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Saturday, April 13, 2013

Willow Brook Blues - Kid Thomas

Kid Thomas, aka Tommy Louis, aka Tommy Lewis, was and is one of the great unsung heroes of that crazy kind of music that skirts the fine line between blues and straight-out rock & roll. Though success constantly eluded him throughout his career, it wasn't for lack of talent. With a powerful voice that could emit banshee wails and Little Richard howls with consummate ease, and a harmonica style that, at his best ("Rockin This Joint Tonight"), sounded like Little Walter powered by a vacuum cleaner, Kid Thomas was a man who knew how to rock the joint, indeed. He was born Louis Thomas Watts on June 20, 1934, in Sturgis, MS. About seven years later, his parents, Virgie and VT, moved the family up to Chicago. By the time young Louis reached street-wise, teenage manhood, he was taking harmonica lessons from Little Willie Smith, one of the many peripheral bluesmen on the Chicago scene, in exchange for giving Smith lessons on the drums, the Kid's original instrument. The late '40s and early '50s found him semi-gainfully employed blowing harp at Cadillac Babys and a dozen other clubs whose names are now lost to the mists of time. According to all accounts, he appears to have sat in with everybody at one time or another during the early to mid-'50s; Muddy Waters, Elmore James, and Bo Diddley all welcomed him on-stage on a regular basis, while Thomas found himself even deputizing for his harmonica hero Little Walter on the not-so-odd occasion when said hero was too drunk to make it up to the bandstand. By 1955, Kid Thomas decided he needed to make a record to help promote his club appearances. Walking by the King-Federal distributors one day, he simply poked his head and announced that he'd like to record. As luck would have it, he was immediately introduced to Ralph Bass, then working for Syd Nathan's label conglomerate as an A&R man. Bass listened to Thomas' spiel, then sent him off with instructions to put a band together and come back for a demo session. Deputizing Smith on drums, a guitarist only remembered as "James", and an unknown piano man, our hero headed back for the audition loaded down with tunes he had been working up on his gigs. In his only known interview, conducted in 1969 by Darryl Stolper, Thomas remembered that first session that led to his first record being issued: "The first few numbers didn't go over, so I started thinking about the (Howlin) Wolf, and I came up with "Wolf Pack." And "The Spell" I got from Screamin' Jay Hawkins. Both of them were thought up on the spur of the moment, and Ralph Bass dug them." Rather than have Thomas come back in and do a formal session, Bass was so taken with the results of the Kid's ad-lib compositions, that the results were duly pressed up as Federal single 12298. After several months of pounding the pavement trying to promote the single, Thomas came to face the cold, hard reality that having a record out and having a hit record out are two very different things. One day, while munching down on the $1.98 chicken special at a local Chicago diner, our hero struck up a conversation with a couple of guys who had just hitch-hiked into town from Wichita, KS. After asking where the best live music was in town, Kid invited them down to a band rehearsal at Cadillac Babys. The two transients in question were duly blown away and pumped much wind up Thomas' skirt by telling him how well the show would go over in their home town. A few weeks later, the Kid received a letter from them, informing him they had him booked at a place called the Sportsmans Lounge. Thomas, possessing no transportation to make the trip, hit upon what someone with a million dollars worth of talent and no bankroll would conceive as a good idea... "At that time, I was doing some light work for a minister, and he had a '49 Buick..I didn't have a car, so I waited until he was asleep and I told my guitarist to ease the car out, 'cause if he woke up, he'd recognize me. So he starts up the car and bangs it into the car behind him, and the one in front. But he finally got it out, and we made it to Wichita." In a classic case of karma coming back with a vengeance, the Kid made it to Wichita, only to have his band immediately break up, and split to Tennessee in the heisted automobile! "When I got back (to Chicago), the minister asked me what happened to his car. I told him I hadn't any idea. He told me,'Thats funny, 'cause it disappeared the same night you did." About a month later, Thomas tried the trip to Wichita again, this time with a new band and a newly decorated, but very beat-up, 1947 DeSoto station wagon with bald tires. After a treacherous ride through the Ozark Mountains, they made it to the gig and proceeded to set up. In an effort to class up the DeSoto into something resembling a touring band vehicle, the Kid had painted his name all over it. As the crowd began to swell on opening night, Thomas' drummer mentioned that everyone was stopping to look at the car on the way in. It seems that our hero had spelled his first name correctly, but left the 'o' out of Thomas, thus rendering the pronunciation of it to something close to "Kid Thumb-ass"!! No wonder they were curious. Botched self-promotion aside, Thomas found his new confines much to his liking. He ran into Hound Dog Taylor there, and the two Chicago expatriates played some dates together in early 1956. But after crowning his head with a pompadour processed hairdo that reached higher than most buildings in the city (check out the cover photo; izzat some hair or what?!?), the Kid was soon cashing in on the newly emerging rock & roll craze as an aces-up Little Richard impersonator. Thomas was good enough at it ("I had a big set of hair and some slick outfits") that some of the locals even mistook him for Little Richard, a mistake that would be rectified one afternoon when the Real Thing came to town: "I was in the lobby of the hotel where I was staying, and here's this little guy with a big set of hair like mine, and I'm looking at him and he's looking at me; I went over and said 'my name is Kid Thomas, and he said 'my name is Little Richard, very pleased to meet you.' That night he came to watch me play and I did some B.B. King numbers that really knocked him out." Thomas drifted about for the next three or four years, working the low end of the Chicago club circuit, occasionally landing a double booking with Magic Sam or Otis Rush. With no further recording prospects on hand, our hero headed out West, working a couple of clubs in Wichita again until 1958, when he pulled up stakes to Denver, CO, before finally settling in Los Angeles, California sometime in late 1958 or the first part of 1959. By the next year, Thomas hooked up with legendary record man George Mottola. Mottola, one of the great unsung heroes of the early days of rock & roll, was still working his regular gig as A&R man for Modern Records, producing acts like Jesse Belvin and writing hits like "Goodnight, My Love." But the Kid's powerhouse act apparently bowled him over. Studio time was duly booked, and Thomas, backed by a two guitars-drums-no bass combo, recorded the first version of the eerie slow blues howler "You Are an Angel," and what remains his finest moment, the utterly berserk "Rockin This Joint Tonight." When Mottola became too busy to do anything with the record, he pointed the Kid in the direction of one Brad Atwood, who promptly took one-half writers credit and issued it on his TRC-Transcontinental label. But just as Thomas was all set to do some television appearances and start promoting the record, Atwood got into some unspecified problems and the label folded. Another five years of club dates blew by before Kid Thomas entered a studio to record again. Now working under the name of Tommy Louis and the Rhythm Rockers, he recorded a pair of singles for the Los Angeles-based Muriel label. The first release, coupling "The Hurt Is On" with "I Love You So," got little to no airplay in California, but did some brisk business in the Southern states without any promotion behind it. The second single combined the storming "Wail Baby Wail" with the shuffle stomp of "Lookie There." Though "Wail Baby Wail" was firmly in the Little Richard mold of "Rockin This Joint Tonight," and featured deranged guitar work courtesy of Thomas' regular axe man Marshall Hooks, the record sank without a trace. By the late '60s, our hero was working everything from low-rent beer joints to private parties (one of these finding him employed by Dean Martin!). While working one of his mainstays, the Cozy Lounge in South East Los Angeles, the owner of Cenco Records caught the act and signed him to the label. With Lloyd Glenn on piano and Joe Bennett from the Rhythm Rockers on guitar, Kid Thomas entered a recording studio for one last time and recorded a new version of "(You Are An) Angel" and an instrumental tip of the hat to his home neighborhood, "Willowbrook." By the time anybody knew about it in the blues community, the label was out of business. By the time blues researcher Darryl Stolper tracked him down for an interview late in 1969, Thomas was sounding a lot more grizzled than his 35 years would lead you to believe: "I would love to go to England and do some records. It seems as if I have to work over there before I can be a hit over here, and I hear the people over there really dig the blues. Over here, someone will tell me I gotta do soul stuff...hell, I'm a blues singer, and my harp is my life, and my image or style isn't going to be changed for anybody. I'm Kid Thomas, the blues singer, like it or not." Maybe so, but during the day it was Kid Thomas, the lawn mowin' man, that was paying most of the bills during these lean times. One afternoon, while pulling his van away from a lucrative Beverly Hills home he had just finished up, he ran over a young boy who had suddenly appeared out of nowhere. The boy died later that afternoon. A manslaughter indictment against Thomas was dropped because of insufficient evidence, but a few months later he was due back in court on charges of driving with a revoked license. Waiting for him outside the courthouse was the boys father, who pulled out a gun and shot Kid Thomas dead. Since the man who died in that shooting incident was named Louis Thomas Watts, scarcely a word on Kid Thomas death was heard in the blues community for quite some time. The eight issued sides of Kid Thomas/Tommy Louis continued to show up piecemeal on various European compilations throughout the '70s, but a complete overview was finally issued in the '90s on El Diablo. Those who love great harmonica work and wild-ass singing would do well to investigate the good rockin' sounds and deep blues of Kid Thomas, a man who knew the value of crazy, rockin' music and a big set of hair. = Cub Coda

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