CULT CLASSIC: THE LIGHTMEN-FREE AS YOU WANNA BE.
Cult Classic: The Lightmen-Free As You Wanna Be.
Before founding The Lightmen, drummer, bandleader and political activist Bubbha Thomas had toured the length and breadth of America playing in R&B revues. The rest of his career had been spent working alongside the legends of jazz and playing on sessions for Peacock and Back Beat Records. However, Bubbha Thomas’ career took a different path in the late-sixties after witnessing the political and social upheaval that was tearing America apart.
Bubbha Thomas formed a new jazz group The Lightmen, who released four albums of spiritual jazz during the seventies. This includes their debut Free As You Wanna Be. It finds The Lightmen following in the footsteps of the late John Coltrane on what was a powerful album of spiritual jazz from Bubbha Thomas’ new band.
He was born and grew up in the Houston’s Fourth Ward, where Bubbha Thomas’ father was a preacher and his mother a musician. Sadly, his mother passed away before he started school, and he was brought up by his maternal grandmother. Growing up, Bubbha Thomas was a talented basketball player, but it was music that he grew to love.
All around the Fourth Ward, the young Bubbha Thomas heard music playing, especially the blues. He could walk down the streets and hear Big Mama Thornton, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and Lightnin’ Hopkins. Bubbha Thomas heard the music as he made his way through the Fourth Ward. This made an impression on Bubbha Thomas, and so do did what was happening within the Fourth Ward.
Many of the black residents who had moved to the Fourth Ward in the post-war years, were becoming upwardly mobile socially and economically. Some were keen to become active politically, while others had joined the police force and were determined to change the force from within. This included by opposing the enforcement of the Jim Crow laws from within the police force. It looked like Houston and the South was changing.
Meanwhile, as Bubbha Thomas headed to school each morning, he always met a professional drummer called Fats. By the time he returned home at night he could hear Fats practising. He had spent most of the day honing his skills and was a talented drummer who made a big impressions on Bubbha Thomas.
By then, Bubbha Thomas was attending Booker T. Washington High School, and was playing basketball. However, his first love was music, and he was the drummer in the intermediate and senior bands. Later, he was taught by Conrad O. Johnson who would later enjoy a successful career in jazz music. Prof as he was affectionately known, would influence many young musicians, including Bubbha Thomas.
Via what was called the orchestra at Booker T. Washington High School, Prof introduced his pupils to jazz music. This wasn’t meant to happen, but he saw this as part of his pupil’s musical education. The curriculum at the school had been drawn up by white people for primarily white children. Those that were responsible for the curriculum referred to the “orchestra,” which under Prof’s tutelage became a jazz band and Bubbha Thomas’ its drummer.
Between the influence of Prof and Fats, Bubbha Thomas’ people were soon taking attention of the young drummer. He was still playing basketball, but that was more of a hobby. Bubbha Thomas was more interested in music. Meanwhile, he was about to discover the other side of Houston.
When Bubbha Thomas boarded a bus in Houston, he was still forced to sit at the back of the bus, away from his white friends. It’s hard to believe that any civilised society was treating its citizens like this in the fifties. Bubbha Thomas who was still in high school new this was wrong.
Gradually it started to eat away at him, being treated like a second class citizen. Things came to a head when he boarded a bus with his elderly grandmother who was exhausted and needed a seat. The only remaining seat was on the white part of the bus, and Bubbha Thomas encouraged his grandmother to sit down. She wasn’t sure but, was so tired that she eventually sat down. When a white woman got on the bus, she wouldn’t sit down in the empty seat next to Bubbha Thomas’ grandmother. The bus driver was watching what was happening, and stopped the bus and told his grandmother to get out of her seat and give it the white lady. Bubbha Thomas got upset with the driver, and this resulted in them being thrown off the bus. This was the first time he had been a victim of racism, and this would shape his future and eventually he would rail against political and social injustice.
Before that, Bubbha Thomas was hoping to head Wiley College, in East Texas, on a basketball scholarship. He was told that there were no scholarships available until the following year, but he was offered a musical scholarship. Bubbha Thomas and one his neighbours in the Fourth Ward spent the next four years drumming in East Texas.
When Bubbha Thomas returned the his grandmother had died, and the house that he lived in the Fourth Ward had been sold. Meanwhile, the Fourth Ward was now seen as part of the Gregory-Lincoln campus. It wasn’t the place Bubbha Thomas knew and he left the Fourth Ward for good, and moved in with his father in another part of Houston.
That was until Bubbha Thomas received his call up papers, and soon, he was en route to Korea. The irony was he was being asked to fight for a country where he was regularly discriminated against, and couldn’t even sit next to a white person on a bus.
After a few days doing mundane chores in Korea, Bubbha Thomas told a superior officer that he was a musician, and soon doing what he did best playing music. He spent his time in the army playing jazz rather than as a regular soldier. By the time Bubbha Thomas left the army, he was a much better musician than the one that arrived in Korea.
Back home in Houston in 1961, Bubbha Thomas put together his own band and hit the road. Each night, he played his own music, but other nights, he was asked to accompany other artists. He and his band backed R&B singer Chuck Jackson, bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins and jazz musicians like Leon Spencer and Melvin Sparks. Before long, Bubbha Thomas and his band were capable of playing every style of music.
It was around this time that Bubbha Thomas met Frederick Tillis who would influence him as a musician. So would Don Wilkerson, who released his debut album The Texas Twister in 1960, and then released a trio of well-regarded albums on Blue Note Records. Soon, Bubbha Thomas and Don Wilkerson were part of a quartet together and played all over Texas.
By the mid-sixties, Bubbha Thomas was a talented and versatile musician who had played all over America. He played from small venues and taken to the stage in some of the most prestigious concert halls America had to offer. However, by then, jazz’s popularity was in the decline in America, and other musical genres were growing in popularity.
Fortunately, Bubbha Thomas was asked to join Chuck Jackson’s band in the mid-sixties, and after that, led a trio in Houston that featured Leon Spencer. Later, he founded The Jazz Merchants, who despite their name, weren’t influenced by Houston’s very own The Jazz Crusaders. The Jazz Merchants were determined to head in a different direction and make music that was unique. This they managed to do as the world around them started to change.
By the late-sixties, the civil rights movement had brought about change in America, and the country was changing. Bubbha Thomas had been part of the civil right’s movement and played his part in the changes that were taking place around him. Now he turned his attention to the musicians with the Houston music scene.
While Houston had many talented musicians, Bubbha Thomas realised that they had an image problem. People’s perception of the local musicians wasn’t good. They were seen as people who slept all day, lived on fast food and after gigs drank too much and smoked reefer. Many people were looking down their noses at musicians, and they were starting to receive bad PR. This Bubbha Thomas knew was wrong and ironic as he was university educated, and many of his musician friends were well-educated. Others were studying at college and music was a way of paying the bills. This was very different to the articles that were being write about local musicians in Houston.
Bubbha Thomas started to spend more time with groups of musicians, and got to know them. His next step was to try to get them some much-needed publicity. This was how drummer Bubbha Thomas found himself working for the local anti-poverty, grassroots newspaper Voice Of Hope.
Soon, Bubbha Thomas had a regular column and wrote about a variety of local issues. This resulted in the local police targeting Bubbha Thomas, who was regularly followed and stopped for no apparent reason. The musician and part-time community and cultural activist was once again being discriminated against. Just when it looked as if things were changing in the land of the free.
Meanwhile, Bubbha Thomas was collaborating with playwright, poet and professor at Texas Southern University Thomas Melecon. He was combined the philosophy of the Black Panthers with the style of early Bob Dylan. It was a potent and powerful combination and one that impressed Bubbha Thomas.
So much so, that Bubbha Thomas produced the two singles that Thomas Melecon released on Judnell Records. Not long after this, he asked the poet to join him when he played live and bring a new angle to his music. By then, Bubbha Thomas was already an innovator when it came to art and music.
He was also someone who wanted equality, and when he noticed that there were no black television presenters, wrote to local stations. This resulted in Bubbha Thomas being given his own television show, which sadly, was short-lived. It featured the only live footage of the Kashmere Stage Band, and spiritual jazz combos the Fifth Ward Express and The Lightmen Plus One led by Bubbha Thomas. It was part of his plan for the future.
As 1969 dawned, Bubbha Thomas was leading The Lightmen and The Jazz Merchants. They accompanied some of the high-profile local jazz musicians including Annette Cobb. However, Bubbha Thomas was thinking beyond live gigs and wanted to release music that was very different to what his peers were releasing. The music would be ambitious, innovative and revolutionary, and released on record labels that were co-ops. This was way before Strata in Detroit and Strata Records in New York thought of the concept.
Soon, Bubbha Thomas and his band The Lightmen were rehearsing and writing material for a new album. During the rehearsals before the recording of Free As You Wanna Be, the members of The Lightmen had been discussing the concept of freedom from the perspective of the African-American people. By then, many had started to question the United States’ constitution regarding their rights as American citizens. Ed Rose who knew that Bubbha Thomas had been active within the civil right’s movement asked Bubbha Thomas: “how free are black people in America?”
It took some time before Bubbha Thomas responded: “free as they wanna be.” This inspired Ed Rose to write new track.
He remembers: “with the answer to the question came the name to a tune i had written, the title tune of this album. After the head of tune, there should be no sense of time; each musician has the freedom to be free musically, as he can imagine himself.”
By the time The Lightmen were ready to record their debut album Free As You Wanna Be, members of the band had penned seven tracks. Bandleader Bubbha Thomas had written May ’67, which referred to a clash between student protesters in the Third Ward and the Houston Police Department. During the clashes twenty-four year old rookie policemen Louis Kuba was shot, and 500 people were arrested. These events insured Bubbha Thomas to write May ’67.
Meanwhile, Ed Rose who had written Free As You Wanna Be had also written Luke 23:32-49 which deals with Jesus’ forgiving two criminals just before his crucifixion. These two songs by Ed Rose were joined by Joe Singleton’s High Pockets, Kenny Abair’s Talk Visit, Doug Harris’ #109 Psychosomatic and Creative Music which was a Carl Adams and George Nelson composition. These tracks were recorded by The Lightmen.
Bubbha Thomas’ band featured a rhythm section of drummers Bubbha Thomas and William Jefferies, bassist Ed Rose and guitarist Kenny Abair. They were joined by conga player Mike O’Connor and a horn section that featured trumpeter Carl Adams, trombonist Joe Singleton, tenor saxophonist Doug Harris and flautist Ronnie Laws who played alto and soprano saxophone. The Lightmen’s debut album was produced by George Nelson.
When the Houston underground jazz collective had completed its debut, The Lightmen released Free As You Wanna Be on Judnell Records in 1970. Although Free As You Wanna Be found a small but appreciative audience in Houston sadly, it never found the wider audience it deserved.
It was only much later that a new generation of record buyers discovered The Lightmen’s debut album Free As You Wanna Be. By then, it was regarded as a hidden gem and an oft-overlooked album that featured music that was ambitious, cerebral, innovative album, powerful and thought-provoking album of spiritual jazz.
Especially tracks like Free As You Wanna Be, May ’67 and the album closer Luke 23:32-49. These are especially thought-provoking and have a strong narrative. However, the album opener Creative Music, High Pockets, Talk Visit and #109 Psychosomatic feature a group of like-minded innovative musicians pushing musical boundaries to their limits and sometimes beyond.
Album opener Creative Music finds spiritual jazz almost heading in the direction of free jazz, before The Lightmen play with speed, power and freedom on Free As You Wanna Be. It gives way to the melodic shuffling High Pockets and then Talk Visit where the tempo increases and The Lightmen keep things melodic. That is despite playing with the utmost urgency, power and accuracy. May ’67 is cinematic and thought-provoking and is without doubt one of Free As You Wanna Be’s highlights. So is #109 Psychosomatic where sharp bursts of squealing horns play their part in the sound and success of the track. Closing Free As You Wanna Be is Luke 23:32-49 which is another slower cinematic and cerebral track from spiritual jazz pioneers The Lightmen.
Nowadays, this oft-overlooked spiritual jazz hidden gem is regarded as a cult classic. Free As You Wanna Be features Bubbha Thomas’ band The Lightmen as they embark on the start of a four album musical journey. It’s an album of spiritual jazz that is ambitious and innovative and finds The Lightmen pushing musical boundaries to their limits and playing with freedom. In doing so, The Lightmen created music that is cerebral, cinematic, melodic and thought-provoking as they broach subjects like freedom, religion and one of the darkest days in Houston’s recent history in May ’67. All this makes Free As You Wanna Be as a compelling and groundbreaking album of spiritual jazz from Houston-based musical mavericks The Lightmen.
Cult Classic: The Lightmen-Free As You Wanna Be.