Robert “Mousey” Thompson kept the rhythm for soul icon James Brown for the last decade of his life. When Brown died, the DC-based drummer decided to keep the music going.
Thompson launched his tribute show, Mousey Thompson’s James Brown Experience, after Brown’s death in 2006, playing favorites from the godfather of soul and other greats. The high-energy soul, R&B and funk show comes to Leesburg’s Tally Ho Theater Aug. 11.
In an interesting twist of fate, it was Brown’s 1966 performance at the famed Howard Theatre that got Thompson into music. The DC native remembers seeing the show as a 9-year-old with his family.
“He comes out and I’m mesmerized. From that day on, that’s what I wanted to do—be an entertainer,” Thompson said.
Thompson started out as a singer, but decided to take up the drums when he noticed that drummers weren’t able to give him the accents he wanted. Thompson already had an impressive résumé when he joined Brown’s band in 1993. He played with beloved DC vocal group Skip Mahoney and the Casuals, toured with R&B superstars Peaches and Herb in the 1970s and performed with a long list of big names including Wilson Pickett and Lloyd Price.
Thompson joined Brown’s band during the singer’s early ’90s resurgence, after Brown spent three years in prison for charges related to a high-speed police chase in 1988. Through industry connections, Thompson was invited to audition for Brown’s band and earned the spot despite making a big mistake. Unaware of Brown’s reputation as a stickler for both musical accuracy and appearance, Thompson almost made the unforgivable error of showing up underdressed.
“I came down with sweatpants a baseball cap—totally wrong. I got to the hotel and the guy told me to go back and change clothes,” he said.
After a quick change, Thompson found himself in a roomful of talented drummers rotating on multiple drum sets. But Thompson stood out.
“Mr. Brown turned to me and said, ‘Stay here, son.’ Then he turned to everybody who came out and said, ‘Thank you we’ve made our decision.’ He looked back to me and said, ‘Welcome to the family, son.’”
Brown was in his 60s and 70s when Thompson toured with him, and the drummer was consistently impressed with his boss’ energy level and passion.
“It was James Brown. He had that same energy,” Thompson said. “I felt like I should buy a ticket every time I performed with him.”
Thompson recalls an especially memorable episode in the Republic of Georgia while on an international tour. The band was set up in a sports arena on a stage over an Olympic-sized pool, despite the fact that Brown was notoriously unable to swim. The band had started Brown’s 1970 hit “Sex Machine” when the singer took his musicians by surprise.
“The next thing I know, he starts running toward the front of the stage and jumps in,” Thompson said. “By this time, the horn players are going in, the dancers are going in. People in the band are just jumping in because they know he can’t swim—and he has his boots on. … Once he comes out—thank God—he gave everybody a bonus who jumped in.”
When Brown died, Thompson’s initial idea for a one-time tribute performance turned into a project that has lasted more than a decade, propelled by audience enthusiasm.
“It wasn’t something that I had planned on keeping going,” Thompson said.
Thompson assembled a group of top-notch DC-area musicians to create The James Brown Experience and hired singer/comedian Gregory Cooper, who had already won fans around the region with his Brown impersonations, as lead vocalist. Cooper recreates the full experience in both sound and stage presence, Thompson said.
“He is bringing all the essence of Brown out. You would think Mr. Brown is still here once you see this cat come out on stage.”
Thompson likes to take audiences beyond James Brown with other soul favorites, and vocalist Karen Linette rounds out the show with a tribute to female soul singers. The idea is to give older generations a blast from the past and give younger listeners a sense of what a James Brown show was like in a celebratory atmosphere.
“We have fun doing the James Brown hits, that’s for sure,” Thompson said. “It’s nothing but fun music.”
Mousey Thompson’s James Brown Experience plays the Tally Ho Theater Friday, Aug. 11. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $20 in advance. Special packages including dinner before the show at DC Prime steakhouse in Ashburn are also available. Go to tallyhotheater.com for details.