With Robbin Thompson’s blessing, Hampton Roads rocker creates new version of state song

It was a summer day when Al Staggs first heard “Sweet Virginia Breeze” on the radio. The seventh grader fell in love with it instantly.

Al Staggs performs. (Courtesy Al Staggs.)
Al Staggs performs. (Courtesy Al Staggs.)

Thirty-seven years later, the commonwealth adopted the tune as Virginia’s official popular song.

In the time between, Staggs grew up in Hampton Roads, started a post-grunge rock band — the Left Wing Fascists — and befriended his idol, the co-author of “Sweet Virginia Breeze,” Robbin Thompson.

Earlier this year, Staggs began writing for his band’s third LP and first record in two decades. He wanted “Sweet Virginia Breeze” on it, even though Staggs’ sound is more early-Foo Fighters rock ‘n’ roll than the smoother, Van Morrison-like melody of Thompson’s original.

So he reached out to the songwriter on Facebook for his blessing. He got it, “but I didn’t know he was really sick at that time,” Staggs said.

Producer Stacy Heydon said the cover song was the hardest track to mix on the Left Wing Fascists’ new album, Oxymoron, which goes on sale Friday. He described it as “shoving a square tube into a round hole.”

But it worked, Heydon and Staggs said.

“Big” Al Staggs heard his “harder, shorter, tougher” version of “Sweet Virginia Breeze” for the first time this fall and was blown away. Southside Daily’s partner radio station, 102.1FM The Tide, was the first to play it.

“I couldn’t wait for Robbin to hear it,” Staggs said.

But he never did.

Thompson planned to play at a Richmond venue in October. Before he could, the rocker was admitted to a hospital. He died Oct. 10 from complications with cancer at the age of 66.

Staggs questioned if I even wanted to release the song after that.

“I didn’t know how people would react to it,” he said. “But then I thought we had to release it in his honor.”

Staggs said he thinks Thompson would be proud of the final version. He said Thompson’s family and “Sweet Virginia Breeze” co-writer Steve Bassett are glad he recorded it. Attempts to reach them were unsuccessful.

If Staggs could see Thompson one last time, he’d thank him for the memories, for “keeping it real” and “putting Virginia on the rock map,” he said.

Then he paused.

“If I could talk to him now,” Staggs said, “I think I would listen more than I would talk.”

 

Listen to the the Left Wing Fascists’ version of “Sweet Virginia Breeze”:

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