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International Jazz Vocalist Harvey Thompson

A Conversation with Jazz Vocalist Harvey Thompson 
Interview by Ron Hamilton | Music and Culture | Friday, March 30, 2018

Crooner Harvey Thompson is hitting all the right notes, spreading a message of peace and love throughout the world with his silky, smooth voice and classic lyrics. Inspired by some of the most important, greatest and legendary jazz musicians in history, Harvey Thompson shares how he got started on the journey from his roots as a gospel singer growing up in Detroit to becoming an internationally acclaimed jazz vocalist with a new home living in Japan. Enjoy the engaging interview with VERGE MagazineContributor Ron Hamilton. 

“When people tell you that you can’t do something, get busy and do it.”

-Harvey Thompson

Ron Hamilton: What inspired you to become a jazz vocalist?

Harvey Thompson: Well, I actually started out in gospel. We had a family gospel group called the Thompson Spiritualettes. When I got into the jazz singing, I began listening to jazz from age 15 through a friend of mine who is a professional bowler. 

I had no idea I was going to be a singer. I was just listening to it. And then, my bowling game went south. I started bowling bad, and I talked to my brother, Reverend James Love and he told me, ‘Man, you should get back into entertainment.’ So, I got a newspaper, The Detroit Newspaper, and saw that there was an ad wanted for actors, actresses and singers. I went and auditioned. I got the part. And then I went into another play, and there Marcus Belgrave, Detroit’s greatest trumpet player, was the musical director and he started taking me out to different jazz clubs, and that’s how it started. 

RH: So, that’s how you got started in jazz…

HT: That’s how I started singing. Yes, going around to these little clubs with Marcus taking me around, and people suggesting that, ‘Man, you should learn this song, you should learn that song.’ Because when I started out through gospel – the only, in a way, secular songs that I really knew, was “Everything Must Change” and “This Masquerade.” But, I was listening to all of that stuff. 

RH: Okay, you’ve been dubbed “The Keeper of the Flame.” Where did you get that title from?

HT: Well, there’s a very prominent journalist and TV personality in Detroit, I’m sure you’ve probably heard of him. They call him Dr. Entertainment, Mr. Greg Dunmore. Greg Dunmore is the one who put that on me: “Because, nobody’s really, really doing it like you’re doing it, or trying to do it like you’re doing it. So, I’m about to call you the keeper of the flame.” (laughter)

RH: You participated in the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, and was selected winner in the WEMU Best Jazz Vocalist Competition, and you also received rave reviews in the musical ‘Crack Steppin’ produced by

Ron Milner – tell us more about that.

HT: Well, when I went to Switzerland for the first time; first of all- I was invited by the mayor of Montreux, Switzerland. I’m quite sure he’s not mayor anymore, but his name is Mr. Fredy Alt. I went there and I did some performances there. It was just amazing to be there. And the stuff through EMU jazz competition, I met some musicians, and we put together a band. We did the competition, and I was fortunate enough to win it. And from that, I went to the Detroit Renaissance Foundation, because they were the ones who were sponsoring the Detroit, Montreux Jazz Festival. And lo’ and behold, I got a spot on the festival, and I’ve played the festival for several years at least, concurrently. So, that was really nice. And then I started traveling and going to Europe and other places, Turkey and Japan, and all these other places.

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RH: Tell us about the jazz scene in Japan, what inspired you to move there?

HT: Well, what actually inspired me to move here, is that – well again, Greg Dunmore. Mr. Greg Dunmore, Dr. Entertainment, pulsebeat.tv. He called me up one day and said, ‘Harvey I had a dream that you were performing with a Japanese Trio.’ I kind of shrugged it off because at that time I didn’t think that I would ever go to Japan. 

But, I went down to a restaurant in Downtown Detroit, I think it was called The Onstage Restaurant and a group was playing there, a jazz trio, Larry Mandible Trio. And there happened to be a Japanese lady sitting in the audience. And they called her up to sit in and play a piece, and then the next tune they called me up. And I never shall forget the tune it was called, “Sunny” (written by Bobby Hebb).  

RH: Yeah, yeah, that’s a classic! (laughter)

HT: It’s funny, then I went back to her table, exchanged business cards and we starting talking. And I called Greg back and told him I met this Japanese lady. And I started rehearsing with her, went to her house out in Birmingham and started rehearsing and the next year I was in Japan. That was December of 1989, and I went back the following year. And then the 90s came in and different things on the family side were going on, there were some deaths in the family; and towards the 1990s, I just kind of made up my mind that I’m going try it. And I just went and I never came back as far as living. It’s been 16 years now. 

RH: Wow, so you’ve been living there all that time…

HT: Right, I came over here in September 2002.

RH: What inspired you to do a remake of Angela Bofill’s “Under the Moon and Over the Sky?”…Now, I’m a critic when it comes to remakes, but I will say this – you took that song and made it yours. So, there’s two versions of it, there’s Angela Bofill’s version and there’s your version. (laughter) I won’t say it’s a remake of hers, I’ll say it’s a creation of yours.  

               

HT: Oh, thank you! (laughter)

RH: So, tell me, what inspired you to do that song? I love that song. I love the arrangements on it. 

HT: Thank you about the arrangements and stuff. Well, I was making my first CD called, Jazz is Anything You Want It To Be. And I had this standard and that standard on there. And I was thinking, well, maybe I need to try to get something that will be even more kind of commercial- maybe WJZZ friendly. 

I chose that song because I heard it- again, when I was listening to jazz before I was singing jazz. There were a group of us bowlers at that time who were all around the same age, and we really loved jazz…and we would exchange records. So, one of my friends had the album, and they played it…and I wore that song out. And then, I said well I’m going to put this on the CD. And then a very good friend of mine, a pianist and composer, Mr. Bill Gap, went and came up with the arrangement- and we recorded it. 

“Nobody is going to be able to replace what you do. There can only be one you, and one they.” 

-Harvey Thompson

RH: I love that song, that’s a great song.

HT: It’s kind of timeless, and I’m very blessed that I was able to get on WJZZ. It became a drive time song – a morning drive time thing. So, it just took on a life of its own. So, and there you have it. 

RH:  Yeah, God rest WJZZ. I loved that station. That was my favorite station. (laughs) But yeah, that’s where I heard that song, and I was like, Oh my God, that is awesome, it’s awesome…So, thus far, what has been the defining moment of your career?

HT:  Well, that’s kind of hard. But, I think maybe one of the greatest moments was when I was just starting to go to Europe and I had a chance to play, but even in New York, too. I had a chance to meet a young lady named Dorothy Donegan who was really good friends with the fabulous Jo Thompson (cabaret pianist and singer)…and Dorothy, she didn’t know me only through introductions from Ms. Jo Thompson and Greg Dunmore and she took me under her wing like I was her grandson or son, and she let me play with her at a place down in Dayton, Ohio called Gilly’s and also Tavern on the Green. And then a couple of times I played at Tavern on the Green with Jo Thompson. So, that was a big, big moment in my career. 

And then, I would say the second one would be, when I started going to Europe and played with and rode back to the hotel from Geneva into Montreux, Switzerland with the legendary, late, great Hugh Masekelah. Those are memories that I never will forget. I mean there’s been several, and I’ve had a chance to meet a lot of legendary stars, Sammie Davis, Joe Williams, Tony Bennet, Billy Eckstine, it kind of like, goes on and on. Benny Carter, it’s been a marvelous ride. Dizzy Gillespie, the same with him, once in New York…So, there has been many.  

RH: Where do you see Harvey Thompson 10 years from now? And, what kind of a mark do you want to leave in the jazz world?

HT: I’ve played the club circuit, and the different concerts and events and all of that stuff, but I want to be known even more as an orchestral concert performer. Because I feel that’s where I’m the most expressive and comfortable, and that’s on the big stage. And then, being able to do things from there to help other people- you know, once you get, as they would say- more notoriety, or your audience has expanded tremendously from there. 

But to be able to just do things- and also be a role model to help other people along the way. Because, I see in the industry a lot of times- that you know with the singers- sometimes, it’s hard to get in with certain instrumentalists and with the singers, we have to really come together as a society and help each other, and help the one’s that are coming up. Because one thing is for sure, if you have the gift or the talent and someone is there that can open up doors for some of the younger jazz singers, you open up the doors. Nobody is going to be able to replace what you do. There can only be one you, and one they.

RH: That’s a noble cause, definitely…So, tell us about your upcoming project.

HT: Well, right now I have a brand new CD that’s out with a live recording that was recorded here in Tokyo at a fabulous jazz club, called the Keystone Club. And now, that is out on iTunes, and Amazon and soon to be on CD Baby. And what I need now, is of course, for each one to tell one. Go to my homepage at: www.htjazzis.com.

And my CD, some samples of the music should be pulled up. You can purchase it there. I believe now its in 101 countries…the CD is called, Everything Must Change.

RH: So, what are your plans for the future?

HT: My plans right now for this year, is that well, I will be coming back to Detroit, but that’s mostly a family thing. I’ll be playing various concert halls in Japan, and also working on doing some other stuff outside the Asian countries and maybe something over in Europe hopefully. Or maybe even London or either Paris…and a little sneak preview too, I’m going to be doing a dual recording with a great, great guitarist here in Japan.

RH: Okay, that sounds awesome. Any advice you can offer to the up-and-coming? 

HT: Yes, follow your dreams. Follow your dreams to the hilt. Don’t let anybody take you off kilter. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it. When people tell you that you can’t do something, get busy and do it. And of course, learn the business as much as you can. It’s constantly changing. Certain parts of it changes, and certain parts stay the same, but just never give up on your dreams.

   

RH: Okay, words to live by. Alright- Harvey thank you so much.