Bobbie Thomas: Guitar Prodigy, Con Artist and NAMM Demo Guy

With the Winter NAMM trade show quickly approaching, we wanted to share this vintage Supro NAMM flyer, which—based on the guitars pictured—most likely dates from 1966. This is also one of our favorite little pieces of obscure Supro history. “See and hear, Bob and Bobbie Thomas! At the Supro Exhibit.” Notice the hastily scrawled-in changes of the room number and times. This hint of behind the scenes chaos and last-minute changes at NAMM shows of yesteryears makes us smile. As do the Supro Arlington guitars held by two very clean-cut demo guys: Bob and Bobbie Thomas. These guitars were most likely prototypes—indicated by the block inlays, which were changed to ‘butterfly’ inlays on the production models. It seems that even 54 years ago, NAMM stood for Not April, Maybe May!

Intrigued by the pure 1960’s clean-cut vibe of this father/son demo team, we did a little research. It turns out that Bobbie Thomas was a guitar prodigy who began playing at age five, and was already making television appearances by age nine. At the time of this NAMM flyer, Bobbie would have been around seventeen.  He is pictured here next to his father, Bob, who influenced Bobbie’s pursuit of guitar at a young age. By this age, Bobbie and his father had already made many radio and television appearances, including a series of broadcasts on the WLS Chicago radio show “National Barn Dance”—in the 1950s, the second most listened to country-western variety show behind The Grand Old Opry.  Bobbie caught the last days of the National Barn Dance, as the show and radio station was originally started by Sears-Roebuck Agricultural Division in order to connect with the lucrative mid-western farming community. By 1960, the station was acquired by ABC Paramount. As the story goes, they literally shoveled all the vinyl records out a window into a dump truck, and—overnight—replaced the live country-and-western musicians with rock ‘n’ roll played by disc jockeys. But that is another story entirely.

In 1968, Bobbie came out with a solo guitar record called “Guitarist Extraordinary”. We couldn’t find this recording in digital format anywhere, but we were able to track down the vinyl—signed by Bobbie himself. There are no vocals on the album and it features Bobbie’s unabashedly clean 1960’s guitar shredding all the way through. You can listen to the album here. Being a guitar album, it’s kind of like a Joe Satriani record. That is, if Joe lived in the mid-west in the 1960s, played with completely clean tone, and included “Yankee Doodle” in his song repertoire.

Valco, it seems, was enamored with Bobbie. Coinciding with this 1968 album, Valco launched a Bobbie Thomas signature guitar model under the National brand—the flagship of their line. This was the only time in early Valco/National/Supro history that they created a signature product for a particular artist. This guitar was also featured on the cover of “Guitarist Extraordinary”, and you might recognize it as a guitar currently favored by vintage axe enthusiast Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. The guitar was similar to the Gibson 335, one of the most popular rock/blues guitars of the 1960s.

For twenty year-old Bobbie, a top-of-the-line signature guitar along with an album and gigs on national TV and radio must have seemed like a dream. Sadly, his success was not to last. 1968 was the same year that Valco went out of business—and the album didn’t quite take hold. Listening to the super-clean, country-meets-neoclassical shredding on this record, we can’t help but wish that Bobbie had discovered the magic of cranking an amp into distortion: a secret that had been stumbled upon a decade earlier, and was still slowly being accepted into the guitar mainstream.

After a stint in Nashville as a session musician, Bobbie ended up living in Las Vegas, where he played shows with Wayne Newton. While in Vegas, he got caught up in a scheme with his wife Janie to defraud elite clientele in the business and entertainment industries. Amongst their fraud victims was entertainer Paul Anka. Around 1994, things got a little too hot and Bobbie became a fugitive on the run from the law for the next 10 years.

In 2004, Bobbie Thomas Jr. finally turned himself in to the authorities. His attorney commented that “a fugitive is a hard thing to be, I mean, you can’t be with your family.”  Again, a missed opportunity, because what is more rock ‘n’ roll than being a fugitive from the law? We can think of more than a few famous songs based on exactly this premise. All the same, Bobbie remains a legend in his own right.

It just goes to show—you never really know with these NAMM demo guys!

Sources and further reading:

Dickerson, Deke. “1968 National Bobbie Thomas.” Guitar Player, 1 Jan, 2010, guitarplayer.com/gear/1968-national-bobbie-thomas

Makin, Mark. Palm Trees, Senoritas… and Rocketships. Nottingham: MBM Publishing. 2012

“the history of WLS radio.” WLS, wlshistory.com/WLS20/

Topic: Bobbie Thomas—anybody know his whereabouts? steelguitarforum.com/viewtopic.php?t=160567&sid=fd781fd13143eedee86e40e21f50cf8a