|Diamond Studs finished its New York Off-Broadway run and headed around the country. The following article preceded the play's debut in Miami. Susan Mecum Berg, childhood friend of Tommy's family back in St. Albans, W.Va., sent the article to Tommy's daughter Jesse Thompson Eustice many years later.|
How a little country musical stormed New York. Is Coconut Grove ready for this?
Nancy Beth Jackson
|Back at Jacksonville Beach’s
Duncan U. Fletcher High School in the early ‘50s when Tommy Thompson and
his plump football-playing, chorus-singing friends dubbed themselves the
Fat Boys, well, that was one thing. Now it’s 1975 and columnist
Rex Reed is calling Tommy Thompson a “fat fool—with all the appeal of a
grizzly bear in drag” and Tommy Thompson with this Falstaffian girth doesn’t
like that weighty implication just one bit, even if he does wear a checkered
apron and sun bonnet five nights and one afternoon a week.
“I’m going to take that review,” he says, sipping slowly on one of a series of double bourbons in a New York bar, “and frame it—right next to the one by Clive Barnes of The Times.”
The Barnes piece about “Diamond Studs,” a two-band musical which tells the life and death of Jesse James in pop-rock-string band music and cornpone, is the kind you send back home to Mother and the high school choir director and to booking agents. In 23 inches, Barnes is almost too enthusiastic, first about the work and then about Thompson.
About the work, which the Red Clay Ramblers (Thompson’s string band) and the Southern States Fidelity Choir plus assorted friends and girlfriends performed only a week in Chapel Hill, N.C., before slipping into off-Broadway’s Westside Theater last January and into the Coconut Grove Playhouse Tuesday: “It turned up trumps with five aces and a full house of jokers. It is unadulterated delight….This, in a very different way, is the best show of its type since ‘Jacques Brel,’ and it will deservedly become a cult. Be among the first of the cultured.”
About Thompson, who plays James’ mother Zerelda, plus the part of Cole Younger and banjo and guitar: “The playbill is a little confusing to say the least, and I cannot identify a huge man with a red beard and a fine talent.” Neither, however, does Barnes identify the talent.
Thompson’s talent back in Jacksonville Beach, where his four-foot-10 mother Eugenia still lives, was clarinet, then singing, then football, his tackling losing him a front tooth but winning him a scholarship to the University of Florida in 1955. A year later he transferred to Kenyon College to major in philosophy,.
The professional banjo-picking he does in “Diamond Studs” came much later—after nearly six years in the Coast Guard, after completing all but dissertation for a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of North Carolina, after acquiring a wife, a daughter and a son he named after an old time banjo player.
At 37, Thompson has been playing professionally for only five years, which is not to say he has supported himself and family through music. The steady income came from teaching philosophy, most recently at North Carolina State.
Thompson is the old man of “Diamond Studs,” most of the performers having yet to see 30. Jim Wann and Bland Simpson, Southern States band members who contributed the original music and lyrics in the show, are 26. But is Thompson, spiritual leader of the cast of 14 Southern accents, now and then homesick for Chapel Hill where they used to paint houses, catalog books in the public library, work in steno pools and raise hogs when not playing music in local bars? Intrigued with the thought of a philosophy teacher in an off-Broadway hit, a New York radio interviewer asked just that.
“It was unnecessary for me to answer, “ responds Thompson, in the same voiced he uses when Zerelda says to a Pinkerton agent, “What if my boys did rob the Liberty Bank? What of it? They showed initiative.”
The cast, you see, was also in the studio. “His answer,” says Tommy-Zerelda in mock disgust, “was a horse laugh from the cast.”
Yet after a late show recently when the cast sits around the cabaret theater in their Levis and sips beer bought from the management at half price, they admit to one another—well out of earshot of Thompson—that of all the cast he would be the most difficult to replace, because of his musical talents and his personality both on stage and off.
It was Thompson’s teaching schedule that determined when the show would open in New York. And it was the bearded Thompson who told director John L. Haber, another 26-year-old who was casting Tommy as Cole Younger, that he wanted to play Zerelda, a large and powerful woman whose spirit reminded Thompson of his grandmother. Thompson was even willing to shave his beard, a choice Haber wisely didn’t require him to make. Instead, Thompson plays both roles, one minute sporting the apron, sunbonnet and knitting needles of Zerelda, the next the suspenders and straw hat of Younger.
No, that's not Jesse Thompson Eustice on the left, but instead it's Tommy's grandmother Thompson, who inspired him to play the role of Zerelda in Diamond Studs. On the right, Tommy is shown with his son Tom Ashley at Jesse's wedding in a photo taken by Colleen Tuell and entitled "Two Peas in a Pod."
|Although it was Wann who
wrote the book and Wann and Simpson who wrote what music the bands didn’t
adapt from their repertoires, it was Thompson who had most to risk in coming
to New York.
Thompson could have had the security of teaching back in North Carolina last term (and that’s what his department chairman had expected until he started reading reviews like Variety’s, which called Thompson “a young Burl Ives type,” and Women’s Wear Daily’s description, “Andy Devine in a sun bonnet.”) Weekends, summers, free time, the Red Clay Ramblers would have taken their old-timey—not bluegrass, not country, not swamp rock but the indigenous Southern mountain music which inspired all the rest—music around the circuit, launching a modest recording career and making a reputation among folk fans as being some of the best young Southern musicians rediscovering their heritage.
“We were a little bit reluctant to give up what we had, “ admits Thompson, who appeared at the National Folk Festival at Wolf Trap last year and who has won first prizes at string band competitions throughout the South.
But sometime in the spring of 1974 Wann, whose band specializes in rock and pop, talked the landlord of the Wild Flower Kitchen restaurant in Chapel Hill into letting him use the room upstairs until the landlord could get a real paying tenant. Into that space came musicians, refrigerators, desks, beds, chairs, and the idea ofr a musical about Jesse James which would feature not actors, not even individual musicians, but bands, specifically—Wann hoped—the Southern States and Red Clay Ramblers.
“That’s where we practiced music. That’s where we composed,” explains Simpson, who plays the piano, a governor, a bank official turned dime novelist and Pancho Villa in “Studs.”
“We composed there,” adds Wann, who plays James, living and dead, “and we decomposed there.”
At some point enter Haber, a North Carolina drama graduate who let New York set designer Karl Eigsti hear a tape of “Studs.” Eigsti just happened to be going to Brooklyn the next day and told the Chelsea Theater Center about the music. And it just happens that the Chelsea Theater people were looking for a genuine “country” music show. (The theater’s Burl Hash first wondered, “Who are these people?” but the music sounded authentic.)
Chelsea suggested a version in Chapel Hill, which was staged in the back groom of the Ranch House restaurant last October. Patricia Birch, who did musical staging for “Grease,” “A Little Night Music,” “Over Here” and “Candide,” flew down at her own expense to work with Haber.
Thompson’s teaching contract made a spring production impossible, but when Chelsea’s plans for a British company to perform in midwinter fell through, “Studs” suddenly was galloping—via Amtrak and aging Ford convertibles—to New York. The musical could rehearse, hold previews and open officially during Thompson’s Christmas vacation if a friend filled in for him during a few classes. And, it might close in time for him to be back in the classroom almost before late registration was finished.
By late January, “Studs” as a sellout and Thompson called his boss at North Carolina State, who agreed Thompson should stay with the show—no matter what Rex Reed said.
It all sounds so easy—Chapel Hill to West 43rd Street, weekend performances at the Cats Cradle bar to reviews in Newsweek, New Yorker, The New York Times (Time refused a drama review, arguing that “Studs” was a band performance, not theater). And now, Coconut Grove.
“But we suffered, suffered in rehearsals, “ claims Mike Sheehan, the Southern States drummer who amuses the audience nightly with his Pinkerton performance. “We came close to breaking up. We had a rave audience in Chapel Hill where everyone knew us. Up here, rehearsing 11 hours a day in a poorly ventilated room, they had us almost start acting classes.
“The choreography got more and more complicated so the music was secondary—and it’s not secondary to this play. We were living six-seven people in a studio apartment and couldn’t get away from one another.”
Finally, the Chelsea people exercised some professional dictatorship, a grievance meeting was called, the air cleared, and in best Broadway tradition, the show went on.
The New York reaction has ranged from Reed’s sneers to a little lady who came into the theater to rest during a rehearsal and said, “I like what they do, but I can’t understand a thing they say” to Barnes’ glowing review. “Some nights it’s been like playing to a morgue,” complains Sheehan, “but when it was all over they would stand up, stomping and hollering.”
You can forget any Son of Jesse James sequels for the Red Clay Ramblers and the Southern States. “The son of Jesse James,” says Wann, “was a pawnbroker.”