RIP Sue Thompson: ‘Minor’ Pop Hits Can Tell Bigger Stories
Sue Thompson, who had a couple of modest top-40 hits in the early 1960s, died last week at the admirable age of 96.
You won’t find Sue Thompson in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But rock ’n’ roll is full of nifty little side stories, and Sue Thompson has a role in at least two of them.
First, she was part of a small, intriguing subgenre of early-1960s pop music: female pop singers whose sound defined innocent, wholesome and, for want of a better term, white.
Grownups still shaken at the likes of Elvis and Little Richard could hear these female singers and be reassured that at least some popular music was still wholesome.
That didn’t mean these female artists sold out rock ’n’ roll. It just reflected the fact that pop music has always incorporated a wide spectrum.
Second, Sue Thompson’s 1962 hit “Norman” many years later became a unique bonding agent for fans of the New York Islanders hockey team.
As anyone who has ever attended or watched a sporting event knows, teams play music to pump up the fans. Many times it’s a time-tested tune played by a thousand teams, like “We Will Rock You.”
That’s okay, I guess. It just feels a little generic. When Boston Red Sox fans adopted Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” it was cool because they did it for no real discernible reason. Then other teams picked it up and eventually it became one more familiar filler for dead ballpark air.
“Norman” was different.
To add some fun to the 1979–80 hockey season, the Islanders launched a between-periods promotion called Score-O. A fan would try to shoot a puck from the blue line on one end of the ice through a tiny opening in a plywood board on the other blue line, 150 feet away.
Make the shot, win a car.
Thing was, the shot would have been near-impossible for the pros on the Islanders, never mind some random fan in sneakers or high heels. The appeal was that the crowd might good-naturedly boo someone who badly blew the shot, or ooh-and-ah when someone came even a little close.
The first night of Score-O, Oct. 13, 1979, the random fan was a charter season ticket holder from East Islip named Norman Weidner.
You see where this is going.
Norman took the stick and fired the puck right through that tiny opening.
Nassau Coliseum exploded.
Norman won the car, which wasn’t supposed to happen for a while if ever. But the Islanders struck promotional gold well beyond the value of an automobile.
Someone dusted off Thompson’s “Norman” and made it the theme song for instant Coliseum celebrity.
At home games for years, Weidner would take a lap around the rink between periods, waving to the crowd while “Norman” blasted over the PA system. It became tradition. Fans loved it.
For obvious reasons, no other team ever started playing “Norman,” It was an Islanders exclusive, like Norman himself, and it would not have been the same without Sue Thompson.
The 1960s female pop singer thing was slightly more nuanced.
Female singers had been part of the pop music mix since the likes of Nora Bayes at the dawn of recorded music. But there was always a dark side. A half century later, 1950s female stars like Jo Stafford, Margaret Whiting and Rosemary Clooney still lived in a male-dominated world that routinely limited their opportunities and success. Their personal stories often reflected a somber litany of depression and frustration.
Then, in the early 1960s, some corners of the music business figured they could weaponize perky female singers. Clean-cut women singing innocent songs, mostly about their darned boyfriends, not only continued a tradition of pleasant, melodic female pop singers, but reassured a nervous America that popular music had been reclaimed from all those degenerate wild men. Great balls of fire, Jerry Lee Lewis. You’re outta here.
Thompson cracked the charts notably with “Norman” and “Sad Movies (Make Me Cry).” She was joined around that time by the likes of Marcie Blane (“Bobby’s Girl”), Diane Renay (“Navy Blue”), Joanie Sommers (“Johnny Get Angry”), Shelley Fabares (“Johnny Angel”), Janie Grant (“Triangle”), Little Peggy March (“I Will Follow Him”), Linda Scott (“I’ve Told Every Little Star”) and Kathy Young (“A Thousand Stars”).
Two women prominently parlayed this into long-term careers: Connie Francis, who still doesn’t get a lot of respect, and Brenda Lee, who does.
The “career” part is significant because of this: In the early 1960s, most artists of all genders were considered as ephemeral and expendable as their songs.
A hit record meant catching lightning in a bottle long enough for fickle teenagers to like you for three months before they moved on to someone else.
That said, it was still harder for women than men. It was widely held among radio programmers, for instance, that to play two female artists in a row risked alienating listeners. So there were quotas. A Connie Francis hit left less room for Sue Thompson.
And, as always, pop music was full of cross-currents. Sue Thompson was joined by a new wave of black female artists, from Barbara George (“I Know”), Jan Bradley (“Mama Didn’t Lie”), Dee Dee Sharp (“Mashed Potato Time”) and Dionne Warwick to female or mostly female groups like the Orlons, Crystals and Ronettes, who would help radio segue into the Motown explosion.
Most of the black artists, with their R&B and gospel influences, sounded like they hailed from another planet than the white pop artists. That’s not a criticism of either. Even when the industry thinks it has everything under control, pop music has a way of spreading far and wide.
On top-40 radio in 1962, Sue Thompson lived next door to the Marvelettes, the Four Seasons, the Beach Boys, Ray Charles, Ricky Nelson, Sam Cooke, Gene Pitney, the Highwaymen, Dion, Gary U.S. Bonds, the Shirelles and Bobby Vinton. The Number One record of 1962 was “Stranger on the Shore,” a melancholy instrumental by a clarinet-wielding Brit called Mr. Acker Bilk.
“Norman” was part of the fun, just as it would help make Norman Weidner part of the fun at Nassau Coliseum.
Gracias, Sue Thompson.