B411: It is a thrill that you are coming to the Pennsylvania Blues Fest, this weekend, July 27-29, what are you planning on packing, entertainment wise, when you come East? What can we expect?
Earl Thomas: Well the show that people saw on the Blues Cruise was my international show. I brought my friends together from around the world for that one but, for Pennsylvania I am bringing my American band, The Blues Ambassadors Of San Francisco. We don’t tour a lot – but this is the band that is on my Introducing The Blues Ambassadors CD.
B411: What is your background, musically?
ET:I grew up in a musical family with all of the repertoire of the African American experience but my training is from a classical music and music theatre background – symphony and opera – and my shows are put together sort of like an operetta with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Everything is scripted, it’s not just jamming through a bunch of songs. There is a flow and story line to our performance.
B411: Sounds similar to the R&B Revues that were so popular back in the day, am I close?
ET: Yes, but it’s definitely a Blues show. Exactly. Let me get on my soap box for a minute….
Ok dig this, contemporary Blues artists, we are all copying what came before, so in a nutshell, I will say all of us who have had the luxury of using public restrooms and water fountains our whole lives, have no idea of what the daily lives of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Koko Taylor, et al., those whose music we are copying, went through. We know nothing about the reality of their life experience, except through their music and it is that “life” that gave us this music. I feel that if we are going to copy their music and stylize our music after them then we need to go all the way and to respect the art form by presenting our music today on a level that is similar to how they did it, with respect.
B411: So you are suggesting practice equals respect for the art form? That the tightness of a show, and band for that matter, is in essence the ultimate respect for these songs and their creators?
ET: Absolutely! There is an adage that I think applies here: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice! I have heard Blues artists get up on stage and say they don’t even know what song they are playing next, they pick a random key and then they regurgitate the same old guitar piano or harmonica piano riffs over the same chord changes with no attention to details like volume and dynamics and call it the Blues. This is ridiculous to me. I feel this is an art form that deserves our ultimate respect, because there is so much attached to it. There is blood on this art form…
Those people (Muddy, Wolf) didn’t wake up one morning and say they had to invent a blues song as a way of coping. This was their life. I hear people say “I was a drug addict, so I know the Blues” that’s not the Blues.Try not being able to use a public toilet or not being able to vote, and that was the least of their worries.
B411: There seems to be an epidemic of guitar masturbation in the blues these days, and an obfuscation of the other forms of the blues – those which might be more closer to the true blues.
ET: It’s not just guitars but there is a lot of that going around. It seems that all you got to do is buy a Stratocaster, or a Gibson and the occasional Flying V, a Fender Twin Reverb tuned to ‘hero’ and there you go – our forebears lived the blues, it represented their history and they played the music from the depths of their souls. And, as I said, none of us know what it is like to have to ride on the back of the bus or deal with the constant threat of being lynched. Not even me, but my parents and grandparents knew that life. B. B. King knew that life.
B411: That could be the cause for the shifting scope or focus of the state of the blues. No one knows these things personally and therefore we have become alienated in a way to the real deal.
ET: The world is a different place now. We don’t have the same impetus so our art is going to be different. We have our own life experience and that is what I think we should write about. One day I heard an artist say something to this effect, that a friend took him to Memphis to eat a pork chop sandwich so he could be more in touch with what the Blues is about. I wanted to slap some sense into that person. What a thing to overlook, if it was that simple it wouldn’t be the Blues. It wasn’t pretty back then, it’s not a pleasant topic today – but it doesn’t mean we can’t acknowledge and honor those great artists for the courage they showed by doing our best work. If you play this music show some respect by being good work! Albert Collins was not good by accident!
B411: Speaking of your family background, and things related to that, I want to shift gears here….your hometown, Pikeville, TN, has named a Blues Festival after you. Whoa, how cool is that – give up the details Earl.
ET: The Earl Thomas Homecoming Blues Festival with the inaugural event to be held on October 6th. My family has been in Pikeville, Tennessee for over 200 years. My parents were both musicians, my mom a gospel singer, and my dad a blues guitarist. They never pursued a career. He would just play around the house and for family gatherings.
B411: That’s great, so you persevered, and overcame.
ET: Well, my ancestors persevered and overcame. All I had to do was grow up. My dad was in the Navy so I grew up on military bases around the world but I did go to high school in Pikeville and it was there at Bledsoe County High School where I forged some of my deepest life long friendships. The main purpose of the festival is to create a scholarship fund for music students at Bledsoe County High School, where I graduated. It is such an honor to be able to do this.
B411: So you are a descendant of sharecroppers or slaves, which explains the deep rooted feelings that you have about the Blues as an art form.
ET: Yes, my great-grandparents were born into slavery. The generation before that were brought to Bledsoe County. That county (Bledsoe) where my hometown is located was one of the three the state that did not join the Confederacy during the Civil War.
B411: Why would that be, wasn’t there great pressure put upon counties and states to sign up for the cause?
ET: Yes there were sanctions and tons of pressure but as the story goes the major slave owner in the county was a man called John Bridgeman (Bridgeman is my family surname) who was in love with one of his slaves, a woman called Delphia and together they had eighteen children and the descendants of those children made up my fathers side of the family. But this is the secret reason for not joiing and it was completely illegal for a slave owner to marry a slave.
B411: So any relation to Junior Bridgeman the former Basketballer?
ET: Yes! He is my third cousin and he is from the same clan of John Bridgeman & Delphia from back in the day.
B411: Damn man, Jr. could light it up with that jumper of his. Sorry, back to music and family.
ET: So I feel that I not only have the “pedigree” to do this art form, and I must do it. I get it! But I am insulted when I see people jacking off on stage just to get their $50 bucks. All it takes is rehearsal – I didn’t say anything about this through the years but I’ve had enough. Can you imagine going to see The Ike & Tina Turner Revue with Tina in one of her see through dresses showing all of her humanity and the Ikettes ready to kick it and then have Ike say, “Ok! Everybody ready? What key? Ok. G. From the five! A one, a two, a one, two, three…” and then play a sloppy shuffle? That wouldn’t make sense!
B411: Yes he does, it’s a different show, but it’s a show baby. So you are bringing that SHOW, the Earl Thomas and the Blues Ambassadors to the PA Blues Fest?
ET: Yes indeed, there ain’t no other way to do it. And the people will know it and I hope they’ll appreciate what we’ve done for them, it’s performance at a different level. It’s the show we do at Biscuits & Blues in San Francisco on the last Saturday of the month. We have the tourists who walk in but we also have loyal regulars, our “locals” who fill the place every show. Ya know it’s great to have people come to us and say ‘we didn’t know we liked the Blues till we heard you”, or “we like your kind of Blues”, it is so rewarding that it humbles me.
B411: So you are actively keeping the Blues — wait I am not a fan of that term “keeping the Blues alive” it sounds like it is on a respirator – so you are allowing the Blues to thrive.
ET: Yeah just pull the plug and let it die (we laugh at the whole idea). Keeping the blues alive is right there with people saying that black people don’t like the Blues – that’s not true! Black people like quality and can tell the difference, we know what quality in music is. Make something of quality and we will like it, just like everybody else.
B411: Yes, but it evolved on a natural progression of itself. Somewhat shaped by its environment and surroundings. Like the Resonator guitar was created to be loud on the streets with all the buskers vying for attention, Muddy moves North and is playing in loud clubs in an urban setting, it HAD to happen.
ET: Yes loud crowds, and cars and all that shaped his music’s evolution. The art form wants to evolve but people won’t let it. it seems that all you need these days is a Tele or Stratocaster, a bowling shirt, jeans with the big cuffs rolled up at the bottom, tattoos and your hair pompadoured up and know four or five variations of a twelve bar progression in three keys and you’re a “contemporary” bluesman – but that’s not the Blues – it’s a fucking minstrel show! Yes I just said it. Somebody had to say it!
B411: Hell man, I’m down with that. It’s the guitar masturbation syndrome we be going thru, time to move on nothing to see here folks move along…..When I went to art school my art teacher told us that when we left his class we would be artists and not diletantes.
ET: Ah man, I do love that term, guitar masturbation, I’m gonna use it. But, yes exactly we don’t need no posers. But who’s fault is it? I think it’s the audience fault, they are allowing this mediocrity to continue. A Black audience in the 50′s wouldn’t let this happen. James Brown got his self booed off the stage at the Apollo, they had their shit together and still got booed off the stage there. I read a story where he played the Apollo and was JAMES BROWN, with all that and he would throw his hankie into the crowd (mixed crowds) and they would go wild clamoring for it, well he tried that at the Apollo and they threw it back at him.
B411: So were you ever booed or have that come to Jesus moment?
ET: Oh hell yeah! This is the best story ever. I was doing a gig back in the 90′s in San Diego on a Wednesday night and there was nobody in the club – well that’s not true, there was the manager looking at his watch wondering why there was no audience, two bartenders, and a drunk chick on a first date with some dude. So ya know she’s laughing loud and talking all loud, and we are doing our set and the house is empty and the manager says we gotta finish the whole set because we might draw some people in from the street.
B411: Gottdamn man that’s some harsh shit, phew. So do you fell that if everyone had these ‘moments’ the Blues could be in a better place?
ET: Dude we could revolutionize the Blues!! Why do you think the Grammy’s took the Blues of the ballot? It’s because there ain’t nothing interesting going on. People don’t want the twelve bar sitting around the shack era blues shuffles and those nursery rhyme lyrics, nobody wants to hear that shit. I hope people don’t misinterpret what I’m saying here, they might shoot the messenger but there’s a reason that ‘Hootchie Cootchie Man’ or ‘Wang Dang Doodle’ and ‘Stormy Monday’ has stood the test of time, they were deep and touched the soul. It seems that people today are trying to copy the limited vocabulary of these songs and use them in modern day themes but because they are not digging deep enough, lose the essence. We are modern day people and have a much broader vocabulary and life experience. Let’s use our words and our individual struggles to convey our own message.
B411: You do create some interesting artwork with your songwriting, I tend to think that you are somewhat overlooked with respect to your abilities there.
ET: You might think so but BMI, knows who I am. Etta James ( I Sing The Blues) knew, Tom Jones (Get Me Some) knows, Solomon Burke knew. They have recorded my songs among others. Tracy Nelson did one of my songs, can you believe it?!
B411: I know, plus Big Llou did Get Me Some also. It’s interesting the crossover appeal of you writing, it shows that there is a market out there for ‘the Blues’ if it’s done correctly and given the reverence it deserves.
Until next time,
Love, Peace & Chicken Grease
photos: courtesy of KedwardsPhotos2011, Artist.
*Earl Thomas and the Blues Ambassadors will be headed East to the Pennsylvania Blues Festival July 27-29, 2012 in Palmerton, PA. For info on this super fest go to: http://www.skibluemt.com/SkiBlue/special-events/pa_blues_fest.aspx
**For the low down on Earl Thomas visit: http://www.earlthomasmusic.com/main.html
***OK, just have to do this, to see Tom Jones get panties thrown at him while singing Earl’s “Get Me Some” visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7dkHnBlVe8E