Although, like so many musicians of his generation, Thompson was exposed to and embraced rock and roll music at an early age, he was also exposed to his father’s collection of jazz and traditional Scottish music. All these various styles were to colour Thompson’s playing in the years to come.
Joe Boyd: "He can imitate almost any style, and often does, but is instantly identifiable. In his playing you can hear the evocation of the Scottish piper's drone and the melody of the chanter as well as echoes of Barney Kessell's and James Burton's guitars and Jerry Lee Lewis's piano. But no blues clichés."
By the age of 18 Thompson was playing with the newly formed Fairport Convention. It was Thompson’s guitar playing that caught the ear of American producer Joe Boyd. Largely on the strength of Thompson’s playing Boyd took them under his wing and signed them to his Witchseason production and management company.
Boyd: "And there was this group of very nice Muswell Hill grammar school boys and a girl playing American music. Leonard Cohen songs, and Richard Farina songs, and Bob Dylan songs, all being done in a kind of West-Coasty rock style. And then came the guitar solo, and Richard just played the most amazing solo. He played a solo which quotes from Django, from Charlie Christian, you know, an incredibly sophisticated little solo. And that really amazed me, the breadth of his sophistication... and so, you know, at the end of the gig I was in the dressing room saying 'would you guys like to make a record?'"
Shortly thereafter Thompson, already acquiring a reputation as an outstanding guitar player, started writing songs seriously. This seems to have been out of necessity — Fairport Convention were essentially a cover band at first.
"I remember saying to Ashley [Hutchings, bassist] after a gig, that I was kind of embarrassed about doing the material we were doing, because it seemed that we should have outgrown doing covers — even though it was only 1967 — it somehow wasn’t good enough and other bands were writing their own stuff and we should too. I remember being angry and saying to Ashley this isn’t good enough, we’ve got to get some original material... and stuff started to trickle through."
By the time of Fairport’s second album, recorded and released in early 1969, Thompson was starting to emerge as a songwriter of distinction. As Fairport’s lineup and their sound evolved, Thompson continued to grow in stature as a player and as a songwriter with compositions like "Meet On The Ledge", "Genesis Hall" and "Crazy Man Michael".
In January 1971 Thompson announced that he was leaving Fairport Convention. His decision seems to have been instinctive, rather than a calculated career move.
"I left Fairport as a gut reaction and didn't really know what I was doing, except writing. I was writing stuff and it seemed interesting and I thought it would be fun to make a record. And at the same time — 70-71 — I was doing a lot of session work as a way of avoiding any serious ideas about a career."
In April 1972 he released his first solo album Henry the Human Fly. The album sold poorly and was panned by the press, especially the influential Melody Maker magazine. With time Henry has come to be more highly regarded, but at the time the critics' response hurt both Thompson and his career.
By this time Thompson had struck up a relationship with the singer Linda Peters, who had sung on Henry the Human Fly. In October 1972 the couple were married, and Thompson, with Linda now effectively his front woman, regrouped for his next album and the next phase of his career.
The first Richard and Linda Thompson album, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, was recorded in May 1973 in short time and on a small budget. Largely because of the petrol shortage in Britain and its impact on the availability of vinyl for records, Bright Lights was held back by Island Records for nearly a year before being released in April 1974. The album was well received by the critics, though sales were less than stellar.
Thompson’s lyrics expressed a rather dismal world view, and it has been suggested that the bleak subject matter of his songs helped to keep his recordings off the hit parade. A more likely explanation was given by ex-Island A&R man Richard Williams in the BBC TV documentary Solitary Life — Thompson was just not interested in fame and its trappings.
The Thompsons recorded two more albums — Hokey Pokey and Pour Down Like Silver, both released in 1975 — before Richard Thompson decided to leave the music business. The couple moved to a Sufi community in East Anglia.
It was not apparent from their records at first, but the Thompsons had embraced an esoteric Sufi strand of Islam in early 1974. I Want To See the Bright Lights Tonight was recorded before this conversion, but released sometime afterwards. The songs for the second Richard and Linda album, Hokey Pokey, were similarly written some time ahead of the album's recording and eventual release. It was Pour Down Like Silver, with its cover photo of a turbaned Richard Thompson gazing out at the world, that tipped the public off to the Thompsons' growing preoccupation with their faith.
The trilogy of albums released either side of his sojourn in the commune was heavily influenced by Thompson's beliefs and by Sufi scripture, but in the long run his religious beliefs (he remains a committed Muslim) have not influenced his work in an obvious manner. The outlook expressed in his songs, his musical style, the subjects addressed by his lyrics have not shown any fundamental change.
Thompson started to re-engage with the world of professional music in 1977. He guested on an album by Sandy Denny, and had undertaken a short tour and started recording with a group of musicians who were also Sufis. Thompson asked Joe Boyd to produce these sessions, and two days were spent on the initial recordings. Boyd recalls that the sessions were not a success: "It was really, I felt, very poor. I didn't have much confidence in the musicians that he was working with. The atmosphere was very strange and it just didn't seem to work."
At about this time the Thompsons and their family moved out of the commune and back to their old home in Hampstead. Boyd had already invited Richard Thompson to play on Julie Covington’s debut album. With spare studio time and the American session musicians hired to work on the Covington album available, the Thompsons went back into the studio to record under their own name for the first time in three years.
The resulting album, First Light, was warmly received by the critics but did not sell particularly well. Neither did its follow up, 1979's harder-edged and more cynical Sunnyvista. Chrysalis Records did not take up their option to renew the contract, and the Thompsons found themselves without a contract, but not without admirers.
Gerry Rafferty had booked the Thompsons as the support act for his 1980 tour, and had also used Richard as a session player on his Night Owl album. Rafferty offered to finance the recording of a new Richard and Linda Thompson album which he would then use to secure a contract for the Thompsons. Richard Thompson fell out with Rafferty during this project and was not happy with the finished product. Nevertheless Rafferty kept his side of the bargain and presented the album to several record companies — none of which expressed interest in signing the Thompsons. Rafferty did not recover his investment.
About a year later Joe Boyd signed the Thompsons to his small Hannibal label and a new album was recorded. Shoot Out the Lights included new recordings of many of the songs recorded in 1980. Linda Thompson was pregnant at the time of the recording, and so the album’s release was delayed until they could tour behind the album. Breathing problems arising from her pregnancy also meant that Linda was not able to sing the lead part on some of these songs as she had done on demo tapes and the Rafferty-produced recordings.
As an interim measure, Richard Thompson decided to arrange for a low-key tour of the U.S. This tour was set up by Nancy Covey who had been in the UK in 1981 trying to sign Thompson to play at the famous McCabe’s guitar shop in Santa Monica. During this tour Thompson and Covey grew closer to each other, and in December 1981 Richard and Linda Thompson separated.
On its release in 1982, Shoot Out the Lights was lauded by critics and sold quite well — especially in the U.S.
The Thompsons, now a couple for professional purposes only, toured the U.S. to support the album and then went their separate ways. Both the album and their live shows were well received by the American media, and Shoot Out the Lights effectively relaunched their career — just as their marriage was falling apart. The performances were very strong, but the tension between Richard and Linda was all too obvious on stage. On occasion she would hit him during the performance or trip him up as the band was walking onstage.
After a stormy tour of the U.S., the Thompsons separated professionally. Richard Thompson continued recording as a solo artist. His 1983 album Hand Of Kindness saw him working with Boyd again, but with a revised backing band and a more extroverted and up-tempo song selection.
With his separation from Linda finalised, Richard Thompson began to commute between twin bases in London and Los Angeles and began to tour regularly in the USA. Encouraged by the success of his solo shows in late 1981 and early 1982, he began to perform solo with increasing frequency as well as continuing to tour with a band. In 1983 and 1984 he toured the USA and Europe with the Richard Thompson Big Band, which included two saxophone players in addition to the more usual rhythm section, second guitar and accordion. Set lists included covers of classic rock 'n roll songs and jazz standards such as "Tuxedo Junction".
In 1985 Thompson returned to the big league when he signed with PolyGram and received a sizable advance. He also married Nancy Covey and moved his home and his working base to California.
1985's Across A Crowded Room was his last album to be recorded in England and the last to have Boyd as producer.
After sales failed to match the critics’ praises Thompson was under some pressure to repay PolyGram’s investment with a hit album. In 1986 he released Daring Adventures, which was recorded in Los Angeles and produced by Mitchell Froom. Daring Adventures, with its rich sound, markedly different production and use of American session players, was perceived by some as evidence of Thompson’s increasing "Americanisation". Perhaps more significantly the album continued the trend, begun with Across A Crowded Room, of Thompson’s songs moving away from the seemingly personal and towards the character sketches and narratives for which he has since become famous. Froom and PolyGram had plans to target college and the growing "alternative" markets with Daring Adventures. Sales improved, but not by enough.
PolyGram declined an option to renew the contract. Thompson’s management negotiated a new deal with Capitol Records and Thompson released a string of albums between 1988 and 1996 with Froom in the producer's chair.
For a short while a late career commercial breakthrough, like that enjoyed by Bonnie Raitt, seemed likely. The Grammy-nominated 1991 album Rumor And Sigh sold well and a single, "I Feel So Good", achieved some chart success. The song "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" from Rumor and Sigh remains the most requested song on National Public Radio. Unfortunately, a boardroom shake-up at Capitol saw Thompson fan and champion Hale Milgrim replaced by Garry Gersh; Thompson's next album Mirror Blue was held back for almost a year before being released; and Rumor And Sigh's success was not capitalised on.
Mirror Blue was released in 1994, and Thompson took a band on the road to promote the album. This band was the smallest that Thompson had put together so far. He was joined by Dave Mattacks on drums, Danny Thompson (no relation) on double bass, and Pete Zorn on acoustic guitar, backing vocals, mandolin and various wind instruments. This lineup toured with Thompson the following two years, and all subsequent Richard Thompson Band lineups have been built around Zorn and Danny Thompson.
Thompson continued recording for Capitol until 1999, when Mock Tudor was recorded and released. In addition Thompson modified his deal with Capitol so that he could release and directly market live, limited-quantity, not-for-retail albums. The first of these was Live at Crawley, released in 1995. These "authorised bootlegs" are well-regarded by Thompson fans.
In 2001 it was Thompson who refused the option to renew a contract, and he parted ways with Capitol. Hereafter Thompson would fund the recording of his own albums and have them distributed and marketed by smaller independent labels.
The move away from big labels and big budgets brought a bigger marketing push and healthier sales. Thompson's first two self-funded releases, 2003's The Old Kit Bag and 2005’s Front Parlour Ballads, did well in the indie charts on both sides of the Atlantic.
In May 2007 Thompson released Sweet Warrior. The album was licensed to different labels in different territories: Shout Factory! in the USA, P-Vine in Japan, Planet Records in Australia, and Proper Records in the UK and Europe). In August of the same year Island Records released a live Richard and Linda Thompson album compiled from recordings made during the November 1975 tour to promote the Pour Down Like Silver album.
Over the years Thompson has participated in many projects with other musicians. Often these projects allow him to participate in music and experiments that would not fit well on his own albums.
In between leaving Fairport Convention in early 1971 and releasing his debut solo album in 1972 he undertook a large amount of session work, most notably on albums by John Martyn, Al Stewart, Matthews Southern Comfort, Sandy Denny and Nick Drake.
During the same period he also worked on two collaborative projects. Morris On was recorded with Ashley Hutchings, John Kirkpatrick, Dave Mattacks and Barry Dransfield, and was a collection of English traditional tunes arranged for electric instruments. The Bunch were almost the reverse conceptually – a grouping of English folk rock musicians (including Sandy Denny, Linda Peters and members of Fairport Convention) recording a selection of classic rock and roll tunes.
Thompson has continued to guest on albums by an array of artists, from Crowded House, Bonnie Raitt and Vivian Stanshall, to Norma Waterson and Beausoleil and folk artists like Loudon Wainwright III, Cathal McConnell and Bob Davenport. He has also performed and recorded with Teddy Thompson, his son from his marriage to Linda Thompson.
Since the early 1980s Thompson has appeared at Fairport Convention's annual Cropredy Festival, both in his own right and as a participant in sets with current and previous Fairport members. (He once joked that Fairport Convention are a bit like the Hotel California: "you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.") These sets are seldom confined to performances of songs out of the Thompson or Fairport Convention canons, and in recent years some surprise offerings have included the soul classic "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" (with Thompson backed by the Roy Wood Big Band), The Beatles' "I'm Down" and even "The Lady Is a Tramp".
Thompson has displayed a penchant for the avant garde as well, working with former Pere Ubu singer David Thomas's grouping The Pedestrians on two albums in 1981 and 1982, respectively. In the 1980s, he was associated with a loose-fitting group called The Golden Palominos, who were led by drummer Anton Fier and included at times on stage and on record Jack Bruce, Michael Stipe, Carla Bley, John Lydon, Bill Laswell and others. He has worked with experimental guitarist Henry Kaiser, most notably as part of the ad hoc grouping French Frith Kaiser Thompson with whom he recorded two albums. In 1997 he worked with long-time friend and band member Danny Thompson to record a concept album Industry that dealt with the decline of British industry. A year later he worked with early music expert Philip Pickett on the acclaimed Bones of All Men which fused renaissance tunes with contemporary music.
In recent years Thompson has devised and toured his show 1000 Years of Popular Music. The inspiration for this came when Playboy magazine asked Thompson (and many other music industry figures) in 1999 for their suggestions for the "top ten songs of the millennium". Guessing that Playboy expected most people's lists to start at around 1950, Thompson took them at their word and presented a list of songs from the 11th century to the present day. Perhaps not surprisingly, Playboy didn't use his list, but the exercise gave him the idea for a show which takes a chronological trip through popular music across the ages. Thompson acknowledges that this is an ambitious undertaking, partly because he reckons that he is technically unqualified to sing 98% of the material, and partly because of the spare musical setting he restricts himself to: besides his acoustic guitar, he's backed by singer/pianist Judith Owen and a percussionist. A typical performance would start with a medieval round, progress via a Purcell aria, Victorian music-hall and Hoagy Carmichael and climax with Thompson's unique take on the Britney Spears hit "Oops!... I Did It Again".
In 2004 Thompson was asked to create the soundtrack music for the Werner Herzog documentary Grizzly Man. The score, which was recorded over a two-day period in December, 2004, brought Thompson together with a group of improvisational musicians, mostly from the San Francisco Bay area; video footage from the sessions was edited into a mini-documentary, In the Edges, which was included with the DVD release of Grizzly Man.
Thompson makes use of the "pick and fingers" technique (sometimes referred to as "hybrid picking") where he plays bass notes and rhythm with a pick between his first finger and thumb, and adds melody and punctuation by plucking the treble strings with his fingers. He also makes use of different guitar tunings, such as (low to high) CGDGBE, DADGBE, DADGAD, and more. This enables him to adapt traditional songs, as on Strict Tempo! and 1000 Years of Popular Music. Thompson occasionally makes use of a thumb-pick, playing in fingerstyle, the most notable example being on the motorcycle ballad "1952 Vincent Black Lightning."
His playing is often said to be an influence on Bob Mould (who covered Thompson songs on the tribute album Beat the Retreat and his own Poison Years).
Thompson is often associated with the Fender Stratocaster guitar, having been seen using such a guitar in concert since his days with Fairport Convention. More generally he has long been a user of guitars with single coil pickups, preferring the sound of such guitars to those equipped with humbucker pickups.
When Fairport Convention signed their first recording contract in 1967, Thompson was playing a Gibson ES-175. He soon changed this guitar for another Gibson, a gold top Les Paul with P-90 pickups - a move to the thinner, more biting single-coil sound. This guitar later passed into the ownership of John Martyn, from whom it was subsequently stolen.
By the time of his exit from Fairport Thompson was playing a late 1960s Stratocaster. This was soon changed for an earlier 1950s model. He was closely associated with this guitar for many years. This particular Stratocaster is not currently serviceable.
Thompson still uses a Stratocaster, an early 1960s example, in concert and in the studio, but is most often seen with a light-blue solid-body guitar custom built by luthier Danny Ferrington. This has a Gibson P-90 pickup in the neck position, a Stratocaster Alnico pickup in the middle position, and a Fender Broadcaster pickup in the bridge position. This guitar has three volume controls (one for each pickup), no tone controls and strat-style 5-way pickup selector switch.
His electric set-up usually consists of a Barber LTD overdrive pedal, a Fulltone Deja-Vibe and a Line 6 delay, passed into either a Fender Twin Reverb, a blonde Fender Vibrolux or a Divided By 13 FTR 37.
Thompson has made intermittent use of Roland's GK-1 pickup and GL-2 synthesizer over the years. He made use of these devices on 1979's Sunnyvista album and has occasionally used them in concert.
During the time he worked with then-wife Linda, and for some years thereafter, Thompson used a Martin 000-18. Thompson still owns this guitar, but says that it is not serviceable and needs repair.
Since the early 1990s Thompson has made extensive use of Lowden acoustic guitars for both live and studio work. For live work these guitars are fitted with Sunrise pickups and internal condensor microphones. The signal from the pickup is fed through a pre-amplifier and some effects pedals (typically a delay pedal and a UniVibe) before being passed into the mixing desk. For many years his main stage guitar was an F-series Lowden with spruce top and rosewood back and sides. Thompson, in an interview with Fretboard Journal, said that though this particular guitar doesn't sound full when played acoustically, when it's amplified it provides a wonderful sound. In 2008 for his solo shows he changed to another Lowden for on-stage use - an F-series with Cedar top and Walnut back and sides.
Lowden released a Richard Thompson signature model in 2007. This guitar has a cedar top and ziricote back and sides. Richard Thompson has said that this new Lowden is a wonderful instrument, acoustically or amplified.
In 2006 Thompson auctioned a Rick Turner RS6 acoustic guitar. He had occasionally used this guitar in concert. The proceeds from this sale were donated to charity.
Thompson also owns a few unusual acoustic guitars made by Danny Ferrington. An example of these guitars can be seen on the cover of the Small Town Romance and Hand Of Kindness albums. In the 2003 BBC documentary he can be seen playing an acoustic Ferrington baritone guitar in his office whilst working on a new composition. In November 2007 Thompson auctioned a Ferrington acoustic to raise funds for charity. This guitar had a serial number 13, was acquired second-hand by Thompson and had been used during the recording of his 1988 album Amnesia.