By George Webber —
Born and raised in Sonoma, 75-year-old Tommy Thomsen is a music superstar. Inducted into multiple Western Swing Halls of Fame, Tommy has the presence of a rock star, a deep gravelly voice, and an encyclopedic recall of his extraordinary life.
Tommy grew up right behind what is now the Bank of America off the Sonoma Plaza, where his grandfather owned three houses. The Plaza was his playground. “In the 1950s you couldn’t see through the foliage in the Plaza – it was full of trees,” he remembers. “The duck pond was surrounded by a huge stand of bamboo, and as a kid I would crawl in there and make forts, and find duck eggs.”
His mother was a legendary local honky-tonk piano player with the nickname “Big Red,” and his uncle was known as “Pete the Singing Milkman.” Tommy attended Prestwood, Sassarini, and Sonoma Valley High School.
In 1962 he was 14, and his older sister Sherry took him to the Sonoma County Fair, where a soul revue was playing in the race track. By the time the music stopped Tommy knew he wanted to learn guitar.
“I had already played piano for seven years, and studied elemental theory. I took guitar lessons from Jerry Benedetto, whose parents Rocco and Carmella owned Vella’s Creamery on the Plaza, and listened to bluesmen Jimmy Reed, and Freddy King.” With his friend Don Martini he formed a band called The Headsmen. “At the time there were only half-dozen bands in Sonoma County, so we were playing every weekend. We used to hitch-hike down to Sausalito, and busk in the park.”
After high school Tommy formed a Western Swing band called Sonoma County Line. On harmonica was the recently-arrived Norton Buffalo.
On January 14, 1967, the famous “Human Be-In” took place in Golden Gate Park: Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary spoke, the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead played, and the counterculture was born. Tommy was there; it was his 19th birthday.
The next year was 1968, the Vietnam War was raging, and the U.S. Army wanted to draft Tommy. Instead of fighting a war he didn’t believe in, or escaping to Canada, he joined the anti-draft resistance. He appeared in Federal District Court in San Francisco, and pleaded his case as a conscientious objector.
“There were so many of us they were prosecuting two at a time. The Honorable William T. Swaggert, an 88-year-old judge, gave the guy before me 18 months, and I got 18 months. They sent me to Lompoc, where the Watergate conspirators went a few years later. It was the bravest thing I’ve ever done.”
Once out of prison he attended Maxie Hornblatt’s School of Seamanship in San Francisco, and joined the Merchant Marines. “My first voyage was to Japan – there are pictures of me busking on the streets of Kobe.” He traveled the world for 37 years, and played music between trips.
He met Western Swing musicians living at a place called Wills Point in Sacramento, started by Western Swing icon Bob Wills in the ‘50s.
“It was like walking into a time machine,” Thomsen recalls. “There was a long bar, and a dance hall that could fit 1,000 people. I named my new band the Wills Point Playboys, in honor of all the Western Swing musicians I met there. They became my mentors, and my heroes, and during the 1970s and 1980s I would go all over the West to Western Swing events. There would be music from Thursday morning till Sunday night. Jam sessions till midnight, and then we’d start up again playing at 8 o’clock in the morning.”
Thomsen has released several CDs. In 1995 he was inducted into the Western Swing Hall of Fame in Sacramento, in 2003 the Northwestern Swing Music Society Hall of Fame in Seattle, in 2006 the Southwest Western Swing Hall of Fame in Tulsa, and in 2018 the Cowtown Society of Western Swing in Ft. Worth.
Western Swing music is a distinct genre —more jazz than country. Credited with its creation is Bob Wills, who was raised in Turkey, Texas. So, it’s fitting that in 2017 Tommy acquired a legendary club in Turkey, Texas: the Church of Western Swing. And now you can listen to Tommy’s show on Sonoma’s KSVY radio every Friday at 1pm: “Swingin’ Out West.”
Tommy plays the classics of Western Swing, tells stories about his friends, and sometimes performs his own compositions live in the studio. He’s still playing live gigs, and plans for a KSVY fundraising concert, at the Sebastiani Theatre, are in the works. Sonoma’s favorite musical son has landed in a very good place.
“It’s never too late to make a new start for your day,” advises Thomsen. “I have lived my life exactly the way I want to live it.”