The 411 Talks to Marshall Thompson of The Chi-Lites

The new year has just begun, but Marshall Thompson is already thinking about 2019. The original vocalist for The Chi-Lites can’t wait to kick off a brand new year surrounded by old friends aboard the 2019 Soul Train Cruise. We spoke with him recently about the friends he’s made throughout his close-to-60-year career, the songs he has blessed us with and the plans he’s got for the 2019 Soul Train Cruise.

Marshall Thompson’s friendships and career have been intertwined since the beginning. His partners in The Chi-Lites were his closest pals at school. A certain superstar inspired him to follow his dreams. He spent his days and nights mapping out big plans with an icon long before either of them knew the success that lay ahead of them. And he lent a helping hand to other stars on the rise.

“My mother and father and my uncles played with Redd Foxx and Quincy Jones and all of them,” Marshall says as he recounts the early days of his career. “And I used to go to the Regal Theater in Chicago to see them all the time. And then I landed a job at the Regal with Gladys Knight and the Pips - I was the drummer for them when I first started out, before the Chi-Lites.”

Thrilled to be sitting behind the drum set for one of the greatest acts in R&B, the young musician knew this was his big break and took nothing for granted. He worked hard and paid close attention to everything, from the music to the showmanship to the business. And when the time was right, he took those lessons to his friends.

“I got the guys, I went back and got them. Eugene Record was driving a cab, Squirrel (Robert Lester) was a welder and Red (Creadel Jones) was in the post office and I went to all of them and I said, ‘Listen guys, Gladys Knight and the Pips showed me how to do this so let me try it.’” “And we tried it and next thing I know, Gladys was looking at me and instead of being the drummer for her I was in the front line with my own group and she said, ‘I’ll be,’” he laughs. “After I did it, she was so excited. Later, when I came into those big hit records she couldn’t believe it. She’d tell people, ‘that was my drummer.’ And we are still friends to this day.”

During those early days with The Chi-Lites, Marshall made another friend; a young police officer named Don Cornelius. “Me and Don were together when we first started,” Marshall remembers warmly. “Don was a policeman here in Chicago and he was a good friend of mine. When he went to WVON radio, we always talked every day and every night. I’d go down and sit in his office in the back while he came up with this dream he called Soul Train.” Thompson credits that dream, and his ambitious friend Don, with rise of The Chi-Lites. 

“I think it was being at the right place at the right time. Don Cornelius was the one that actually started our career really moving by having me down to Channel 26 every day…I was at his show every day,” starting with day one. The Chi-Lites, along with Jerry Butler and the Emotions, performed on the very first episode of Soul Train. After that, “he used to call me and say, ‘Marshall, who could we get today to be on the show?’ and I’d say, ‘Okay listen…what about The Chi-Lites?’ and he’d come back with, ‘I just had you all on last week!’” “I’d tell him, ‘That’s okay, you’re going to have me on this week, too, because everybody else is out on the road,’” Marshall reminisces, roaring with laughter at the memory.

When he steps aboard the 2019 Soul Train Cruise, it will be like being back at WCIU in Chicago all over again surrounded by so many of his old friends. “I was excited when I first heard about the cruise. I’m looking forward to having a good time. It’s just fun. We go down memory lane. Tony (Cornelius) will be there, and we’ll have a lot of fun with him.” And he’s looking forward to seeing a lot of his newer friends as well. “We’ll see some steppers out of Chicago, I know they are making plans right now,” Marshall shares. “A lot of the steppers are calling me. They say, ‘Are you going on the Soul Train Cruise? Yeah, we’re going too.’ They’ve got about 400 right here in Chicago and I know ‘em all personally,” he says with a warm smile. “They’re the biggest steppers set in Chicago. Be up close to people like them and speak with them during the cruise. It’s a blessing.”

One of the conversations that will undoubtedly keep popping up throughout the cruise will be about The Chi-Lites’ song, “Hold On To Your Dreams,” featured on their live album. “That song is for the fans,” he explains. “It’s for the kids in school to let them know they can be a doctor, lawyer and even a president.” The song’s lyrics aren’t just inspirational words from a man who followed his own dreams to success and lifelong friendships. They tell the story of how Marshall Thompson has always lived his life. Even when he was still building his career with The Chi-Lites, Thompson took time to help others on the path to their dreams, including a young group called The Jackson 5. “I gave them one of their first gigs, at the Ray Barnett Center Club in Houston, TX. They didn’t have any hits yet, they were just getting started and Michael was 8 years old.” 

Marshall will be sharing so many of these stories with old friends, and new, on the 2019 Soul Train Cruise. “We’re going to have some fun,” he says with a gleam in his eye. And maybe even set a dream or two in motion along the way.