THE OKIE CONNECTION: An Interview with J.D. Thompson on making soundtracks for the mob

When people think of organized crime, images of Chicago’s Al Capone or New York’s infamous John Gotti come to mind. But, as Blackie tells it, “The American Mafia began in New Orleans.” In the upcoming documentary, Blackie discusses many of the principles that guide and bind the Mafia but, for those looking for gory details from a life of crime, he deftly upholds Omerta—the Sicilian code of silence. Paradoxically, the soundtrack to that silence is broken only by a stark soundtrack, written by Oklahoma-born songwriter, J.D. Thompson.

Southern Gothic: How did you get involved with someone like “Blackie”?

Thompson: Well, anyone that really knows the history of the music business will tell you; guys from David Steece’s world have always been around just beneath the surface of the industry. When I was recording in L.A. with Lou Adler, he told me some stories that I probably shouldn’t repeat but, well, Lou was in at the ground floor with the people that invented what we call the ‘music business’. One of Lou’s early artists, known as Johnny Rivers, actually bumped into Blackie before he was “Johnny Rivers”. But for me, I met Steece just as a matter of chance. We hit it off and before I knew it, I was helping him do some promotion work with music.

Southern Gothic: Were you aware of Steece’s organized crime connections when you began working together?

Thompson: Well, I read an excerpt from his book, A Question of Honor, so of course I knew about his past but David hasn’t been close to that world in a really long time. Besides, as far as I know, he’s never been convicted of anything.

Southern Gothic: At any point during your collaboration with Steece, did you ever feel intimidated or threatened?

Thompson: (Laughing) Anyone who sits in a room with David is going to feel intimidated. Even at his age and with his health issues, he’s probably one of the most intimidating people I’ve ever encountered—and I’ve encountered some pretty ******* intimidating people. But, no, I never felt threatened. Why should I? Maybe if David was selling someone out I’d be reluctant to work with him but he’s not betraying anyone. In fact, as far as I know, this is a unique sort of project in that way. This isn’t another gangster “tell-all” kinda’ thing we’re working on. I wouldn’t wanna’ be a part of something like that.

Southern Gothic: In what way is this project unique amongst other “mob” documentaries?

Thompson: Well, first, I learned that you probably shouldn’t refer to the thing you’re referring to as the “mob”. The thing you’re talking about has a lot of names, but “mob” isn’t really the right choice. Mob sounds like rabble but we’re talkin’ about some of the smartest people in American history. As for what makes this documentary different, I would say it’s the fact that David isn’t a “snitch” and didn’t decide to sell his story at anyone else’s expense. He walks a fine line, but, like I said, really his story isn’t a ‘tell all’ on the Mafia. David left “the Life” and took a different path for the sake of his children. He didn’t go into witness protection or anything like that. As far as I know, that’s unique, so the film is the first of its kind in that way.

Southern Gothic: Tell us more about the project; how did you approach the creation of the soundtrack to the documentary?

Thompson: Well, to be honest, most of the music we used was already written so the issue wasn’t so much about creating more material. David liked my existing material so all we really had to do was go through some of the catalog and pick the right tracks. There’s only a few songs that are exclusively associated with the ‘Blackie’ project.

Southern Gothic: Did you have any reservations about working on the Blackie project?

Thompson: Not really. The ground rules were made clear from the beginning.

Southern Gothic: What were some of the “ground rules”?

Thompson: (Laughing) There were too many to count, really. One of the first things we discussed was pay: I told him I didn’t want any money for this work. I think he was suspicious of that at first but it worked out because, as we all know from the movies, wiseguys never pay. Aside from that, even though David is probably one of the most fearless people you will ever meet, he’s cautious and he knows that a project like this could get some people upset. We made sure that didn’t happen.

Southern Gothic: Who might get upset?

Thompson: Think about it. Next question.

Southern Gothic: What did you hope to get out of this project?

Thompson: Well, like I said, there was no money in this for me. Maybe someday but as David will tell you, “wise guys don’t pay” so it’s not like he hired me or anything. To be honest, this was a very personal project. Beyond that it’s hard to explain. I wasn’t interested in being part of just another blood-and-guts tell-all that glorified some ex-Mafia sell-out or snitch. He simply chose a different path for his life out love for his children and because he harbors a real hatred for drugs and drug-dealers, so that we have that in common. I can’t really explain why I wanted to work with David. He just sees the world for what it is and his perspectives and insights cut to the heart of our world. I think I have a certain amount of respect for guys that cut a place in the world for themselves one way or another without stepping on ordinary people.

Southern Gothic: What do you hope audiences will get out of this project?

Thompson: This isn’t really a Mafia story but a story about a single-parent family trying to survive in the cut-throat realities of the pitiless American life. For those looking for a Martin Scorsese “Goodfellas” kind of story, it may be disappointing. It’s a very human story, but really it’s more of a look inside the real mechanisms of power.