When producer Phil Thompson sent his wish list to Bob Dylan's people, it contained three Christmas chestnuts. But the music icon instead offered something more eccentric for Thompson's "A Minnesota Holiday Volume 12." And the producer wasn't about to go all Ebenezer Scrooge on the state's most famous musician.
"I wanted something more traditional, more easy listening," said Thompson. "They were like, 'No. But if you want "Must Be Santa," it's yours.' They were adamant about it. I'm not going to argue."
So "Must Be Santa" — a peppy ditty done in Dylan's distinctive Minnesota polka fashion — is the bonus track on Thompson's 12th annual fundraising CD, which also features Brian Setzer, the Sounds of Blackness, Kat Perkins and other Gopher State acts. Sold exclusively at Kowalski's Markets, the little Christmas compilation that could has raised $500,000 for local charities.
Even though Thompson is a little-known producer/musician from Woodbury, he's dealt with big stars like Dylan before. He first landed a Dylan track in 2018 after reaching out to the bard's people for several years.
"I'm not exaggerating, it was dozens of e-mails because it was just gatekeeper after gatekeeper, question after question," Thompson recalled. "By the time you get to the right people — and then it's not on their priority list at all. They're not really making any money for it.
"It was a lot of follow-up. I probably tried for five or six years. And finally they said, 'OK, kid, this is your 10th anniversary. We'll let you have 'The Little Drummer Boy.' "
Thompson, 35, wasn't exactly a pushy neophyte. Several years ago, his job at Inspire Entertainment in Los Angeles was to place CDs in retail outlets that didn't typically sell them. He made that happen for Faith Hill in Coldwater Creek and Tony Bennett in Sam Ash Music instrument stores.
In 2005, Thompson was asked to produce a soundtrack for a holiday light display near Lake Phalen in St. Paul, so he put together an all-star compilation. That project evolved into the "A Minnesota Holiday" franchise, showcasing seasonal tunes by area artists. Over the years, the collections have featured Nicholas David, Mick Sterling, Sara Renner, Jeremy Messersmith, Robert Robinson, the New Standards, Sheila E. — and singer/pianist Thompson himself — among others.
Most of the songs are previously released selections from projects recorded by the individual artists. However, Twin Cities singer Jennifer Grimm takes pride in supplying new original tunes. This year, she contributed the jazzy "Christmas Vibe," written for her annual holiday concert, which, of course, went virtual this year.
In October, with a few socially distanced musicians in separate rooms in a recording studio, Grimm recorded "Christmas Vibe" featuring vibraphonist Dave Hagedorn.
"I finally got it done maybe a day or two before Phil's deadline to put it on the record," said Grimm, who spent about $1,000 for the recording session. "All of us just donate our songs. It's an honor to be involved."
Not your 'Cities Sampler'
Charities appreciate "A Minnesota Holiday." For 11 years, Be the Match, which works with hematopoietic stem cell (bone marrow) donors, was the beneficiary of "A Minnesota Holiday" proceeds.
"As a nonprofit organization, we wouldn't be able to afford to buy the media or spend enough marketing dollars to equal the impact that happens with a partnership like this," said Joy King, executive director of Be the Match Foundation.
This year, Second Harvest Heartland is the beneficiary of Thompson's project, an association that the organization has quickly come to appreciate.
"Phil is a natural on camera," said Megan Muske, Second Harvest's chief development officer. "I caught his 'Twin Cities Live' [on KSTP, Ch. 5] interview, he mentioned Second Harvest Heartland multiple times. He knew about the mission and the hunger crisis. He had the talking points down and did it wonderfully — and from the heart, as well."
Muske praised the artists who contributed to the CD.
"These musicians — wow! — they stood up to make a difference even though they might be hurting themselves from their own [lack of work]," she said.
About 75% of the money raised from "A Minnesota Holiday" sales and sponsorships goes to charity.
Thompson and a graphic designer receive a small stipend, plus there are production costs for the recording, printing and pressing of the CDs as well as an administrative fee for Dylan's track. This year, Thompson had a few more expenses for displays to meet COVID-19 guidelines.
If this project sounds like a small potatoes version of the wildly successful "Cities 97 Sampler" series featuring national stars like Bonnie Raitt and Imagine Dragons that raised $13 million for charities over 30 years ending in 2018, it pretty much is. A one-man version, that is.
"I truly love seeing the project from start to finish," Thompson said. "Honestly, one of the best days of the year is when I go to pick up the CDs and I pop open the first one into my CD player in my SUV and I start going to Kowalski's. It takes a couple of days but it's just me with all the boxes of CDs and displays going door to door and setting them up."
In addition to securing sponsors like a remodeler and a real estate consultant this year, he got the 2020 "A Minnesota Holiday" cover photo donated by landscape and nature photographer Shane Mossman, who happens to be Thompson's postal carrier.
Cities 97 would press 35,000 "Sampler" CDs to sell at Twin Cities Target stores, Thompson presses 3,500 discs for Kowalski's, which normally doesn't sell CDs. The music is also available for download — except the Dylan track — until Dec. 31 via iTunes, Spotify and other services.
"The CD drives some new traffic to our stores," said Kowalski's marketing director Laurie Bell, adding the grocery doesn't make money off the CD. "We have people outside the Twin Cities who will regularly reach out to us and we'll mail it out to them."
Started in banking
Thompson didn't set out to be a musician. After earning a degree in entrepreneurship and marketing from the University of Minnesota in 2007, he entered the world of investment banking.
"I was working 60 hours a week. I'd come home every day just burned out, and I'd sit down at my piano and decompress," said Thompson, who started piano lessons at age 4.
After several months, he finally quit the portfolio management job but "my boss threw me a bone and let me play for their holiday party."
Thompson has been hustling music opportunities ever since, including scoring films, entertaining at the U.S. Open Tennis Tournament and enjoying a house gig at a casino in Macao. After five years in Los Angeles trying to become "the next John Tesh," Thompson returned to Woodbury. He performs at weddings, corporate events, retail shops and tribute shows (one about Billy Joel and Elton John, another about country music).
Thompson has recorded four albums and released luxe videos of himself playing a grand piano in various exquisite settings. In 2019, he booked about 50 gigs, but they typically weren't at high-profile clubs around the Twin Cities. And his easy-listening music isn't likely to land him on 89.3 the Current's "The Local Show."
"I'm not in normal circles and I've not cut my teeth in the same way like a lot of local musicians have playing the club scene and rising up that way," Thompson acknowledged. "I've definitely put in the time. Doing the cruise ship circuit, you're getting paid to play every night of the week.
"I truly love music, whether it's country, whether it's pop piano, anything. I probably draw the line at metal. I like wearing as many hats as I can and being versatile because it's allowed me to make a living."
And get Dylan's people to answer his e-mails. How many Minnesota musicians can claim that?