THE MUSICAL AND PERSONAL HISTORY of ALLAN THOMAS
My musical adventure began in Brooklyn NY, when at the age of eight I started singing along to Sam Cooke on my dad’s car radio. The tune was his smash hit of the time ‘You Send Me’. The journey continued when at age twelve I joined an a capella vocal group called The Paramounts, in Sheepshead Bay. Enlisted as first tenor I quickly graduated to lead.
The next five years were dedicated to doo-wop singing groups including the Del-Chimes, and the Nitelites, out on the South Shore of Long Island. At seventeen I dropped out of the vocal group scene, and began making solo forays into Manhattan in hopes of being discovered as a singer – that being my only prospect at the time for as yet I was neither a songwriter or competent guitarist. One of my first stops would be 1650 Broadway, the Brill Building.
It was the one of the main music business office buildings in mid-town, and it was hallowed ground in the music world. Many of the big hits of the time were written in this very building, where teams of songwriters would be cranking out pop and R & B songs for some of the top black and white artists of the time. I’d walk in the building, start at the first floor and work my way upward, knocking on doors that had promising titles.
Surprisingly many of the young and good-natured publishers and record companies would open their doors to me, where-upon I would present myself as a singer looking for a start. As I couldn’t back myself on an instrument and blow them away right then and there, I had to convince them to hear me sing. Aside from singing A Cappella, it was difficult to get myself across, so I soon learned to make appointments for an audition, and came back armed with an accompanist, singing popular songs by the Drifters, or Marvin Gaye.
Some of those songs I tried to win their attention with were tunes were written right there in those tiny offices. Having to work with a backup player was cool, but ultimately costly, and limiting, so I knew it was time to dust off that old six-string I’d had since I was twelve, get serious, and learn to back my own vocals.
Something about the hammer-on’s and other cool guitar licks played by Curtis Mayfield of the R&B group the Impressions touched a nerve, and I was inexorably drawn down the road that guitar, with all it’s mystery and allure, presented to me, and that today some forty years later I still travel. The next year – 1966 – I signed my first recording contract with famed and eccentric south Texas producer Huey P. Meaux (The Crazy Cajun). Huey was known to have the magic touch with hit records, and was also known as a fast talker too. In his time he produced a string of great artists and hit records out of the south including Lightenin’ Hopkins, Big Mama Thornton, BJ Thomas, Freddy Fender, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sir Douglas Quintet, Johnny and Edgar Winter, and many more.
I auditioned for Mr. Meaux in the semi-dingy Peerless Hotel on West 45th street, playing my no-name electric guitar through a cheap amp, and singing I don’t remember what. He must have heard something special in my voice because within hours I was asking my parents permission to fly to Houston. Indeed in two weeks time I found myself at seventeen years old, on a flight out of Kennedy bound for Texas. Upon landing, Huey – then in his mid-forties – and his sixteen year old paramour, drove me to his recording complex on the outskirts of Houston Texas. In the course of ten days I recorded five tracks with the all-black band TV and the Tribesmen, and four tracks with BJ Thomas’ all-white backing band The Triumphs. Two singles were released out of these sessions:
The ode to fun in the summer ‘Summertime Monkeyshine’, and ‘Didn’t It Rain’. ‘Summertime Monkeyshine’ was released on Scepter Records, a small successful label based in NYC whose stable of artists included Chuck Jackson, Dionne Warwick, and the Shirells. ‘Didn’t It Rain’ was released on an obscure Texas label called Pablo Records. Nothing much came of the singles, radio or sales wise, but the experience further galvanized my increasing desire to make a name for myself – stake a claim for myself, maybe even find or define myself somewhere in the realm of music.
At age nineteen, inspired by a freshly broken heart, and the likes of Dylan and the Beatles, I began writing songs. Soon after, I became a denizen of the blossoming Greenwich Village coffee house scene, performing regularly on hoot nights at many intimate, dark, and cavernous clubs including The Gaslight, The Bitter End, and Cafe Feenjon. In 1969, after spending an eye-opening sixteen months in the New York prison system, for the heinous crime of telling an undercover agent where to get $7.00 worth of weed – which serendipitously enabled me to avoid both the draft, and the war in Vietnam – I left for the palm tree-laden warmth of LA California. There I played open-mic nights at The Troubadour and The Ashgrove, played regularly at the Attica Cafe in Santa Monica. I also traveled the US as rhythm guitarist for singer Lynn Kellogg of the Broadway play Hair fame.
1970 found me back in New York City honing my craft at the Greenwich Village coffee houses again. It was at a week long gig at The Gaslight on MacDougal Street when I was discovered by A&R man David Wilkes, and subsequently signed to a four-album deal with Sire Records. At this point Sire was a relatively new label, and were mainly releasing folk and blues artists. My first album ‘A Picture’ was produced by songwriter/producer Richard Gottehrer (Blondie/Joan Armatrading) and released in 1971. Signing with a booking agent, I traveled the country again, but this time as a solo artist opening for such diverse acts as The Cannonball Adderley Quintet, The Marc Almond Band, Richie Havens, Livingston Taylor, Weather Report, Bill Monroe & The Kentucky Blue Grass Boys, and elderly bluesmen Arthur Cruddup and Bukka White. At the end of ’71 I wound up gigging in Nashville Tennessee at The Exit In. It was in Nashville that I embraced the meditation teachings of then 14-year old Maharaj Ji. Traveling to Philly and California, I joined several devotional bands, one of which, Blue Aquarius, contained a horn, string and vocal section, and consisted of fifty-six players. We toured the south at one point before playing at the Houston Astrodome, and performed at several prisons… an especially strange feeling for me.
In October of 1972 I was holed up with a long-legged lady friend in a weathered and leaky old wooden shack in the backwoods of Southern Oregon. She cooked gourmet meals on a wood-burning cook stove, while I practiced my craft. Opening the mail one day I discovered a letter from my friend and mentor Cannonball Adderley. In it was an invitation to come down to LA and sing improvisational vocals on a concept album he was recording with his brother Nat and the band. At that time the Cannonball Adderley Quintet consisted of Cannonball on alto, Nat Adderley on cornet, George Duke on piano, Aierto Moreitto on percussion, Roy McCurdy on drums, and Walter Booker on upright bass. I bought a $65 beater Chevy, and my honey and I hightailed it down to L.A., burning a quart of oil for every hundred miles. The song we recorded – which was produced by George Axelrod – ended up being called ‘Behold’, and was released on their ‘Soul Of The Bible’ double album. (it should be noted that Allan used a psedonym, "Arthur Charma" for this project for contractual reasons. Editor.) Following that amazing opportunity I sang improvisational vocals with the quintet at the Troubadour and Lighthouse clubs in Southern California. I was also invited to be Cannon's guest artist in a duo format at a clinic which Cannonball gave in Beverly Hills.
Not too long after Julian gave me the opening act slot at a live recording session of Brazilian music that he and the band were recording at the famous Capitol Recording studios in Hollywood; heady stuff for a twenty-four year old. In 1974, after playing in England and Denmark in a 16 piece band, I married my band mate, English singer/songwriter Carole Cook, and settled down in Malibu California. We wrote, recorded, and performed together, often singing back-up vocals for other artists live and on TV. From 1977 to 1978 we were staff songwriters for ABC Music in LA.
In ’74 I started teaching guitar as well, and charged eight dollars an hour.My marital relationship ended in 1979, but that same year I formed the Santa Monica Bay Band with a group of topnotch LA area studio and live players, including buddy Bryan Kessler, Pete Wasner, Armondo Compean, David Anderson and Mike Buono. After playing numerous gigs, recording plenty of demos – with Stephen Barncard producing and engineering – and still not getting the coveted record deal, I realized it might be time to move on. In 1980 I moved to the Big Island of Hawaii for six months and was instantly seduced by its beauty and power. In 1983, discouraged over the LA rat race and needing new inspiration, I moved to Kauai. Kauai would bring my love affair with the ocean full to full-throttle. In 1986 I began windsurfing.
And in 1990 at the young age of 43 the surfing bug bit me hard. At this point to help make ends meet I was working four twelve-hour days a week as crew on the Napali Coast boat excursions, learning the ways of the moody North Pacific Ocean, and the coastal reefs on the NW coast of Kauai. Little did I know how those new experiences would wend their way into my pallet of songwriting. Throughout everything, I managed to keep writing and gigging locally, and with the passage of time developed the new blend of music that became
apparent on my next three CD’s. You could say the songs are a mixed plate of singer/songwriter, blues, R&B, jazz, Hawaiian, and good old fashioned rock. I call thus gumbo of grooves R&B, short for Rhythm and Beach! In 1989, I contacted old friend and producer Stephen Barncard, (David Crosby; The Grateful Dead) and over the next year Steve, my co-writer Bryan Kessler, and I, created the album ‘The Island ‘.
The record, which was released on my own label, Black Bamboo Recordings, is a collection of original tunes written between 1980 and 1989. Much of the album draws its inspiration from the magic and tranquility of the Hawaiian Islands, but a number of the songs are concerned with other themes, like a world spinning out of control; steamy, secret affairs, windsurfing and visions of global brotherhood. The album features a great cast of players including Michael Ruff (Ricky Lee Jones; David Sandborn), Bryan Kessler (Hawaiian Style Band), Russell Ferrante (Yellowjackets), Cliff Hugo (Ray Charles), Rick Schlosser (James Taylor), Judd Miller (Michael Brecker), Zeke Zirngieble ( Doobie Brothers), and backup singers Valerie Carter (Jackson Browne; Lowell George), and Leslie Smith (Ricky Lee Jones).
1997 saw the release of my third album ‘Coconut Culture‘. My friend Mike Shipley – who mixes records for many top artists including, Joni Mitchell, Tom Petty, Alison Krause, and Maroon 5 – took the helm as producer, engineer, and mixer. This record departed from the jazz-rock-blues based format on ‘The Island’, and leaned toward a more traditional feel, reflecting my love for the indigenous music of the islands. Again I had Michael Ruff on Keyboards, Bryan Kessler on Guitar, and this time around I added the tremendously gifted slide guitar and Hawaiian lap-steel of Kauai boy Ken Emerson (Todd Rundgren; Donald Fagen). Local Hawaii bass player Dave Inamine held the bass chair, and my old friend Rick (the bass player) Rosas – whose regular gigs were Neil Young and Joe Walsh – played bass on one song, as did ‘The Island’ alumni Cliff Hugo. Shipley also played percussion and drums, and long-time Kauai resident and friend Graham Nash sang backup vocals on ‘The Navigator’. Eight of the songs were written and recorded in alternate tunings – some of which were given to me by Crosby and Nash when I tuned guitars for them at a local concert one night back in ’94. These open, or slack tunings, have become a touchstone for me as far as new directions in song composition goes, opening up an entire new pallet of chordal and melodic possibilities. In Hawaii, my songs have been covered by Hawaiian Style Band; The Beamer Brothers, and Norman ‘Kaawa’ Solomon, among others. In 1999 two of the songs from ‘Coconut Culture’ – I’ll Find You Yet’ and ‘Ka Wai Aloha’, were used in a coming of age feature film called ‘Beyond Paradise’, produced out of LA and filmed on the big island of Hawaii.
From 1998 to 2004 I was a DJ at KKCR, Kauai Community Radio. My show, ‘The Show with No Name’, enabled me to discover and spin many artists and forms of music from around the globe, and see what it was like at the other side of the glass, as it were. On one of my shows I had the great pleasure of singing a live duet with Graham Nash on my song ‘The Navigator’, as part of a fundraiser for the station.
In early 2003, I started writing my autobiographical novel ‘Talking Stories’. Starting with true tales of my Hawaiian ocean adventures, and going back in time to the moment of my first breath that cold-ass February Manhattan evening. I wrote fifty-five stories in all. In 2004, I produced and recorded Kauai artists Norman ‘Kaawa’ Solomon, and Darryl Gonzales’ solo contemporary Hawaiian albums, and also began pre-production on my what would become my next solo record. In January of 2005 I upgraded my recording studio and signed a contract with Warner Brothers Records to rent my studio to Donald Fagen of Steely Dan, for recording work on his third solo album ‘Morph The Cat’. This would lead to Donald winning a 2006 TEC award for outstanding creative technical achievement for best record production album by the voters of Mix Magazine. Donald and his tracking engineer, Elliot Scheiner, would also garner a Grammy for best surround sound album that year. Sitting in on the sessions for seven weeks was beyond cool. I learned much, and got a close-up view into the recording process of one of my favorite artists.
At the end of the dream sessions Donald asked me to play rhythm guitar in a band he was assembling for a benefit concert for a local private school. The other acts featured Kauai artists Todd Rundgren, Toni Childs and Ken Emerson. That magic night I also wound up playing for Todd, and singing backup vocals for both Donald and Todd. We ended up performing at least three Steely Dan songs that night. Talk about being in the fun zone!
The work on ‘Morph The Cat’ prepared and inspired me to get back to work on my own next solo record ‘Making Up For Lost Time‘. I spent almost two years working on ‘Making Up For Lost Time’, with a break of eight months in the middle to recuperate from a near-fatal infection as a result of a surfing mishap. Long-time musical cohorts Bryan Kessler; played rhythm and lead guitar on five tracks, and Michael Ruff; played keyboards, organ, and accordion on eight tracks. Slide guitarist extraordinaire, Ken Emerson wove his particular magic on three tracks. New Kauai recruits included Kirk Smart on his DeTemple Telecaster guitar, mandolin, and lap-steel, and fresh from Austin, harmonica virtuoso JP Allen. All-around renaissance music man and part-time goat herder Ron Pendragon recorded drummer/surfer Tris Imboden (Chicago). The icing on the cake was having Graham Nash sing backing vocals on ‘Ray Of Hope’, and me recording James Taylor’s bassist Jimmy Johnson, at Snuffy Walden’s Studio in L.A. The record was mixed and mastered by mix-master Mike Shipley, and his assistant Brian Wohlgemuth in LA. Long-time rock photographer Jim Shea, then living on Kauai, shot the photographs for the album’s back and inside cover, and surfer/artist Steven Valiere painted the CD’s front cover. In 2008, I took the AT ‘There Goes The Neighborhood’ solo show to the mainland, and toured the west coast from Los Angeles up to Vancouver Canada, and the east coast from Virginia Beach to Boston, making many new friends and fans, and selling millions of CD’s to boot.
In May of 2009, longtime producer and friend Stephen Barncard and I released Brooklyn Boy In Paradise – The Unreleased Collection – 14 songs from 1980 – 1994. In the same month Mr Barncard released four AT music videos of songs from The Island CD, that he directed and filmed in 1989. In November of 2011, Black Bamboo Recordings released my fifth studio album 'Deep Water'. Produced by yours truly and Mixed by 2012 Grammy award winner Mike Shipley. The CD features David Crosby, Graham Nash, and members of the Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, Neil Young, CSN, Van Morrison and Yellowjackets bands, plus local Kauai standouts Bryan Kessler, Michael Ruff, Ken Emerson, Kirk Smart, and Kauai songbird Anjela Rose. In May of 2012 'Deep Water' was nominated for Rock Album of the Year in the Hawaii Academy of Recording Arts 2012 Na Hoku Hanohano Music Awards. http://www.nahokuhanohano.org/blog/?p=322 Currently I’ve been watching 'Deep Water' find safe haven in radio stations worldwide, and have begun recording my sixth – as yet untitled – studio album. I'm also recording and producing other artists, while surfing and windsurfing as much as humanly possible.