Eli "Lucky" Thompson (June 16, 1924 – July 30, 2005) was an American jazz tenor and soprano saxophonist. While John Coltrane usually receives the most credit for bringing the soprano saxophone out of obsolescence in the early 1960s, Thompson (along with Steve Lacy) embraced the instrument earlier than Coltrane.
Thompson was born in Columbia, South Carolina, and moved to Detroit, Michigan, during his childhood. Thompson had to raise his siblings after his mother died, and he practiced saxophone fingerings on a broom handle before acquiring his first instrument. He joined Erskine Hawkins' band in 1942 upon graduating from high school.
After playing with the swing orchestras of Lionel Hampton, Don Redman, Billy Eckstine (alongside Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker), Lucky Millinder, and Count Basie, he worked in rhythm and blues and then established a career in bebop and hard bop, working with Kenny Clarke, Miles Davis, Gillespie and Milt Jackson.
Ben Ratliff notes that Thompson "connected the swing era to the more cerebral and complex bebop style. His sophisticated, harmonically abstract approach to the tenor saxophone built off that of Don Byas and Coleman Hawkins; he played with beboppers, but resisted Charlie Parker's pervasive influence." He showed these capabilities as sideman on many albums recorded during the mid-1950s, such as Stan Kenton's Cuban Fire!, and those under his own name. He recorded with Parker (on two Los Angeles Dial Records sessions) and on Miles Davis's hard bop Walkin' session. Thompson recorded albums as leader for ABC Paramount and Prestige and as a sideman on records for Savoy Records with Jackson as leader.
Thompson was strongly critical of the music business, later describing promoters, music producers and record companies as "parasites" or "vultures". This, in part, led him to move to Paris, where he lived and made several recordings between 1957 and 1962. During this time, he began playing soprano saxophone.
Thompson returned to New York, then lived in Lausanne, Switzerland, from 1968 until 1970, and recorded several albums there including A Lucky Songbook in Europe. He taught at Dartmouth College in 1973 and 1974, then completely left the music business.
In his last years he lived in Seattle, Washington. Acquaintances reported that Thompson was homeless by the early 1990s, and lived as a hermit. Thompson died in an assisted living facility on July 30, 2005.
Thompson was married to Thelma Thompson, who died in 1963. Thompson's son, guitarist Daryl Thompson, played with Peter Tosh and Black Uhuru before embarking on a jazz career in the late 1980s. Thompson also had a daughter, Jade Thompson-Fredericks, and two grandchildren.
- Accent On Tenor (Urania, 1954; reissued by Fresh Sound)
- Tricotism (Impulse, 1956)
- Brown Rose (Xanadu, 1956)
- Lord, Lord, Am I Ever Gonna Know? (Candid, 1961)
- Lucky Thompson Plays Jerome Kern and No More (Moodsville, 1963)
- Lucky Strikes (Prestige, 1964)
- Lucky Thompson Plays Happy Days Are Here Again (Prestige, 1965)
- Lucky is Back! (Rivoli, 1965)
- Body & Soul (Nessa, 1970)
- Goodbye Yesterday (Groove Merchant, 1972)
- Paris Blue, with Sammy Price (Concord Jazz, 2000)
- Modern Jazz Group (EmArcy, no date/Sunnyside, 2000)
- Jazz in Paris, with Dave Pochonet All Stars (Sunnyside, 2001)
- Home Comin' (2003)
With Miles Davis
- Walkin' (PRLP' 7076)
- With Oscar Pettiford
- The Oscar Pettiford Orchestra in Hi-Fi (ABC-Paramount, 1956)
- The Oscar Pettiford Orchestra in Hi-Fi Volume II (ABC-Paramount, 1957)
With Art Blakey
- Soul Finger (Limelight, 1965)
With Jimmy Cleveland
- Introducing Jimmy Cleveland and His All Stars (EmArcy, 1955)
With Dizzy Gillespie
- Afro (Norgran, 1954)
- Dizzy and Strings (Norgran, 1954)
- With Milt Jackson
- Meet Milt Jackson (Savoy, 1956)
- Roll 'Em Bags (Savoy, 1956)
- Jackson'sville (MG-12080 Savoy, 1956)
- Ballads & Blues (Atlantic, 1956)
- The Jazz Skyline (Savoy, 1956)
- Plenty, Plenty Soul (Atlantic, 1957)
With John Lewis
- The Modern Jazz Society Presents a Concert of Contemporary Music (Norgran, 1955)
- With Thelonious Monk
- Genius of Modern Music: Volume 2 (Blue Note, 1952)
- With Stan Kenton
- Cuban Fire! (Capitol, 1956)
- With Dinah Washington
- Mellow Mama, 1945 Apollo Records recordings (Delmark, 1992)