As previously noted, I will be moving some of my past interviews done for the publication and website Maximum Ink here should they be of interested to any of our readers who might have missed them originally. The following interview with the late Bill Thompson was conducted in August 2010.
Bill Thompson has sold more records for RCA than any other manager in history with the exception of Colonel Parker who managed Elvis Presley. He has been the manager of Jefferson Airplane since 1968 (during Woodstock and Altamont), as well as Jefferson Starship. He has also managed Hot Tuna and the solo projects of Grace Slick, Jorma Kraukonen, and Paul Kantner. He is the administrator for the catalog and various publishing interests of Jefferson Airplane and Starship. Their songs have appeared in various films and television shows, like Platoon, Forrest Gump, Cocktail, Apollo 13, The 60’s miniseries that aired on NBC, The Simpsons, and The Sopranos.
What first led you to get into the music industry?
I had a friend named Marty Balin, who started the band and he asked me to move in with him at the end of 1964. I did and he had this ideal about starting a band. We used to fantasize about it and it all came true.
When did you get your first break? What did that feel like?
I worked at the San Francisco Chronicle as a copy boy and I worked with one of the top Jazz critics in the world named Ralph Gleason. He liked me and I asked him to see my roommates band and he accepted. He wrote a rave review and we were off and running.
How would you say the industry has changed most since then?
When Jefferson Airplane started there was no internet and the only way that someone could hear your music was to buy it. It’s mainly free, now.
Did you ever think when you started working in the business you would still be working in it now? What do you attribute the longevity of your career to?
Do you have any advice for others that would like to work in the industry? What does it take to make it work?
Hard work and a belief in your self and your clients.
What was it like to work with Jefferson Airplane during Woodstock and Altamont? Any little known stories from those you’d care to share?
“Woodstock” was an amazing experience and “Altamont” was a horrible event. It is strange that they both occurred within 4 months of each other and in the same year 1969.
What is it like to have sold more records for RCA than any other manager, but Colonel Parker with Elvis?
Colonel Parker used to call me his favorite manager. Elvis had a “Favored Nations” clause in his contract, that means no one can get a higher payment than what Elvis would get. In 1968, when I became manager of Jefferson Airplane, I negotiated our contract from 5% to 7%, so Elvis got 7%. In 1971, I negotiated our contract from 7% to 10%, so Elvis got 10%. I told everyone that I doubled Elvis’s contract in 3 years.
You are responsible for getting several of the Jefferson Airplane songs in film and on television. Was that a challenge? What is it like to hear those songs on some of the best projects in film and tv history?
We just had 4 Jefferson Airplane songs on the last Coen Brothers movie A Serious Man. It is always a great feeling.
Of all the musicians you have worked with over the years which have stood out most in your mind? Which do you enjoy working with the most?
Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna, & Jefferson Starship.
What is the best advice anyone has ever given you and who was it from?
Colonel told me to only work with one band.
What do you think you’d of become if not a manager?
Something in the Arts.
Is there anything you would have done differently over the course of your career if you could? When you look back over the years what one thing stands out most in your memory?
There are so many things I would of done differently. Most memorable, Virgin American Airlines named their first plane “Jefferson Airplane.”