This is just an incredible story I wanted to share right away. Until earlier today, I had never heard of Ural Thomas. It’s safe to assume many other fans of soul music are in the same boat. Then I caught a performance of the now 80-plus-year-old Thomas with his band called The Pain at the 2019 Waterfront Blues Festival in Portland, Ore. that was streamed earlier today on local listener-funded radio station KBOO-FM. And I can assure you, it was everything else but painful!
Before we get to some sweet soul music, here’s some background on Thomas from his website. Obviously written a few years ago, this text captures the story better than I could ever do, especially given than other than this website, there appears to be little publicly available information on Thomas out there. Therefore, I decided to do something I rarely do: Copy and paste, except for the images.
If life was at all fair Ural Thomas would be a household name, his music slotted into countless sweet, seductive mixtapes between James Brown, Otis Redding, and Stevie Wonder (all of whom Thomas has performed with.) Straddling the line between hot soul shouter and velvety-smooth crooner, Thomas released a few singles in the late 60’s and early 70’s; most notably “Can You Dig It”, which featured backing vocals from soul luminaries Merry Clayton, Mary Wells and Brenda Holloway. Thomas played over forty shows at the legendary Apollo Theater before turning his back on an unkind business and heading home to Portland, OR.
It goes without saying that a man practically built out of rhythm would never stop playing music. Thomas began hosting a regular Sunday night jam session at his home that ran for nearly twenty years. A de facto mentor to many of the younger players, Thomas reminds us all that “If you care about what you’re doing, you need to build those muscles and do the work. Don’t get discouraged, do it for love. Even if you’re digging ditches, do it with passion.”
In 2014, local soul DJ Scott Magee sat in on drums. The two became fast friends and at Magee’s urging Thomas decided to give his musical career another shot. Magee became the musical director, they put together a band, and in 2016 released a self-titled album on Mississippi Records.
In 2017 Thomas signed with Tender Loving Empire and began work on what, in many respects, will be his debut full length. Diving deep into lifetime of melodic creativity, Thomas and his band got to work. Recorded in Magee’s studio Arthur’s Attic, The Right Time features the air-tight work of Magee on drums, percussion, and backing vocals, Bruce Withycombe (The Decemberists) on baritone sax, Portland jazz scene fixture Brent Martens on guitars and vibraphone, Arcellus Sykes on bass, Steve Aman (Lady Rizo) on piano and organ, Dave Monnie on trumpet, Willie Matheis (Cherry Poppin’ Daddies) on tenor sax, and Jasine Rimmel, Joy Pearson, Sarah King, Rebecca Marie Miller on backing vocals. The Arco Quartet performed the strings, and the record was engineered and mixed by Jeff Stuart Saltzman (Blitzen Trapper) and mastered by JJ Golden (Sharon Jones, Ty Segall).
One might think after a sizeable taste of early success Thomas would be more than a touch bitter – yet the opposite is true. “We have to be positive if we want the world to get better” Thomas advises. “We’ve come a long way, but if you carry a grudge with the whole world you’ll stop your growth. We’re a family, all just brothers and sisters, descendants of Adam. You can’t get anywhere without an open heart.”
A developing artist at nearly eighty years old, for Thomas music has always been about bringing people together. “If we play for twenty people we cook it like it’s twenty thousand” says Thomas. “If we make someone smile we’re satisfied. They’re ain’t no difference between us. It’s all love and brotherhood. If folks listen to my record and feel that I’ll feel very blessed.”
Standing in bold defiance of the idea that aging is a reason to slow down and stop living, for Thomas the right time to get down is the next time someone plugs in a guitar or puts on a record. Ural is ready – are you?
Well, that’s a perfect segue into some music. Let’s kick it off with the above noted Can You Dig It? Co-written by Russ Regan and producer Jerry Goldstein, Thomas released this funky soul tune in 1967. And, yes, I sure as heck dig it!
Following are a few tracks from the above noted debut album by Ural Thomas and The Pain. It’s titled The Right Time and appeared in 2018. Here’s No Distance (Between You and Me).
Next up: Smoldering Fire. Oh, man, I just love this tune! How come pretty much nobody knows about it? It’s just incredible!
Here’s the album’s funky title track!
Let’s do one more tune from this great album: Show Ya.
I’ll leave you with one more song I found on YouTube: A 2015 live performance of a tune called Deep Soul. Holy moly. It’s a got a dose of a James Brown vibe!
As for the 2019 Waterfront Blues Festival, it’s still streaming today and tomorrow at https://kboo.fm/media/81471-blues-fest-air. I’m currently listening to Southern Avenue, a great band from Memphis, Tenn. I’ve covered on numerous previous occasions. Coming up later today: Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram and Bettye Lavette with Texas Horns, among others. Tomorrow’s line-up looks great as well!
Sources: Ural Thomas website; Discogs; YouTube