Sue Thompson, who sang of 'Norman' and 'Sad Movies,' dies at 96

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Sue Thompson, who sang of 'Norman' and 'Sad Movies,' dies at 96
She started out a country singer, but she found fame and pop-chart success in the early 1960s with catchy novelty songs, as well as the occasional ballad.

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK, NY.- Sue Thompson, who after more than a decade of moderate success as a country singer found pop stardom in the early 1960s with hook-laden novelty hits like “Sad Movies (Make Me Cry)” and “Norman,” died Thursday at the home of her daughter and caregiver, Julie Jennings, in Pahrump, Nevada. She was 96.

Her son, Greg Penny, said the cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease.

With a clear, somewhat girlish voice that brought sass to humorous ditties but could also be used to good effect on a ballad, Thompson was part of a wave of female vocalists, such as Connie Francis and Brenda Lee, who had hits in the late 1950s and early ’60s.

Her breakthrough came when she was paired with songwriter John D. Loudermilk, who wrote her first big hit, “Sad Movies,” a done-me-wrong tune about a woman who goes to a movie alone when her boyfriend says he has to work late, only to see him walk in with her best friend on his arm.

The song cracked the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the fall of 1961, and before long she was back in the Top 10 with another Loudermilk song, “Norman,” in which she turned that rather unglamorous male name into an earworm. (“Norman, Norman my love,” Thompson cooed in the chorus, surrounding the name with oohs and hmms.)

Loudermilk also wrote an elopement novelty, “James (Hold the Ladder Steady),” which did moderately well for Thompson in 1962. That year she also showed what she could do with a ballad, having modest success with “Have a Good Time” by Boudleaux and Felice Bryant, which Tony Bennett had recorded a decade earlier.

The British Invasion soon eclipsed this kind of light fare, but Thompson had one more pop success, in 1964, with Loudermilk’s “Paper Tiger.”

In 1966 she traveled to Vietnam to entertain the troops. Because she was accompanied by only a trio, she could go to more remote bases than bigger USO acts, which exposed her to greater danger.

“Tonight we are at Can Tho, a huge American air base,” she wrote to her parents. “You can see the fighting (flashes from guns), hear the mortars, etc.

“We’re fairly secure most of the time,” she continued, “but must be aware that things can pop right in our midst.”

The trip left her shaken.

“A heartbreaking — and heartwarming — experience,” she wrote. “I will never be the same. I saw and learned unbelievable things.”

Penny said that his mother was ill for weeks afterward, and that she long suspected she had been exposed to Agent Orange. She also underwent a sort of awakening, he said, becoming a vegetarian and developing an interest in spiritual traditions, Eastern as well as Western.

Despite becoming ill after the first trip, she went on other tours to entertain troops, including one the next year on which Penny, just a boy, accompanied her. They traveled to Japan, Hong Kong, the Philippines and elsewhere. Vietnam had also been on the itinerary, but that part of the trip never happened.

“I remember getting the communication while we were on the road in Okinawa,” Penny said in a telephone interview. “They said it was just too dangerous.”

When Thompson returned to performing stateside, she also returned to country music, releasing a number of records — including a string recorded with Don Gibson — and leaving behind the little-girl sound of her hits.

“I don’t want to be ‘itty bitty’ anymore,” she told The Times of San Mateo, California, in 1974. “I want to project love and convey a more mature sound and a more meaningful message.” Country music, she said, was a better vehicle for that because “country fans pay more attention to what is being said in a song.”

Eva Sue McKee (she picked her stage name out of a phone book) was born July 19, 1925, in Nevada, Missouri. Her father, Vurl, was a laborer, and her mother, Pearl Ova (Fields) McKee, was a nurse. In 1937, during the Depression, her parents moved to California to escape the Dust Bowl, settling north of Sacramento. When she was in high school the family moved again, to San Jose.

As a child Thompson was entranced by Gene Autry, and she grew up envisioning herself as a singing cowgirl. Her mother found her a secondhand guitar for her seventh birthday, and she performed at every opportunity as she went through high school.

In 1944 she married Tom Gamboa, and while he fought in World War II, she had their daughter, Jennings. She also worked in a defense factory, Penny said.

Her wartime marriage ended in divorce in 1947, but her singing career soon began in earnest. She won a talent show at a San Jose theater, which led to appearances on local radio and television programs, including those of Dude Martin, a radio star in the Bay Area who had a Western swing band, Dude Martin’s Roundup Gang. In the early 1950s she became the lead vocalist on a TV show Martin had introduced in the Los Angeles market, and she cut several records with his band, including, in 1952, one of the first versions of the ballad “You Belong to Me,” which later that year became a hit for Jo Stafford and in the 1960s was covered by the Duprees.

Thompson and Martin married in December 1952, but they divorced a year later, and Thompson soon married another Western swing star with his own local TV show, Hank Penny. That marriage ended in divorce in 1963, but the two continued to perform together occasionally for decades.

The country records Thompson made on the Mercury label in the 1950s never gained much traction, but that changed when she signed with Hickory early in 1961. “Angel, Angel,” another ballad by the Bryants, garnered some attention — Billboard compared it to the Brenda Lee hit “I Want to Be Wanted” — and then came “Sad Movies.”

That breakthrough hit was something of an accident. In a 2010 interview on South Australian radio show “The Doo Wop Corner,” Thompson said she recorded it only after another singer decided not to.

“I inherited the song,” she said, “and I was really happy and excited when it turned out to be such a hit for me.”

Even before her pop hits, Thompson was a familiar sight on stages in Nashville, Tennessee, and Nevada as well as on the country fair circuit, and the hits made her even more in demand in Las Vegas; Lake Tahoe, California; Reno, Nevada, and elsewhere. Gravitating between country and pop came easily.

“Most popular songs actually are country-and-western songs with a modern instrumental background,” she told The Reno Gazette-Journal in 1963.

Thompson said her favorite among the songs she recorded was “You Belong to Me.” About a decade ago, when she was in her 80s, Penny, a record producer who has worked with Elton John and other top stars, recorded her singing it to guitar accompaniment. Carmen Kaye, host of “The Doo Wop Corner,” gave the demo its radio premiere during the 2010 interview, Thompson still sounding sweet and clear.

Thompson’s fourth husband, Ted Serna, whom she had known in high school and married in 1993, died in 2013. In addition to Jennings and Penny, she is survived by eight grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.

Jennings, in a telephone interview, told about a time during her mother’s Vietnam tour when she asked to visit soldiers in the infirmary who couldn’t come to her stage show. One badly injured young man, when introduced to her, said, “I don’t give a darn who’s here; I just want my mama.” Thompson sat with him for a long while, asking all about his mother, helping him conjure good memories.

“Three years later,” Jennings said, “my mother was working in Hawaii, and he brought his mother in there and introduced her to my mom.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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