“Leon is a singer beyond category”
- Nat Hentoff, music historian and critic
Hearing Leon Thomas for the first time, the uninitiated may not quite appreciate Leon Thomas’ vocal gymnastics. That is, he might start out innocently enough in a straight-ahead Blues / Jazz dialect only to suddenly launch into a stretch of scatting, warbling, growling, yodelling that might seem incongruous with the song at hand. Indeed, it’s a stretch for the casual listener to understand that Thomas doing so serves not only as an example of his unique vocal skills, but also demonstrates his intention of continually expanding the possibilities of the human voice.
I can relate personally to this scenario upon introduction to Leon Thomas’ music. I knew of Leon Thomas in name only when I picked up a copy of Leon Thomas In Berlin in late 1971. I bought it for the most unmusical of reasons – I thought the album cover looked interesting. I knew virtually nothing about Thomas let alone anything about the quintet backing him, led by Oliver Nelson on alto sax. In my search for something new and different from my usual preference for Blues / R&B / Soul, suffice to say that I was drawn in by Leon Thomas’ soulful voice. And, the album, in general, was an intriguing eye opener that led to me buying more Leon Thomas albums.
Digging deeper, I found that listening to Leon Thomas and reading about him and his musical direction brought to light a transitional artist who moved from an excellent Blues steeped singer to one that went on to be part of the front line of avant-garde Jazz, incorporating a certain spirituality. That being said, this article tracks Thomas’ path to being “one of the most distinctive and powerful voices in modern music”**
** quote source unknown
Amos Leon Thomas, (or Amos Leone Jr; as cited in some accounts), was born on October 4, 1937 in the industrial town of East St. Louis Illinois. (Incidentally, Miles Davis, a Thomas influence, spent his formative years in East St. Louis). To provide some context, this was at the height of the Great Depression; at a time of high unemployment especially among the Black community.
The Thomas family made do with what they had. Leon recalls having a somewhat typical childhood and growing up in a house where music was always all around. His parents sang in the church choir, and their record collection included all of kinds of music. As Thomas said, “There were a lot of old things around. Recordings going all the way back to Blind Lemon Jefferson”. The records left an impression on Thomas and steered him from an athletic pastime, (track & field, baseball, and basketball), to one of singing. Influenced at the time by the big band singers such as Billy Eckstein, Arthur Prysock, and B.B. King, Thomas capitalized on opportunities to sing whether it be in the school choir, with friends, or on his own.
One such opportunity presented itself when the 16 year old Thomas started hawking the local clubs. At one of those clubs, he happened to catch and meet Latin percussion master Armando Perazza. After introductions, and learning that Thomas was a singer, Perazza invited him to sit in with his band. This led to not only regular appearances at the club, but also catching the eye and ear of prominent DJ Spider Burks**. Burks was immediately taken with his formatively unique vocal style and intuitive command of Jazz melodies. Accordingly, Burks offered him a spot on his radio show where Thomas sang a new song live on the air for several weeks to an already committed audience. It proved to be a confidence booster, served as significant personal promotion, and cemented Thomas’ plans to sing professionally.
** Jesse Dillon “Spider” Burks was a radio show host for KXLW in East St. Louis. KXLW championed Jazz radio, and Burks, one of the first Black DJ’s in East St. Louis, in turn, was very influential in the Jazz world
After attending Tennessee State University – where he studied music and drama, and played gigs in the surrounding area with a band that included future Ray Charles sideman Hank Crawford on sax – Thomas returned home and continued to play local dates. After witnessing a Thomas performance, R&B and Gospel singer Faye Adams encouraged him to go to New York City and try his luck there. Adams also offered to help with contacts.
Heeding Adams’ advice, Thomas landed in New York in 1959 and doors soon started to open for the 22 year old. Not long after his arrival, Thomas landed an Art Blakey led big band job at The Apollo Theatre. Suitably impressed, Blakey, a drummer at the vanguard on the emerging Hard Bop genre, took Thomas on the road with him. Subsequently, calls started coming in from other band leaders including pianist Randy Weston and multi-instrumentalist Roland Kirk.
And there was more on the horizon. Leon ran into singer Joe Williams – who was nearing the end of a seven year stretch with Count Basie at the time – backstage at The Apollo. Williams told Thomas of his plans to leave Basie to go on his own, and suggested that Leon give Basie a call. Thomas did just that and started singing with the Basie band in January 1961. Thomas was in his new role for a month when he was called into the army, but he rejoined Basie upon his release in 1963. His ensuing two year stay with Basie would prove to be a major stepping stone in Thomas’ nascent career. That career, for all intents and purposes, began as a purely Blues / Jazz vocalist for Basie’s band. Thomas emerged from his time with Basie as a well known and well regarded commodity at 28 years of age. Thomas was now empowered to chart his own course in his quest for new challenges.
Thomas, as was his nature, was constantly listening, learning and searching. That searching led him to a short stay in L.A. that provided an invaluable musical experience and helped shape his views on both music in general and the human voice in particular. Thomas described his (well spent) time in L.A.: “I worked with members of UGMAA, (Underground Musicians and Artists Association). It was an extraordinary musical experience for me. They were really into the avant-garde, into freedom type music. And I began to hear all kinds of possibilities as I got rid of a lot of prejudices I had about the limitations of the voice”. Further, in L.A. Thomas learned to “stretch in all directions”.
It should be noted that an offshoot of this free, avant-garde Jazz was Spiritual Jazz or Astral Jazz – so named because it reflected a spiritual consciousness. This new Jazz subgenre was defined by saxophonist John Coltrane whose work centred on looking for ways to escape spiritually and soar free. Coltrane’s explanation of his playing, (where he generated an idea and continually improvised on it), was “like someone who started a sentence in the middle, and then going to the beginning and end at the same time”. It proved to be a style that was highly influential and adopted by a number of his followers. Leon Thomas was one of his admirers.
At this point in time Thomas was listening intently to King Pleasure, (born Clarence Beeks), a master of vocalese – the art of writing and tailoring a lyric to fit a well known instrumental – and especially Joe Carroll, a scat singer who performed with Bebop inventor Dizzy Gillespie. (Scatting is performing a vocal solo mimicking an instrument such as a trumpet or sax, and using whatever syllables and sounds the singer can call on to form a cohesive “solo”. Ella Fitzgerald and Anita O’Day were both quite adept at this art form). Thomas commented that “I found I could do what Carroll was doing but there was a little extra of my own”. He didn’t know what that “extra “was until he heard Coltrane: “Trane was running all those changes as was I, and he was also into something else – new ways of using sound to get deeper expression”.
Accordingly, incorporating both vocalese and scatting, a new Leon Thomas started to emerge. He combined Jazz and Blues sensibilities with a newly developed howl with a trilling quality that he referred to as “Soularphone”. He further characterized this mannerism as “an elastic throat articulation” that he believed was passed on to him by his ancestors. Thomas would use this new manner of vocalizing going forward. (Thomas’ vocal style wouldn’t go unnoticed in the Jazz community. In fact, Thomas’ innovative vocal tendencies served as a primary influence for future singers such as Bobby McFerrin).
Back home in New York in1968, Thomas got reacquainted with tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders who he had met previously in the East Village. Sanders, a Coltrane acolyte, was a dominant musician and composer. And coinciding with Thomas’ new musical direction, Sanders played a key role in the expansion of Free Jazz and Spiritual Jazz movements established by Coltrane.
Sanders recorded prolifically starting in 1965 though till his death in 2022. His high water mark is arguably Karma recorded in 1969. Karma is Sanders’ third release as a leader, and Thomas plays an integral role as the featured vocalist. It’s a work that consists of only two tracks, (both co-written with Thomas): the 32 minute “The Creator Has A Master Plan” and the five and a half minute “Colours”. Thomas and Sanders prove to be master improvisors, and the recording stands as a showcase for Leon’s wordless yodelling over band vamps. The album reinforced Sanders’ position in the Free Jazz / Spiritual Jazz stratum, and propelled Thomas to stardom. Although Thomas recorded first with Count Basie, and produced superlative work on his own, he is probably best known for his work with Pharoah Sanders, particularly for his contributions on Karma.
Buoyed by his successful experience with Pharoah Sanders, Thomas embarked on a solo career that included a number of recordings. It can be said that on all of the albums Thomas surrounded himself with “name’ top flight talent. Of the available releases, 5 on the Flying Dutchman imprint stand as a true testament to Thomas’ unique artistry:
Spirits Known And Unknown (1969)
The Leon Thomas Album (1970)
Leon Thomas In Berlin (!971)
Blues And The Soulful Truth (1972)
Full Circle (1973)
All are satisfying, genre expanding, excursions that are grounded in the best of what Blues and Jazz has to offer. As a footnote in his recording career, Thomas joined Santana for a year – and, in so doing, coincidentally reunited with Armando Perazza – in 1973. During his one year stint with the band Thomas was the featured vocalist on two of Santana’s finest records: Welcome and the live Lotus.
Leon Thomas lived out his last years in the Bronx and played regularly locally – usually at The Lenox Lounge in Harlem. He died of heart failure resulting from leukemia on May 8, 1999. Thomas was 61 years old.
Described in some circles as an experimental vocalist, Leon Thomas was a true pioneer. He led the way in combining the spirit of the Blues and mixing it with the most unconventional qualities of Jazz. It’s proved to be a lasting form that’s been copied but never duplicated.
A LEON THOMAS PLAYLIST
- The Creator Has A Master Plan
- Song For My Father
- Malcolm’s Gone
- Let The Rain Fall Down On Me
- Come Along
- Bag’s Groove
- Straight No Chaser
- Sweet Little Angel
- Just In Time To See The Sun
- It’s My Life I’m Fighting For
- Balance Of Life
- Let’s Go Down To Lucy’s
- Gypsy Queen
- Shape Your Mind To Die
- China Doll
- Love Devotion & Surrender (with Santana)
- When I Look Into Your Eyes (with Santana)
- Black Magic Woman (with Santana)
- Rico Ferrara, January 2023