With his signature tune, “Sweet Virginia Breeze,” an album called Out on the Chesapeake, dozens of local appearances over the years and his close identification with the Commonwealth, it’s understandable that most people think Robbin Thompson is a native Virginian. But that’s not the case.
“I grew up in Melbourne, Florida,” he told me recently. “I was born right outside of Boston. My father worked for United Airlines out of Logan, an aspiring engineer. My mom was from Jacksonville, Florida—they met when he was in the service at Mayport, a big navy base there.
“My dad ended up getting a job with Boeing working on missiles at Cape Canaveral. So when I was seven, we moved down there. I grew up watching missiles go off in my back yard; I met astronauts and all kinds of people. There’s a song I wrote called “Missileman” that’s kind of about all that; ‘Candy Apple Red was inspired by my times in Florida.
“He ended up being the head engineer for the solid rocket boosters for the space shuttle. He transferred to Seattle and eventually to Santa Maria, California.”
Thompson, who will be here Wednesday night for a concert at The Circle Restaurant in Portsmouth, moved to Virginia to go to college and never left.
“I came to Richmond to go to Virginia Commonwealth University,” he said. “My dad transferred to Seattle in 1969 and my family moved. I was old enough to say I didn’t want to go, so I applied to VCU—a teacher suggested I should go there. I didn’t know anybody in Richmond so I figured that would be an interesting move.
“That summer, me and a couple of friends traveled from pop festival to pop festival, all the way out to California and then back to Woodstock. Then we all said our goodbyes and I came down to Virginia to go to school.”
He started a band with some fellow VCU students and met a musician from New Jersey by the name of Bruce Springsteen.
“I had a band called Mercy Flight,” he recalled, “and Bruce had a band called Steel Mill. One of the few places that they did well was here in Richmond. We ended up on the same bill all the time and we all became friends. They’d come here and stay with us and we would play free concerts in Monroe Park and a place called The Center, which was a small club here in town where you played if you wrote your own music; it wasn’t a dance club, it was a concert club.
“So we always ended up playing together. One day, out of the blue, Bruce said, ‘I’m thinking about adding another singer that can play a little guitar. Do you want to try out?’ I went up to Jersey, spent a weekend, and the next thing I know I’m up there playing. I really never could figure out why they needed me in the band! That was the summer of 1970, and I was in it for close to a year.”
Thompson garnered national attention in 1976 with his self-titled first album on Nemperor Records, a label founded by The Beatles’ American attorney Nat Weiss that was under the Atlantic Records umbrella.
“I won the American Song Festival in 1976,” he said “and got a record deal. It wasn’t that I won the festival and automatically got a deal. Because of winning the festival, I got interest with a manager who had connections enough to get me a deal.”
That album earned critical acclaim, but its promotion got shortchanged by the inner workings of the record business, as the label switched its distribution from Atlantic to CBS. It was Thompson’s next recording, Together, with fellow Richmonder Steve Bassett, that put him on the regional map. That’s the album with “Sweet Virginia Breeze,” a song the two cowrote.
“We had this concert that we were getting ready to play,” he said, “and we finished that song up so we could debut it at Shaeffer Court. I was sitting on my front porch and he came over, and I said, ‘I’ve got this song that I’m writing about Virginia and I need a verse. Let’s finish it.’ So we did.”
For the last thirty-plus years, Robbin Thompson has succeeded in making a living as a musician living in Virginia:
“What I’m proud of is that I’ve done whatever I wanted to do in music, and I was able to do that because I got into doing music for commercials and things. That kept me afloat so that I could refuse to play disco music, and not play clubs that I didn’t want to play. I just became a songwriter and did what the hell I wanted to.
“I don’t play a club if the music is secondary. I like talking and telling stories about my songs and how I wrote them; if you’re playing in a bar where everybody is trying to pick up everybody else and the music is background music, you don’t have the ability to talk about your life and how the songs were created. Those parts are as important as the songs themselves.”
Last year he opened a new and unexpected chapter in his life when he went to Cambodia to record a new version of his song “Move on Down the Line” for the Asia Foundation.
“I fished an email out of my spam box,” he said, “from someone that was interested in knowing about the rights to a song of mine. They wanted to use it in a campaign to fight human trafficking in Cambodia. After a whole lot of emails, they asked me to come there and produce this song and make it work for their cause. I did that, and I think I’m going back in March to be involved in the kickoff of the whole thing.
“It was a country that I never would’ve thought about going to, and now I can’t wait to go back. It’s a country that has a lot of room to grow and hasn’t yet become tainted by becoming some kind of tourist spot. There are amazing things to see there. The Buddhist temple ruins of Angkor Wat are the largest religious historical site in the world. It’s like the pyramids; it’s a wonder of the world. It’s a really nice country full of really friendly people.”
copyright © 2008 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.
Wednesday, February 20 – 8:00 pm
The Circle Restaurant