Smokestack Lightnin' Home Page -- The Blues Profile Page
Singer Mickey Thomas has a couple of notable pop culture memories on his extensive resume: during the 1970s, he sang with the Elvin Bishop Band, and it's his voice that you hear on their monster 1975 hit "Fooled Around and Fell In Love," a song that has lived on through its use in TV shows and movie soundtracks. Thomas was also the frontman for 1980s-era hitmakers Jefferson Starship (later just 'Starship'), the band enjoying a long run as AOR stadium rockers with chart-topping songs like "Jane" and "We Built This City." Those cultural touchstones aside, Thomas has forged a lengthy career that has spanned five decades and seen him bring his unique voice to rock, soul, blues, and gospel music through the years.
Thus, it seemed only natural that, when guitarist and producer Tim Tucker asked him to sing some songs with his Bluesmasters band, Thomas would jump in with both feet. The collaboration resulted in The Bluesmasters featuring Mickey Thomas, the album representing a return to the blues, soul, and R&B music that Thomas grew up with in Georgia. Joining the Bluesmasters How did Thomas get involved with the Bluesmasters? "I was introduced to the project by Tim Tucker," he says, "who produced the record and is the mastermind behind the Bluesmasters. The project was evolving, going through some changes, and he invited me in to sing on a couple of songs. I did that, and it went really well, so he said 'how about a couple more,' so we just started blazing through tunes. The first batch, I sang maybe six or seven songs, and we did that periodically in maybe three recording sessions spread out over six or nine months. The ones that I captured the vocal really quickly, in one or two takes, are the ones that made the record." As they got deeper into the project, Thomas ended up getting involved in the album's song selection. "A lot of the songs had been recorded before I became involved," he remembers, "but as we got into it, Tim and I would talk about certain blues tunes, and we recorded some of the ones that I'd suggested." What were some of the songs that Thomas wanted to record with the band? "'Rock Me Baby' is a song that I've been singing since the late 1960s, early-70s, with bar bands I was in, so it was close to my heart. We decided on re-recording 'Fooled Around and Fell In Love' in a slightly bluesier take, with the harp in it...'Over Yonder Wall' is one of my favorites, it has a little more of a gospel edge to it, that's what attracted me to that one."
Raised On Rhythm & Blues Thomas' roots are in the music of the South. "I grew up in South Georgia in the 1960s, so I was exposed to a lot of great rhythm & blues music, soul music we called it," says Thomas. "I was greatly influenced by Otis [Redding], Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett, and Aretha Franklin...so it was rhythm & blues music, and sometimes it's hard to separate the rhythm from the blues, so I think that R&B music basically is blues music." For an artist as strongly associated with rock music as Thomas, his career began in an entirely different direction. "I had the great fortune of meeting this gospel singer named Gideon Daniels in the early-70s," he says, "and I spent a year singing with Gideon and his band. Gideon really taught me how to sing, and showed me that the origins of a lot of the great soul singers of that time were in gospel music, most of them had grown up singing in the church. That helped me form my own vocal styling at that point in time, trying to emulate Gideon. That led me to the Elvin Bishop Band, where I was really exposed to the blues." The Elvin Bishop Band Blues and roots-music fans will remember Thomas primarily for his association with guitarist Elvin Bishop. Thomas joined the band in time to record Bishop's 1975 album Struttin' My Stuff and hung around through the live 1978 album Raisin' Hell. "I got hooked up with Elvin through my relationship with Gideon," Thomas remembers, "he and Elvin were good friends, and Gideon would go down and jam with Elvin when he'd be playing the clubs in San Francisco. I would sit-in on some of these jam sessions, and sometimes we ended up going back and continuing to jam at Elvin's apartment until the wee hours of the morning. So I met Elvin through Gideon, and that gave me the opportunity, a couple of years later, to join the Elvin Bishop Band." "Once I got in Elvin's bandů
Elvin musically explored all kinds of roots music, American music whether it was blues or gospel, soul music or country, all kinds of music, so it was a great learning experience," says Thomas. What is his best memory of singing with the Elvin Bishop Band? "Recording 'Fooled Around and Fell In Love,' which kind of spontaneously happened in the studio," he remembers. "We were making the first album that I was involved with, called Struttin' My Stuff. We were finishing up the album, we had recorded all the tracks, and the producer said 'we seem to be missing something to round out that album. Do you have anything else?' I suggested 'Fool Around and Fell In Love' because I had heard Elvin play it a couple of years earlier, back in his apartment. So it was a last minute thing, and the producer suggested that I sing it since I had suggested it, and we got it in one or two takes, really fast." Fooled Around and Fell In Love In the 35 years since its release, "Fooled Around and Fell In Love" has become ubiquitous on classic rock radio, appearing on dozens of compilation albums and movie soundtracks, and has been covered by rock and country artists alike. The song also proved to be Bishop's biggest hit, and it opened doors for the hard-working band. "We were on the road constantly," says Thomas of the era, "we got to do a lot of jamming and hanging out; we did a lot of shows with Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Marshall Tucker Band, Z.Z. Top, the Allman Brothers...
I feel like I did my graduate work with the Elvin Bishop Band. It was an exciting time for music. We played everything from stadiums to bars." "It's a great love song," says Thomas of "Fooled Around and Fell In Love," "to this day, it's one of those songs where I get people that come up to me saying 'we heard that song when we were on our first date,' or 'that was the song that we played at our wedding,' so it suits a lot of romantic occasions." What did Thomas think of re-recording it with the Bluesmasters? "It was fun," says Thomas. "I still include the song in my live shows, so I've been continuously performing it live. It felt natural to re-record it with a little bluesier intent. When we originally recorded it, we might have been trying to step outside of the blues, expand Elvin's musical horizons, and make it sound more like a pop song. So it was neat to go back after all these years and make it bluesier." Riding The Starship After leaving the Elvin Bishop Band, Thomas saw his solo career sidetracked by a random phone call. "Like so many things that have happened in my life, it was a twist of fate," says Thomas of joining the Jefferson Starship. "I had left the Elvin Bishop Band and was getting ready to go down to Miami to pursue a solo career. I got a phone call from Jefferson Starship asking if I'd be interested in singing with the band. I didn't know a whole lot about them, I knew who they were and I knew some of the hits, but I can't say that I was much of a fan.
My musical intentions were completely different, but the way they laid it out for me...Grace [Slick] and Marty [Balin] had both left the band, drummer John Barbata had been in a really bad car crash, so he was out of actionůso the remaining members had decided to carry on, but really changing the band and taking a new approach to the music." "Aynsley Dunbar had just been hired on drums," Thomas says, and the addition of the former Bluesbreakers drummer "influenced my decision to join because I thought that it would be neat to be in a band with Aynsley" (who is also currently the Bluesmasters drummer). So after jamming with them a little bit, it was almost like a new band, starting out from scratch. I just tried to apply my musical style that I had developed with the Elvin Bishop Band to the harder-edged rock 'n' roll that the band was writing at the time, and it seemed to work out alright." Burning Up The Charts "The first few years with the Jefferson Starship, we hit it pretty heavy," says Thomas, and the band scored hits like "Jane," "Find Your Way Back," and "Laying It On The Line." Remembers Thomas, "it wasn't really until the mid-80s that we made a conscious decision to try and make a more commercial album, bring in a different producer, and use some of the new recording techniques that were just coming into play...sampling, and sequencers, synclaviers, and stuff like that. I guess it worked out too well for us," he remembers, "we had a string of number one singles which was awesome, but we never had any idea that something that incredible would happen." Jefferson Starship, even before its evolution into just plain 'Starship' in 1985, had rarely found an audience with the music press. "In the minds of the critics, it was something of a 'sell out'," says Thomas of the band's commercial fortunes, "so the hit singles were a double-edged sword...but I'll take them!" Thomas says, "when you're in the middle of making" the songs, "you're not thinking, 'well, it's time to sell out!'
The music was reflecting the influences, the things I was listening to at the time." Several Jefferson Starship songs have since become classic rock radio staples. "The songs have staying power," says Thomas, "I've noticed that people in their early 20s are discovering 1980s rock, so we're seeing a lot of younger fans in the audience that are interested in Journey, Foreigner, Starship...it seems to be quite popular with twenty-somethings."
The Bluesmasters featuring Mickey Thomas
How has the response been to The Bluesmasters featuring Mickey Thomas album? "Honestly, it's been great," says Thomas. "I didn't realize that there were so many blues stations out there that played strictly blues music...we're getting a lot of airplay on the blues stations, the reviews have been great. It's been kind of surprising," he adds, laughing, "after all those years in the Starship, I'm not used to seeing good reviews. There's something to be said for getting back to your roots, creating something that is true to your heart."
Will we be seeing a second collaboration between Mickey Thomas and the Bluesmasters? "Absolutely!" he says with certainty, "we're planning it, we're already talking about songs, so there's definitely going to be a Bluesmasters two, and maybe later this year, a Bluesmasters tour, which I'd very interested in doing." (Phone interview, 04/29/10)