In the early 1990s, Earl Thomas made the rapid transformation from Humboldt State University math major to instantly successful blues and rock singer, a new artist on the block whose original songs were soon covered by blues icons Etta James, Solomon Burke and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. “I got into music completely by accident,” Thomas recalls of the memorable open mic night that served as his first public performance since a harrowing experience one decade earlier at a sixth grade talent show. Even after a few encouraging open mic nights, Thomas did not decide to pursue a career in music until his debut album Blue…Not Blues was successfully recorded and sold as a senior project he and his good friend Philip Wootton undertook in their final year of college. Since then, Thomas has gained recognition around the globe for his talents as a songwriter and rock performer who sings the blues.
On Sunday, July 7, Thomas executed one in a series of shows dedicated to raising money to build a Blues Hall of Fame museum. After teaming up with The Blues Foundation for the Raise the Roof campaign last fall, Thomas excited a network of musicians respectful of blues history for these themed performances; during the latest show on July 7, Thomas gathered artists across all genres at San Diego’s Belly Up Tavern, where they all played short sets of their own blues interpretations. With hundreds of thousands of dollars still needed for the museum and many additional Raise the Roof concerts on the way, we spoke with Thomas over the phone to discuss the campaign’s progress and his investment in its victory as an influential blues artist.
What was your reaction when you first learned blues icons like Etta James and Solomon Burke were recording your music in the 1990s?
I’ll tell you the truth: at the time it was happening, I didn’t know how far-reaching it would be. My parents were really blown away. My mom was over the moon because she grew up in the Etta James era. To me, Etta James was just some artist my mom used to listen to. I liked her music, but I didn’t know how valuable she was. I didn’t know that she was an icon, a national treasure – at least, I didn’t view her in that way. But now, I totally get it. It was great – it was exciting, because I didn’t consider myself a songwriter. It wasn’t like I was being rewarded for my years and years of effort as a songwriter. I am the luckiest one, really.
Did it all come naturally to you in the early years?
You know what I realized? I really do come from a musical family, and music has been part of my life for my entire life. It’s in my genetics, I’m sure. And it did, it just came naturally. Singing, performing, the whole thing.
How would you say you’ve evolved as a songwriter over the years?
I’ve evolved in that I know where my songs come from now. Before, I didn’t realize that they came from my life experiences. I didn’t realize I was writing an autobiography. That’s really how I’ve evolved. I’m very careful now with what I put on the page because it’s probably true, or will come true. I’ve evolved as a songwriter because I’ve evolved as a person. As a person, my life experience is wonderful. It’s really happy and content, with really no regret. That’s a really good feeling, so my songs have to have that quality. I can’t write songs about broken hearts and failed relationships and stuff like that because that’s not my experience.
Who influenced you as a performer and singer?
Tina Turner. Tina Turner was my idol, absolutely my idol. Everything I do is based on her. I put my own twist on it, but at the root of it, it’s early Tina Turner. My singing style and the timbre in my voice I developed to sound like her.
How did you come to team up with The Blues Foundation?
I first became involved when I was on the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise back in October of last year. I was walking around and saw a table with a guy sitting there, and it said “Blues Foundation Raise the Roof Campaign for Blues Hall of Fame.” I thought, “Oh, there’s a Blues Hall of Fame?” I didn’t even know there was one. And then I thought, “That’s a shame, I should know.” Then I saw this guy, the president of The Blues Foundation; he’s sitting at the table asking for donations. I thought, “That’s really a shame. The CEO of The Blues Foundation is out here asking for money. We should all get together and build one. There shouldn’t have to be raffle tickets – why don’t we just get together and build one?” It got me to thinking. Back in the ‘90s, I worked with Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation in Chicago. We did a series of concerts all over the country and raised money so they could buy the Chess Records building in Chicago, which then became the Blues Heaven Foundation building. I thought, “I could do that now. Why don’t we just do concerts and do fundraisers? We do fundraisers for everybody else – why not fundraise for The Blues Foundation?”
I remembered that Lou Rawls used to do a thing called Parade of Stars for the United Negro College Fund. It got to the point where the top stars of the day were trying to get on his show – people would wait all year for it. So I thought, “I’ll do it like that. I’ll get all my friends together and just parade them out.” The first one was in the Bay Area [March 2013] with all the Bay Area blues artists – Sista Monica, Lady Bianca, Kenny Neal, Aki Kumar. Everybody came on and did two songs, and it turned out to be a really great show. So I thought of ways of fundraising that are interesting and fun. For the San Diego show it’s all non-blues artists, which is kind of interesting. That idea came to me when I heard Eve Selis sing something, and I thought, “Man, she would be such a great blues singer. I would just love to hear Eve sing some blues. And Gregory Page – he’s a great songwriter, he puts beautiful things together. What if he did that in the blues?” I was saying that to a friend of mine, and she goes, “Well, why don’t you make a show like that?”
What other Raise the Roof concerts do you have planned after the San Diego event?
There is one planned for Portland, Oregon. The next one will be in October in Mill Valley up in the Bay Area, and it will have an international theme because my very good friend Philipp Fankhauser will be here from Switzerland and Eddie Angel will be here from the United Kingdom. That Raise the Roof concert is going to have an international theme, with international artists who play blues. We’re just starting to talk with a place in Chicago about doing one there. My dream is to have the grand finale concert at the B.B. King Blues Club in New York City. We’re just taking it one step at a time right now, but eventually we’ll do the whole country.
What really got me going on this was a PBS documentary I saw called “Eyes on the Prize.” It was about the Civil Rights Movement from the ‘50s to the ‘80s. I knew about the Civil Rights Movement as much as any American high school student, but I had no idea it was that bad. I had no idea how those people suffered. My parents never told us about that, and they went through it. The blues stands for that, you know? The blues came from that. The artists that made the blues really do deserve a place of dignity. I got that loud and clear when I watched that documentary, and I want to contribute, I want to do something to help build it. That’s more important to me than winning any awards or anything like that. There’s the Blues Music Awards that The Blues Foundation is involved in, but I’d much rather have my name on a little piece of tile inside of The Blues Foundation or the Blues Hall of Fame. Just give me a little piece of tile in the corner somewhere: that would mean a lot to me.
How close are we to getting the Blues Hall of Fame Museum up and running?
They needed two million dollars at last count, so they’re getting there. But it doesn’t just stop there. They have to maintain it; they have to do stuff in there. It’s an ongoing process. Lots of people tell me, “Oh wow, I didn’t even know there was a Blues Hall of Fame.” That’s exactly what I said. I didn’t know – I thought, “That’s odd – I didn’t know!” So I want to enlighten as well. The building will be located directly across the street from the National Civil Rights Museum, which I think is a very fitting spot, under the circumstances.
Will you do another Raise the Roof show with artists from other genres?
Yes! I’ve been getting all these ideas. The one in New York, at B.B. King’s, that would have a Broadway theme with all Broadway singers. In Nashville, I’d like to get country singers to come in and do blues. Maybe go to Tanglewood and get some classical music geniuses to do some blues – but all of course with eyes toward The Blues Foundation. And again, that’s about the awareness raising. That’s what my hope was for San Diego. Why would I choose non-blues artists? Partly because I know everybody; these are all friends of mine and I wanted to see them. But I also think people will find it interesting to come and hear some non-blues artists popular in their own field to come and do blues. And I’m hoping the blues people will want to come and see non-blues artists do the blues. It just seems like a really good idea, a really interesting concept.
This is such a good cause. All of us who make music today – and I mean all of us across the board, whether you’re in blues, jazz, rock, funk, new wave, pop, whatever music you are doing in America and around the world, really – all of us are standing on the shoulders of the blues. The blues is the foundation for American music. The blues made rock ‘n roll. I think we all want to show some allegiance to the artists that created this incredible body of work.
Interview by Meghan Roos