Sue Thompson, the western-swing singer who became a “teen” pop star of the 1960s, passed away on Sept. 23 at age 96.
While signed to the Acuff-Rose affiliated label Hickory Records in Nashville, Thomson scored big pop hits with “Sad Movies” (1961), “Norman” (1962), “James (Hold the Ladder Steady)” (1962) and “Paper Tiger” (1965). Sue Thompson gave boosts to the publishing company’s writers Boudleaux & Felice Bryant, Bob Montgomery and especially John D. Loudermilk.
She was born Eva Sue McKee in Nevada, Missouri on July 19, 1925. She got a guitar at age 7 and dreamed of becoming a singing cowboy like Gene Autry. Forced off their land in 1937, the family migrated to California during the Great Depression to work as fruit pickers.
The Mckees eventually settled near San Jose. During World War II, Sue worked in a defense plant near Oakland. She married in 1944, delivered a daughter in 1946 and divorced in 1947. By then she was working in a theater ticket box office by day and as a nightclub singer by night.
Discovered by western-swing bandleader Dude Martin, she began singing on his local San Francisco TV show. He also became her second husband. They moved to Los Angeles in 1951 and proved to be just as popular on TV there.
Signed to Mercury Records, Sue Thompson recorded a string of mildly popular country singles in the early 1950s. In 1952, she became the first to record the future pop standard “You Belong To Me” (Pee Wee King/ Redd Stewart/ Chilton Price).
In Hollywood, musician/comedian Hank Penny joined Martin’s troupe. He romanced her. She divorced Martin in 1953, married Penny and gave birth to a son in 1955.
The Pennys moved to Las Vegas to work the casino lounge circuit. She recorded for Decca and Columbia, but failed to score in either pop or country musical settings. But in Nashville at Hickory in the 1960s, she found her niche with teen novelty tunes. Sue Thompson had a pert bright quality in her voice that made her sound much younger than a 36-year-old when the whimpering ballad “Sad Movies” made her a teen pop star in 1961.
That plus the rocking, brass-punctuated “Norman” (1962) and its follow-ups propelled the strawberry blonde onto Hullabaloo, Shindig, American Bandstand, Where the Action Is, Hollywood A Go-Go and other pop TV shows.
The honeydew sweetness and innocence in her voice seemed to particularly suit Loudermilk’s songs. In addition to her first two hits, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member penned “If the Boy Only Knew,” “James,” “What’s Wrong Bill,” “Big Daddy,” “Paper Tiger” (a top hit in Australia & Canada) and “Stop the Music,” all of which landed on the pop charts for her in 1962-66. She and Penny divorced in 1963.
Sue Thompson’s pop albums on Hickory were Meet Sue Thompson, Two of a Kind, Golden Hits, Paper Tiger and With Strings Attached. During her teen-queen era, Mercury issued its old sides as The Country Side of Sue Thompson.
Publicists had dubbed her cute, saucy, coquette voice “itty bitty.” Wishing to shed that description, Thompson returned to country music. She issued a string of singles on Hickory and MGM in 1971-76, including several duets with future Country Music Hall of Fame member Don Gibson.
She made the country singles charts 12 times with 1974’s “Good Old Fashioned Country Love” reaching No. 31 as her biggest hit in this field. Her country LPs of the 1970s included Big Mable Murphy, And Love Me, Sweet Memories and two duet albums with Gibson.
Then she returned to the Nevada casino circuit, where she continued to appear into the 1990s. She also reemerged as the host of a radio show broadcast from North Hollywood’s famed nightspot The Palomino.
She married for a fourth time in 1993, but was widowed 20 years later. According to The New York Times, the entertainer died at the home of her daughter and caregiver, Julie Jennings, in Pahrump, Nevada. Her son, Greg Penny, said the cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease. In addition to children Jennings and Penny, she is survived by eight grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
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