If you were a part of San Diego’s music community back in the late ’80s and remember ‘Bluesday Tuesdays’ or Sunday afternoons at Winston’s in OB, then you already know the name Earl Thomas. For a short, brilliant moment back in the day he was the voice of one of San Diego’s premier party bands, the Rhumboogies. A band Earl believes captured “lightning in a bottle” but at the time were just too young to know it. When Thomas left the Rhumboogies to front the Blues Ambassadors, even their rehearsals drew fans so for the next five, fun-filled years Sunday’s at Winston’s became “the biggest party in San Diego.” Earl remembers with great fondness, “Winston’s was an institution for many, many years. You couldn’t get in the place. I miss it… I miss it.”
These days you can still catch Earl Thomas in concert but he’s cut back to about 50 shows a year, and a majority of those are either in Europe with his band the Royal Guard or South of the border in Mexico with another collective celebration called, Tribal Love Party. As if that wasn’t enough, Thomas stages and performs multiple benefits in support of the Blues Hall of Fame, is a returning headliner at the Montreux Jazz Fest, and now for the past half decade or so, has achieved “favorite son” status regularly packing the house at Biscuits and Blues in San Francisco.
As a songwriter Earl’s music has been featured on film in numerous motion picture soundtracks and on the small screen to underscore some of prime-time television’s top-rated series, like E.R. and Bones. Capturing the attention of both fans and peers, Earl’s compositions have also been recorded by artists as diverse as Etta James, Tom Jones, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. And Thomas is the first to admit, what his old school work ethic of getting it right may have cost him in relationships and financial gain, has been amply rewarded with Grammy nominations, multiple San Diego Music Awards, Best of Blues accolades and even, more recently, recognition by the Blues Hall of Fame. Earl was just added to their Wall of Honor for his continuing fundraising contributions in support of their brand new Memphis home.
With that many familial and international ties and being so widely respected around the world, Earl Thomas could live virtually anywhere. But after all the miles and all the years, there’s little doubt where he wants to be. “I realize that San Diego is my home,” he says. “I came here when I was 17 years old. I had lived here when I was three to age five; my dad was in the Navy. Then I graduated from high school back in Tennessee where my family is from and then I moved back to San Diego. I’ve been in San Diego since 1978. I went to H.S.U. Humboldt State University. So I spent some years in Humboldt,” he smiles. “…and moved back to San Diego.”
Tracing back his lineage, Earl says there was always music. “Well, I come from a family of musicians, a long line of musicians and singers. We could go all the way back to slavery in Pikeville, Tennessee which is where my family is from. My father was a blues guitarist and singer, harmonica player and very good, very talented. My mother was an extremely talented singer, gospel singer. All of my relatives in my family, brothers, cousins, uncles, aunts, grandparents, everyone was musical. Either they played an instrument or they sang…or both.” Earl thinks he’s not even the most talented in his family. “I’ve got a couple of cousins, believe me,” he grins. “They only sing in church, though.”
Noting a large number of the blues originators got their start in the church, Earl nods. “Well there’s a reason for that. During the time when the blues was being created, the church was the only sanctuary black people had. And not only that, the blues, gospel, soul music for the African in America, this is our only link to our ancestral source. Everything else was taken away. Slave owners allowed us to use music, but they wouldn’t let us use the instruments that we would’ve used if we’d have been in Africa. They took away the drums; they took away all the African instruments and they gave us all the European instruments. With those instruments we created the blues. When you hear Willie Dixon or Muddy Waters or B.B. King or Howlin’ Wolf or Koko Taylor, or any of the greats doing ‘the blues,’ they are communicating with the ancestors. That’s been lost, that’s a lost art form. Some of us still understand the language, but none of us speak it fluently.”
“If the only old Negro spiritual that you know is Kumbaya, then you are going to speak the blues with an accent…albeit, a charming one, but an accent just the same.”
“Whatever problems we might have today, that’s nothing compared to what my grandparents went through. At least today, black people don’t have any excuses anymore. Nobody can play the ‘oh, I got discriminated against’ race card. Not anymore. Yes, there might be some… but you know what, there’s a black dude in the White House. What’s your excuse? I don’t want to hear it. Even before that, I wouldn’t have wanted to hear it, because I grew up in a very different way. But because I grew up in a household full of gospel music and full of soul music and full of blues, I learned the language very well.
“I see many of my contemporaries, modern day blues people, and the thing they are not doing is connecting with the ancestry. They might win BMA awards and they might be touted as the greatest… but they’re not talking to my ancestors. And that’s what the blues was invented for, that’s why we have it. Everybody thinks it’s about ‘oh my baby left me,’ and that’s one of the topics, true. But the task, I believe, of the bluesman or blues woman is not to entertain, entertainment is not first, it’s connecting with ancestry first… in an entertaining way, perhaps.”
With your diversity of style and influences along with the variety and depth in the music you play, do you still consider yourself a bluesman? “I consider myself a sophisticated, 21st-century bluesman. The bluesman of the 21st century is college-educated, sophisticated, a world-traveler, but he knows where he came from. I know where I came from. Yes, my dad was in the Navy and because of that I was able to get an education, a quality education and that was not by design, it was just by happenstance. We happened to be living in a military base that was next to a good school system. It could have been the other way around; I could have been on the other side of town and gotten that education. I was able to grow up in a predominately multi-cultural world from the time I was in kindergarten through ninth grade, completely multi-cultural. I went to school with little black kids, little white kids, little Guamanians, little Philippi nos, little Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese, Latino, you name it, the whole world was at our school, and at our house, right? You see photographs of my brothers and me and there’s this whole little group of kids, that’s all the world there, right? I grew up without those blinders that I would have had, had I’d lived only in my hometown of Pikeville, Tennessee.”
The culture shock of those worlds would have a lasting impact on a young Earl. “When we moved back to Pikeville in the 9th grade, my parents didn’t prepare us, they didn’t say, ‘Okay, we’re going back to Tennessee and these kids that you’re going to be going to school with now, these kids haven’t been anywhere.’ The kids we grew up with, as military kids, we had all traveled and had a world view that was very broad. Then we get back to Pikeville, Tennessee where for the last 300 years everybody has lived like this and like this. All the black people lived across the railroad tracks and across a body of water, a little river and some railroad tracks. That’s always the case whether you’re in Detroit or Pikeville, Ferguson or St. Louis. And we moved back and they didn’t tell us that we were going to experience children who believed something completely foreign to us. Thank God my parents never told us how advanced we were, they never said, ‘You’ve got way more going for yourself than these kids will ever have.’ Had they told us that, I think that would have screwed us up a little bit…Our parents just put us in the environment and we had to deal with it. I lasted until graduation from high school, two months after graduation I was gone! (laughing) But I know where I come from and it’s a great thing because I can see both sides of the story.”
A world view vs. regional perspective… “And I can’t even be angry with people; like in my hometown right now they’re all on the flag, the Confederate flag? And they’re all going, ‘You know I still have the flag and I felt so proud.’ You know what, I can’t be mad at those people, I know its bullshit but this is all they know. This is their world and who am I, because I happen to have this extreme world view to go back and say, ‘Well, you know in London they don’t even care about this bullshit, you know? Or the real money is on a yacht in Monaco, they don’t even know you exist. I can’t say that, because I have compassion. Do I want to live there? No. Do I like to visit? Yes. Some of my best friends in the world are right there in Pikeville, Tennessee. I love them and I know that maybe some of them grew into what their parents were, which was maybe racist or whatever, but what can I say? I’m not going to judge them for that.”
Since the early ’90s you’ve spend a lot of time in Europe, Mexico, and South America and your fan base reflects that. Is it fair to say the music you play demystifies our cultural differences… because it certainly seems to break down a lot of barriers that separate us, like language and borders? “Back to… what is my music? I’m a 21st-century bluesman, but I’m also a representative of my ancestry. And I’m a good one. I speak the ‘universal language’ if you will. I’ve been a world-traveler since I was three years old. When we went back to Pikeville in 1974, I had lived in Guam since 1970. When the Vietnam war ended we were in Guam. And like I said, multicultural world, we leave Guam and go to Pikeville, Tennessee to a two-culture world. I feel that I’m the representative of, not only my family, but of my ancestry because I carry the melodies and the message if you will, and you can trace my bloodline all the way back to slavery. I didn’t just adopt the blues. A lot of people say, ‘Oh you know, I was 15 or 16 years old and I heard some Muddy Waters and I just fell in love with the music.’ Well that’s not the same thing as if you grow up in it. Here’s my biggest quote, ‘If the only old Negro spiritual that you know is Kumbaya, then you are going to speak the blues with an accent…albeit, a charming one, but an accent just the same.’
“You’re not a bluesman because you’re playing 12-bar shuffles and singing these songs; now, don’t get me wrong, some people are really good at it. They’re really good at it for where they come from, being that they’ve probably never eaten a chitlin in their life; never eaten chitlins, cornbread, or black-eyed peas… that goes with the territory. You gotta’ know the food, you gotta know why Big Mama puts on Muddy Waters on Saturday night, you gotta’ know why she did that. She did that because she’s worked harder for the past six days than most white people. These people that clean bathrooms and clean toilets and sweep up, they’ve worked so hard for so little just to survive and what do they have? They’ve got Saturday night, they can put on some Muddy Waters, they can break out the moonshine and they can just forget it for a minute. Then on Sunday morning they get up and go to church and they can forget it again, because that music can transport you.
“If you really want to make a statement go learn the songs of Mahalia Jackson, go learn the songs of Sister Rosetta Tharp, go learn the songs of Clara Ward, and go learn those old gospel hymns. Instead of mimicking Muddy Waters from 1956 or mimicking whoever from the Chess Records era… go back and learn the Soul Stirrers material before Sam Cooke became famous.”
Much like church, blues is often a shared emotional experience… “Many people don’t connect the dots; you’re enslaved for 200 years, fine, you’re emancipated, then there are the Jim Crow laws. So every step of the way you’re held back, of course this emotion is going to come out, it’s going to find its way out. So when I see a blues artist playing the mimic game, it’s interesting to me. I find it very interesting and they really get into it. But they have no idea what my grandparents went through. Where does my emotion come from? It’s a genetic code. I saw what it did to my grandparents. My parents and grandparents were incredible people, extremely intelligent. Can you imagine being a genius and having everything you think about controlled and stifled? So my emotion comes from first-hand knowledge not from imagination. Some blues people don’t connect those dots they think that the blues is just music and entertainment. No, the music that they did in those juke joints, that was an escape. That was like an escape from a horrible situation and it was very effective, it worked. I think that’s why it’s such an iconic art form today; it lasted because it was so powerful.”
Fulfilling one’s destiny is everyone’s dream and must feel truly rewarding. Do you have a sense of being in the right place at the right time? “It’s a great honor to have been chosen for this task and I do my best and I think that I’m an excellent representative. I have the vocabulary for it. I have no fear of the world, that’s very important. I have absolute self-awareness as I walk into this world and have no hesitation to say what I really think. I mean, I’ll never win one of those BMA’s, I know that. I’ve already said too much. I don’t play well with their politics.”
What makes you the happiest when you’re performing? “It’s knowing that I’m hitting all my marks. One of the things that separates me from the rest of the herd is I actually have a B.A. in music; I studied classical so I’ve trained my voice to be like an instrument. When I set a goal for a certain note or particular presentation and I hit all those marks, that makes me very happy. You practice and practice, my performances demonstrate to the audience that these guys have put their hours in. You’d never go and see a Broadway show and you see people say, ‘Okay, is everybody ready? A-one, A-two…’ You wouldn’t do that. At a recent show in Germany a critic said, ‘Earl Thomas is Big Blues Opera! That’s the greatest compliment. Oh my God, they got me. They got me, because that is what I’m bringing to the table. I’m bringing opera, I’m bringing soul music, rhythm and blues, all the derivatives of the blues, gospel, everything. Of course I’d bring that to the table because that’s all I grew up listening to… rock ‘n’ roll, blues, soul, rhythm and blues, country and western… I’m from Tennessee, dude! Conway Twitty, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Hank Williams.”
You must have seen the value in all of those genres? Who do you listen to now? “As an adult, I don’t listen to music at all.” A burglary took all of his records, CDs, and world class stereo gear, and Thomas says, “I was so traumatized I haven’t listened to music since. But I think its okay because it makes me come up with my own ideas. In fact, I heard Cannonball Adderley say, they asked him ‘Who do you listen to?’ He said, ‘I don’t listen to anybody.’ And they said, ‘Well, why not?’ He said, ‘Because I prefer to make my own mistakes.’ Hello! So that’s where I’m at, I don’t listen to any other artist. Why would I? I’ll just make my own mistakes and I’ll do my own thing. And it’s served me very well through the years.”
So we can just refer to you as the 21st-century Cannonball Adderley!? [laughing] “You know, one wants to be creative.” Thomas smiles. “You know, I have been validated. B.B. King, Albert Collins, Les McCann, Ike Turner, Solomon Burke, and Etta James. All of these people have said to me in one way or another, ‘You’re doing it right, you’re creative, you aren’t copying, you have musical courage.’ Solomon Burke said, ‘You have musical courage. Obviously, you’re willing to stand on your own two feet.’ At the time they were telling me this, I was too young to understand. Now I fully understand.”
Growing up did you listen to much radio? “I was a radio junkie! I listened to Armed Forces Radio. You remember ‘Good Morning Vietnam!’ That was when I lived in Guam. It was the radio that turned me on to pop and rock ‘n’ roll. When we moved back to Tennessee the only way I could get this one radio station, my grandmother had a little transistor radio, the antennae had been broken and the only way I could pick up this one station in Nashville was to take a coat hanger and unravel it and put it into the hole where the antennae was and then I’d have to string it around this cabinet knob and string it over here to this other cabinet and then take a big piece of aluminum foil and stick it on the end, right? So I had this whole contraption and I could get this station. One night I heard a song called [he begins to sing] ‘I am sailing, I am sailing, home again…’ and I’m like, ‘Who is that?’ Oh, I loved that voice and I’ll never forget that moment I heard this voice. But I didn’t know who it was. So, one night we’re all sitting around the TV at my grandma’s house, a big crowd of people because my grandmother was the only one who had television. We’re watching the American Music Awards because Gladys Knight and the Pips are going to be on. They say, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the American Music Awards, please welcome Rod Stewart. Out comes Rod Stewart in these black silk pajamas, barefoot walking down the aisle from the back of the house, singing, ‘Tonight’s the Night, it’s gonna’ be alright.’ And I go, ‘That’s him! Oh, my God, That’s him!’ And I just start going off, and everybody [laughing] in my family is looking at me like, ‘What the hell?’ And my dad is like, what is it with this white dude with the hair, ‘What’s going on?’ And so I told my dad about hearing him sing that song on the radio and, God bless him, the very next day my dad took me to Chattanooga. We drove 56 miles from Pikeville to Chattanooga to Northgate Mall so I could buy my first Rod Stewart records, in fact I bought two. I bought Atlantic Crossing and I bought A Night on the Town and that began my love affair with Rod Stewart. Tina Turner is my female idol and Rod Stewart is my male idol.”
Speaking of idols, you met and got to know Ike Turner pretty well, didn’t you? “Ike Turner was a very, very special human being. I did a lot of touring with him. I first met him at an Etta James show. I was at Etta’s show and I had gone to thank her. She had done such a good job on one of my songs, ‘I Sing the Blues.’ I owe her a lot. And I see a man right in front of me in a very nice suit, I mean really well-dressed. This dude had a tailored suit and I just noticed it. A little guy, this tall… [he holds up his hand] Never in a million years would I have thought it was Ike Turner. So Etta says to the audience, ‘Okay ladies and gentlemen, I want you to sing along… Ayeaheya!’ So I sing along…‘Ayeaheya!’ And this little guy turns around, like so fast and he goes, ‘You have a voice. What’s your name?’ And I go, ‘Oh, uhhh…my name’s Earl Thomas.’ He goes, ‘Earl Thomas, I’m Ike Turner, pleased to meet you.’ I went, ‘Oh My God!’ All of this emotion came out, ‘Oh my God, Mr. Turner you don’t know this but I’ve got all your and Tina’s albums, I’ve been singing along with your records all my life’ and I just started losing it. It was awful, but he took it all in stride.”
Can you talk a little about your first recording, Blues, not Blues? “The best thing to come out of Blues, not Blues, I got to be Earl Thomas and I’ve got a lifelong friend in Philip Wooton. Because, if I hadn’t done that, if that all hadn’t happened, I’d be a tenured college professor right now or elementary school teacher. Because of Blues, not Blues, I learned a great deal about myself and my fellow man. I’ve met so many people around the world, from all walks of life and all nationalities; I’ve really got a broad perspective. I had one going in, but now I really do which is why I think part of the reason I’ve been so successful going into other cultures and fitting in immediately. People know, maybe from my body language, people know I’m an open person.”
You’re writing seems to connect with so many people, why do you think that is? “My writing,” he pauses. “I don’t consider myself really… a songwriter. All of my songs have just come out without me having to do anything. I’m sure Stevie Nicks sits in a white room with flowing curtains and the wind blowing and incense burning and a candle. I don’t do that, I don’t journal… I don’t do that! Every song I’ve ever written just comes to me [snaps fingers] just like that. ‘I Sing the Blues,’ the songs that Solomon Burke did, the song that Screamin’ Jay Hawkins did, I did that one in the studio. One of the greatest songs I did was a song called, ‘I’ll be Here,’ which Solomon Burke recorded. It was about a conversation that I had with Alicia Aragon Lieberman, Eric’s wife, back in 1987-88. Alicia was telling me that she had a conversation with Eric and she said, ‘I told him…bla-bla-bla-blabla-bla.’ And I go, ‘Wow, that would make a good song.’ And we kept talking and then all of sudden I went, ‘Excuse me!’ and went outside to the payphone that was out in front of Winston’s and I called my answering machine, you remember those? [laughing] And I said, [singing] ‘If you get tired of running around and you feel like you might want to settle down, think about me, remember what I said, I’ll be here, I’ll be right here.’ And the entire conversation that she and I had I sang into my answering machine, put it on the record and Solomon Burke recorded it… and told me, ‘You are a very special guy, man.’”
Thomas says his lifelong love of Shakespeare and being class clown both play a part in his songwriting. “My ability to play with words is a great gift, I think. My songs are almost always autobiographical; I have to have the experience. In fact, I did a song with Heine [Andersen] called ‘I Love You No Less.’ Everything in that song hadn’t happened to me, that was a full on ‘I wonder what it would be like if?’ Well I found out what it would be like and then it occurred to me that in order for me to sing in truth, I would need to have had the experience. So when I sing ‘I Love You No Less’ I’m telling the truth to the audience.”
You have a regular gig at Biscuits and Blues in San Francisco… “I call it my residency, it’s my Winston’s! We built an audience and I just love the cabaret aspect of it. It’s a small intimate room, I can tell my jokes, my little stand-up, you know? I do bits for certain songs… here’s the deal. I’m the first openly gay bluesman in the history of the art form and I don’t even know if there are any others, but I’m sure there are. But I’m the only one who publicly… I’m married to a man. As soon as they changed the law, Michael and I who have been together for 18 years, we got married, okay? This art form, if you pardon my French, is a misogynistic, chasing pussy art form, it really is. But you’ve got a gay guy called Earl Thomas here, that you can’t deny and you can’t ignore. And I’m as tough as any of these hetero boys; I always was ever since the playground. So, here’s an openly gay man, completely unafraid; now on stage when I do my show, I’m just a man. I don’t sing about my life with my man but I also don’t sing about my life with my woman. I sing only songs that everyone can relate to. My songs are all genderless. I’ll do anything that YOU want me to do, not what she or he wants me to do. But anybody can relate. I choose material that everyone can relate to if I cover a song. Like I do Etta James’ song ‘I’d Rather Go Blind.’ Who can’t relate to that? And that’s my showstopper, by the way.”
You’ve worked with so many different artists, including the legendary B.B. King. “B.B.King was the kindest… [Thomas pauses] B.B.King and Albert Collins were the two men in the blues who completely supported my whole thing. I get it, there’s a bit of homophobia in some people, whatever. I could give a shit, but the thing is B.B. King and Albert Collins completely overlooked that and totally gave me encouragement. I was doing a show in Bellinzona, Switzerland, I did my show, Missy [Andersen] was actually one of the Jezebels on that show. So, we’re all back stage after the show and I see Keb Mo, who’s like seven feet tall and he’s walking toward us. But I don’t think he’s coming to talk to me, and I know Kevin, we know each other, but I don’t think he’s coming over to talk to me. But he comes right at me and says, ‘Earl, come with me… hurry!’ I go, ‘Oh, okay.’ I have no idea where we’re going. I notice up on the stage is B.B. King; he’s sitting in the wings waiting to go on. And we’re walking up the stairs and I’m going, ‘Oh My God, we’re going up to…’ and B.B. is like totally smiling at me. And Keb says, ‘B.B. wants to meet you’ and I was like, ‘Oh My God!’ And I shook his hand and he goes, ‘Son, you took me to church. I really enjoyed your show.’ And I was like, Oh My God! This is B.B. King. And nobody had a camera.
“About a year and half later I’m in San Diego and they call me and ask if I would like to open for B.B. King at 4th and B? And I go, ‘Oh sure, of course!’ We go to 4th and B and they give us the rules, you can use the dressing room but as soon as B.B.’s entourage arrives you have to leave the dressing room and it’s for him. No problem. So we’re in the dressing room and they say, ‘Okay, B.B.’s bus just pulled up, you’ve got to leave.’ So we’re getting our stuff together and we’re walking out, and I hear this voice say, ‘Is that Earl Thomas?’ And I turn around and there’s B.B. King standing there in the doorway. And I’m freaked out… how can he remember me? This man meets thousands of people all the time but he remembered me. And he goes, ‘Oh Earl, hey man the last time I saw you was in Bellinzona, how’re you doing?’ We’ll we’re leaving because… ‘Oh no, are you kidding? You’re totally welcome here, get you something to eat, have something to drink.’ So we totally hung out.”
You’ve done a great deal of charitable work raising money for the new Blues Hall of Fame in Memphis. How did you get involved with them? “I was on the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise and I met Jay Sielemen and he was there collecting money on behalf of the Blues Foundation. First of all, why don’t I know about this? I was really upset. But now that I do know about it, I want to make a contribution. So I started putting together shows, I did the Belly Up and we raised a lot of money. It was brilliant. Then I did one in San Francisco, and another one in Portland.”
Just last month you put together another benefit for the Blues HOF, did you change it up any from the previous shows? “I did four concerts last year and at each show we did a different theme. The last one at the Belly Up we did ‘Non-blues Singers Singing the Blues’ and I had Eve Selis, Gregory Page, Rockola, Berkley Hart, and others all doing a blues set. It was brilliant! This time we did ‘Broadway Sings the Blues for the Blues Foundation’ and I recruited several popular musical theatre and cabaret singers. Janice Edwards, Kenny Ard, Jon Monahan, Sharifah Muhammed, Trena Steward, Nathan Fry, Andy Anderson, Janet Hammer, Jesse Johnson, Nathan James, and, of course, Tribal Love Party and me. It was a true Broadway Salute to the Blues.”
What’s next on the Earl Thomas projects calendar? “I’ve got several things in the pipeline. There is the new live recording with ‘The Royal Guard,’ my band from London. There is the Blues Cabaret, an exciting project that I’m doing with my buddy Dave Fleschner out of Portland that features two other fantastic singers performing songs written by Dave, in a cabaret style. I also have a duets album that I am working on with many of my favorite singers and artists. I’ve got John Nemeth, Will Wilde (UK), Deitra Farr (Chicago)… and then there’s the Ike and Tina songbook!
“The ITT Songbook is the most important work of my life and I’m playing with the Kings of Rhythm. This was the last band Ike Turner put together and they were all with him when he passed away. It features Bill Ray on drums, bassist Armando Cepeda, Seth Panderuga on guitar, Rev. Paul Smith on Hammond organ, sax man Ryan Montana, trumpet player Jack Taylor, and Bob Dowell on trombone. And we’re doing, ‘Funkier than a Mosquito’s Tweeter,’ ‘River Deep Mountain High,’ ‘Nutbush,’ and ‘Baby Get It On,’ just to name a few.
“I started singing because of Ike and Tina. And after seeing them in the movie Soul to Soul I just knew I wanted to be a singer. And I studied Ike and Tina. Every artist has someone they connect with and for me it was Ike and Tina. It is my honor to do these songs and especially with this band. It is like singing along with my old Ike and Tina Turner records!” Ever the perfectionist and to ensure the right mindset Earl adds; “I even went to Nutbush and hung out for a day at the Tina Turner Museum. That was surreal.”
For the very latest on Earl Thomas, tours, benefits and music updates check out www.earlthomasmusic.com