This story has been updated.
Just a couple of weeks removed from losing the oldest living link to country music’s past when fiddle player Don Maddox of the Maddox Brothers and Rose passed away on September 12th at the age of 98, we’ve now lost another one of the oldest living country artists, that being Sue Thompson, who was performing country songs on television starting in the late 40’s, and throughout the 60’s and 70’s had numerous pop and country hits. Thompson passed away on September 23rd at the age of 96.
Finding her first big success with songs penned by John D. Loudermilk, once married to Western Swing banjo player Hank Penny, and recording multiple duet albums with Don Gibson, Sue Thompson left her mark on both pop and country with her girlish-sounding singing voice that remained in high demand well into her 40’s.
Born Eva Sue McKee on July 19, 1925 in Nevada, Missouri, she was singing cowgirl songs and playing guitar on stage by the age of 7. After her family moved to San Jose, California, she began performing on the Hometown Hayride TV show. When World War II broke out, and she became a true life Rosie the Riveter, working in a defense plant. By the age of 20, she was married and had her first child, though the marriage didn’t last very long, and to support herself, she was performing nightly in clubs around California’s Bay Area.
After winning a talent contest in San Jose, Sue Thompson caught the eye of bandleader Dude Martin, and Sue began singing in his band, and signed her first solo recording contract to Mercury Records in 1950. Dude and Sue were soon married, but not for very long as Hank Penny joined Dude Martin’s band in 1952, and ended up leaving with Sue Thompson on his arm. After Sue divorced Dude Martin, she moved with Hank Penny to Los Angeles, where the two hosted a TV show for two years before moving to Las Vegas to perform on the casino circuit.
Sue Thompson found her big break in 1960 when she signed to Hickory Records, and started releasing successful singles, most of which were written by Nashville Songwriters Hall of Famer John D. Loudermilk. 1961’s “Sad Movies (Make Me Cry)” hit #5 on the Billboard Hot 100, and then “Norman” went #3 later that year. The combination of Loudermilk’s novelty songs and Sue Thompson’s youthful-sounding voice made for a winning combination. Thompson also had a Top 20 hit in 1962 with Loudermilk’s “James (Hold The Ladder Steady)” and 1964’s “Paper Tiger.” She released other singles during the era, but Loudermilk’s were her most successful.
This helped facilitate Sue Thompson’s full move into country music where she had started her career. Though her own singles struggled, she recorded two well-regarded albums with Don Gibson in the 70’s: The Two Of Us Together, and Oh, How Love Changes, resulting in a handful of Top 40 singles. She also appeared on Hee-Haw, and Ralph Emery’s A Record World during the era.
Later Sue Thompson returned to Las Vegas where she continued as a regular performer singing many of her early career hits, and later became a prominent emcee at the famed Palomino Club in Los Angeles during it’s heyday. Sue Thompson eventually permanently located to Las Vegas, where she continued to perform into the 90s. She’s also the mother of producer Greg Penny, known for working with K. D. Lang.
Sue Thompson was an early pioneer for women in country music, and specifically on the West Coast. Her death, along with Don Maddox and Oklahoma’s Jude Northcutt, leaves few performers from the earliest era of country music left, including the 98-year-old Rose Lee Maphis.
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Editor’s Note: This article was updated to include Rose Lee Maphis.
This story has been updated.