Obituary: 'Sonny' Thompson never lost his love for music

  • Article by: CURT BROWN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 29, 2012 - 8:35 PM

Longtime local entertainer and former Swagman George "Sonny" Thompson dies at 83.

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George E. Thompson

Nearly 50 years ago, the Four Seasons' "Big Girls Don't Cry" and Elvis' "Return to Sender" were running one-two on Billboard magazine's Top 100 pop chart. But the magazine also took notice of a Minneapolis band of folk musicians called the Swagmen on page 20 of its Nov. 17, 1962, issue, predicting some of their "guitar tunes ... sung with excitement ... could get some spins."

Within two years, the Swagmen were appearing on "The Mike Douglas Show" on TV and opening for Bill Cosby in Greenwich Village.

George Edward Thompson IV was the man behind the guitar and banjo for the Swagmen and a list of other local bands. A popular local entertainer for decades, known by his stage name, Sonny Shawn, Thompson died Monday from pulmonary fibrosis. He was 83.

"Music was his love," said his wife of nearly 32 years, Mary Jane Thompson of Hopkins. "There were so many clubs -- I could list thousands -- and people would line up around the block to hear them play."

Born in Minneapolis in 1928, Thompson served during the end of World War II and in the Korean War. He returned home and worked installing TV antennas and as a surveyor for the city of Edina. But he followed his musical passion, playing piano, bongo drums, guitar and banjo and forming a calypso band in the late 1950s.

Sonny, as everyone knew him, played with bands including the Trade Winds and the Rambling Rogues. He was perhaps best known for his comedy/folk music duo in which he played the straight man for his stand-up bass-playing partner and funnyman, Bob Casto. In 1962, Sonny & Co. signed a deal with Parkway Records, which released "Meet the Swagmen" -- an album that's still available on eBay.

Thompson's bands played at venues from Eveleth, Minn., to local clubs such as Club 26, Mr. Nibs, Diamond Jim's and the Surfside. In the early 1980s, he considered retiring, but couldn't stop signing and playing. So he invested thousands of dollars in a little-known, sing-along gadget called a karaoke machine.

"Back then, I thought he was crazy, but he was amazing and really introduced karaoke to Minnesota," his wife said. "He was a true gentleman who never held a grudge and was generous to a fault."

His karaoke machine was a mainstay at T.J. Hooligan's in Prior Lake for a dozen years.

Beside his wife, Thompson is survived by sisters Marjorie Douville of St. Louis Park and Barbara Sampson of Prior Lake; brothers John Thompson of Fargo and Ron Thompson of Florida; children Lynda Hart of St. Louis Park, George Thompson of Deerwood, Doug Thompson of Waconia, Sheryl Wiggins of Spring Lake Park, Michelle Kiemel of Hopkins, Ronald Scott Olson of Hopkins and Steve Olson of Savage; 15 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren.

A private burial service will be held at Fort Snelling National Cemetery next week and a public reception, complete with Sonny's music and plenty of karaoke, is scheduled for April 29 from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the American Legion at 12375 Princeton Av. in Savage.

Curt Brown • 612-673-4767

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