SAN DIEGO — Watch Bill Thompson perform around town with his hot new blues band, the Mighty Penguins, and you'll see a man who after years of searching has finally found his musical niche.
His rangy tenor rings with the hollow desperation of Clarence (Gatemouth) Brown and the impassioned hollering of Huddie (Leadbelly) Ledbetter.
His blazing electric guitar work is saddled with the piercing sustained-note leads of T-Bone Walker and the frenzied chicken-picking riffs of Albert Lee and Danny Gatton.
And his band's choice of material--mostly covers of obscure blues classics like Walker's "Street Walkin Woman," Roscoe Gordon's "No More Doggin," and Professor Longhair's "The Mess Around"--is the stuff that makes Thompson's pulse quicken and his eyes water.
The blues, he insists, is in his blood--if not by birth, then by circumstance.
"As a kid, I was kind of an angry young man who got into a lot of fights," said Thompson, who performs with the Mighty Penguins on Mondays at Rio's on Point Loma and will be at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach tonight.
"The first thing I heard, the thing that really drew me to playing music, was the blues," he said. "I had all these old records by people like John Lee Hooker and James Cotton, and I could identify with what they were saying, with the emotions they were expressing."
And so, Thompson said, "Even though I didn't pick cotton or anything, the blues were my natural starting point as a musician. The first thing that trips your trigger stays with you for the rest of your life, and you always somehow come back to it."
Maybe so, but it has taken Thompson an awful long time to come back to the blues. Since his love for the music prompted him to take up harmonica when he was 20 and the guitar a year later, Thompson, now 37, has built a career out of playing everything but the blues.
He has performed with more than a dozen local country-western, rockabilly, Top 40, and even new-wave bands in San Diego nightclubs. In 1981, he was in Las Vegas, backing Gary Puckett on the 1960s pop singer's first attempt at a comeback. And a few years later, he was hanging out in Nashville, trying to find studio work.
It wasn't until last November that Thompson decided to start playing the blues professionally, teaming up with keyboardist Bruce Donnelly, bassist Jeff Moore, and drummer Mark Spriggs--recently replaced by Paul Kimbarow--as the Mighty Penguins.
"My chief concern was always to make steady money playing the guitar," Thompson said, "but I was never really satisfied with anything.
"Each band I was in, I'd last maybe two months before I would walk off the job and try something else. Once, I quit after the second set. Another time, I packed up my gear after the first break.
"I've always been willing to try a lot of different kinds of music. As Gatemouth Brown said, 'Variety is the spice of life.' "
But at this stage of the game, Thompson figured it was time to narrow the field and get back to his first love--the blues. After all, that was "the music that inspired me to become a musician in the first place."
This month, the Mighty Penguins are finding a window of time in their busy club schedule to record an album of both originals and interpretations of vintage blues and rhythm-and-blues tunes from the 1940s through the '70s.
"A lot of those old songs are so strong, so classic, that it's a shame you don't hear them more often," Thompson said. "So aside from recording our own songs, we're going to record some of the old ones to make sure they're not forgotten."
When the album is completed, Thompson said, he is going to shop it around to record companies for national release.
"But to tell you the truth, I'm not too worried about the future," he said. "At the moment, I'm happier than I've ever been because I'm finally doing something I like.
"Playing the blues just feels more natural to me than all the other things I've done, and no matter what happens, I'm determined to stick it out."