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Dennis Thompson  - Photo by Mel Cooke
Dennis Thompson —-

Mel Cooke,Gleaner Writer

IF ONE goes by the age when Dennis Thompson says he started audio engineering, his span in the business of shaping electronically amplified sound would be 64 years. For Thompson puts his start at four years old, when “I started recognising music and sound. I used to listen to my father’s record player. He would play a lot of classics on Sunday – Louis Armstrong, Cap Calway, Patti Page, Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin.”

Today, Thompson handles live sound for someone whose music may well be among the classics – Alicia Keys. The scale of the operation – and, by extension, his responsibilities – is indicated by Thompson’s response when The Sunday Gleaner asks him where he sits on the tour bus.

“On tour with Alicia it is 10 buses and 11 trucks. I am in the audio bus,” he said. He has been many places with Keys, including a series of solo performances last year which included Los Angeles and New York in the United States, Paris and London.

Alicia Keys

Alicia Keys

Working the boards for Keys is Thompson’s most recent – and not necessarily last -stop in a journey that started formally when he cut school one day and ended up on Brentford Road.

He was on his way to Kingston College when he saw founding Skatalites saxophonist Lester Sterling going into a taxi heading to Studio One and, Thompson said ,”I snuck out of school, went to Studio One and everything changed. I walked into that studio and said I wanted to be an engineer.”

Dreams of turning knobs, positioning microphones to capture sound, sliding faders and declaring a recording ready for the road would come true. But it took a while before Thompson was hitting the road in the 1990s with jazz man Marcus Miller, or in the control room at the 1988 Grammys. with Quincy Jones giving the nod to how he was handling Michael Jackson’s audio.

Dennis Thompson

Dennis Thompson


Long before that, Thompson was the timekeeper at Studio One, mastering engineer at Randy’s (at North Parade in Kingston) and touring engineer with The Wailers. His ears had been well tuned on a louder sound stage than his father’s record player, as where he lived on Lissant Road (off North Street) was across the road from the place where V-Rocket sound system played every Saturday night – the venue being the place where Thompson was born.

He started playing the piano when he was seven years old and Thompson said he turned down an offer to join the Skatalites, but told the band’s members, “I have a friend who can play. The next day I went to school and said, ‘Jackie, you want to join a band’?” And the legend of Jackie Mittoo was born.

Thompson came under the tutelage of Australian engineer Graham Goodall and ‘Sparks’, as well as persons who worked at RJR.

After graduating from KC, he started working at the Collector General’s Office and got enough money together to build a small sound system. He started hanging out at KG’s electronics store and one of the partners in the business bought the Lotus Restaurant. There was, however, space to set up something else on the same premises, and “we said it would be a good disco”.


From there, Thompson said he got to know the promoters and producers, as they would carry new records and pre-releases, even on reel to reel.

The good times did not last too long. “We closed it down because of the impending violence,” Thompson said. There was another stint behind the turntables, as right after he left KC, Thompson became the first person, not a member of the Blake family by blood, to play Merritone.

When Thompson ended his stints behind the turntables, getting firmly on the engineering path, he started at the top.

“I started working at Randy’s (the forerunner of VP Records) as a mastering engineer, along with Errol Thompson,” he said.

The mastering engineer is responsible for the final sound of the recording, after all individual instruments and vocals have been laid. Thompson recalled times when his work featured on 28 songs from the top 40 on the charts, Delroy Wilson, Al Brown, Gregory Isaacs, Rupie Edwards, Dennis Brown and Bob Marley among the singers.

Those skills, as well as the rapport he developed with artists, served Thompson well when he migrated to the United States in 1974. Thompson said he left because “I wanted to learn more” but, in a moment of serendipity, Bob Marley and the Wailers were going on tour to promote Rastaman Vibration (the 1976 release, in a year when Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer both put out solo albums). They required a Jamaican engineer and Thompson said he was a unanimous choice by impromptu secret ballot.

Thompson would go on to tour with Marley consistently, right up to theTuff Gong’s final concert at the Stanley Theatre in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on September 23, 1980. In-between those multiple treks he also worked with Jimmy Cliff and Burning Spear, recording the latter’s 1977 Live album during the Man From the Hills’ tour when Aswad did backing duties.

Bob Marley & The Wailers

Bob Marley & The Wailers


When Marley was in the advanced stages of cancer, Thompson said, “He wanted me to come to Germany with him, but said it didn’t make sense I come and be a burden. Steel Pulse was going out and needed help. It was a band he liked. I went with them and Dennis Brown.”

The association with reggae’s Crown Prince lasted up to just before his death in 1999.

Thompson continued globetrotting through the 1980s and 1990s, handling sound for Sunsplash tours and dabbling a bit in dancehall with persons like Supercat on the early 1990s Cool Runnings tour, and also encountering Maxi Priest, Sizzla, Capleton and others.

Thompson said he has never put in an application for a job. “People come to the concerts and hear the sound and say ‘who is doing the sound?’ They ask and if I like it, I do it,” he said.

He liked working with jazz man Marcus Miller in the 1990s, when Miller was doing “huge jazz concerts all over the world”. By the turn of the millennium he was working the hip-hop sound (“in-between Marcus and all that sort of stuff”), setting the sound for the man who became P Diddy, Busta Rhymes, Missy Elliott, Queen Latifah and 50 Cent.

The hook-up with Keys came when her team heard his work with Missy Elliott, while they were on a tour which also involved Beyoncé. “They asked me about three, four years before I did it,” Thompson said. “I did not want to leave Marcus. He took a hiatus, I started working with her and could not leave again.”

Now, although he officially lives in New York, Thompson said “I can be here and next time I talk to you I am in London or Australia.”


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