The Poster Boy of Rock

by Tamara Logsdon Hawkinson


It all started at the Dale Clark Lumber Supply store at Utica Square in the fall of 1972. “I saw him when I was walking past the store. His back was to the glass, but I knew who he was. Long hair and mutton chops,” says Brian Thompson. “I went inside and started milling around, trying to screw up the courage to say something.”

For anybody steeped in the brew of Tulsa music, there was no mistaking Carl Radle. As part of the Tulsa Sound already infamous in West Coast studios, Radle was a legendary bass player by 1972, having worked with Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Joe Cocker, George Harrison, Delaney & Bonnie, and Eric Clapton, plus fellow Tulsans Leon Russell and J.J. Cale.

“I finally walked up, told him I was an artist and wondered if there was anyone I could talk to about doing some artwork for Shelter,” recalls Thompson. “He was such a nice, down-to-earth guy and just handed me Peter Nicholls’ card.”

A few months earlier, Russell had moved back to Tulsa with a cadre of Englishmen from Cocker’s tour to expand Shelter Records into Oklahoma. Denny Cordell was his business partner and Peter Nicholls was Shelter’s director of A&R (Artists and Repertoire). The label produced albums by Phoebe Snow, Tom Petty, Freddie King, Willis Alan Ramsey, and a slew of Tulsa musicians from the Dwight Twilley Band, J. J. Cale, and The Gap Band, in addition to Russell’s albums.

“Peter was just as easygoing as Carl and before long I was doing freelance work for Shelter Records,” says Thompson, who had no commercial art background, having recently dropped out of the commercial art program at The University of Tulsa after just two semesters.

But Thompson’s taste for the collaboration of music and art had been percolating for years. “My folks enrolled me at Cascia Hall where the emphasis was more about preparing for law or med school, even though they already suspected that wasn’t going to be my path in life,” he laughs. Studying art history, Thompson became enamored with Toulouse-Lautrec’s poster art, and the early- to mid-20th century visual art of Jean Cocteau.

Soon, Thompson discovered the Grateful Dead, and by 1968 he was experimenting with his first “psychedelic” posters, which he hung mostly on his bedroom walls. By then, a few pieces of authentic psychedelic art were making their way to Tulsa, specifically at Utica Square’s Et Cetera House. As Thompson said in an interview for Paul Grushkin’s The Art of Rock: Posters From Presley to Punk, which features five of his posters, “I vividly remember the day I stopped there when they just got in two hundred Bill Graham posters from the Fillmore, that mythical auditorium in San Francisco. The posters sold for a dollar apiece, and I came home with an armful.”

By the time Thompson connected with Shelter Records, he’d been absorbing the styles of some of the more outrageous San Francisco poster artistry, particularly the work of Rick Griffin, and was shooting for the “wow” factor with every creation. Over the next few years, he worked on numerous projects for Shelter, from creating backstage passes to having his hand-lettered artwork topping the yellow labels that were on every album distributed from Shelter between 1974 to 1976 under MCA.

“But for me the highlight was having a full-page ad that I designed for Shelter run in Billboard,” says Thompson, who was just 20 years old at the time. But the Shelter gig wasn’t full time, so in 1974 when R.C. Bradley wanted “the Shelter art guy” to do some posters for a new music venture, Thompson was game.

* * *

In numerous versions of the Cain’s history, the rock ’n’ roll era starts in 1976 when Larry Shaeffer bought the already infamous dance hall. But three Holland Hall graduates actually laid that groundwork 18 months earlier.

In 1974, classmates Jim Edwards and Ed Thornton abandoned their East Coast colleges and landed back in Tulsa around the same time. They were both focused on music and connected with R.C. Bradley, another Holland Hall graduate from a few years earlier, who had just finished college and moved back to town.

“While R.C. was at Duke University, he worked for a promoter who booked groups like Deep Purple, the Dead, and the Allman Brothers,” says Thompson. Bradley had the booking experience, so the three friends went in search of a venue.

“I was driving around downtown, turned a corner and there was the Cain’s neon sign framed in my windshield,” says Edwards. “So I stopped and knocked on the door.”

An 85-year-old Marie Meyers showed him in. When Edwards—who had never heard of Cain’s, despite growing up in Tulsa—saw the place, he was mesmerized. “I called R.C. and told him to get down here.”

Meyers was in over her head. She was trying to recreate the heyday of Bob Wills that she and her husband had loved so much. Gene Crownover’s Western Swing Band played on Saturdays but the crowds were small. At one point she was even living there. Still, she was a little nervous about handing over her beloved place to the “kids.”

Leon Russell had just recorded “Streaker’s Ball,” which inspired the trio to throw a Halloween“Freakers Ball” as a test run for the venue (Cain’s celebrated its 37th Annual Freakers Balls last year). So Meyers gave the Holland Hall partners a three-month lease with their first smaller concerts starting in February 1975. By the time Jerry Jeff Walker stepped onto the historic stage on March 5, the club “on the wrong side of the tracks” was overflowing with a wild, raucous crowd.

Cain’s was alive again after a 15-year nap, booking three shows a week. “We made a commitment to Marie and kept Gene Crownover on Thursdays,” says Edwards. “Then we’d promote a local band and headliners on Friday and Saturday.”

In the pre-Internet era, Thompson’s posters were the social media. “I wanted each poster to be memorable even though time was always an issue,” says Thompson, since there was often a mere 10 days to create and produce the art, get it printed and posted around town with enough time before the show.

“We took turns ‘sitting on Brian’ as we called it, to meet the deadlines,” laughs Edwards. “But he consistently captured the tone of what we were trying to do, with the wise cracks or a ‘wink and a nod’ embedded in the posters.” Before long, Brian Thompson’s poster art was synonymous with Cain’s.

But several months and numerous posters later, there were cracks in the partnership and Marie Meyers was finally ready to let go of her dream and sell the facility.

* * *

Larry Shaeffer had been to Cain’s a few years earlier to audition as the pedal steel player for Gene Crownover’s band. “I didn’t get hired,” he muses, but he never forgot the inspiration and awe he felt just being in the building.

Then in the summer of 1976, Shaeffer promoted a concert at the Tulsa Fairgrounds headlining Peter Frampton and Santana. With the profits from that concert and a supplemental loan from his dad, Shaeffer plunked down $60,000 and bought the ballroom.

Initially, Shaeffer offered to share booking the venue with Bradley but the deal eventually fell apart and Shaeffer realized he better start promoting more concerts to generate the necessary cash flow to keep Cain’s alive. And he wanted Thompson as part of the team.

“He’s an underrated genius,” says Shaeffer. “BT was the poster guy I had to have.”

Cain’s entire marketing program consisted of advertising the next week’s lineup Sunday night on Tulsa’s rock station KMOD, along with the posters plastered weekly across midtowns telephone poles and in record stores, head shops and college dorms.

Using just a drafting table that he still has, covered with faded backstage passes, and various art supplies, Thompson tediously worked and reworked each creation by hand. “If I screwed something up at 2 a.m., I just had to start over,” he laments, which is why there is a “Thank you to Ed on the air at 3 a.m.” on the 1978 New Riders of the Purple Sage poster.

Eventually Shaeffer’s Little Wing Productions booked not only at Cain’s but the Brady Theater and The Brook on Peoria, as well as some other college town venues—enough to keep Thompson hopping. There were other clients, too: Thompson designed smaller handbills for Don Duca’s Magician’s Theatre, as well as the poster for the 1975 Oklahoma Woodstock, the outlaw country “48 Hours in Atoka.” His country connection continued with Tulsa’s Jim Halsey Company, where he created promotional material for Ronnie Dunn, Billboard magazine ads for Roy Clark and The Oak Ridge Boys and designed a full-page ad in Variety for Merle Haggard. According to Jim Halsey, “Brian was ahead of his time.”

Despite the accolades, he wasn’t exactly getting rich. The poster fee from the Holland Hall partners was $65, then Shaeffer upped it to $100. “Whatever it was,” Shaeffer concludes, “it wasn’t enough.” And Jim Edwards adds, “It is impossible to imagine Cain’s happening like it did without Brian Thompson.”

From 1975 to 1983, Thompson created close to 100 music posters. Unfortunately his entire collection, including posters signed by the artists, was destroyed in a 2001 flood at his home. Currently the largest public display of his artwork—43 Cain’s posters—can be viewed at Bob’s Place, next door to Cain’s.