Jo Thompson debuts at the Cafe Carlyle March 2013


Jo Thompson debuts at the Cafe Carlyle March 2013.

Music & Arts

Jo Thompson, now in her 80s, reflects on cabaret past and present

A legendary cabaret songbird talks about the great ‘golden age’ of cabaret — and how America has changed for the better since those times.

Friday, March 22, 2013, 6:06 PM
Jo Thompson with Tony Bennett in the 1950s.

courtesy Jo Thompson

Jo Thompson with Tony Bennett in the 1950s.

Jo Thompson, now in her 80s, knows that life is not always a cabaret.

Thompson left cabaret for “real life” years ago to raise three sons in Detroit with her journalist husband, but came back after they were all done with college — Harvard, Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania are among the schools they attended, as she’s proud to note.

But that’s not the only reason life is not always a cabaret — if you have seen the scene for as long as this singer who worked with the greats, like Bobby Short — and still tours the best spots for singing in the country.

Here’s one difference, in a story of a young Frank Sinatra from the “golden age” of the nightclub scene, so often glossy with the forgetfulness of what life was really like for an African American woman back in the good old days:

“While performing at the Cork Club in Miami, Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner came in to see me,” recalls Thompson. “Now, you must remember this was during the time of great prejudice and discrimination. Even as the star, I was not permitted to sit with the white people who patronized the club.

“Well, when Mr. Sinatra came in to see me and asked me to join his party after my performance — that was a real no-no. When I told his manager (or whoever it might have been that asked me on behalf of Sinatra to join him) that I really couldn’t, he said I better!”

He took the young star by the arm and escorted her to Sinatra’s table.

“Frank Sinatra paid me a lot of really nice compliments,” she says. “And, the look he had on his face and body language let everyone know I was his guest and I guess that was enough to keep the evil spirits — so to speak — at a distance.

“You know, Frank Sinatra always stood up for civil and human rights — and I witnessed that from a first hand perspective.”

Welcome to the cabaret. Sometimes life does imitate art — Today, despite ongoing resistance in some quarters, such views of civil rights are the rule, not the exception.

We caught up with Thompson recently in New York and asked her what the view of cabaret looks like from her unique vantage point:

News: You’ve been everywhere and worked  with so many of the greats. Who were your top 2 or 3 people to play with? What were Lionel Hampton, J.C. Heard and other greats like to work with?

Among my favorites, and there are many, but I would have to say: Lena Horne, Bobby Short and Lionel Hampton—all classics and the best at what they did. All gone, but never forgotten!

Hamp, JC, Duke (Ellington) were definitive musicians and above all gentlemen. They dressed the part—classy guys who were always that way both onstage and off.

News: You were friends Bobby Short? Can you talk a bit about the man who defined refined cabaret performance?

Thompson: Bobby and I were booked by the same agency and worked around the country playing many of the same rooms before he settled in New York as his home base, and I got married, moved back to Detroit and my career took a back seat to my family.

Bobby Short, Dom Perignon and Beluga Caviar, need I say more? Bobby’s name will always be synonymous with the best of the best. He was gracious and “S” stood for both “Short” as well as “Sophistication.”

News: What have been your favorite clubs?

My favorite club was the Cork Club in Miami. Although I was the first black person to ever perform there (on the trendy 79th Street Causeway of Miami), I was really well received and the audiences, who were all white due to segregation in the South, were respectful and made me feel like a superstar.

Also, Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe in New York’s Paramount Hotel was really special. I was the vocalist for the Noble Sissle Orchestra and was on the same bill with W.C. Handy who is often called the Father of the Blues.

Oh, Café Society in the Village brings back a lot of fond memories as well. Café Society had a lot of hipsters on the scene before “hip” was even a word to describe who they were.

Can’t forget Tavern on the Green’s Chestnut Room! Lenny Triola booked me there several times and every time I stepped into that club it was like a fairytale with an enchanted garden.

News: Are there any anecdotes you could share about your engagements at Sans Souci in pre-Castro Havana, Café Society in New York, the Stork Room in London and the many other glamorous and historic post-swing venues from Beverly Hills to Paris at which you performed?


Courtesy Jo Thompson

Jo Thompson with Bobby Short in 2001.

Thompson: The Sans Souci was very elegant and there were a lot of very rich, good-looking people. I think they discriminated against the poor and ugly. But, maybe having the look of money makes you appear more attractive… right or wrong!

Café Society, owned by Barney Josephson, was a real hot place. I think they said that it was a Communist hangout because Mr. Josephson believed in integration of all sorts, of different and interesting people. They weren’t really using the word “diversity” back then, but he was a real trailblazer for it.

The Stork Room in London was where I met people like the Earl of Dudley and Tony Bennett. I remember being thrilled to have my picture taken with the dark and handsome Tony Bennett in front of a poster of me proclaiming I was: “America’s Sexy Song Siren.”

People really dressed to the nines back then when they were having a night on the town. Nightlife was full of dapper gents and lovely lassies on their arms. Today, it’s a different story.

News: You are still performing. Just how much touring are you doing these days, where are you heading next?

I don’t work as much as I would like—but, the more I think about it, maybe I do. I am like what Pearl Bailey once said, “I am not looking for work anymore, but if it finds me, I may just take the job.”

I do look forward to doing some dates with a salute to Perry Como, which I just did a few months ago at Hofstra University. It was a revue with some really good younger singers — and me.  Also, I have toured here and there in a show I do named: “Thank You Lena!!!” conceived by my middle son, Greg Dunmore. It is my salute to the one and only Miss Lena Horne, who I still adore today as a real role model.

News: What other projects are you working on at the moment? Have you done, or are you considering doing something akin to “a story of your life?”

Thompson: Currently, I am filming a documentary on the legendary Manhattan nightclub Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe by filmmakers Jesse David Harris and Alexander Davidis.

A story of my life? Well, you know Sophie Tucker, who came in to see my show a few times in Miami, was Last of the Red Hot Mamas. So, maybe, someone will call it: “Jo Thompson: Last of the Red Hot Black Mamas!”

News: You are also a fashion designer. Can you talk about glamour and what has happened to it? Once it was tuxedos everywhere! Now…glamour is wearing a jacket and, maybe, a tie. Can you chat a bit about what you’ve seen and if you think that fashion reflects something changing in our culture, and specifically, in the whole concept of nightlife, of which cabaret performance was and is such a key part?

Thompson: I design evening wear  — many of my own gowns — with my son and manager, Greg Dunmore. We have designed under the name “Carlos Nina” which is his middle name in Spanish and my real middle name. I do see a trend for a return to glamour but obviously not like it used to be.

But, what is ever really like it used to be? Nevertheless, glamour onstage still excites an audience. There is something extra-special about an ensemble that sparkles, a song that sparkles and a smile that sparkles — three keys things that define real glamour!

News: Many people in the art email and talk to me about how it is not covered so much anymore, even that it is “dying.” Please share the perspective that you have on it, going back to its glory days. It seems to me that back in the day, my folks went to nightclubs, everyone did. And now, maybe because of competition from other types of entertainment, people go less. Can you talk a bit about how the scene has evolved, what you think has led to its present state and what can be done, or should be done?

Thompson: Everything must change — and so it does. But, I do feel that there is still a market for the art of cabaret and nightclub performance. I think people are really thrilled by the intimacy of seeing, and most importantly, feeling an entertainer tell stories in song. Computers are great; I don’t use one, but I do still play the piano — and it isn’t electric. It’s the real deal.

That being said, it is the real deal when you see anyone sing live, or playing an acoustic instrument that can make you laugh or cry. Yes, there are a zillion options to keep you entertained from videos to who knows what else is being invented as I am talking with you.

But, some things never go out of style and that is why the present state of “live” music in [a top venue] becomes even more of a precious gem. We have fewer clubs today then yesterday. Therefore, they only should be thought of as more valuable.

What should be done, you ask? Respect things of value. That’s why an old gal like me loves to be appreciated.

I do notice that at some venues there seems to be a growing number of younger audience members and personally think that it is coming back.

News: The popularity of shows like Glee and Smash, and all the reality and competition shows focusing on singing, certainly suggests that there is an audience for it. Why the disconnect between live venues and this huge audience for the “American songbook” time of cabaret songs?

Baked bread is always tastier than store bought, don’t you think? I would assume many younger audiences are finding the kind of music that we do as being tastier. You know I am a “seasoned” performer.

Live venues don’t make the kind of money that huge audiences make by watching television or doing whatever they do on the internet. But, it is nice to think that the Great American Songbook has some hope in its younger folks who realize that “good is good.”

And, if they hope to ever become good, I mean really good, they better study those of us who have stood the test of time and sing music that has done the same.

You can find me on Twitter @TomByNite, where I tweet about the New York cabaret scene.

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