Ron Thompson at Rancho Nicasio after illness
What: Ron Thompson and his Resistors
When: 8:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Rancho Nicasio, on the square in Nicasio
Admission: $12 to $15
Information: ranchonicasio.com, 415-662-2219
When keyboardist Jim Pugh retired after 25 years with blues star Robert Cray, he started the Little Village Foundation, a nonprofit record label whose mission is “to seek and record obscure yet prodigious musicians who have not received proper recognition and respect.” One of the first artists he recorded was Bay Area bluesman Ron Thompson, releasing his 2015 album “Son of Boogie Woogie.”
“Not only can he play the blues, he can sing it in a way that’s more convincing than practically anyone these days,” Pugh says. “He grew up in tough circumstances in East Oakland, and I don’t think you can find a better example of someone who’s that believable, that authentic. He’s the real deal.”
He certainly is. I’ve been a Thompson fan for longer than I can remember. Decades ago, a friend and I would religiously go see him play solo sets on weekday nights at Peri’s Silver Dollar Saloon in Fairfax. Sometimes the place would be packed, other times there would be hardly anyone there. It didn’t matter to him. He always played and sang with the same energy and passion, pulling the music from somewhere deep inside himself every time he stepped on stage.
“Kenney Dale Johnson (the Texas-born drummer for Chris Isaak) told me that when Stevie Ray Vaughan first came to San Francisco in the ’70s, the only guitarist he wanted to hear in California was Ron Thompson,” Pugh says.
Now 64, Thompson has gone through some hard times recently. He doesn’t like to talk about it, but he spent weeks in a hospital when complications from diabetes forced the amputation of one of his legs. He was sidelined for several months while he healed and learned to walk with a prosthetic limb. On Saturday night, Rancho Nicasio will roll out the red carpet for him when he plays a comeback gig with his band, the Resistors. Angela Strehli, “queen of Texas blues,” and blues icon Elvin Bishop are planning to sit-in.
Despite his recent health challenges, the diminutive blues singer-songwriter remains relentlessly upbeat, thanking his girlfriend, Carolyn Phillips, for helping him during his hospitalization, recovery and return to performing.
“She’s been doing everything for me except play the guitar,” he says. But he would much rather tell me about the pair of new songs he’s written and recorded than the life-threatening illness he’s survived.
Contrary to the popular misconception of blues as a music of sadness and sorrow, the truth is that it’s really an antidote for those things. And no one I know epitomizes the joy of the blues more than Thompson does.
“I really like my job,” he says without a hint of false sincerity. “I’m just glad to make a living playing music. I can’t believe I’m doing this. I’m living my dream.”
Piano to guitar
Growing up in Oakland and nearby Newark, the working-class town where he now lives, the first instrument he played was piano. Both his mother, who came to California in the Dust Bowl migration from Oklahoma in the 1930s, and his grandmother were piano players.
“They played old-timey,” he remembers. “My grandmother played stride piano. She was really good. And my grandfather played fiddle.”
After wearing out the grooves on his older sister’s Jimmy Reed single “Found Love,” he was determined to teach himself guitar. He worked as a janitor and in a corn processing plant when he wasn’t in school or in his room practicing.
At 17, he was good enough to back up legends like Little Joe Blue and Big Mama Thornton in Oakland and North Richmond blues joints.
“She was pretty tough,” he says of Thornton. “There was no messing around. You played what she wanted and that’s it.”
As he immersed himself in the culture of the blues, he copped licks and tricks playing alongside established blues guitarists like Robert Lockwood Jr., Hubert Sumlin, Lowell Fulson, Bobby Blue Bland and Eddie Taylor, who taught him to play with finger picks instead of the customary flat pick.
“I played with Sunnyland Slim at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival,” he remembers. “He was one of the nicest persons I met in the music business. He knew everybody. We started at 4 in the morning at Tipitina’s. It was real cool.”
At the Billboard Awards in Los Angeles, he shared the stage with Buddy Guy, one of the greats. Lightnin’ Hopkins taught him that the 12-bar blues doesn’t necessarily have to be 12 bars.
“He played blues like a form of jazz, so you’d have to adjust,” he says. “It was spooky like that.”
Those lessons came in handy when he toured and recorded with John Lee Hooker, the king of the boogie, for seven years.
“He really learned at the foot of John Lee Hooker,” Pugh says. “Like Hooker, he can do a one-chord blues and really do it.”
In 1983, Thompson released his debut album, “Treat Her Like Gold.” Four years later, the follow-up, “Resistor Twister,” was nominated for a Grammy Award. Since then, he’s recorded six more albums, including the all acoustic “Resonator in 2007, the year then- Mayor Gavin Newsom declared a “Ron Thompson Day” in San Francisco.
As he returns to the stage, he’s committed to sticking to a healthy diet and lifestyle, hoping to keep himself and the blues alive.
“He’s a tremendous talent,” Pugh says. “It’s kind of a shame that somehow he’s gotten glossed over and isn’t better known. But I think there’s still time because most of the authentic bluesmen who originated this uniquely African-American music have passed on, and he just might be one of the few left standing who plays blues from the heart.”