Working Man's Blues

Tommy Thomas is paying the cost to be the boss.

Tommy "Working Man" Thomas is in a jam. Sure, he's got a new CD, Working Man, out in stores, and he's slowly selling copies of the bluesy six-song disc. He's also getting a dash of airplay on the local airwaves. But musically speaking, Thomas's handle doesn't seem to hold water. Because the Working Man is out of work. Thomas has no band, no booked shows and no musical means of promoting his new CD. What's more, the singer hasn't had a paying gig in nearly three years, and he has to search his memory and his office files to determine just when he played his last professional show. As if that weren't enough, the music on his recording is a few years in the can, part of an unsuccessful attempt at landing a spot on a major label. But when he stretches his lean defensive-back frame out on the couch of his Thornton townhouse, Thomas makes it clear that his title is deserved. And the fact that he hasn't played in years has everything to do with his work ethic.

"I'm tired of playing my music and no one wanting to pay me for what I do," says Thomas, who looks much younger than his 45 years. "All my life I've been giving away freebies, since I was singing on the streets as a kid in Mississippi, playing in clubs since I was twelve. And I've studied and trained with my music to get to be at a professional level, and I feel I'm just as good as James Brown or B.B. King. But I'm burned out on the freebies. I've done all the jams and the promotional shows for nothing -- now, where's a paycheck? That's where I'm at now." Today, he notes, "all my work focuses on getting my stuff on radio, getting my music in jukeboxes and getting exposure. I'm looking at the big picture."

The panoramic vista Thomas imagines is one that stretches far beyond the music scene of Denver and the wide-open spaces of Colorado. Thomas has turned his back on the local circuit -- and a troubled past -- to shoot for a slice of the major-label pie. Of course, there are countless others in this town and elsewhere with the same lofty visions. But Thomas is putting his money where his mouth is, angling for exposure in blue-collar fashion. You won't find his CD in too many local record stores ("They either kept my money or refused to promote me," he says), but you can find it in the various non-music enterprises that support him. Forget the mainstream music chains and even the locally owned indie music stores. To grab a slab of the Working Man, drop your entertainment dollars at Pierre's Supper Club, or revered Five Points rib house M&D's Bar-B-Que & Fish Palace. Or pay a visit to C&B Auto Parts, owned by Thomas's friend Charles Stacks, where the release rests at the grimed elbows of the working world.

These outlets have helped Thomas overcome his distribution woes, but he's still facing another obstacle. "I've auditioned with bands, I've talked with bands, I've been on the phone with all kinds of musicians," Thomas says. "You find out what a true musician is when you put out a CD and you tell them, 'I need you to follow this versus what you been doing.' See, there's a difference between putting on a show and putting on a gig. A showman can pay the rent -- a guy that's doing gigs is trying to getrent money." Thomas puts himself in the showman category and says the real work for a true musician comes not on stage, but when the artist works the day gig to keep the night shift pure. "When I present musicians with the rehearsal, dedication, being on time, cutting the drugs and booze a-loose," he says, "I'm always stood up. See, I've done the drugs and I've done the booze. I'm over that."

Thomas's standards and his palpable self-confidence ("If you don't believe in yourself, nobody will," he notes) may make him a tough frontman to back up. "I've been working since I was five years old," he says. "I don't mind work." At an age when most kids have their noses in their schoolbooks, Thomas was hauling firewood and rolling dice for change in his hometown of Vicksburg, Mississippi. He says he worked his way through grades five through seven by shooting craps and singing for pocket money and sips of beer in clubs his older siblings took him into (he was the youngest of ten boys). When he was a teen, his family relocated to Denver, where he entertained friends with his booming, gospel-bred voice. But he soon fell in with the wrong crowd, dropped out of Manual High School and shifted his focus from music to drugs, drinking and fighting on the streets of Denver. Along the way, he got shot, stabbed and sent to jail several times. At age nineteen, though, he married a young woman he'd dated in Mississippi and found spiritual salvation through the Jehovah's Witness church.

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