A profile of the legendary Bonnie Ott-Thompson

by Christina Mavroudis-Dempsey, DCW staff

This article was originally published in the September 2008 edition of Drum Corps World (Volume 37, Number 6).

“I’m glad that I decided to play again. It’s been a lot of fun.” So says the legendary mellophone player, Bonnie Ott-Thompson, on her decision to return to the activity after several decades’ absence.

A role model for girls across the country during the early years of DCI, Bonnie, 53, was raised in a family drum corps. Her father, “Pops” Ott, directed the Stockton, CA, Commodores.

Her brother, Jim, a brass player and gifted arranger, led such world renowned brass lines as Blue Devils and Spirit of Atlanta. Bonnie is noted for her astonishing brass calisthenics on mellophone with the Blue Devils. Her solo in Chase the Clouds Away is remembered today.

Tragedy and life may have taken Bonnie out of the activity, but she’s back, chops in place, performing with the San Francisco Renegades this year.

CM-D: A little history. How did you get interested in playing brass? Why Blue Devils?

BO-T: I actually started with the Stockton Police Drum and Bugle Corps that morphed into the Stockton Commodores. My brother was already playing a soprano and, as I entered the 4th grade, I started playing trumpet. I kind of wanted to play flute or clarinet, but the family would have no part of that!

My parents are not musical. My father has a tin ear, but can dance circles around most everyone. My mother took care of uniforms, but never played an instrument. So it was just my brother and I. He actually started out on clarinet and had a friend down the street who also played clarinet. Jim was always interested in arranging and started writing duets with his buddy. When I started with trumpet, he wrote trios. I was too loud, so was relegated to the closet. Even funnier is that I willingly went into that closet!

Jim was writing for the Commodores at 16. We would listen to East Coast albums and when he heard the voice of a mellophone with the Joaquin Caballeros (a local senior corps), he just had to have them. That’s when I started playing one in 1967.

I played with the Commodores for eight years. We had a killer horn line and were known for our semi-circle concerts. Jim wrote great stuff and I soloed there, too. The Commodores had a nautical theme, so we naturally played sea tunes. When Jim arranged Popeye, the crowd went crazy. The horn line loved it, too. We made DCI Finals in 1973. But after that year, people started to quit. I became frustrated and quit, too.

Jim already started working with the Blue Devils and I would keep him company on his commutes to Concord. I would fill in once in a while, adding any middle or upper voice as they only had a handful of horns in the beginning.

When he approached me to try out in 1974, I balked. He then told me that they had more horns and an up and coming staff with himself, Wayne [Downey], Mel [Stratton], Rick [Odello], among others.

I grudgingly went along to “try it out”. I will never forget that day for the rest of my life. You could hear a pin drop when I entered with my horn. Everyone was staring at me. God, I was embarrassed. There was a chair and stand with all the music waiting for me. When I walked over and sat down, I was greeted with a warm welcome that only the Blue Devils could provide. The rest is history. I aged out in 1976.

CM-D: What was your favorite memory from those “legendary” days?

BO-T: I have many fond memories, although winning DCI in 1976 after our meteoric rise is right on the top. I’ve met a lot of wonderful people and enjoyed a great activity for years.

CM-D: Now about those post-years. Bring us up to speed. What was happening in your life and how did you stay — or didn’t stay — connected with the activity.

I was 25 when Jim died and I returned to Stockton to be with my parents. That’s when I found out I had another brother. Wow! I was totally blown away. My parents had given up Norm for adoption because they didn’t have a penny to their names. No job, no nothing and welfare didn’t exist. Adoption was in Norm’s best interest at the time.

Meeting him was very emotional and we have a wonderful relationship to this day. I worked, married my husband, Ken, and had two sons (Ryan, 22, and Eric, 20). Neither were interested in music. I went to DCI a few times, then to DCA in 2005 at my father’s urging.

It was like stepping back in time 30 years. What fun! I couldn’t believe how many people remembered me. I returned in 2007 and had even more fun.

CM-D: Tell us about your dad, “Pops” Ott, and your thoughts on his legacy.

BO-T: My father is a very special and favorite person, and not because he’s my dad. He was always supportive of my brother and me. He was active in the Scouts when Jim was little, taught me to ride my bike, etc. He is, without a doubt, the sweetest and most generous person I know.

He has a hard time saying “no” to anyone. Although he is 82, he is extremely active and sharp. He has many “children” that he acquired through the years, people routinely stop him to give a hug, shake his hand and thank him for being there for them.

He is known as “Pops” to hundreds of people. It’s a nickname, but a fond and meaningful one. Many kids weren’t fortunate to have supportive parents, so he was a surrogate to many, encouraging them to “go for it” because they could succeed if they wanted to. He is very proud of his children and family. When my other brother, Norm, entered the picture, “Pops” stepped right up to the plate, being his usual kind and generous self. I don’t think he has an enemy on this Earth and he has earned his wings and halo many times over.   Everyone knows him as the “good guy.”

CM-D: Your brother, who died at 30 on July 8, 1980 in a tragic car accident on the road with Spirit of Atlanta, has his own legacy. Tell us your thoughts on the night he died and the aftermath.

BO-T: The morning Jim died is very painful to remember. Not only was he my brother, he was my best friend. Before he married Magi, we hung out because we preferred each other’s   company. He had his buddies, too, but we had a very special bond. Jim was very special to me.

His writing was getting better and better through the years. He managed to make all parts fun to play. His writing style died with him and, unfortunately, no one has been able to recreate it.

Just as important, though, was his ability to teach. Always encouraging and helping people enjoy playing, he loved loud. The louder the   better. Playing with Jim in front was a great experience. He could bring out the best. Players just loved him. I have always felt for the members of Spirit after his death. They had to have been just devastated. How do you go on when part of your heart has been ripped out?

CM-D: How did Renegades bring you back?

BO-T: Betsy Johnson worked on me for quite   awhile. [Betsy, a charter member with the Blue Devils 1970-1971 and Renegades 2001-present, was actually recruited into BD by Jim Ott.] She thought I needed to have fun. Guess I was a drag, huh? She lured me to the Renegades’ open house in January 2008 where there was a horn waiting for me. I kind of wanted to play, but hadn’t touched a horn in 32 years. I swear the horn staff was turning to face the wall holding their noses! The organization has been very supportive of me. They’re a wonderful group with an emphasis on fun and loud. Those two words are important.

CM-D: What did you have to do to get the chops back? Was it always there, like a bicycle?

BO-T: Persistence and practice. The 2 “P’s’. However, it was always there, like riding a bike!

CM-D: Tell us about that first performance in the black uniform. Was that the Concord show?

BO-T: I felt supremely proud to actually wear black. After all these years, I achieved a goal I wasn’t sure I could.

CM-D: You had this amazing grin on your face that afternoon that was priceless. And Roland Garceau, a Blue Devils and Renegades soprano soloist who shared the solo spotlight that night, seemed absolutely smitten with you.

BO-T: I love Roland! Who doesn’t? I met him at DCA in 2007 and we became instant friends. At the Concord show, he told me that he finally got to play with Bonnie Ott. How cool is that? Well, I got to play with Roland and hope to again some day. He is amazing!

CM-D: And now you have a terrific son, Ryan, who seems very personable. How has he been supportive of your performing?

BO-T: My whole family is supportive of my return to playing. I paid my dues with raising my sons and enjoyed every minute (almost). Ryan told me point blank that I should play because I needed a little fun in my life. My husband has been great.

CM-D: So far this season, what has been the most vivid memory?

BO-T: Vivid Renegade memory? Having a blessed staff recognize that I was dying out on the field trying to go backwards, run and play. I sucked. Once I had an asthma attack and I don’t even have asthma! I really tried, never missed a camp, froze my ass off in the winter and sweated buckets as well. When they put me in the pit, I sank to my knees crying, “Hallelujah!” Now, I’m having tons of fun and can play. It was important that I be able to play.

CM-D: Finally, what would you say to other “women of a certain age” about the performance experience?

BO-T: If I can do it, anyone can. I’m just another person like everyone else. Older, out of shape, etc. I wear reading glasses, have high cholesterol and bad knees. Listen to your body, go slowly, but be persistent. I should be a spokesperson for Carmex and Advil. At least I should have stock for the money I’ve invested in their products. Today women have more opportunities than ever. We are admired for our achievements. Go for it! It’s fun the second time around and there’s tons of fun available. Don’t wish, be brave, take a risk, have fun!

CM-D: In addition to work, family and practice, she and a few friends are putting together a Web site with Jim’s story and music.

BO-T: It will be interesting to observe his growth through the years, but sad to think of what he could have done. The goal is to share and maybe learn. Wouldn’t it be great to have someone who is able to write like him, or at least pick up where he left off?

CM-D: If you have a Jim Ott story or original music to share, please contact Bonnie directly at mpbonnie76@yahoo.com. Inducted into the Buglers Hall of Fame in 2005, she currently works as a medical-surgical nurse and will be on the field at DCA this year!