Winter Blues: Earl Thomas Sings Out & Proud
Fifty-two years ago, Earl Thomas was born in the basement of Pikeville, Tennessee's hospital because, at the time, that was the only place the hospital allowed black babies to be born. Today, the City of Pikeville holds a music festival bearing the openly gay blues singer's name, and, in a stroke of irony, the festival's stage sits in front of that very hospital's steps.
Earl Thomas is the greatest gay ambassador you've never heard of, or more probably, never heard. He grew up a military brat, the son and grandson of Tennessee bluesmen, great-grandson of slaves. By the age of 14 he'd changed schools six times, crisscrossing the country and globe living in Seattle, San Diego, and Guam. Ultimately, he returned to Pikeville, finished high school in the town of less than 3,000, came out, and then joined the Navy until he was kicked out after being caught "literally with a dick in my mouth."
To Earl Thomas, diversity - of people, place, and languages - was as natural as a sunrise over the Sequatchie Valley; and the blues as familial as blood through his veins. Thomas' father was a blues singer and guitarist, his mother a gospel singer. Thomas pursued a more academic route, training classically, and eventually getting a degree in music.
That training - in academia and life - paid off as Thomas pursued the only profession he ever imagined: a blues singer. With influences as diverse as British rock and '70s funk, Thomas' career now spans more than three decades and 13 albums. His original music, co-written with former lover and partner Philip C. Wootton, has been covered by blues legends Etta James and Tom Jones. Backroad Blues named him "Best Male Singer, 2011." Ike Turner describes Thomas as "One of the most entertaining people you'll ever meet," and former members of Ike and Tina's band frequently sit in with Earl's current contingent, Earl Thomas and the Blues Ambassadors.
This reporter went to see Earl Thomas last December at San Francisco's Biscuits and Blues, where he recently began a yearlong residency. As my date and I took our reserved seats, I was disheartened by the touristy trap feeling of the place - relatively expensive drinks and average food by San Francisco standards - all deep in the heart of Union Square. I looked around the room feeling almost sorry for the other audience members paying out many vacation dollars when there were so many authentic San Francisco experiences to be had for less.
By the time I left, however, there really is no other way to say it: Earl Thomas had changed my life.
With the exception of his incredible shoes, Earl Thomas took the stage unassumingly. ("A blues man has to dress like he doesn't need the money," Earl explained). At first, his zen-like stage presence caught my notice even more than his lyrics, until I started listening to the artistry of what the man actually said and sang. "Let your voice ring louder, hold your head up prouder, don't worry about doubters" - perhaps the first time in music history that a man sang the gay marriage blues.
Earl Thomas is the real deal. In a music industry customarily lacking authenticity, Thomas left nothing in the wings. Not an ounce of his energy, not a drop of sweat, not a shade of secrecy. "I think of myself as an evangelist," he explains. "Joining people, bringing people together." And on that night at Biscuits and Blues, Earl Thomas left no doubt that he is changing the world, one gay blues tune after another, when in between songs he casually told the story of how he came out to his parents, how they casually reacted, then he casually moved on to the next song, while the mostly heterosexual audience either sat in stunned silence or wild applause in awe of this man who is undeniably one of the most incredible blues talents of our time.
"The blues is unique in that it's very misogynistic, it's all about chasing pussy. Then there's me, this gay guy who's totally out. I know I'm equal to all those dudes, and they know I'm the baddest blues singer out there," Thomas says.
Baddest or not, there's no doubt Earl has earned his blues badge through more than heritage. His fast-rising career in the 1980s quickly derailed when his partner got AIDS. En route to becoming a star, Thomas' management dropped him unceremoniously, while he struggled to continue singing and nurse his near-death lover through an historic health crisis.
"I lost my management deal because I had to focus on (my lover)", Earl says. Fast forward to 2012, however, and the quinquagenarian - with the hard-earned physique of a 20-something gym rat - is making his mark on the present and future of blues.
"I like to think of myself as a 21st-century blues man," Thomas says. "The 19th-century blues man was a slave, the 20th-century blues man a victim of discrimination and the Jim Crow laws of segregation, but the 21st-century blues man is college-educated, world-traveled, well-read, smart, sophisticated, and wears Brooks Brothers! And this one happens to be gay! And proud!"
Earl Thomas wants to - and will - go down as one of the blues greats. He doesn't think of himself as a role model but says that if he is, then he's just a "role model to be yourself." No matter where he plays in the world, Earl Thomas is just that. Not just an ambassador of the blues, but an ambassador for the beauty, talent and diversity that is our gay community.
He won't be in the blues game forever. Some day, he wants to retire and be cared for by a strapping Samoan nurse. But in 2013, Earl Thomas and the Blues Ambassadors feature at San Francisco's Biscuits and Blues on the last Saturday of every month. Check the website. And if you want to ensure seeing history in the making, reserve your seat in advance.