 21, 2018
Photo by Lindsey Mejia
Michael Thompson is widely known for his prolific work as a session guitarist, covering a wide array of genres, including rock, pop, R&B, country and Latin. Having grown up on Long Island, Michael attended Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he studied with Pat Metheny. After making a name for himself in the Boston area, largely due to his four-year tenure with the popular R&B band, the Ellis Hall Group, Michael relocated to the Los Angeles area with his wife, in search of a career as a professional musician.
Despite some immediate work in the LA studios and a European tour with Joe Cocker, it was slow going at first for the young guitarist, who had to drive a cab for nearly a year in order to make ends meet. Through his connections from the Joe Cocker gig, Thompson landed a gig with Cher, heightening his profile in the West Coast music scene. Work gradually became more steady for Michael, as he was hired to record a weekly session for the TV show Fame. He also found himself becoming in demand for songwriter demos and other projects.
In 1988, Michael got a contract with Geffen Records to record his first album, How Long, with his own group, the Michael Thompson Band (MTB). Persistence and determination began bearing fruit, as Michael entered a long-term association with all-star producer David Foster, and was invited to participate in various projects with Babyface, Quincy Jones, “Mutt” Lange and other notable producers. He also worked on film scores for Stewart Copeland and Stanley Clarke and eventually James Newton Howard and Randy Edelman.
The list of music luminaries with whom Michael has performed and/or recorded also includes Michael Jackson, Madonna, Gloria Estefan, Michael Bolton, Celine Dion, Toni Braxton, Whitney Houston, Phil Collins, Eric Clapton, Michael McDonald, Katy Perry, Michael Bublé, Shania Twain and countless others. Thompson is also a past recipient of Berklee’s “Distinguished Alumni” award in recognition of his contributions to the music industry.
FGPO: Tell me about your first exposure to music and how you became a guitar player.
MT: Well, like so many other people, it was seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan in, what year was that, ’64?
FGPO: ’64. February 10th, I think.
MT: Yeah, and my birthday is February 11th and I got Meet The Beatles for my birthday. I got a guitar for Christmas. I guess I was already playing for a year – if you want to call it playing – but I got a guitar when I was 9. I just loved music. I had no early signs of being any kind of musical prodigy or anything, but my brother and I had a band and we rehearsed in my parents’ garage. We had that band for years.
MT: Yeah! Wow, you did your homework! We kind of worked our way up from doing school dances and church dances and stuff like that to the high school version that we had of that band. We got this guy named Jim Uhl, who was like the sort of undisputed best musician in our town. He wrote songs that were really good, sort of James Taylor-ish kind of songs, but he was a really good guitar player. He was also like a first-chair violist and stuff. So I played second fiddle to him and I learned a lot. He had a very early Clapton style and his bending was really nice and everything. I talk about my influences and a lot of time I forget, wow, it was really that guy that was one of my major influences. In high school, we had that band and we had some other good players. My father was in the advertising business in New York City and one of his clients was RCA Records.
FGPO: Was he one of the Mad Men?!
MT: Kind of. His company designed and made displays and he was a salesman for that company. He had different clients, like Uniroyal Tires, but RCA was one of his clients. We made a demo tape in our garage with this guy that had, I think it was just a 4-track recorder, and he brought it in to the A&R department. This one young A&R guy heard the tunes and really like them and became our manager. The cool thing from that was he got us studio time at the big RCA studio in New York City. I was 16 and I got a taste of being in the studio and I really liked it. It was kind of an early foreshadowing of what my career was gonna be. But that opportunity was so cool, at that young age, to get in a real studio and record.
That was a good kind of experience, but as far as playing guitar and stuff, I loved it and I worked at it. I went to Berklee when I was 19. I was gonna go right after high school, but I got in this other band called Freeway that was this horn band and they were all a little older than me. I was 18 and I had seen them on the Johnny Carson show, so I was sure they were going to make it. They were from the next town over, a town called Great Neck. That was my first band that I ever went and auditioned for. It exposed me to playing from guys from the city, horn players. Basically, it was rehearsing for six months for a record deal that never ended up happening, but it was really good experience.
During that time, the other guitar player, a guy named Jeff Sigman, turned me on to this guitar teacher in Great Neck named Joe Monk, who was this sort of legendary teacher. He taught a lot of the guys on Long Island. It seemed like he specialized in guys like me who were rockers who got interested in playing jazz. He just had a great way of showing you things. That was really an important thing before I went to Berklee ‘cause I’d gotten intensely interested in trying to be a jazz guitar player after just being a rocker for the years leading up to that.
FGPO: Tell me about your experience at Berklee.
MT: I was trying to catch up on so much stuff, like trying to learn how to sight read. When I went there, the guys that became the top names in jazz were going there. Mike Stern was a friend of mine. John Scofield was the first guy I heard on the first day. I’m like, “Oh my God, everyone’s that good!” And while I was there, Gary Burton brought up (Pat Metheny) form Miami. He taught there for a short period of time and I was one of his students. We were both 19 and that freaked me out that this kid was so good, you know. But he sounded almost exactly like he does now back then. He had this fully realized style that was just great. It kind of covered everything. It had the great, warm, swing, jazz thing, but it was modern sounding. He came to town and word spread overnight. Then a couple months later, he brought Jaco up from Miami and the same deal happened. I remember they played on a Friday night and by Saturday everyone was talking about this guy Jaco Pastorius.
FGPO: Is it safe to say that Boston is where your career was initially launched?
MT: It was that period of time in the mid-‘70s in Boston. All those guys were in town. That’s when I met Vinnie Colaiuta, and we’re still playing together. I was in a band called the Ellis Hall Group. It was kind of the most popular band in Boston. I was in it from like ’75 to ’79. Ellis is a blind musician. He’s still doin’ it today. When I got that gig with that band, I thought I had joined Earth, Wind & Fire! There’d be a line out the door everywhere we played and a lot of those guys came to see me play with that band. At one point Al Kooper put a band together of guys from Berklee and Vinnie was the drummer. Al Kooper was doing a Sunday matinee, like a 2:00 show in the afternoon, for like 20 people. I met Vinnie upstairs before the show. There was an artist from Boston named Ralph Graham, who got a deal on RCA and he was cutting his album down in New York, and another Boston guy named Rob Mounsey, who became a real famous arranger. He was Ralph Graham’s musical director and that was his intro to going down to New York and doing that first album with Ralph. I did a show with the Ellis Hall Group. Ralph Graham was on the bill and he heard me play and he asked me to come down to New York and do this session. It was unbelievable for me. It was like a Twilight Zone kind of thing – Steve Gadd on drums, Will Lee on bass, Ralph MacDonald on percussion. Leon Pendarvis was producing and he played keys. I mean that was the band!
FGPO: So did the Ellis Hall gig end up being the catalyst for your entrée into the professional music world?
MT: We were really popular in New England. For four years, I played four to five nights a week with that band. And then we finally got a record deal in ’79. My plan was always to move to LA, from back when I was in high school. I came on vacation to Southern California with my parents when I was 15. I remember we were staying in Santa Monica and I’m like, “This is where I’m gonna live.” Plus all the recording and what I wanted to do with my life was going on here. I grew up outside New York City and I didn’t even have a thought about moving to New York. My goal was always to come to LA and try and make it in the studio biz.
FGPO: Did you have anything lined up when you and your wife moved out there, or did you decide to just go for it?
MT: No. The deal was with this guy named Norman Connors (who) had a four-artist deal (with CBS). He came to Boston and saw the Ellis Hall group and signed us. My first couple weeks in LA were (spent) doing that record with the Ellis Hall group that actually never came out. But it gave me a good little couple of weeks of work when I first got out here. And I got this gig, “fluke-illy,” with Joe Cocker, like the second week I was out here. Joe had had a band for five or six years. These guys, they were actually from New England too, called the American Standard Band, were backing him up. They had gotten a record deal and so they couldn’t do his tour, so he was auditioning guys for a band. My friend Jim Lang got the gig on keys and I’m like, “Get me an audition!” I shed the tunes and stuff and went down there and got this gig with Joe Cocker. It was a three-week tour of Europe. It was called “Woodstock In Europe.” It was ten years after Woodstock, which, by the way, I was at, the original Woodstock, when I was 15.
FGPO: That must have been quite an experience or a 15-year-old.
MT: Yeah, it was incredible. It was ’69, so this was ’79 and Joe was the headliner and it was like Joe, Richie Havens, Country Joe…
FGPO: Country Joe & the Fish?
MT: Except it wasn’t the Fish. It was Country Joe doing acoustic. There was one other act, but it was mainly a Joe Cocker thing. That was a thrill for me. I’d never been out of the country and it was Europe. It was mostly those summer festival kind of things where, you know, they drive you right up to the stage and you play for like 10,000 people. But that year, he was supposed to go out the next month and he didn’t, and the next month, and he didn’t… So the “Welcome to LA” for me was really reality setting in. I didn’t know anyone, didn’t have any money and literally was at rock bottom as far as starting out. I didn’t have in-town work. I didn’t have any connections or anything.
FGPO: You became a cab driver, didn’t you?
MT: I did. I had never had a day gig kind of thing and I looked in the paper and it said “DRIVERS NEEDED.” It was this funky cab company called City Cab. I did that for the better part of a year. I had to get out of the cab. I was in this rock band called Romance with some guys and the drummer got the gig playing with Cher and they were auditioning also. And I’m like desperate to get out of the cab, and I said, “Get me an audition!” That was a real cattle call. I mean everyone was recommended and stuff, but I remember 75 guitar players auditioned.
The Cher gig opened up a whole thing for me ‘cause her musical director ended up being the musical director for this TV show called Fame, that was big in the early ‘80s. This guy just liked the way I played, a guy named Gary Scott. I mean I couldn’t pay the rent off just that, but it gave me a little foothold as far as meeting people and some kind of gig. That same guy, Gary Scott, ended up doing a couple other shows and always used me, in some movies and stuff later on, but it was all from that first, getting that gig with Cher and doing that. And then some of the guys in that band pulled me in to, well, you know how it goes, they pull you into projects. It’s funny now, so many years later, when I look at the six degrees of certain people and how I can trace back to that first, that Joe Cocker gig.
FGPO: You made an interesting comment one time about how the touring guitar players have to study the record and learn the guitar part from the record. But you wanted to be “The Guy” whose parts everyone else needed to learn and copy. Can you comment on that?
MT: Yeah, I still really feel like that. Iconic parts on records, of course I love to play those. I do a bunch of these shows, and have for years and years, with David Foster. A lot of them are charity events that are backing up different artists, and I’d been the guy on the record for a lot of these people. He (David) used to give me shit for not learning my own guitar parts [laughs]. “You never play the right guitar parts, even though most of them are your own.” Which is a total exaggeration, but back in the ‘60s, you had all those great songs that would start with a guitar lick and that was my dream to like, Wow, man, that’s gotta be like the highest form of anything, to hear yourself on the radio on a pop song.
FGPO: What’s keeping you busy these days?
MT: Well, with the record biz dying over the last year, the days of producers calling session musicians for artists that are on labels with big budgets and stuff, I mean that’s dead pretty much. But there’s still a lot of recording going on, so I do 95% of that in my own studio. This year seems like it’s been busier, just in general, with a lot of that and a bunch of other stuff.
The last couple of months, I’ve been spending a lot of time writing and recording songs for this MTB album. It’s really coming out great. It’s like the best thing I’ve done in ages. So, that’s what I’m excited about. Also, every year we’ve (been doing) these little tours with Nathan East. It’s been really fun. It’s been Nathan and me and (drummer Steve) Ferrone and Nathan’s brother James playing bass to (Nathan’s) melodic bass that he plays on the set. He sings and plays a lot of the melodies and James kinda holds down the fort. Then there’s a guitar player, a Korean guy named Jack Lee, who actually booked most of these tours we do. He’s really great and he sounds exactly like Pat Metheny! That’s his thing. He’s the Korean Pat Metheny, so he’s the other guitar player. Then there’s a cat originally from Brooklyn, but he’s lived in Tokyo since I think 1990, a guy named Caleb James, who plays keys, and a Japanese EWI player who also plays second keys. So that’s the band. I think this is like the seventh tour we’ve done. We’re going to China, the Blue Note in Beijing and then the Blue Note in Tokyo and then we’re going to Korea and doing a couple of concerts. That’s next month. And it’s always fun.
FGPO: Tell me about your gear.
MT: Well, I have stuff that I’ve had for years and years, and then I’m always trying stuff. I’ve chilled out on buying as much stuff as I used to, just ‘cause I have so much. I have really great guitars. I really dig the Xotic Strat that I have. I think they make really great stuff and I think I was, like, the second guy – I think Tim Pierce might have been the first guy, but I was the second guy to do a video with them, back when it was just (Xotic owner) Toshio (Horiba) and another guy that had like a handicam, you know, like a camcorder. I remember them coming to my studio with the AC Boost, the first one, you know, and we did that first little video. Things have come quite a ways since then, but I think they’ve always made really great pedals and I think I was helpful when they came out with the compressor ‘cause a lot of people bought that little SP Compressor based on this video I did for them. The other guitars that I play a lot, there’s a guy, a friend of mine named Greg Back that makes guitars for me that I really like. I have about 8 or 9 of his guitars. My wife has actually bought me a guitar every Christmas for 25 years, or longer than that.
FGPO: Don’t let her go!
MT: You gotta love a wife that buys you a guitar for Christmas. I lot of times, it’s been something I wouldn’t have gone out and bought for myself, like a really nice Gretsch, or a baritone. One year she got me a Jerry Jones sitar. And she’s gotten me a number of these Greg Back guitars too. So I’ve got good guitars and I’ve got, you know, the pedal thing works. I keep a rack with actually just a couple of pieces that I’ve used for years. This Eventide H3000 has been part of my sound pretty much on every record I’ve played, this one patch that I’ve used on that thing, and they have another thing called the Eclipse. Those are my main rack pieces that I’ve used.
FGPO: What about the future? Is there something else you’d like to do that you haven’t already accomplished?
MT: Still being able to be a professional musician is like the hugest blessing in the world. When I was busy, busy, busy and trying to make it and stuff, and all those years that it was just like unbelievably busy, it took me so long to break in. I feel like I never took it for granted, but then when it got really busy, you tend to just think that this is going to last forever and then, with the whole demise of the record business, it’s really shown me like, wow, this is amazing that I got to do my favorite thing for my life’s work.
So now, it’s like every session that comes in and every gig, I’m so appreciative of it. And the fact that I’m still pretty busy working… I’m going to play until the day I die. You build a name and you work at your craft and you get good at it, just like any artisan or someone who’s working at a craft. I think I’ve never been better at what I do than right now. The fact that I still have the opportunity to do that is incredible. So I guess, to answer your question, I love recording and doing that, and then in the future, I guess my sort of silly little fantasy thing, ‘cause I’m 64, if this MTB thing, this record that I’m making right now, makes some noise – I know these people that are fans of mine or fans of this music are really going to like this record – I would like to try and be able to put together my own little tour, probably in Europe, for like next year, or whatever. I have never pursued that, but I know that they have a circuit of concert clubs and stuff. Every country has a couple of those and it’d be good if I could hook up with an agent and book something like that. That would be really fun for me, to play these songs. I’ve got some really good guys in my band. Actually, this bass player, I don’t know if you know a guy named Larry Antonino. He’s an incredible bass player, but he’s a really great singer and a really great songwriter. We’ve written six of the tunes together. I’ve known about him for years, but I just hooked up with him this year. You might know him from… his claim to fame was, remember that movie That Thing You Do? The Tom Hanks movie?
FGPO: Oh yeah. He was the guy that came in to audition? To fill in?
MT: Exactly! The wolf man! So I’ve got him and there’s a drummer named Serge Gonzalez who’s great. So we have the nucleus of a good little band. When that record comes out, that’ll be something I’ll be proud of.
FGPO: What would you be if you weren’t a guitar player?
MT: Ooh… Unhappy. I think if I was blessed with something, it wasn’t that I was just like this naturally gifted virtuoso musician. God gave me the gift of creativity. Back when I was a kid, I loved drawing and stuff and I was creative. And when I got into music and got into playing on songs and coming up with parts and stuff, it’s really that same part of your being that’s creative no matter whether you’re doing artwork or whatever. If I could do something (else), I would hope that it would be something using creativity.