Earl Thomas comes to Memphis International with an album of pure soul that underscores his established ability as a songwriter but more importantly, as the legendary producer Jerry Wexler points out, as a consummate singer. Earl Thomas, now based in San Diego, California, was born and raised in tiny Pikeville, Tennessee. He’s been wowing audiences on the west coast and on the festival circuit in Europe, as well, with his direct approach that is one part Sam Cooke, one part Otis Redding, one part Al Green and ten parts Earl Thomas.
His songs have been recorded by Etta James, Solomon Burke and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Fleetwood Mac founder Peter Green. Naturally, he had a hand in most of the material on Soul’d! the album that he produced with Memphis International partner David Less. Recorded in California and Memphis, it represents a return to the Southern soul tradition that’s been sorely lacking of late. The album includes such “burners” as “I’ll Love You No Less,” “First & Last Thing On My Mind,” “Stronger Than My Flame,” originals penned by Earl, as well as his take on Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind” and Howard Tate’s “Look At Granny Run Run.”
The die was cast long ago for Earl who was born into a musical family back in East Tennessee. Jewell Bridgeman, his mother, was a gospel singer in the Clara Ward mode who formed a long running quartet with her cousins at the age of five. Earl’s father a/k/a Earl “T”, was a full-fledged harp playing blues singer a la Little Walter. “He could have been as good as any bluesman out there but he decided to have a real job and raise a family but he turned me onto rock ‘n roll as well as blues.” .. And lots of soul, too. Earl grew up listening to Bobby Blue Bland, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, all the Stax records, the artists and repertoire that he refers to as “the language of our people.”
When he was ten or eleven, Earl “T” took his son to the movies and things were never the same. “My dad took me to see the film Soul To Soul where American performers took their act to Ghana.” The film opens with Ike and Tina Turner performing the title song. Earl was completely galvanized, “I turned to my dad and said ‘that’s what I want to do.’” Earl was inspired beyond belief and immediately thereafter went into training for his future career. He’d come home from school and, before tackling his homework, would put on a show for the furniture. He used a candlestick as a microphone. Years later, that training paid off for Earl who notes, “When I finally got on stage for real, I really felt at home and now when I’m on stage, I feel like I’m in my living room.”
Earl toyed with various musical directions in his head, “I wanted to be a rock singer but more soulful, to take rock ‘n roll songs back to the blues. I wanted to take white music and bring it to a black audience.” He listened to the eclectic mix of music offered by the local Knoxville AM station, soaking it all up -- everything from Rod Stewart to Wilson Pickett to Rolling Stones to Ike and Tina.
After a stint in the US Navy, he attended Humboldt State University in California where he received his first formal musical training. He was a voice major and held his own with classical repertoire (“I’m a big Bartok fan – he was the Frank Zappa of classic music”) including opera. His LaScala career was nipped in the bud by the fact that his approximation of Wilson Pickett’s screaming vocal style effectively changed his high-pitched Smokey Robinson styled - tenor into the grittier sounding instrument he wields with such authority on Soul’d!
Following graduation, he moved to San Diego and began his professional music career. Soon, he was hired on as the singer with a happening local band called The Rhumboogies after he sat in with the group and wowed them with Bobby Bland’s “I Smell Trouble.” Months later, he knew he had arrived when he overheard some girls talking about seeing “Earl Thomas” rather than “The Rhumboogies.” Ultimately, jealousies within the band forced him to strike out on his own.
He soon put together Earl Thomas and The Blues Ambassadors. It was a delta blues band, doing the Robert Johnson songbook, using a strictly acoustic approach -- stand up bass, Dobro, snare drum, harmonica. Their main performance venue was the corner of Prospect and Herschel in LaJolla. Earl handed down an edict to his band mates: always wear a suit and tie and keep your shoes shined. “We wanted to look like we didn’t need the money.” His ploy and their great music worked: each of the five band members could make as much as $200 a night on handouts from people on their way to or from dinner at one of the fancy restaurants in the neighborhood.
Earl Thomas and The Blues Ambassadors went electric when their Dobro player left for law school and a chance to record came thereafter. An album that would be later entitled “Blue...Not Blues” was released on Bizarre Records that included one of Earl’s original songs, “I Sing The Blues.” Claude Nobs, Montreux Jazz Festival impresario, caught wind of it and passed it onto Jerry Wexler who proceeded to cut it with Etta James who kicked off her Elektra album, The Right Time, with Earl’s song.
It didn’t dawn on Earl just how monumental this was until sometime later when he saw Etta perform the song on a CNN news profile. Earl was in a hotel room in Norway when he exclaimed out loud “Oh my God, Etta James is singing my song on CNN!” Later it was used in an episode of the hit TV series “E.R.” which confirmed that Earl had arrived as a songwriter. “When someone like Etta James – as if there was someone else like her – does your song, it legitimizes you as an artist.” He got even more legit as Solomon Burke sang three Earl Thomas songs on his Homeland album, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins recorded Earl’s “I Am The Cool” and Fleetwood Mac founder Peter Green covered “I Sing The Blues.”
Songwriting represents validation for Earl but performing and singing is at the core of his being. He really has no choice in this, explaining, “The writer has to write, the painter has to paint and I have to sing. It’s proven to me time and time again that this is what God wants me to do,” adding, “musicians and artists are mediums, we connect people with the Divine.”
Earl Thomas is a dynamic presence, an explosion of energy and heartfelt abandon. Against all odds, great soul music is back thanks to Earl Thomas and Soul’d!
|Release Date||Nov 23, 2015|
|Record Label||Memphis International Records|
|Number of Discs||1|
|Box Lot Quantity||30|