Photo courtesy of Thompson family

"Thirteen Women and Only One Man" — it sounded like a good idea to James "Dickie" Thompson when he wrote the song in the early 1950s.

"The lines went something like, 'I had two gals every morning serving me breakfast in bed/I'm telling you, Jack, one rubbed my back while the other one rubbed my head,' " Thompson said in a recent interview for Blues & Rhythm magazine published in the United Kingdom.

But the idea proved too salacious for the early rock 'n' roll generation — or perhaps their parents.

Disc jockeys played Thompson's song for a couple of weeks, then decided it was too risqué and pulled it off the air.

Music producers didn't give up on it, though. The song was rewritten for Bill Haley and His Comets. The rock-'n'-rollers recorded "Thirteen Women" as their A-side — "Rock Around the Clock" was on the B-side.

The Haley version is an atomic fantasy song about a working guy dreaming of being the only man to survive an H-bomb attack. Audiences and radio stations found the hit a vast improvement. Nuclear annihilation, it seemed, was an acceptable reason to have multiple lady friends.

The change in lyrics didn't seem to faze Thompson, though. The musician received residual checks for decades even though most performers — including Ann-Margret, Dinah Shore, Danny Gatton and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy — recorded the H-bomb version.

Until a stroke eight months ago hampered his ability to play, Thompson was still performing after more than 70 years. He died Feb. 22 at age 89. A memorial service is planned for 11 a.m. Saturday at the Adair Funeral Homes Avalon Chapel, 8090 N. Northern Ave.

Thompson was a New Jersey-born self-taught musician who performed all over the world before settling in Tucson in 1991 with his wife, Bette. Bette Thompson died the night of the couple's 56th wedding anniversary, July 29, 2005.

Thompson was introduced to string instruments by an elementary school friend who taught him to play the ukulele.

"I kept telling him I'd like to play, but I was left-handed and I couldn't hold the damned thing," Thompson said in the UK article. "He sat me down and showed me how to do it upside down, and I never got away from it. I played the guitar left-handed, too. Upside down and out of tune."

Thompson dropped out of high school and became part of the New York jazz scene. By the mid-'40s, Thompson was getting noticed by music industry insiders and was recruited to play with recording artists.

"Dickie did some records of his own, under his own name very early on in the '40s and maybe '50s, but he was really a sideman. That's part of why he may not have ever become as popular as other players," said guitarist Ed Friedland.

Friedland performed with Thompson for 11 years in Tucson. He moved to Austin, Texas, last summer.

"He was a consummate sideman. He knew how to back up somebody," Friedland said. "He was a master musician, self-taught, but innately one of the most creative and swinging musicians I've ever played with.

"I call his style of playing 'big band on a stick.' He made his guitar sound like a big band."

Thompson toured with rhythm and blues vocalist Jackie Wilson, recorded with jazz organist Wild Bill Davis and saxophonist Johnny Hodges, and performed with Don Ho in Hawaii for a dozen years before moving to Tucson, where he had gigs for the last 16 years.

"His style of playing kind of bridged into early R&B, which is essentially where rock 'n' roll got started," Friedland said. "When you see a guitar player playing now, they'll bend strings. That's very common now, but when Dickie started playing he was one of the first guys to do that. That's pretty significant. It was very cutting-edge."

String-bending is a technique used when playing single-note riffs and solos to give the guitar a more textured sound and an added emotional dimension.

"Over the time I got to play with him, he sort of achieved a certain cult status among the guitar players in town," Friedland said.

Maebelle Reed understands what Friedland calls "the Dickie influence." As a musician and the owner of Plush nightclub on North Fourth Avenue, she spent many nights jamming with Thompson. She recorded a couple of Thompson's songs, "Thirteen Women" — which she sang as "Thirteen Men" — and "Voodoo Doll," on her 2001 CD "I've Got a Gun."

Reed met Thompson 10 years ago, after she heard him play at an East Side bar.

"What I immediately loved about Dickie's musicianship was not what notes he chose to play, but when he chose to play them, or not play them. His phrasing had strength and sensuality," Reed said. "Everything with Dickie seemed well-chosen, and yet spontaneous. I could never lose interest in his playing."

Reed and other local musicians are planning a tribute to Thompson at Plush in a few weeks, but no date has been set.

Life Stories

This feature chronicles the lives of recently deceased Tucsonans. Some were well-known across the community. Others had an impact on a smaller sphere of friends, family and acquaintances. Many of these people led interesting — and sometimes extraordinary — lives with little or no fanfare. Now you'll hear their stories.

"Life Stories" will be kept online at go. azstarnet.com/lifestories

● To suggest someone be included in Life Stories, contact reporter Kimberly Matas at kmatas@azstarnet.com or 573-4191.