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Issue 1084

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Feature

Lamar Thomas: Pure gold

Lamar Thomas @bluesandsoul.com
Lamar Thomas @bluesandsoul.com Lamar Thomas @bluesandsoul.com Lamar Thomas @bluesandsoul.com

Best known to UK soul audiences as the male-half of Eighties husband/wife duo Thomas & Taylor (whose 1986 classic âYou Canât Blame Loveâ became an enduring Weekender anthem), Pennsylvania-based Lamar Thomas - now in his 42nd year in the business - has just released his soulful new LP âNo Rain No Rainbowâ via his own THOMTAY Records.

Born in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, the now-veteran singer/songwriter/producer first spent his childhood years in Americaâs Deep South before, at 15, moving to New York. Where, in the mid-to-late-Sixties, he first entered the music industry. Going on to record as a solo artist for such labels as MCA, United Artists, RCA and Epic, Thomas additionally began developing his skills as both a writer and producer - with his talents eventually becoming utilised by such global icons as James Brown, Santana and Martha Reeves, in addition to bona fide soul music legends like Johnny Bristol and Chuck Jackson.

However, despite Lamarâs later duet releases with his wife/musical-partner Judy Taylor (released under the name Thomas & Taylor) going on to gain acclaim within Britainâs thriving Eighties soul fraternity, it was nevertheless Thomasâs songwriting contribution to one-time Stax Records legend Johnnie Taylorâs 1999 album âGotta Get The Groove Backâ that would garner him his first-ever Grammy nomination.

Meanwhile today, following a 16-year tenure as Director Of Student Support Service within the Pennsylvania school system (which found him working extensively with young people within the Performing Arts field), Lamarâs aforementioned new solo album now marks his return to making music full-time. As - written entirely by Lamar and Judy - its soulful grooves encompass musical moods ranging from the uplifting, celebratory âI Found Loveâ and heavier, robust âI Feel Goodâ; to the slower shuffle of âNo Rain No Rainbowâ and hypnotically ominous âMy Soul Is Not Respondingâ.

All of which makes for interesting conversation. As an ever-professional and articulate Mr. Thomas reacquaints himself with Pete Lewis to discuss his new album; his early upbringing in Americaâs racist-yet-musically-fertile Deep South; plus his fond memories of working with the once-US-chart-topping âSoul Philosopherâ himself, the late Johnnie Taylor.

PETE: Youâre now into your fifth decade in the music industry. So what was the thinking behind you releasing a new solo album at this time?

LAMAR: âWhat happened was around 1994 I wrote a Performing Arts programme for young people, and then for the next fifteen years I became almost solely occupied just working with that programme in a school District. I mean, the only time I took a break was when I worked on Johnnie Taylorâs album in 1999. But, you know, once youâre in the industry, you donât ever really get OUT! So one day I found myself in the studio working on some material with another artist. And, though that artist ended up being dropped from their label and then deciding not to continue with their project, the couple of things I did for them were so good that, from there, I just began to come up with a concept for an album of my OWN! So - because I felt I was on to something - I just began to write different kinds of songs with different kinds of beats, different kinds of arrangements⦠And, over the past two-and-half years, it just grew from there into âNo Rain No Rainbowâ! You know, it wasnât some conscious effort to reinvent Lamar Thomas! Itâs just that, as a songwriter, things sometimes just COME to you - and so you naturally progress.â

PETE: So what was the overall thinking behind âNo Rain No Rainbowâ?

LAMAR: âWell musically, you always hope that you grow and that you become more mature in what you do. You know, with me - if you look at all the things I did as an artist back in the Sixties at labels like MCA, RCA or United Artists - youâll notice how people always wanted to put me in a CATEGORY. And one of the main reasons it took me a long time to break into the industry as an actual SONGWRITER was because I didnât write quote-unquote âblack songsâ, and I didnât write quote-unquote âpop songsâ. Iâve always just written life stories about real PEOPLE! So I definitely wanted this album to REFLECT that. Which is why all the songs on there carry their own life message. Because to me songwriters are like PAINTERS. They have a canvas, and they can paint positive things or negative things; they can paint philosophical things... And to me the title âNo Rain No Rainbowâ goes hand-in-hand with who we ARE! Itâs like some days you may hate your job. But then you enjoy going on vacation for two weeks with your family! You know, without you enduring those un-pleasantries, thereâd be no RAINBOWS!â

PETE: Before moving to New York at 15, you first grew up listening to rhythm & blues and early soul music in the Mississippi Delta. How do you now look back on those early times?

LAMAR: âWhen you look back, you obviously look at the NEGATIVES of growing up in the Deep South during the racist times in America. But while of course I remember those - and I have a place where those things are kept mentally - at the same time musically I was very fortunate and very blessed! Because I grew up right there in The Delta, where 90% of the original blues players in the world were BORN! I mean, my great-grandfather - Jim Moore - played bass with Robert Johnson! And as a matter of fact, it was he who walked from Highway 49 to Highway 61 to Crossroads in Clarksdale to get a doctor when Robert Johnson was poisoned! So you know, I grew UP with all of that! Plus, because people knew my family, I was able to go into the Club Ruby in Leland, Mississippi as a young adolescent to watch people like B.B. King and Bobby Bland; I knew Little Milton personally... So yeah, to this day I do refer to myself as a Mississippi Delta SON! Because growing up there gave me the opportunity to hear all the great rhythm & blues singers and songwriters, and later the impetus to pursue all I wanted to pursue musically after I moved to New York.â

PETE: An obvious career highlight was the Grammy nomination for your songwriting involvement in Johnnie Taylorâs 1999 album âGotta Get Your Groove Backâ. So how do you recall working with the now-sadly-deceased former Stax Records legend (who, from the late Sixties right through to the early Eighties, was one of US R&Bâs most consistent hit-makers)?

LAMAR: âJohnnie Taylor to me stands out as the absolute best person Iâve ever worked with - and that includes people like James Brown, Johnny Bristol, Maynard Ferguson... I mean, Johnnie Taylor was my HERO! Because he wanted to work with me, PERIOD! He wanted me to sing his demos so he could learn them; he wanted me to write songs for him; he wanted to be my friend⦠Plus he taught me so much in the STUDIO! I mean, Iâd probably not been recording for YEARS when I got the call to do the Johnnie Taylor session And at first I wasnât even gonna DO it, because my mother was dying. But then (wife and musical partner) Judy convinced me I should go, because of all the talented people that were gonna be on it. Plus the producer - Wolf Stephenson - particularly wanted me to be a part of the session as the only actual SONGWRITER there. So, you know, Johnnie was very appreciative of the fact that I left school to come down. And so from there we started planning on doing OTHER stuff together, with him and Bobby Womack. So every Wednesday Iâd call Johnnie in Texas, and weâd chatâ¦. And Iâll never forget that day in 2000 when I called Johnnieâs office and nobody answered... And then, when I called (Taylorâs then-label) Malaco and the girl told me heâd passed, it was DEVASTATING! Because, you know, Johnnie and I had begun to forge this great relationship. And, as great and as renowned as he was, in the studio he was always just so respectful of the art. You know, if you brought something to him, he was always very appreciative of it. He was just that kinda guy.â

Lamarâs album âNo Rain No Rainbowâ is out now through THOMTAY Records (contact: lamarandjudy@evenlink.com)
Words PETE LEWIS

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