Singer Mickey Thomas has a couple of notable pop culture memories on his extensive resume: during the 1970s, he sang with the Elvin Bishop Band, and it's his voice that you hear on their monster 1975 hit "Fooled Around and Fell In Love," a song that has lived on through its use in TV shows and movie soundtracks. Thomas was also the frontman for 1980s-era hitmakers Jefferson Starship (later just 'Starship'), the band enjoying a long run as AOR stadium rockers with chart-topping songs like "Jane" and "We Built This City."
Those cultural touchstones aside, Thomas has forged a lengthy career that has spanned five decades and seen him bring his unique voice to rock, soul, blues, and gospel music through the years. Thus, it seemed only natural that, when guitarist and producer Tim Tucker asked him to sing some songs with his Bluesmasters band, Thomas would jump in with both feet. The collaboration resulted in The Bluesmasters featuring Mickey Thomas, the album representing a return to the blues, soul, and R&B music that Thomas grew up with in Georgia.
Joining the Bluesmasters
How did Thomas get involved with the Bluesmasters? "I was introduced to the project by Tim Tucker," he says, "who produced the record and is the mastermind behind the Bluesmasters. The project was evolving, going through some changes, and he invited me in to sing on a couple of songs. I did that, and it went really well, so he said 'how about a couple more,' so we just started blazing through tunes. The first batch, I sang maybe six or seven songs, and we did that periodically in maybe three recording sessions spread out over six or nine months. The ones that I captured the vocal really quickly, in one or two takes, are the ones that made the record."
As they got deeper into the project, Thomas ended up getting involved in the album's song selection. "A lot of the songs had been recorded before I became involved," he remembers, "but as we got into it, Tim and I would talk about certain blues tunes, and we recorded some of the ones that I'd suggested." What were some of the songs that Thomas wanted to record with the band? "'Rock Me Baby' is a song that I've been singing since the late 1960s, early-70s, with bar bands I was in, so it was close to my heart. We decided on re-recording 'Fooled Around and Fell In Love' in a slightly bluesier take, with the harp in it...'Over Yonder Wall' is one of my favorites, it has a little more of a gospel edge to it, that's what attracted me to that one."
Raised On Rhythm & Blues
Thomas' roots are in the music of the South. "I grew up in South Georgia in the 1960s, so I was exposed to a lot of great rhythm & blues music, soul music we called it," says Thomas. "I was greatly influenced by Otis [Redding], Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett, and Aretha Franklin...so it was rhythm & blues music, and sometimes it's hard to separate the rhythm from the blues, so I think that R&B music basically is blues music."
For an artist as strongly associated with rock music as Thomas, his career began in an entirely different direction. "I had the great fortune of meeting this gospel singer named Gideon Daniels in the early-70s," he says, "and I spent a year singing with Gideon and his band. Gideon really taught me how to sing, and showed me that the origins of a lot of the great soul singers of that time were in gospel music, most of them had grown up singing in the church. That helped me form my own vocal styling at that point in time, trying to emulate Gideon. That led me to the Elvin Bishop Band, where I was really exposed to the blues."
The Elvin Bishop Band
Blues and roots-music fans will remember Thomas primarily for his association with guitarist Elvin Bishop. Thomas joined the band in time to record Bishop's 1975 album Struttin' My Stuff and hung around through the live 1978 album Raisin' Hell. "I got hooked up with Elvin through my relationship with Gideon," Thomas remembers, "he and Elvin were good friends, and Gideon would go down and jam with Elvin when he'd be playing the clubs in San Francisco. I would sit-in on some of these jam sessions, and sometimes we ended up going back and continuing to jam at Elvin's apartment until the wee hours of the morning. So I met Elvin through Gideon, and that gave me the opportunity, a couple of years later, to join the Elvin Bishop Band."
"Once I got in Elvin's band…Elvin musically explored all kinds of roots music, American music whether it was blues or gospel, soul music or country, all kinds of music, so it was a great learning experience," says Thomas. What is his best memory of singing with the Elvin Bishop Band? "Recording 'Fooled Around and Fell In Love,' which kind of spontaneously happened in the studio," he remembers. "We were making the first album that I was involved with, called Struttin' My Stuff. We were finishing up the album, we had recorded all the tracks, and the producer said 'we seem to be missing something to round out that album. Do you have anything else?' I suggested 'Fool Around and Fell In Love' because I had heard Elvin play it a couple of years earlier, back in his apartment. So it was a last minute thing, and the producer suggested that I sing it since I had suggested it, and we got it in one or two takes, really fast."
Fooled Around and Fell In Love
In the 35 years since its release, "Fooled Around and Fell In Love" has become ubiquitous on classic rock radio, appearing on dozens of compilation albums and movie soundtracks, and has been covered by rock and country artists alike. The song also proved to be Bishop's biggest hit, and it opened doors for the hard-working band. "We were on the road constantly," says Thomas of the era, "we got to do a lot of jamming and hanging out; we did a lot of shows with Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Marshall Tucker Band, Z.Z. Top, the Allman Brothers...I feel like I did my graduate work with the Elvin Bishop Band. It was an exciting time for music. We played everything from stadiums to bars."