This story has been updated.
Just a few weeks away from losing the oldest living connection to country music's past as violinist Don Maddox of the Maddox Brothers and Rose died on September 12th at the age of 98, we have now lost another of the oldest living country artists, namely Sue Thompsonwho performed country songs on television from the late 1940s and had numerous pop and country hits in the 1960s and 1970s. Thompson died on September 23 at the age of 96.
Sue Thompson celebrated her first major success with songs penned by John D. Loudermilk, who was once married to western swing banjo player Hank Penny, and recorded several duo albums with Don Gibson that stayed well into her 40s in great demand.
Born Eva Sue McKee on July 19, 1925 in Nevada, Missouri, she sang cowgirl songs and played guitar on stage at the age of 7. After her family moved to San Jose, California, she appeared on the Hometown Hayride TV show. When World War II broke out, she became a true Rosie the Riveter working in a defensive structure. She was married at the age of 20 and had their first child, although the marriage did not last very long, and to support herself she performed nightly at clubs in the California Bay Area.
After Sue Thompson won a talent contest in San Jose, Sue Thompson caught the attention of band leader Dude Martin, and Sue began singing in his band, signing her first solo recording deal with Mercury Records in 1950. Dude and Sue were soon married, but not for very long, when Hank Penny joined Dude Martin's band in 1952 and eventually went out with Sue Thompson by his arm. After Sue divorced Dude Martin, she moved to Los Angeles with Hank Penny, where the two hosted a TV show for two years before moving to Las Vegas to perform on the casino circuit.
Sue Thompson had her big break in 1960 when she signed with Hickory Records and began releasing successful singles, most of which were written by John D. Loudermilk of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Famer. In 1961, "Sad Movies (Make Me Cry)" reached number five on the Billboard Hot 100, and "Norman" was number three later that year. Loudermilk's novelty songs combined with Sue Thompson's youthful-sounding voice made a winning combination. Thompson had a top 20 hit in 1962 with Loudermilks "James (Hold The Ladder Steady)" and in 1964 with "Paper Tiger". She released other singles during the era, but Loudermilk's were her most successful.
This helped Sue Thompson's full entry into country music, where she started her career. Though her own singles struggled, she recorded two well-respected albums with Don Gibson in the 1970s: The Two Of Us Together and Oh, How Love Changes, which resulted in a handful of top 40 singles. She also appeared in Hee-Haw and Ralph Emery's A Record World during the era.
Sue Thompson later returned to Las Vegas, where she continued to regularly sing many of her early hits and later became a prominent presenter at the famous Palomino Club in Los Angeles during its heyday. Sue Thompson eventually moved to Las Vegas permanently, where she performed until the 1990s. She is also the mother of producer Greg Penny, who is known for working with K.D. Lang.
Sue Thompson was an early pioneer for women in country music, particularly on the west coast. Her death, along with Oklahoma's Don Maddox and Jude Northcutt, leaves behind few artists from the earliest era of country music, including 98-year-old Rose Lee Maphis.
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Editor's Note: This article has been updated to include Rose Lee Maphis.