Linda Thompson is a British folk singer and songwriter who made her name first in partnership with her husband, Richard Thompson. After a lengthy absence from performing and recording, she resumed her career in 2002 with a much-lauded solo recording that, according to critics, confirmed her status as one of the best contemporary vocalists in folk rock.
Linda Thompson was born Linda Pettifer in 1948 in London, England. Her mother, Betty, was a performer known as Vera Love; her father, Charles, owned a television repair shop. The family relocated in about 1954 to Glasgow.
In her teens Thompson began performing in folk clubs. During an interview on National Public Radio (NPR) on Weekend Edition, the announcer declared that as soon as Thompson began performing, "Critics and fans fell all over themselves to praise her voice, its purity, the way it seems to effortlessly convey complex and dark emotions, the way it makes sad songs sound so good." She entered university in 1967 to study modern languages, but quit school to sing full-time. She became known as Linda Peters and performed in a duo with Paul McNeill. The pair recorded two singles in 1968.
During the day, Thompson supported herself as a jingle singer, working with Manfred Mann; at night she played the coffeehouse circuit. "She soon found her element, falling in with Sandy Denny, Richard Thompson, Nick Drake, John Martyn, John Renbourn, and producer Joe Boyd," according to a biography provided by Rounder Records. With Denny and others in 1972, she recorded as The Bunch. The one-off project was a collection of early rock & roll instigated by Denny after the demise of her band Fotheringay. Thompson was the featured vocalist on "The Loco-Motion," a song made famous by Little Eva and later covered by its writer, Carole King. She also sang with Denny on a version of Phil Everly's "When Will I Be Loved."
Linda had first met Richard Thompson in 1969, while he was a member of the legendary Bristish group Fairport Convention. Thompson decided to record a solo album, and Linda was hired as a backing vocalist for 1972's Henry the Human Fly. The two were soon married, and decided to record together. From the start of their musical partnership, Thompson began experiencing vocal problems. The problem was noticeable, she says, while they were recording 1973's I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, their first album together. She later attributed this to feeling somewhat intimidated by her talented husband. Noted folksinger Norma Waterson told People that "Linda thought people only listened to her because she sang Richard's songs."
Richard's songwriting and Linda's voice were a formidable combination, and from the outset the couple's music was a critical success. However, popular tastes did not follow and record sales did not meet expectations. "In that particularly cruel cultural ratio, the couple found themselves as impoverished as they were critically acclaimed," according to her 2002 record label biography. "Linda's performance anxieties—present almost from the first but previously manageable—began to deepen; her increasing ambivalence about their struggle only worsened her condition. In awe of Richard and fearful of being eclipsed by Sandy [Denny], she began to have trouble starting songs onstage, pacing and coughing, sizing up the mic like an adversary."
The couple converted to Islam in 1975. During this period they did not record because of religious prohibitions. They reemerged in 1978 and recorded First Light. On the album was "Pavanne," the first song the couple wrote together. Two more recordings would follow.
Lights Out for Career, Marriage
Richard left the marriage in May of 1982, just prior to Linda and Richard's first and only American tour. The couple's final album was Shoot Out the Lights, released in 1982. The album has been consistently lauded by critics, and in 2003 was named one of the 500 greatest albums of all time by Rolling Stone. Mark Deming, writing for All Music Guide, observed that "tales of busted relationships and domestic discord were always prominent in their songbook." He added that "as a whole they were far more than the sum of their parts. ... It's ironic that Richard & Linda Thompson enjoyed their breakthrough in the United States with the album that ended their career together, but Shoot Out The Lights found them rallying their strengths to the bitter end."
Richard headed for another relationship, and Linda met and married Steve Kenis, an agent, in 1985. That same year, One Clear Moment, her first solo recording, was released, but Thompson continued to be plagued by vocal problems. She teamed with Betsy Cook to write "Telling Me Lies," which was recorded by Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris on Trio. The song was nominated for a Grammy in 1988. In 1989 she was formally diagnosed as having hysterical dysphonia, a condition commonly equated with stage fright, where the voice cannot produce sound. Various treatments did not work, and Thompson chose to give up music rather than continue to suffer. A compilation of her work called Dreams Fly Away was released in 1996.
For the Record . . .
Born Linda Pettifer on August 23, 1974, in East London; daughter of Charles and Betty (Meechan) Pettifer; married Richard Thompson (musician), 1972 (divorced, 1982); married Steve Kenis (agent), 1983; children: Maimuna, Teddy, Kamila. Education: Attended University of London, studied English and modern languages.
Began career performing in folk clubs, c. 1965; recorded two singles with Paul McNeill, 1968; supported folk career as jingle singer, 1968-72; recorded Rock On with The Bunch, 1972; hired as backing vocalist for Richard Thompson's Henry the Human Fly, 1972; married and began recording with Thompson; I Want toSee the Bright Lights Tonight released, 1973; religious convictions prohibited recording, 1975-78; recorded First Light, 1978; Shoot Out the Lights released, 1982; toured United States, 1982; divorced and dissolved musical partnership with Thompson, 1982; wrote "Telling Me Lies" with Betsy Cook; diagnosed with hysterical dysphonia, a condition affecting her singing voice, 1989; retired, 1989; compilation Dreams Fly Away released, 1996; began performing on stage again, 1999; began writing and recording music with son Teddy and with other British folk-rock performers, completed Fashionably Late, 2002.
Awards: Female singer of the year, Rolling Stone, 1982; Shoot out the Lights named one of the 500 greatest albums of all time, Rolling Stone, 2003; named as one of 50 Best Albums of 2002 for FashionablyLate, by Rolling Stone.
Addresses: Record company—Rounder Records, One Camp St., Cambridge, MA 02140, website: http://www.rounder.com.
Returned to Career Fashionably Late
David Thomas (Pere Ubu) came calling in 1999, asking her to perform in "Mirror Man," a musical he was producing for the South Bank Centre in London. Thomas was a fan of Thompson and reportedly believed she could and would sing again. She later performed with the British National Theatre and also made a recording of a song she wrote with her son, Teddy. These experiences helped Thompson slowly regain her confidence. Soon she was looking for a more substantial project and decided to record again. She began writing with Teddy, and they eventually had enough material for an album. It was Teddy who reportedly suggested the cheeky title of Fashionably Late. The album was a reunion of the cream of British folk music. Among those appearing were several members of Solas, Pentangle, Fairport Convention, and Steeleye Span. Also supporting Thompson on the project were her son Teddy and her daughter Kamila. Guest performers included Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Van Dyke Parks, Richard Greene, Kate Rusby, Eliza and Martin Carthy, and former Fairport Convention members Jerry Donohue, Dave Mattacks, Dave Pegg, and ex-husband Thompson.
"It's a great story," Paul Foley, general manager of Rounder Records told Billboard. "Seventeen years since her last album, the fact that she lost her voice and was able to overcome it and not only record but tour again, and having her kids and ex-husband on the album—it's a pretty special event and probably the most anticipated record we've had in quite a long time."
Thom Jurek, writing in All Music Guide said the recording "feels like less of a comeback offering than it does an elegant statement of aesthetic from a talent who, along with Sandy Denny and Jacqui McShee, literally defined these terms for the British folk genre. ... This is, primarily, a folk record that harkens back to the recordings that defined her voice."
Thompson said her voice isn't the same as fans might remember it. "I don't sing as pretty as I did when I was really young," she told NPR. "Nobody really sings as well in their 50s as they do in their 20s."
Jurek wrote that Fashionably Late was "a comeback record to be proud of; it not only sates the appetite of those fans who felt Linda Thompson left the scene too abruptly, but it is also the British folk record that everyone interested in the genre has been waiting such a long time for."
Rolling Stone pronounced it one of the 50 Best Albums of 2002. David Fricke said it was a "record of magnificent anguish, wrapped in the airs and graces of Olde English folk-rock. Thompson sings with bittersweet authority of grand passions and soured devotion against a soft nest of acoustic guitars, fiddles and vintage instruments."
Legend in the Making
Colleague Mark Kemp had written earlier that year in Rolling Stone that Linda Thompson is possessed of one of rock's finest voices. "What distinguishes Thompson from your average hippie folk singer is the elegant grain of her voice, the subtle dissonance she employs in her harmonies with other singers and her storyteller's knack for placing the right emphasis on the right word at the right time."
While conducting interviews in support of Fashionably Late, Thompson learned more about dysphonia from Terry Gross, the host of NPR's Fresh Air. Thompson said in another radio interview that "they've discovered it's a neurological disorder. ... called spasmodic dysphonia. And it turns out I may have a little fold on my vocal cord. And if I do, they can take it off. So after 30 years ... which will be incredible. You know, I won't have that to hide behind anymore. I'll have to get out there."
One Clear Moment, Warner Brothers, 1985.
Fashionably Late, Rounder, 2002.
With The Bunch
Rock On, A&M, 1972; reissued, Hannibal, 1991.
As Richard and Linda Thompson
I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, UK Island, 1973; reissued, Hannibal, 1991.
Hokey Pokey, Island, 1974; reissued, Hannibal, 1991.
Pour Down Like Silver, Island, 1975; reissued, Hannibal, 1991.
Live (More or Less), Island, 1976.
First Light, Chrysalis, 1978; reissued, Hannibal, 1991.
Sunnyvista, Chrysalis, 1979; reissued, Hannibal, 1991.
Shoot Out the Lights, Hannibal, 1982.
The Best of Richard & Linda Thompson—The Island Records Years, Island, 2000.
Debrett's People of Today, Debrett's Peerage Ltd., 2004.
No Thought of Leaving: A Life of Sandy Denny, Pamela Murray Winters, 2000.
Billboard, July 27, 2004.
People, October 14, 1996.
Rolling Stone, August 8, 2002; December 26, 2002; December 11, 2003.
"Linda Thompson," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (June 7, 2005).
"Linda Thompson," BBC online, http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/profiles/lindathompson.shtml, (June 7, 2005).
"Richard Thompson," Trouser Press,http://www.trouserpress.com/entry.php?a=richard_thompson (June 7, 2005).
"Originals: Richard Thompson – Solitary Life," BBC Four online, http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfour/music/features/richard-thompson.shtml (June 7, 2005).
Additional information was obtained from an interview with Lianne Hansen on National Public Radio's Weekend Edition, August 8, 2002; and from a Rounder Records artist biography and album profile, 2002.
—Linda Dailey Paulson
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