Earma Thompson is one of our historic pianists, mother of Terry
Thompson, a drummer, and wife of the late Marshall Thompson, known for
his tap dancing and drumming. Here's what she had to say about her life
in the old days:
I played piano before I entered DuSable High School. But I didn't
play piano in the school band or the annual school production called
'The Hi Jinks.' I played in church. I was interested in singing and was
in Matilda Bryant Jones's special choir. John Young, Dorothy Donegan,
and others were in my class. Marshall had attended DuSable High School
but quit to travel with a show. Clarence Allen and Marshall formed a
tap dance act which later was known as Peck and Peck. Their act
appeared at the Club DeLisa and the 5100 Club on Chicago's North Side.
They also toured with the bands of Erskine Hawkins and Duke Ellington.
Marshall and I got married in 1943 and later I went with him on some
of the appearances. The act broke up in 1950 when Clarence decided to
move to California. Marshall started playing music professionally the
same year, playing drums.
In 1953 three musicians, Harold Youngblood (piano), Bobby Payne
(vibes), and Tony Smith (drums) purchased the Cotton Club in the 6200
block of Cottage Grove Avenue. Later Tony sold his interest to the
other two. Bobby Payne was the real owner, but he couldn't get a
license because of a felony conviction.
Marshall began working in the Cotton Club before I did. I replaced
Horace Palm. Marshall and I were paid, and different bass players would
come by and sit in. We worked three days a week (Monday through
Wednesday). Don Castello on drums brought in a band on weekends
consisting of Cliff Davis, Johnny Griffin (sax), Lou Dean (piano and
trumpet), and Lowell Pointer (bass). Later, Joe Williams began working
the Monday-Wednesday sets with us, and this was a learning experience.
I learned all of his material, and this experience was of great help in
working with Phylliss Branch, Billie Holiday, and other vocalists. The
Cotton Club was packed the night Joe was given a going-away party to
join the Count Basie band.
Working in the Cotton Club was like going to school. Other musicians
and I didn't realize at the time that we had a workshop going!
Musicians would come by the job like they were working. This happened
every night. We would discuss everything, like playing tunes, learning
tunes, learning different chords, and so on.
Some of those musicians were Richard Abrams, E. Parker McDougal,
John Gilmore, Clifford Jordan, George Eskridge, Harold Ashby, and
others. They would be there waiting for Marshall and me to come to
work. We were the rhythm section. Everybody came by and played and
exchanged ideas. If it was thought that a musician had potential, he or
she would be given that extra push. Saxophonist Billy Mitchell, a
member of the Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie bands, worked in the Club
for a short while, and, man, this was the icing on the cake. He exposed
the musicians to the Detroit and New York music philosophies.
The club opened at 7 am and closed at 4 am the next day. Musicians
would be there all day playing and developing their musical tools. Sun
Ra rehearsed his group almost every day in the Cotton Club, also.
We were making $12 a night when the union raised the scale to $15
per night. Owner Youngblood would not pay the other three dollars.
Youngblood was a member of the Board of Directors of the Musicians'
Local 208. Mr. Gray, President of Local 208, would come to the Basin
Street Club, across the street from the Cotton Club, to see that the
musicans were paid. He would come in and stop the show—starring Eddie
Vinson—until the money was paid. However Gray never came over to see we
got our money. I left the Club because Youngblood owed me too much
money, even though the Club would be packed with people. I knew he
could afford to pay me.
When I talk of my musical yesterdays, I remember them as fun days,
although I didn't think so at the time. There were good and bad times,
and I am blessed to have met and performed with many wonderful
musicians. I also remember my mother wanted me to become a typist!