Sunday, June 21, 2009

Lafayette "The Thing" Thomas

The Thing demonstrates how to keep white shoes clean while playing. Jerhl was his middle name, but why did they call him "The Thing"? Killer 1957 instrumental. The Thing gets top billing on this 1955 b-side. Lafayette "The Thing" Thomas was a guitarist who sure knew how to liven up a record. His style has been described as "incendiary", as good an adjective to describe his playing as any I could think up. All but forgotten today, he appeared on dozens of records in the fifties and sixties, most prominently those of Jimmy McCracklin & his Blues Blasters whom he spent fifteen years with, as well as the best releases on the Oakland, California based Irma label, a handful of solo releases, and a smattering of other sides scattered over a bewildering variety of indie labels. There's not a whole helluva lot of information on Lafayette Thomas. He was born in Shreveport, Louisiana on June 13, 1928 (a Gemini, like me), there's a nineteen year gap before our next sighting of the one who would be called, for reasons that seem lost to time, The Thing. In 1948 he was living in San Francisco. He started out playing a steel guitar, he saved up for his first regular electric guitar by working at the American Can Company. He began his career he gigging around the Bay Area with Al Simmons, Little Bob Young, and Bob Geddins' Cavaliers. His first recordings were with Geddins' and with R&B shouter Jimmy Wilson for the tiny Cave Tone label, the first of many labels Bob Geddins would own. These 78's are so rare I've never heard them, but you can look at them, as some candidate for canonization has seen fit to devote a page of cyberspace to an illustrated discography of our subject de jour. Somehow, The Thing shows up in Memphis in 1951, were he recorded his first solo record for producer Sam Phillips, who leased the sides to Chess in Chicago. Sam's Drag b/w Baby Take A Chance With Me were released under the name L.J. Thomas and his Louisiana Playboys on Chess in '52. The a-side was a wonderfully primitive guitar instrumental with plenty of the speaker blowing distortion that Sam Phillips loved so much.The flip was a vocal blues, in fact it still is. Try finding an original copy today. Soon he was back in the Bay Area, working at a joint on Filmore Street called the House Of Joy where he caught the ear of piano pounding rocker Jimmy McCracklin, whose band the Blues Blasters he joined in 1951. With McCracklin he would record for Swing Time, Modern, Peacock, Irma, Art-Tone, Checker and Mercury, producing more good records than any sane person can count. Some highlights of his early years with McCracklin include Blues Blaster Boogie (Peacock), Blues Blaster Shuffle (Modern), Josephine (Modern) , Beer Tavern (Irma), She's Gone (Peacock), The Swinging Thing (Peacock) and You're The One (Irma). He also recorded solo sides, the next, which appeared the ridiculously obscure Trilyte label was a brilliant instrumental called The Thing b/w Weekly Blues in 1955. Another appeared in 1957 on Bob Geddins' Jumping label -- Cockroach Run, a killer guitar romp that was so low budget it didn't even have a b-side (a goofy comedy break in called The Trial was used as the flip). Don Robey's Peacock label in Houston recorded him as a leader after a McCracklin session with the blazing Jumpin' In The Heart Of Town and Standing In The Doorway Crying but these, probably his finest solo recordings were left in the vault to rot until the U.K. Ace label salvaged them and released them in 1987 on the LP Bay Area Blues Blasters (Ace 224) which featured a photo of The Thing himself wielding a Stratocaster as if it were a battle axe. In these years he played lots of sessions in the Bay Area, working for producers Bob Geddins (Art Tone, Irma, Big Town, Oak City, and others) or Ollie Hunt (Trilyte, Olliet, Oliver and Scotty's Radio). Hunt paid him $128 a week at a time when session union scale was $44.25 for a four hour session. We can assume that not many people bought these records as they're rare as hell. Point in question, this rockin' monster by Texan, Juke Boy Bonner (mis-spelled Barner on the label)-- Rock With Me Baby b/w Well Baby (Irma), one of the greatest rockin' blues sides ever recorded, Thomas sounds like his guitar has barbed wire strings. Collector Dick Blackburn says that less than ten copies are known to have survived*. Some of the best of Lafayette Thomas' playing can be heard on these mid-50's recordings like Jimmy Wilson's Big Town recording like Oh Red and Tell Me on which he solos. He also appears up on this classic by bad ass Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thorton-- Big Mama's Comin' b/w Don't Talk Back (Irma). Meanwhile, Jimmy McCracklin finally hit paydirt with the smash hit-- The Walk on Chess subsidiary Checker in 1957 which featured Thomas' classic guitar lick. McCracklin cut a handful of rockin' singles and an LP for Checker (in fact, the Japanese re-issue of the LP adds the words "featuring Lafayette Thomas" to the cover) in 1957-58. My favorites are Everybody Rock b/w Get Tough, and this instrumental LP track Trottin'. Checker also recorded Lafayette solo on this great track which remained in the vault until the 1980's when it showed up on the aforementioned Japanese album-- Claim On You. In '58 McCracklin moved to Mercury Records, recording another batch of excellent singles in the same mold as The Walk, Georgia Slop being the best of the batch. Although no discography credits Thomas on the McCracklin Mercury sides, anyone with ears can hear it is him. He seems to have left McCracklin's band somewhere around this time. McCracklin would go on to have hits on Geddins' Art Tone (including Just Got To Know a #2 R&B in '61) and Imperial (Think, #7 R&B in '65) and release over thirty albums and hundreds of singles spread out over dozens of labels. In fact, he's still at it. Around '59 or '60 Lafayette Thomas moved to New York City briefly, working with rockin' pianist Sam Price he cut one excellent single for Savoy-- Lafayette's A Comin' b/w Please Come Back, he also played on two Prestige LP's with Little Brother Montgomery, played in Memphis Slim's band for awhile then returned to the Bay Area for good. By the mid-sixties work was getting scarce and he took various jobs outside of music, including working in a factory assembling hoses. He was signed by Liberty subsidiary World Pacific and cut some sides with blues pedal steel player L.C. Robinson in '68, he can be heard on the Arhoolie LP Oakland Blues, his final job was backing up Sugar Pie DeSanto whose 1972 single Hello San Francisco was his last recording. At this point music was a sideline for Lafayette Thomas. In the early 70's he made some blues festival appearances and then 1977, only 48 years old, he dropped dead of a heart attack. Today he's mostly forgotten except for me, Jimmy McCracklin and the guy with illustrated discography web page. So what? Who cares? That was fifty years ago! Why do I keep digging out these obscure names and writing this swill? I asked myself these questions while I'm logging the tunes onto this page for anyone who wants to hear (or download) 'em. I mean, I already have the records, I can hear 'em whenever I want. I guess I'm still amazed at how many incredible, unique characters were out there that could channel their personal idiosyncrasies through rock'n'roll. It sometimes astounds me how many great records there are to hear. Like a bottomless well of great, wild records that only a handful of people have heard. Sadly, the well seems to have dried up sometime around the mid-sixties. In a way, there's probably more good guitar players around today as ever, but good as in technically proficient, the wrong kind of good, because unfortunately they all sound the same to these ears. I guess back before the corporate takeover of the music biz, the guys who ran these little labels were always looking for something new, something unique. Unique was Sam Phillips', the first to record Lafayette Thomas solo, mantra. Nowadays the knuckleheads in charge want everything to sound the same. Same drum beat--- just pick a setting on the machine (there's probably one built into your computer, there's one on mine), even the Rolling Stones do it, sample the drums that is, but it's the same with guitar players, a stage full of effects pedals don't help, it still sounds like the same shit. But these old guys, they all sounded different. Lafayette Thomas didn't sound anything like Ike Turner who didn't sound anything like Johnny Guitar Watson who didn't sound anything like Link Wray who didn't sound like Lowman Pauling....you get the picture. You hear one of these guys, none of 'em were technically great players, some of 'em can hardly play, and some of the best played out of tune (i.e. Chuck Berry) but you can recognize their sound in a second, it was them, their whole personality, all the bullshit in their lives, channeled through six strings and fed into a broken down amplifier. I guess that's the so called point of all this. And that's what I like about driving myself crazy trying to find every record Lafayette Thomas played a guitar solo on. *The quote from Dick Blackburn about the rariety of the Juke Boy Barner Irma 45 comes from Angel Baby's radio show Lost In Paradise, which Blackburn appears on monthly. Angel Baby broadcasts live every Monday night at 7:30 PM PST and can be heard streaming or on podcast. If you want to hear some really rare and great records give a listen.

17 comments:

Bruce said...

Wow!
For an guitarist that you say there's not a lot of info on, you sure came up with the goods.
Thanks!

The Commoner said...

The hard work of putting all this together is MUCH appreciated. I used to listen at ya when I was growing up in NJ and now I do a weekly Roots-Slop show myself on a tiny low power station in Iowa. Stuff I get off this blog appears on a regular basis. I had a few tracks by Thomas (off the West Coast Guitar Killers LP), but this enriches my collection. Thanks for the proper intro the Lowman Pauling too. Also, the cheap cans of beer at the Lakeside. Thanks for it all.

Bob Pomeroy said...

"Why do I keep digging out these obscure names and writing this swill?"

It's for the rush you get from reading all our witty comments, right?

Jumpy said...

Great rant there at the end, Jim! I half expected you to finish up by saying, "That's it, no more, I quit."
PJL

The Hound said...

"It's for the rush you get from reading all our witty comments, right?"

actually I'm im it for the money.....

The RedBoy said...

"actually I'm im it for the money....."

Me too! Anybody got any to spare?

the family cat said...

yes maybe not "technically proficient" but shambolic-which is more interesting.I didn't know Chuck Berry played out of tune but maybe that's why his records were so great.
Its like all the high school pop of the 60s-if the studio thought of using girls on bvs and it was a small label they would send out to the local high school as it cost nothing!
Usually the girls were flat as Hell but so what-listen to the girl singers on Thomas Wayne's Tragedy and Saturday Date or J Frank Wilson's Last kiss or those Kenny Dino hits

The Hound said...

".I didn't know Chuck Berry played out of tune "

He always tuned his b string a half step or so flat, I assume this was by design since it's pretty much always like that, except when his entire guitar is out of tune like the last couple of times I saw him play.

Louisiana Dan said...

I came upon this article after Chris Brown turned me on to it (thanks Chris)...I performed with Lafayette Thomas's uncle, Jesse Thomas for 13 years. Jesse made his first recording in 1929 and passed away in 1995. Jesse's older (possibly more well known) brother was Ramblin' Willard Thomas.

The Hound said...

"I performed with Lafayette Thomas's uncle, Jesse Thomas for 13 years. "

I didn't realize they were related. I have a 78 by Jesse Thomas on Modern--Texas Blues b/w Gonna Write You A Letter. Great record. I know he recorded for quite a few labels, one record I've been looking for is Bacon and Eggs on Hollywood (a Louisiana label, despite the name). Thanks for the info, someday I hope to piece the entire story of The Thing together.

Gene Casey said...

One wonders how often the Chess Bros. bothered to tune the piano being pounded by cats like Otis Spann, Lafayette Leake (what a great name!), and Johnnie Johnson. It rarely matters, though on the Chuck sides (except for "Rockin at the Philharmonic" maybe). HOUND, this was one of the best blogs ever. Talk about "Unsung Heroes of Rock & Roll" -- guys like Lafayette "the Thing Thomas and Jimmy Spruill are virtually UNUTTERED heroes. Thanks.

The Hound said...

" how often the Chess Bros. bothered to tune the piano being pounded by cats like Otis Spann, Lafayette Leake (what a great name!), and Johnnie Johnson."

Actually, it turns out that a lot of the great records
made by Chess in the fifties where done at Universal Recorders in Chicago, which is why they sounded so great. 2110 Michigan was built later, and the original office had a studio in it but after the first hits, used often for demos and as practice space. What I want to know is what's the first 45 RPM issued by Chess?
Anybody know? I have a 45 silver top pressing of Rocket 88 but I assume it was pressed much later.

Gene Casey said...

Hound -- true enough. If the "Temples of Sound" book is to be trusted, Chess sessions hailed from various studios (not to mention the Sam Phillips recordings and others they leased). Surprising, too, to learn that all those New Orleans classics hailed from three different Cosima Mattasa studios. And thank you for not mentioning "Cadillac Records" much at the Blog, as that film makes me homicidal.

Tim "Napalm" Stegall said...

Why do you do this, you ask? So the rest of us heathens can get a little joy out of life, through unfiltered, real goodness. You're doing God's work, Jim. Please keep doing so. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Incredible work - Thing's one of the greats, for sure. A favor? The target file for McCracklin's "Take A Chance" is the Sun recording by L.J. Thomas. Can you put up the McCracklin cut?

A million thanks!

The Hound said...

"The target file for McCracklin's "Take A Chance" is the Sun recording by L.J. Thomas. Can you put up the McCracklin cut?"
I messed that up, but I'm out of NYC for a few days, I'll try and add it when I get back, for now I'm just removing the link. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

The Thing was a movie, 1956, a science fiction epic starring James Arness. Lafayette cut that instrumental which got named The Thing to capitalize on the movie's name. That's what I read somewhere, anyway. Lafayette Thomas was also said to have had some influence on B.B.King. You can surely hear Lafayette sounding like B.B. singing, but I had heard the influence was guitar pointers to B.B. Thanks for keeping Lafayette Thomas' memory alive..one more thing, Sugar Pie DeSanto told me Lafayette would cut the ends of his shoes off so he could play with his toes!

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