TABBY THOMAS (By Phil Davies)
Born Ernest Joseph Thomas, 5 January 1929, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Like many of my favourite artists I first heard of Tabby Thomas via John Broven's superlative book "South To Louisiana" published in 1983. I got a copy of Tabby's southern hit "Hoodoo Party" on Excello a little later and lo and behold Tabby Thomas turned up at a pub gig in Swansea in the late 80s. I don't know who was more surprised at that, me, for seeing an Excello hero at a pub near the Vetch Field in Swansea or Tabby at meeting a drunken Welshman with a copy of his biggest 45 for him to sign, class act that he is he dedicated the song to me that night!
"Well the Voodoo King, Voodoo Queen
Tabby grew up listening to Baton Rouge's only radio station WJBO (a white station) and grew to love the singing cowboys like Gene Autry and artists ranging from Jimmy Davis to Sinatra. He also heard Slim Galliard and the Inkspots. Along with his family he attended the local Baptist church (founded by his granddad). His mother also let him play the jukebox and her own blues collection with gems by Son House, Peetie Wheatstraw, Big Boy Crudup and Tampa Red. Incidentally Tabby's son is now world famous after playing the 30s bluesman alongside George Clooney in the classic roots music movie Oh Brother Where Art Thou.
Tabby later ran a legendary Blues club, Tabby's Blues Box, in Baton Rouge(now sadly demolished by an ignorant local council), which was in a rough part of town. Tabby remembers jazz legends like Basie and Ellington swinging through town and later on blues giants like Ray Charles, Louis Jordan and B B King (with lines of people waiting in line for 3 hours to see him). Tabby recalls filling in for an absent Johnny Ace on a bill with Big Mama Thornton.
Tabby left to join the air force in 1947 and learnt to play sax whilst on Guam. Whilst staying with his sister in Frisco he saw his then heroes Roy and Charles Brown , Lowell Fulson, Johnny Otis and Little Esther. He won $15 on a talent show singing Roy Brown's classic "Long About Midnite", beating Johnny Mathis and Etta James! Shortly after he cut his first record "Midnite Is Calling" for Hollywood Records and he toured California as a result. On returning to New Orleans he heard another of his songs "I`ll Make The Trip" being used as a theme tune by a local dj, the legendary Okie Dokie, and was interviewed by him. That record was produced by Johnny Dolphin. Tabby claims that Johnny Vincent wanted him to cut a tune he had on demo called "The Things I Used To Do" but Tabby turned it down because it wasn't in his style! Tabby was married by then and working in a construction day job but resolved to learn to play piano, practising on a cardboard keyboard until he got a proper one with Huey Smith no less giving him a few lessons. His career only had sporadic recordings like Church Members Ball cut in Jackson Ms on Delta Records. In the meantime nearby Crawley had become a blues hot spot thanks to J. D. Miller's studio and all those wonderful Excello releases by Lightnin` Slim, Lazy Lester, Lonesome Sundown and Tabby's pal the great Slim Harpo. Eventually Tabby, along with Bob Johnson's band, cut a session with "Tomorrow" and "I Don't Care", which came out on Feature. This got some airplay, as did follow ups on Miller's other labels Rocko and Zynn, but it was the '61 recording of "Hoodoo Party" with Lazy Lester as a sideman that was his biggest local hit. This great typically rolling Nawlins party record with Tabby's atmospheric vocal was heavily promoted by legendary dj John R. on WLAC in Nashville. Sadly the follow ups like the tasty "Popeye Train", "Play Girl" and "Keep On Trying" flopped and then Liverpool changed American radio overnight. Tabby formed his own label Blue Beat and issued about 20 singles in 15 years locally. Tabby rated one Bald Headed Lena but said some were so bad he never wanted to hear them again.
His luck improved in he late 70s when a director of the Louisiana Art dept encouraged a local blues fan to interview the local bluesmen and to promote concerts by them. The success of these shows indicated the growth in blues appreciation and Tabby and his band went down a storm at the Nawlins Heritage Jazz festival in 79, his band included Big Bo Melvin on guitar. Tabby was also to play guitar but his amp blew and he decided to play piano and his local stylings on "Stagger Lee", "What`d I Say" and of course "Hoodoo Party" went down a treat. He went back to Crowley and cut an lp "25 Years With The Blues" on Blues Unlimited with the great Whispering Smith (who also came to Wales along with Lightnin' Slim in the early 70s) on harmonica and Buckwheat on piano
In 1981 he opened his Tabby' Blues Box heritage Hall in his home town (previously an old drug store where Tabby had once bought Fats Domino a bottle of gin after a show). A local byelaw prevented anyone selling booze within 300 feet of a school and there was one in that range nearby! A local lawyer was a blues (and booze) fan and circumvented the law by saying the club was an important local cultural attraction, hence the addition of Heritage Hall to the name, nice one all round!
Word soon spread and local blues giants like Henry Gray, Guitar Kelly, Whispering Smith and the awesome Silas Hogan started playing there. The local college kids started attending and the club was great success which spurred on Tabby's recording career with albums like "Rocking With The Blues" on his own Blue Beat label before coming out on Maison de Soul, this had Henry Gray on piano and Tabby's son Chris on guitar. "Blues Train" appeared on Maison de Soul, as did "King Of Swamp Blues". Ace released a compilation drawn from his Maison LP's and he toured the UK and Europe.
His son Chris Thomas King, born on October 14 1963 in Baton Rouge, though steeped in local music as a kid he grew to be more influenced by Hendrix, blues rock and reggae, especially Bob Marley. He recorded and toured with his pop and came to Europe with him, that helped turn him back to real blues and his blazing lead guitar work led to albums on Arhoolie and Sire/Hightone. He moved to Austin and later to Denmark. His international breakthrough came with his role in the Clooney movie and helped his recording career enormously. The soundtrack won a Grammy and Chris also appears in the great Ray movie as his father's old hero Lowell Fulson.
This has eased the pain following his father's injuries in a bad crash, a subsequent stroke and the demolishing of the Blues Box by short sighted politicians wanting a better road. Proving that bluesmen do suffer misfortune, Chris' New Orleans home and studio were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina ; he responded with proper blues style by writing a song about it (it was originally to be about the demise of the club).
(radio interview with Chris and Tabby)
Though the club has gone, and Tabby's playing has been affected by his stroke he can still be heard presenting Tabby's Blues Box on local radio, Voodoo King indeed!
Recommended Listening :
Hoodoo Party -Excello 45
Also on the tasty Flyright cd Louisiana Swamp Blues.
There 's a real need for a cd career overview of Tabby's long and varied musica life.
John Broven, South To Louisiana- Pelican
And especially Blues & Rhythm issue 40 (1988) with a superb feature on Tabby by Julian Piper which has been the main inspiration for this piece.
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