Out of all the numerous rumors that have surfaced over the years of Led Zeppelin possibly re-forming, it appears that the one time it came closest to actually becoming a reality (the mid-'80s), the drummer who was projected to take the spot of John Bonham was ex-Chic pounder Tony Thompson. Hailing from New York City, Thompson made a name for himself in the late '70s as one of the dance movement's leading drummers — due to his hard-hitting style (which hinted that his playing was equally influenced by hard rock). Getting his start playing briefly with LaBelle, Thompson found himself part of a local Queens, NY, disco outfit by the middle of the decade (called Ecstasy, Passion & Pain), and in the process, befriended musicians Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards. Rodgers and Edwards were fresh out of a punk/new wave outfit (Allah & the Knife Wielding Punks), and were looking to form a group more aligned with the fast-rising disco movement.
They couldn't have picked a better drummer to propel the groove, as Thompson signed on, as well as singers Norma Jean Wright and Alfa Anderson, resulting the formation of Chic. Signed to Atlantic Records, Chic quickly became one of disco's leading bands (albeit for a short time), landing a sizable hit with its 1977 debut, Chic, which spawned the hit single "Dance Dance Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)." But it would be Chic's sophomore effort that would be the group's greatest artistic and commercial triumph, 1978's near chart-topping C'Est Chic, which spawned one of disco's most instantly recognizable anthems, the number one hit "Freak Out." Chic would score another chart-topping single a year later, "Good Times," but almost immediately thereafter began to fall out of favor with the pop audience (due to a mass anti-disco movement).
But it was Thompson's next project that would be the most talked about of the decade for the drummer. With the mammoth Live Aid benefit concert booked in the summer of 1985, the three surviving members of Led Zeppelin (singer Robert Plant, guitarist Jimmy Page, and bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones) decided to reunite for a mini performance at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia. Filling the shoes of the late John Bonham would be an impossible but a much sought-after gig, and Thompson got the nod. What followed that day was a horribly under-rehearsed and sloppy performance — but it was not Thompson who was at fault (he was probably one of the set's few bright spots). At the last moment (for reasons unknown), it was decided to have Phil Collins join Thompson as a second drummer. With Collins obviously not familiar with Zeppelin's repertoire (and visibly looking at Thompson for cues throughout), it only added to the set's woes.
For years afterwards, it was assumed that this was the last hurrah for the "Thompson" version of Zeppelin, but it later became known that it wasn't. It turns out that in 1986, all four held some "secret" recording sessions in Bath, England. Although the sessions proved to be promising, they came to an abrupt halt when Thompson was involved in a serious car accident. Thompson continued as a session drummer afterwards (appearing on recordings by Robert Palmer, Duran Duran, Platinum Blonde, Rod Stewart, and Jody Watley), but by the '90s appeared to vanish entirely — although he appeared sporadically as part of "tribute" albums (Jimi Hendrix's Stone Free, Queen's Stone Cold Crazy, and Aerosmith's One Way Street). This decline in work may have been caused by severe hearing loss suffered by Thompson from his loud and hard-hitting playing style and extensive touring career, according to friend and Chic bandmate Nile Rodgers, who worked with him on the Stone Free sessions.
However, the mid-'90s found Thompson in a re-formed Power Station for their second album in 11 years, 1996's Living in Fear, and its supporting tour. The album and tour reunited Thompson with former Chic bandmate and bassist Bernard Edwards, who produced the album and handled bass duties on arrangements co-written by original Power Station bassist John Taylor. The reunion proved short and heartbreaking, as Edwards died of pneumonia during the Power Station's tour of Tokyo in April 1996. Years later after a battle with renal cell cancer (and oddly two months after Power Station bandmate Robert Palmer died of a heart attack), Tony Thompson passed away on November 12, 2003, leaving a wife and two children. ~ Greg Prato