Cult Classic-Leon Thomas-Full Circle.

For Leon Thomas, Full Circle represented the end of an era. It was the last album Leon Thomas released on Flying Dutchman Productions, and marked the end of his “classic period.” It had started four years earlier in 1969, when Leon Thomas released his debut album Spirits Known and Unknown. Since then, Leon Thomas’ star had been in the ascendancy. Full Circle was  Leon Thomas’ fourth solo album and the last great album he released. His story began in 1937.  

Leon Thomas was born in East St. Louis, Illinois, in October 1937. From an early age, Leon’s life revolved around music. His parents were avid music lovers and his hometown had a thriving musical scene. Inspired by blues’ shouters like Big Joe Turner, Leon was a familiar face on the local music circuit. Then when Miles Davis came to town, Leon had a musical awakening.

The night Miles Davis played St. Louis, Miles’ band featured John Coltrane. That night, they embraced improvisation and pushed musical boundaries to their extremes. For Leon Thomas, this showed him what was possible musically. Here was musical that was inventive, innovative and influential. So much so, that it inspired Leon to study musical at Tennessee State University.

Having left Tennessee State University, Leon became a familiar face on the jazz circuit. Having signed to RCA in 1958, Leon recorded what should’ve been his debut album. It wasn’t released. After that, When Leon was the vocalist with Count Basie’s band in the early-sixties right through until the mid-sixties. During that time, Leon’s style is best described as traditional blues. However, his style changed when he headed to Los Angeles.

It was is Los Angeles that Leon Thomas embraced free jazz. Already an admirer of improvisation within jazz, free jazz took things further. Even better, Leon met musicians who not only shared similar musical philosophies, but political and social values. This included saxophonist Arthur Blythe, drummer Leroy Brooks and pianist Horace Tapscott. Together, they were the Underground Musicians and Artists Associations. Meeting these three musicians, resulted in Leon finding his real voice. With their help, Leon’s voice became like an instrument. He fused musical influences, with blues, jazz and Afro-beat combining with soul, as Leon’s vocal veered between a scat and yodel. This was unique, avant garde and groundbreaking. Leon Thomas was a pioneer, as he headed to New York, looking for fellow travelers.

By 1967, Leon Thomas had met saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. This was a perfect match for Leon. Here were two groundbreaking musicians. In Pharoah Sanders’ hands, the saxophone was transformed. He’d been a member of John Coltrane’s band, until his death in 1967. After that, he formed his own band. Comprising Leon, pianist Lonnie Liston Smith and Pharoah, this was a band of musical pioneers recorded Pharoah Sanders 1969 album Karma, which was released on Impulse. It featured The Creator Has A Master Plan, which showcased Leon’s unique vocal style. A compelling, spiritual track where Leon yodels and scats his way through the track, it was truly groundbreaking. One man who realized Leon Thomas’ potential was Bob Thiele, founder of Flying Dutchman Records.

Having heard Leon Thomas feature on Pharoah Sanders’ Karma album, Bob Thiele signed Leon to Flying Dutchman Records. Leon’s Flying Dutchman Productions’ debut was 1969s Spirits Known and Unknown. Released to critical acclaim, Spirits Known and Unknown featured a version of The Creator Has A Master Plan, which Leon and Pharoah cowrote. There was also a cover of Horace Silver’s Song For My Father. Hailed not just as innovative and groundbreaking, but soulful, spiritual and full of social comment, Spirits Known and Unknown launched the career of Leon Thomas. Following up such a critically acclaimed and innovative album wasn’t going to be easy. 

A year later, Leon returned with The Leon Thomas Album. Released in 1970, as the new decade dawned, The Leon Thomas Album was hailed as innovative and ambitious. Critics realised that Leon was an artist who was determined to move jazz in a new direction. Standing still wasn’t an option for Leon. This was admirable. However, it wasn’t profitable. Sadly, The Leon Thomas Album didn’t sell well. The problem was, that Leon was way ahead of the musical curve. Although he was admired and lauded by the critics, he wasn’t selling enough records. Both Bob Thiele and Leon Thomas had bills to pay. Somehow, Leon had to rescue his career. Would his third album Blues And The Soulful Truth, do so? 

Blues And The Soulful Truth was released in 1972. It marked a change in direction from Leon. Critics referred to Blues And The Soulful Truth as the most accessible album Leon had released. The addition of Pee Wee Ellis had played an important part in this. He realised the importance of choosing the right tracks for the album. The eight tracks allowed Leon’s vocal to shine. They also allowed what’s a hugely talented band to showcase their considerable talents and sometimes, stretch their legs musically. The result was one of the most exciting and exhilarating vocal jazz albums of the early seventies. Despite this, Blues And The Soulful Truth passed record buyers by. For Leon Thomas and Bob Thiele this was a worrying time.

Despite his career having stalled, Leon Thomas got to work on his fourth album, which would become Full Circle. 

For Full Circle, nine tracks were chosen. Leon Thomas only wroteWhat Are Gonna Do? and with Neil Creque cowrote Balance Of Life (Peace Of Mind). Neil Creque also wrote It’s My Life I’m Fighting For. These tracks were augmented by some familiar songs. 

This included Never Let Me Go, which came from the pen of a pioneer of rock ’n’ roll, Joe Scott. There were also covers of B.B. King and Jules Bihari’s Sweet Little Angel; Arthur Ross and Leon Ware’s I Wanna Be Where You Are; Stevie Wonder’s You Are The Sunshine Of My Life and a cover of Elliot Willensky’s Got To Be There. A cover of Santana’s Just In Time To See The Sun was a fitting addition. 

Carlos Santana, Greg Rolle and Michael Shrieve had penned Just In Time To See The Sun for their 1972 album Caravanserai. By then, Carlos Santana had ‘discovered’ Leon Thomas, and wanted him to join Santana. Leon added vocals on their 1973 album Welcome. He would then join their touring band. So the inclusion of Just In Time To See The Sun seemed fitting. Just like the rest of the tracks on Full Circle, they had been carefully chosen.

They had to be. Leon Thomas’ last two albums had flopped. So Leon and Bob Thiele must have considered carefully what tracks should feature on Full Circle. If they chose some familiar songs, maybe this would widen Leon Thomas’ commercial appeal? This had worked for Esther Phillips at CTi.

Her career was rejuvenated after years in the doldrums. This resulted in Esther Phillips’ album From A Whisper To A Scream being nominated for a Grammy Award. Bob Thiele was hoping to do the same with Leon Thomas. After all, the status quo wasn’t an option. 

An artist who wasn’t selling albums was a liability to a record company. It didn’t matter how innovative their music is. What counted was the bottom line. Bob Thiele couldn’t continue to release albums that didn’t sell. With reality hitting home, Bob Thiele decided to target the soul market. With this in mind, Leon Thomas entered the studio. 

When recording of Full Circle began, Bob Thiele had rung the changes. It was a very different band that arrived at the studio. Although there were a few familiar faces, new names gathered to record Full Circle. Again, Bob Thiele would produce the album. However, he had brought onboard a new arranger and conductor. Glen Osser replaced Pee Wee Ellis. He still featured on Full Circle, albeit in a much reduced capacity, playing tenor saxophone on Never Let Me Go and soprano saxophone on Just In Time To See The Sun. Pee Wee Ellis’ replacement Glen Osser, played piano, electric piano. This wasn’t the end of the changes.

There was a big change in the band’s lineup. While there were  a few familiar faces, it seemed that it was out with the old and in with the new. The rhythm section featured drummers Bernard “Pretty” Purdie and Herbie Lovelle; bassist Richard Davis; and guitarists Joe Beck and Lloyd Davis. Jimmy Owens played trumpet and flugelhorn; Richard Landrum played bata and percussion; and Sonny Morgan played berimbau and percussion. The final piece of the jigsaw was Leon Thomas, who added vocals and maracas. Once Full Circle was complete, the album was scheduled for release in 1973.

On the release of Full Circle in 1973, critics welcomed the move towards a much more commercial sound. Leon Thomas had set out to record an album that appealed to soul fans. He had succeeded. Full Circle was his most commercial offering. Some of his fans, thought that Leon Thomas had ‘sold out.’

It wasn’t a ‘sell out.’ Instead, it more a case of reality biting. He couldn’t continue to release albums that weren’t selling. The fans that cried ‘sell out,’ were wrong though. Occasionally, Full Circle offered Leon Thomas the opportunity to innovate. The best example was on Stevie Wonder’s You Are The Sunshine Of My Life. Mostly though, Full Circle was a soul album where Leon Thomas tried to attract a wider audience. That was the theory.

Before the release of Full Circle,  Just In Time To See The Sun was released as a single, but failed to chart. Then when Full Circle was released in 1973, the album reached fifty-four in the US R&B charts. This was hardly going to make Leon Thomas and Bob Thiele rich men, but proved a point. However, that was as good as it got for Leon Thomas. His time at Flying Dutchman Production was at an end. Full Circle was his swan-song.

A cover of B.B. King’s Sweet Little Angel opens Full Circle. Strings sweep as a hypnotic standup bass, drums and flourishes of piano combine with a chiming guitar. Stylistically it pays homage to B.B. King. Then when the strings drop out, Leon’s vocal enters. It’s slow, bluesy, needy and full of sass. His band of top New York session players stay true to the original. Even the strings sound sound as if they were recorded in another era, back when B.B. King first recorded Sweet Little Angel. Leon doesn’t try and reinvent the song. Instead, he stays true to the original as he rediscovers his bluesy roots.

Just In Time To See The Sun must have come as a shock to those who had bought Leon Thomas’ previous albums. It’s a funky, Latin-tinged cover of a Santana song. Literally, the song bursts into life, propelled along by the rhythm section, guitars and percussion. Leon delivers an impassioned plea, before a trumpet and flugelhorn are unleashed. They both enjoy their moment in the spotlight, as the reinvention of Leon Thomas begins in earnest. Playing an important part are the band. Seamlessly, the combine elements of funk, fusion, jazz and Latin. Meanwhile, Leon delivers a vocal that’s a mixture of power and soulfulness. Sometimes, he reminds me of Terry Callier. Sadly, neither men enjoyed the commercial success their talent deserved. 

A Fender Rhodes opens It’s My Life I’m Fighting For. It’s a ten minute epic, where a funky rhythm section join percussion and the Fender Rhodes. Quickly, Leon is combining power and  emotion. He sounds as if he’s lived the lyrics, and experienced what he singing about. Meanwhile, a subtle flugelhorn floats across the arrangement. So does a trumpet. That’s the signal for Leon to unleash one of his trademark yodels. However, it’s cut short, as the horns take centre-stage. Along with an uber funky rhythm section and percussion, they stretch their legs. Then when Leon returns he showcases his versatility, yodelling, as his voice is transformed into an instrument. He doesn’t overdo this. It’s as if Bob and Leon were scared that this would impinge upon the album’s commerciality. The song doesn’t suffer for this. Far from it. Leon and his band seem to feed off each other, one encouraging the other to even greater heights.

By the time Leon covered Joe Scott’s Never Let Me Go, it was almost a standard. A lone rasping tenor saxophone is panned left before lush strings, stabs of piano and an understated rhythm section combine. By then, Leon’s band have recreated the sound of a mid-fifties’ hop. When Leon’s vocal enters, he tenderly, croons his way though the lyrics. Meanwhile, a piano plays, a horn rasps and the rhythm section create the heartbeat. Adding the finishing touch to this beautiful ballad are the lushest of strings.

Arthur Ross and Leon Ware penned I Wanna Be Where You Are.  It’s interpreted by Leon. Accompanying him are swathes of slow strings, a lone horn and the rhythm section. It’s augmented by percussion, before Leon delivers another tender heartfelt vocal. His vocal is tinged with regret, before becoming needy, hopeful and powerful. Then when it drops out a trumpet solo takes charge. Just below, Richard Davis’ bass underpins the arrangement. Not for the first time, he plays a starring role, as this crack band of New York musicians continue the reinvention of Leon Thomas.

Elliot Willensky wasn’t a prolific songwriter. However, he hit the jackpot when he penned Got To Be There. After Michael Jackson enjoyed a hit with the single, suddenly, everyone from Black Ivory, The Ramsey Lewis Trio, Grant Green, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, Julius Brockington, Peter Nero, Sonny Stitt  and The Jackson 5 had covered Got To Be There between 1972 and 1973. Despite this, Leon Thomas decided he would cover Got To Be There for Full Circle.

Rather than reinvent Got To Be There, Leon stays true to the original. Slow, wistful string, a chiming guitar and thoughtful rhythm section combine before harmonies sing “Got To Be There.” They’re reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s version. Then when Leon’s vocal enters it’s much more powerful and full of emotion. Soon, it grows in power as the strings sweep and percussion is panned right. Again, Richard Davis’ prowling bass underpins the arrangement. Later, a trumpet adds a wistful hue, setting the scene for Leon’s hopeful, heartfelt vocal. It’s one of his finest on Full Circle.

A myriad of percussion opens Balance Of Life (Peace Of Mind). For just over forty seconds they’re scene setters. Then some of the percussion exits stage left. This frees up space for the rhythm section and Leon’s slow, deliberate and powerful vocal. When Leon yodels, he again cuts this short. This is different from previous albums where he transformed his vocal into another instrument. However, maybe Leon and Bob Thiele thought that many newcomers to Leon’s music wouldn’t ‘understand’ or ‘get’ this. At the break, it just congas panned left and percussion panned right. Then the arrangement rebuilds and Leon Thomas shows why in 1973, he was one of the finest practitioners of vocal jazz.

Anyone covering Stevie Wonder’s You Are The Sunshine Of My Life is in a no-win situation. It’s regard as the definitive version. All covers of the are compared against the original. So Leon tries to reinvent the songs. He slows the song down and vintage arranger Glenn Osser drenches the arrangement in the lushest of strings. The rhythm section play subtly, while Leon delivers a heartfelt vocal. By then, this paean is taking on new life and meaning. Later, a wistful horn and chiming guitar join percussion and strings replace Leon’s vocal. When he returns, the reinvention of You Are The Sunshine Of My Life is complete. It becomes a beautiful jazz-tinged, soulful ballad.

What Are We Gonna Do? closes Full Circle. A piano plays, and  with occasional flamboyant flourishes setting the scene for Leon’s impassioned plea. With just the piano for company, he delivers a soul-searching, emotive vocal. Then when Leon’s vocal drops out, the piano adds occasional dramatic flourishes. When Leon returns, the same passion, sincerity and belief is present.  This impassioned plea seems a fitting way to end Leon’s time at Flying Dutchman Productions.

Leon Thomas’ time at Flying Dutchman Productions ended on a high. Full Circle became his most successful album. That’s despite only reaching fifty-four in the US R&B charts. Bob Thiele, the veteran music man had been vindicated.

After Leon Thomas’ last two albums had failed commercially, something had to change. So Bob Thiele decided to try and steer Leon Thomas towards the lucrative soul market. Bob Thiele got the idea from Creed Taylor. He had successfully transformed Esther Phillips’ career at CTi Records by turning her into a soul singer. Her album From A Whisper To A Scream was then nominated for a Grammy Award. Bob Thiele had hoped that by encouraging Leon Thomas to change direction, success would come his way.

That proved to be the case. Full Circle was the most successful album of Leon Thomas’ career. Together, Leon and Bob Thiele had cultivated a very accessible album. Mostly, it featured Leon Thomas singing soul. However, there were occasional diversions via blues and jazz. Meanwhile, Leon’s band seamlessly shifted between blues, funk, jazz, Latin and soul. This crack band of New York session players ensured that Leon’s final album for Flying Dutchman Productions was a memorable one.

Full Circle was also the album that introduced Leon Thomas to a much wider audience. It was seen as a much more accessible album. Given the relative success of Full Circle, many thought that this was Leon Thomas would go on to greater things at Flying Dutchman Productions. Sadly, that wasn’t to be.

By then, Carlos Santana had ‘discovered’ Leon Thomas, and wanted him to join Santana. Leon added vocals on their 1973 album Welcome, and then joined their touring band. So there was no followup to Full Circle. Leon Thomas’ time at Flying Dutchman Productions was over. Maybe, Bob Thiele had had a lucky escape?

When Leon Thomas returned from a one year tour with Santana,  his career stalled. There were rumours of drug usage. Leon Thomas then became a stranger to recording studios. He never recorded another album until Piece Of Cake in 1980. However, by then, his best days were behind him.

Leon Thomas’ “classic period” was at Flying Dutchman Productions. It began with his 1969 debut album Spirits Known and Unknown and included The Leon Thomas Album and Blues and Soulful Truth. This “classic period” ended with Full Circle. By then, Leon Thomas had come Full Circle. His career began at Flying Dutchman Productions began as a free jazz pioneer, before encompassing blues and soul. By then, the versatile and talented Leon Thomas’ career had come Full Circle. 








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