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Working Man's Blues

A working man in his prime: Tommy Thomas.
David Rehor

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 get rent 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.

He also found a job with an electrical company, but soon went back to his old ways of blowing his pay on alcohol and cocaine. "I'm not glorifying it, I'm just talking about it," he says. "I'm glad I lived through it. I couldn't have come out of this stuff without the help of God."

At the peak of his just-say-blow years, Thomas says cocaine abuse and verbal abuse from the linesmen he assisted nearly caused him to end up in jail for good. His co-workers mocked him for being illiterate, he says, and their on-the-job whining while making big pay was more than Thomas could stand. "I wanted to blow up the company and kill some of my co-workers," Thomas says. "I wanted to kill them." In the early '80s, however, after taking up a quest to learn to read and rise above helper status, Thomas became a linesman. He held the position for several years before an on-the-job injury led him to quit the business. Since then he's kept his nose clean -- literally -- supporting himself and his current wife by doing odd jobs and stretching a disability check. A beat-up Chevy truck in his driveway attests to his hustling efforts, and his treasured banana-cream-colored '77 Buick makes it clear that he's getting by, not getting rich.

For the past few years, Thomas has spent his energies developing his musical projects. And three years ago it looked like his efforts were about to pay off. A local upstart blues label, Hi-Dot, put up the bread for Thomas to record an EP designed to land him a larger deal. Backed by a handful of local and imported bluesmen, including Sammy Mayfield, Dave Chandler, Chris Lang and Gene Horn, Thomas cut a batch of tunes -- mainly covers -- that feature his rich Southern-fried tenor and blues stylings. But soon after the cuts were inked, Thomas says, Hi-Dot's owners lost interest in the project. The local players who promised to support Thomas on behalf of the disc bailed out. "The people that I worked with that helped produce the CD," Thomas says, "are some of the worst people that I have dealt with in the music business in my whole life."

But rather than let the music go cold, Thomas paid for 500 cassette copies of the recording, dubbed it Working Man, and started selling it where he could. A year ago he began paying a local engineer to burn small CD runs of the recording so that he could have discs to sell and place on area jukeboxes. In November he had a thousand copies of Working Man made, paid for with funds from local businessman Stacks. An Aurora dealer of Nissan parts, Stacks met Thomas through Thomas's wife, Delores, a C&B customer. Today, Stacks deals copies of Working Man from behind the counter of his shop. "Tommy's a hardworking guy," Stacks says. "He does some odd jobs for me, and he's overcome some obstacles. When he told me about his music, I told him I'd do whatever I could to help him get on his feet." Stacks says he's sold about fifteen CDs to his customers, who spot Thomas's promo posters around the shop and are swayed by Stacks's sales pitch. "I had a customer come in and buy a copy," Stacks says. "Then he came back and bought three more."

According to Joe Campbell, who helped produce Working Man, Thomas could move his music through more conventional outlets if it ever got to the right people's ears. "I like Tommy," he says from his home in Los Angeles, "because he's different. He's Tommy Thomas. If the right people heard him, I think he could get picked up on a major label." Campbell has been in Thomas's camp for years -- they met in the early '90s -- and says that Thomas can hold his own among many of the blues genre's current stars. (Campbell knows a thing or two about talent: His uncle is the legendary Little Milton Campbell, arguably the most powerful sonic boomer ever to sing the blues. Joe Campbell played on Milton's influential Chess sides and still serves as his bandleader.) But according to Campbell, Thomas, like so many other entry-level artists, lacks one crucial ingredient for success: "Cash money," he says. "He needs someone to invest some dollars in him, someone who believes in him."

A listen to Working Man bears out Campbell's assessment. The disc opens with the loping blues of the title track; Thomas's tight, from-down-South voice is full of character and makes the song's Lazy Lester country-style feel sound authentic. Thomas sings in a full-throated, semi-snarled fashion, graced with a Dixie drawl and controlled vibrato. "She Never Gets the Blues," a serving of funky Southern blues marked with punchy horns and stinging guitar fills, raises the bar a bit. Thomas busts hump throughout, sounding every bit as intent as most modern-day blues shouters. "Little Blue Bird" flies comfortably into Little Milton Campbell territory, a hushed big-band blues with lots of open spaces between the instruments and Thomas testifying convincingly just a few steps above it all.

A lengthy version of "Stormy Monday" bogs down the middle of the disc a bit, though Thomas sounds professional handling a tune we've all heard too many times. The platter closes with a patient "I'll Drink Your Bath Water, Baby" (complete with testimonial from a thirsty Thomas) and a farewell of "Some Dirty Rat's Been Eating My Cheese," a tune co-written by Thomas and Joe Campbell. All told, Working is an enjoyable little record highlighted by Thomas's confident vocals, which overcome its paint-by-numbers arrangements and song selections. Those two shortcomings, Thomas says, are evidence of struggles he's still having today.

"A person with talent is a threat to a person without talent," he says. "Every time I get on stage with someone, they play for themselves. There's a lot of jealousy; there's a lot of fictitious musicians out there. All my life I've had to either go up, down or around, adapting to bands. I need a band to adapt to Tommy Thomas for a change." Thomas is searching for a new group willing to do that; his posters around town advertising his search include this important request: Please Don't Give Up Your Day Job. "I'm at the professional level," he says, riffling through a stack of photos, "and when you have a CD, the crowd expects you to sound like that CD. So I'm not going to bring out a band that's not ready. Man, you do that, they'll run you out of town. I'm confronted with gigs all the time," he notes, as if the chance for a live show were some adversary, "but I'd rather do the odd jobs and the day job. I know that someday somebody's gonna recognize my talents and give me the funding that my next CD will need."

A moment later he shows a photo of himself handing one of his tapes to Patti LaBelle at a recent department-store appearance. Another photo shows him glad-handing Jerry Butler, for whom Thomas opened a couple of years ago. One last picture shows Thomas slipping a tape and press kit to his idol, James Brown. Brown, glorious in a purple suit, lavender shirt and freshly conched 'do, beams as he accepts the package from Thomas. "That's the Hardest Working Man and the Working Man," Thomas says with pride. On a table a few feet away is one of Thomas's cards, bearing a simple question: "What can't the working man do?"

For now, he can't play out, can't step on a stage and breathe life into his handle or his music. But he can move product through a handful of local businesses. Thomas estimates he's sold about 700 units of Working Man so far. He's also gotten a few nibbles from a pair of small blues labels in the South. He's hoping something pans out soon. And while he's got no band to back him, he's still doing the odd show. Recently he accepted a private serenade job from a judge who once sentenced Thomas to time in jail. The judge asked Thomas to croon for his mate in an effort to impress her. The judge, Thomas notes, "was as happy as a hog eatin' slop" with Thomas's performance. Thomas is now working on some new tunes, pitching his remaining CDs where he can, and filling in the last few holes on the GED he's been chasing for nearly ten years. True, he's a long way from where he wants to be, but he's not complaining. "I'm my own manager, my own salesperson, my own everything," he says. "And it's a challenge. But it's amazing what you can do if you put your heart into it. The bottom line is, I can give out but I can't give up. I've got to just keep on working."