LEON THOMAS-BLUES AND THE SOULFUL TRUTH.

Leon Thomas-Blues and The Soulful Truth.

Label: BGP.

Format: LP.

Release Date: 26th August 2022.

Some labels prove to be the perfect fit for an artist, and this was the case when Leon Thomas signed to Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman Productions. 

By the late sixties, Leon Thomas had embraced free jazz fully. He turned his back on the blues and his vocal style was totally transformed. His vocal encompassed Afrobeat, blues,  jazz R&B and soul as he scatted and yodeled. It was a vocal style that was truly unique. Many people within the music industry didn’t understand what Leon Thomas was doing but Bob Thiele at Flying Dutchman Productions did.

During his career, Bob Thiele had worked with some of the most innovative and creative musicians in the history of jazz. He realised that often, large record companies aren’t the best environment for innovative and creative musicians. Often, these musical mavericks didn’t thrive within such an orthodox environment. Their creativity is restricted, meaning they’re unable to experiment and innovate like they would like. 

Having left Impulse following the musical equivalent of a musical coup d’etat, Bob Thiele founded Flying Dutchman Productions. His new label would be the perfect environment for musical mavericks to thrive. He signed some of the most innovative jazz musicians of the late-sixties and early seventies. Among them weer Ornette Coleman, Gil Scott Heron, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, Louis Armstrong and Lonnie Liston Smith and His Cosmic Echoes. Another artist signed to Flying was Leon Thomas.

Leon Thomas released a quartet of albums between 1969 and 1973. His Flying Dutchman debut was 1969s Spirits Known And Unknown. The following year, he released his sophomore album The Leon Thomas Album in 1970. Flying Dutchman was the perfect label for Leon Thomas. It was as if having found a label that understood him. He was allowed to unleash his creativity, and with each album, pushed musical boundaries even further. That was the case on his third album,  Blues And The Soulful Truth which will be reissued on LP by BGP on the 26th August 2022.

By Blues And The Soulful Truth release in 1972, Bob Thiele’s latest signing had come a long way since he first heard Miles Davis back in St. Louis.

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

The night Miles Davis played St. Louis his 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 Thomas to study musical at Tennessee State University.

Having left Tennessee State University, Leon Thomas became a familiar face on the jazz circuit. Having signed to RCA in 1958, he recorded what should’ve been his debut album. Sadly, it wasn’t released and this was a huge disappointment.

By the early sixties, Leon Thomas was the vocalist with Count Basie’s band. This continued right through until the mid-sixties. During that time, his 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 Thomas 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 Thomas finding his real voice. With their help, his voice became like an instrument. He fused musical influences, with blues, jazz and Afro-beat combining with soul, as his vocal veered between a scat and a yodel. This was unique, avant garde and groundbreaking. Leon Thomas was a pioneer, as he headed to New York looking for fellow travellers.

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 had been a member of John Coltrane’s band until the legendary saxophonist’s death in 1967.

After that, he formed his own band comprising Leon Thomas, pianist Lonnie Liston Smith and Pharoah Sanders. This 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 Thomas’ unique vocal style. A compelling, spiritual track where he yodels and scats his way through the track, it was truly groundbreaking.

One man who realised Leon Thomas’ potential was Bob Thiele, founder of Flying Dutchman Productions.Having heard the vocalist feature on Pharoah Sanders’ album  Karma ,he signed Leon Thomas to Flying Dutchman Productions.

His Flying Dutchman Productions’ debut was 1969s Spirits Known and Unknown. It was an ambitious and groundbreaking album that showcased Leon Thomas’ unique vocal style. Plaudits and praise accompanied the release of the album. Sadly, it wasn’t a commercial success. However, Spirits Known and Unknown was only Leon Thomas’ debut album.

A year later, he returned with The Leon Thomas Album. Released in 1970, as the new decade dawned, it was hailed as innovative and ambitious. Critics realised that here was an artist who was determined to move jazz in a new direction. Standing still wasn’t an option, and this was admirable. However,  the album didn’t sell well. It was an age old problem. Here was an artist that was way ahead of the musical curve. Would his third album Blues And The Soulful Truth see him make a breakthrough when it  was released in 1972?

For his third album, Blues And The Soulful Truth, Leon Thomas wrote Love Each Other and L-O-V-E. He also arranged the traditional song C.C. Rider; cowrote Shape Your Mind To Die with Neal Creque and Let’s Go Down To Lucy’s with Alfred Ellis. He and Leon Thomas  cowrote China Doll with Jesse Kilpatrick. Other tracks included covers of Gabor Szabo and George David Weiss’ Gypsy Queen and John Lee Hooker’s Boom-Boom-Boom. These eight tracks became Blues And The Soulful Truth.

When recording of Blues And The Soulful Truth began, Pee Wee Ellis had been drafted in to arrange and conduct the band. He also played piano and tenor saxophone. Different lineups played on different tracks. So the rhythm section included variously drummers Bernard Purdie, Jesse Kilpatrick and Airto Moreira, bassists Stanley Clarke, Donald Pate and Gordon Edwards, plus guitarists Cornell Dupree and Larry Cornell  They were joined by pianist Neal Creque, percussionist Baba Feme and Gene Golden on congas. Horns came courtesy of trumpeter Dick Griffin, trombonist John Eckert and baritone saxophonist Cecil Payne. Leon Thomas sang the vocals and played percussion on Blues And The Soulful Truth.

When Blues And The Soulful Truth was released in 1972 it marked a change in direction from Leon Thomas. Critics called it the most accessible album he 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 a pioneering vocalist 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. However since then, a new generation of music lovers have discovered the album.

Side One.

Let’s Go Down To Lucy’s opens Blues And The Soulful Truth. From the get-go the listener is hooked as chiming guitars, growling horns and a funky rhythm section join forces with meandering keyboard. It’s powerful, sassy, lived-in. Meanwhile, the rhythm section provide the funky, pulsating heartbeat as bursts of blazing horns punctuate the arrangement. Leon Thomas vamps his way through the lyrics. He vamps and jive-talks his way through the track combining jazz and soul with power, sass and humour.

Finger clicks, percussion and a meandering piano create the groove to L-O-V-E. Soon, the bass, hissing hi-hats and soaring, soulful harmonies sweep in. That’s Leon Thomas’ signal to kick loose as crystalline guitar licks, grizzled free jazz horns and a hypnotic bass combine. By now, he’s singing call and response with the backing vocalists. He seems to be drawing inspiration from Isaac Hayes on this gloriously soulful, funky track.

Straight away, Gypsy Queen sees Leon Thomas return to the more familiar sound of his two previous albums. Keyboards flit across the arrangement, while the arrangement create a shuffling, spacious beat. A tender scatted vocal is joined by rasping horns enter. Then the vocal grows in power. It sometimes sounds like Terry Callier and is heartfelt, impassioned and like the arrangement, grows in power. Meanwhile elements of jazz, funk and soul are combined as the vocal veers between a scat and a yodel. This is very different from the previous tracks. Especially it’s transformed into a free jazz powerhouse. The song is transformed and becomes something very different to the song Santana popularised on Abraxas. It’s reinvented and  transformed  into something that writers Gabor Szabo and George David Weiss never envisaged.

Side Two.

Love Each Other has a funky, jazz-tinged and soulful sound. The rhythm section, electric piano and harmonies accompany Leon Thomas’ impassioned, joyous vocal. Horns rasp and growl punctuating the arrangement. The rhythm section lock into a groove and with the electric piano create the perfect backdrop for a heartfelt, impassioned and soulful vocal tour de force. 

Shape Your Mind To Die has an Eastern sound. That comes courtesy of the horns. They’re joined by percussion and the rhythm section. Just like the previous track the bass line is at the heart of the arrangement. Leon Thomas’ vocal is deliberate and dramatic. The lyrics are cerebral and full of social comment. Midway through the track he unleashes a haunting laugh. That’s the signal for the band to stretch their legs. They don’t need to be asked twice, and combine everything from funk, jazz, psychedelia and rock. When the vocal returns it breathes life and meaning into the lyrics on a tracks which is spiritual jazz at its finest.

Most people will know John Lee Hooker’s Boom-Boom-Boom. It’s a familiar blues track. However, Leon Thomas transforms the track. In his hands, the song swings. Driven along by the piano rhythm section and crystalline, rocky guitar he combines jazz, blues and rock. A scratchy fiddle and Hammond organ are added. By now, an old blues track has been transformed and swings. 

China Doll marks another change of direction from Leon Thomas. Flourishes of piano join percussion, cymbals and finger clicks. He adds a scatted vocal and gradually, the arrangement shows its hidden secrets. A wistful piano, meandering bass and myriad of percussion combine. They create the backdrop to a needy, sassy vocal. Harmonies coo while the piano meanders and percussion is sprinkled across the understated arrangement. When all this is combined, the result is a track that’s soulful, sassy and jazz-tinged. It also showcases versatile vocalist and talented storyteller who can bring lyrics to life.

The familiar sound of C.C. Rider closes Blues and The Soulful Truth. Growling horns, jazzy piano and the rhythm section combine blues, funk and jazz. They’re joined by a glistening guitar and scratchy fiddle. Together, they set the scene for a heartbroken vocal. It’s a mixture of power, frustration and despair. Then when his vocal drops out, the band take centre-stage. They enjoy the opportunity to kick loose. A glorious rocky guitar solo steals the show. Then an atmospheric Hammond organ picks up the baton it unleashes flourishes of jazz-tinged, funky and dramatic music. Stabs of piano, rocky guitar and scratchy fiddle compete for the listener’s attention as the all-star band grandstand. However, with a minute to go, a heartbroken, dramatic and impassioned vocal powerhouse takes centrestage and provides a fitting finale to Blues and The Soulful Truth.

Released in 1972, Blues and The Soulful Truth was Leon Thomas’ third album for Flying Dutchman Productions. However, his two previous albums hadn’t sold well. Something had to change. What changed was his musical direction.

Gone was Leon Thomas’ unique and inimitable free jazz style.Whereas he scatted and yodelled on his two previous albums, Blues and The Soulful Truth had a much more traditional sound. Granted he returned to his trademark sound on Gypsy Queen. Apart from that, he eschews scatting and yodelling and instead, sticks to a much more traditional vocal jazz style. Leon Thomas had moved towards the jazz mainstream. Maybe it was  a case of needs must?

No record label can continue to release albums that don’t sell. That would be folly, and a recipe for insolvency. It was why Leon Thomas recorded his most accessible and mainstream album, Blues and The Soulful Truth. It was a revelation and should’ve been a huge commercial success. It showcased a versatile and multi-talented vocalist who could sing blues, jazz, R&B, rock or soul.

The  band were equally versatile as they strut their way through eight tracks  flitting between, and sometimes, fusing blues, free jazz, funk, jazz, psychedelia, R&B, rock and soul. Not once do they miss a beat. Mind you, what do you expect from what was a band comprising some of America’s top musicians? Sadly, despite their best efforts, Blues and The Soulful Truth wasn’t a commercial success. 

Leon Thomas it seemed, wasn’t going to enjoy the commercial success his music deserved. He had even changed direction and released the most accessible and mainstream album of his career, Blues and The Soulful Truth which  is the album that should’ve transformed  his career and fortunes. Sadly, that wasn’t to be and Blues and The Soulful Truth proved to a lost classic.

That wasn’t the end of Blues and The Soulful Truth. As time went by, a new generation of music lovers discovered Leon Thomas’ music. They realised that he was one of music’s best kept secrets. Here was an artist whose groundbreaking, genre-melting albums should’ve enjoyed commercial success.

Sadly, as many artists have discovered, talent alone doesn’t result in commercial success. If it did, Leon Thomas would’ve been one of the most successful jazz singers of the early seventies. That wasn’t the case. However, Leon Thomas will always be remembered as one of  jazz music’s true pioneers. 

Proof of that is the quartet of albums Leon Thomas released for Flying Dutchman Productions. Blues and The Soulful Truth was the most accessible and mainstream album of Leon Thomas career, and a reminder of a  pioneering jazz vocalist who had his own unique and inimitable vocal style.

Leon Thomas-Blues and The Soulful Truth.

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