The Breeze is gone.
Robbin Thompson, the singer-songwriter who was a hero to a generation of rock ’n’ roll fans and one of the two co-writers behind an official Virginia state song, died early Saturday morning of complications from cancer. The Richmond resident was 66.
Mr. Thompson had become best known in recent years for his effort with fellow singer Steve Bassett to persuade legislators to adopt their song “Sweet Virginia Breeze” as the official state anthem. This year, Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed legislation naming it the official “popular” state song — one of two state songs.
The song was a high point in a life full of them.
Mr. Thompson once sang lead in the Steel Mill Band with Bruce Springsteen — the only time in his career The Boss wasn’t front and center — recorded with a list of session all-stars, and was on the cusp of national fame by the early 1980s.
He also was a doting father and grandfather, a man who came to be known as “Baba,” who was intent on spoiling his two grandsons and one granddaughter.
“He had such a presence on stage, but personally, he was quiet and sensitive,” said a daughter, Rikki Rogers of Silver Spring, Md. “He was a very affectionate and warm person. His grandchildren were obsessed with him.”
The big breakthrough never came for Mr. Thompson, but he didn’t let that deter him. The man known to his friends as “Breeze” continued to create music and released more than a dozen albums. He toured in Europe, where he received steady airplay, and in Southeast Asia.
He also was vice president and co-owner of In Your Ear Music and Video Production in downtown Richmond, which he started with Carlos Chafin in 1990. It became the base for his later career writing music for commercials and film and gave him a place to work with a new generation of musicians.
Mr. Thompson was born June 16, 1949, in Boston. His family moved to Melbourne, Fla., when he was 7, and he stayed there through high school. His father was a rocket researcher, a subject that found its way into some of Mr. Thompson’s songs.
He moved to Richmond in 1969 to attend Virginia Commonwealth University. While there, he formed a band called Mercy Flight, which often shared bills with the Springsteen-led band Steel Mill.
Springsteen asked Mr. Thompson to join his band, beginning a friendship that would last a lifetime. The band broke up less than two years later, but the two occasionally performed together in the decades that followed, including during a Springsteen show at the Richmond Coliseum in 2003.
Mr. Thompson began making a name of his own in 1976 with the release of his self-titled debut album. The session players included bassist Timothy B. Schmit, who shortly thereafter joined The Eagles but sometimes sang harmony on Mr. Thompson’s albums, and legendary guitarist Steve Cropper.
Mr. Thompson was the undisputed star.
By sight, he was as normal as they come: not quite tall, built slim, the kind of guy who would otherwise blend into the crowd.
But guitar in hand, standing in front of a microphone, he became the star, a man with a voice that could build from an easy tempo into a deep growl, layers of texture just there with a seeming ease.
His first album included a number of songs — “Boy From Boston,” “Dream On Melinda,” “Highway 101” and “Like a River” among them — that would become staples of Mr. Thompson’s live shows for decades to come.
Two years later, he and Bassett released “Sweet Virginia Breeze” on their record “Together.”
“He and I were going to play a show at Shafer Court (on the VCU campus), and I met him on the porch and he had ‘Sweet Virginia Breeze,’ ” Bassett said. “He was kind enough to let me help him finish it.”
They taught the song to Bassett’s band and played it at the show.
The response was so good, they recorded it, and the sessions were so good that what was going to be a single turned into an entire album.
“We were like brothers,” Bassett said. “Our voices just blended.”
With momentum building, Mr. Thompson put together his own band — with Velpo Robertson on guitar, Eric Heiberg on keyboards, Robert Antonelli on drums and first Mike Lanning and then Audie Stanley on bass — and hit the road and recorded what would be the most successful record of his career.
“Two B’s Please,” released in October 1980, included a new version of “Breeze” along with two other songs that became regional hits — the fun, rocking “Candy Apple Red” and “Brite Eyes,” an operatic rock anthem that’s as much about the musicianship that drives the song as the story it tells. That song became a natural show-closer for the band.
The album, which spent nine weeks on the Billboard and Cash Box charts, sold more than 200,000 copies, won the Robbin Thompson Band a huge following in the Southeastern United States and landed the band on the cusp of national stardom.
“The coolest thing was the first time you’re riding to a show and you hear yourself on the radio,” Antonelli said. “Those were the days when radio was still king, and that really meant something.”
In the years that followed, Mr. Thompson recorded several solo albums. His songs were often about sailing, a passion he pursued for decades.
He kept his boat, The Song Bird, at Jackson Creek in Deltaville, and often wrote about life on the Chesapeake Bay.
“He was a prolific songwriter,” said Robertson, who worked with Mr. Thompson longer than anyone else. The two met in 1970, began playing together in 1975 and never parted ways for long. “But he was never afraid to show you a song.
“To me, I think that was the best thing about him. He was always happy to collaborate. No matter who he was working with, he wanted to make the songs better.”
Besides Springsteen, Mr. Thompson had shared a stage with performers including Bob Dylan; Bonnie Raitt; Crosby, Stills and Nash; and Bruce Hornsby.
His film credits included the title song to the cult classic “Gleaming the Cube,” which starred Christian Slater, and “I Won’t Quit” from “The Fighting Temptations,” which starred Cuba Gooding Jr. and Beyoncé Knowles.
His touring schedule, which included solo gigs in Sweden and Finland in 2013, slowed, but he and the band never completely parted ways. They staged several sold-out reunion shows in late 2009 and early 2010 and later released a live album and video from that mini tour.
He received a 2014 Renaissance Award during a Richmond CenterStage ceremony.
Mr. Thompson’s last recording was 2013’s “Real Fine Day.”
“He was a real inspiration,” Phil Vassar, the country singer and songwriter, said Saturday from his tour bus in Ohio. “All the guys in my band are from Virginia, and we grew up listening to him. We thought, ‘If a guy from Virginia can make it, we can, too.’ ”
He said he went from being a fan of Mr. Thompson’s to being a friend of his with ease.
“He was a fun guy to be around,” he said. “He was real serious about his music, but he was fun to talk to. I loved the way he would joke around in the studio.”
Rogers said her father’s passion for music never waned, no matter the stage of his career.
“Wrenn and I can sleep through anything,” she said. “There were always people playing music here.”
She said Mr. Thompson belied the life of a rock star, instead preferring the solitude of early mornings.
“He always wrote in the morning,” she said. “He’d get up at 5 o’clock and make coffee and start writing. When we got up, he’d be there.”
Mr. Thompson was diagnosed with cancer in 2000 and fought it for 15 years.
He would spend painful moments in treatment but mostly kept it at bay for years, Rogers said. It wasn’t until about two years ago that the disease took the turn from which he couldn’t recover.
In addition to his daughter and three grandchildren, Robert Wickens “Robbin” Thompson II’s survivors include his wife of 41 years, Vicki C. Thompson; another daughter, Wrenn Carlson of Charlottesville; two sisters, Nancy Kinnison of Santa Maria, Calif., and Bird Smith of Sherman Oaks, Calif.; and his mother, Maybird Thompson of Santa Maria.
There will be a private service.
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