Will Lamartine Thompson (1847-1909) was born in Pennsylvania, but his family moved to East Liverpool, Ohio (near the Pennsylvania border) while he was still quite young. His father was a successful merchant, and also served in the Ohio legislature for a time.
Thompson showed an early interest in music, and had written several songs before finishing high school.
In those days, not many people were privileged to go to college, but Thompson graduated from Alliance College (Alliance, Ohio) with a degree in business. He later graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music as well as studying music in Leipzig, Germany.
As a young man, Thompson sent a package of four songs to a publisher, asking payment of $100 for the package of four. The publisher responded with a counter-offer of $25, which Thompson declined. ($100 in 1875 was the equivalent of $1800 in 2007. Go online and use an inflation calculator to update that).
When he couldn’t get what he considered to be a fair price for his music, Thompson decided to go into business for himself. He started a music store in East Liverpool in association with his father’s business—and another outlet in Chicago. Then he went into the mail order business, selling sheet music and music books (Thomas Edison didn’t invent the phonograph until 1877).
Thompson turned out to have considerable business acumen, in part due to his father’s influence and in part due to his undergraduate business degree. He marketed his music, in part, by sending copies to various minstrel shows, which were popular at the time—and he may have paid some of them to sing his music (a legitimate form of advertising). He quickly became successful, and was known as the millionaire “Bard of Ohio.” He wrote one of his most popular songs, “Gathering Sea Shells on the Sea Short” in ten minutes. It sold 246,000 copies.
Thompson was a Christian, and while attending a Dwight L. Moody evangelistic meeting decided to devote himself to writing and promoting Christian music. He wrote “Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling” in 1880. It quickly became popular as a hymn of invitation in evangelistic meetings, and was soon incorporated into church hymnals as well. Thompson wrote “Jesus is All the World to Me” in 1904, and it became quite popular as well. He was as successful with Christian music as he had been earlier with secular music. I am told that he sold two million books of quartet music.
Dwight L. Moody, the most famous evangelist of his day, used “Softly and Tenderly” as an invitation hymn in his meetings. Thompson visited Moody as the latter was dying, and Moody told him, “Will, I would rather have written ‘Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling’ than anything I have been able to do in my life”—quite a tribute from someone as accomplished as Moody.
Even though he became quite rich, Thompson continued to live a life of service. He supported various civic and religious activities generously. He was also aware of the fact that small town people had very little exposure to good music, so he loaded a piano on a horse-drawn wagon and went through small Ohio towns giving concerts of his music.
Thompson became ill on a trip to Europe in 1909, and died shortly thereafter.
Copyright 2008, Richard Niell Donovan