Obituary: Leon Thomas

LEON THOMAS, the American jazz singer best known for his work with the avant-garde saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and the Latin-rock group Santana, was also a composer of note and released several solo albums which earned him a dedicated following amongst Britain's soul-jazz cognoscenti. His stunning vocal ululations - his own take on scat and at times more akin to yodelling - took his music into unexpected directions.

Born in East St Louis, Illinois, in 1937, Thomas attended Lincoln High School. Already guesting with local choirs and jamming with contemporaries such as the saxophonist Jimmy Forrest and the guitarist Grant Green, Thomas was spotted by a disc-jockey who invited him to come and scat live on his radio show.

Having spent a further two years studying music at Tennessee State University, Thomas moved to New York in 1958. The following year, he played the Apollo Theatre in Harlem and toured on a bill topped by Art Blakey's Messengers. Already famous for his vocal acrobatics, Thomas worked with the pianist Mary Lou Williams and the saxophonist Roland Kirk before replacing Joe Williams in the Count Basie Orchestra in 1961. After military service Thomas returned in 1964, entertaining Presidents Kennedy and Johnson at their inaugural balls.

A move back to New York led to a fateful engagement in 1969. "I was playing in Brooklyn with Randy Weston when Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders came by," Thomas told Straight No Chaser magazine. "They began to visit regularly and often jammed with us. Pharoah had this song called `Pisces Moon' which he was playing every night as a theme in New York and he asked me if I could put some lyrics to it. I came up with `The Creator Has a Masterplan'. A classic was born."

Indeed, having cut the tune with Sanders, Thomas recorded it himself on the first and last of the six solo albums (Spirits Known and Unknown and Full Circle respectively) he released on Bob Thiele's Flying Dutchman label. It was around this time that Thomas developed his unique ululating vocal technique, the result of an accident in 1969. Thomas was trying to contact somebody who owed him money. He explained:

I'd been trying to reach this cat for ages with no luck. I was at home and I thought: I'm gonna make this cat pick up the phone mentally. I began my yoga exercises and got to

the head stand. In one intake of breath, I planned to walk to the phone upside down, dial his number and make him answer with this mental projection. As I crossed the threshold of the bedroom, I transcended. I was one place and my body was another. I dropped to the floor, right on my face and my teeth went into my bottom lip. There was blood everywhere.

He had already agreed to play a church benefit for a group of anti-police activists in New York. "I had eight stitches in my mouth. I couldn't do anything. Pharoah came by to see me and said: you can't pull out. I couldn't smile, I could hardly open my mouth but I went along anyhow," said Thomas.

I got up on the stage and when it came time for me to scat, this sound just came out. I didn't know where it was coming from. I realised that the ancestors had arrived and given me what we call throat articulation. They said to me: you will sing like this with your mouth closed. And that was the first time it presented itself to me, in a church. My God! Thank you. It surprises me, it does everything of its own volition. I call it Soularfone. The pygmies call it Umbo Weti. This voice is not me, my voice is ancient. This person you see before you is controlled by ego but my voice is egoless. Pharoah, standing beside me on stage, just raised his eyebrows at me.

The partnership between Sanders and Thomas lasted three years and encompassed such genre-defining albums as Izipho Zam, Jewels of Thought and Karma. In 1972, Thomas issued Blues and the Soulful Truth, on which he collaborated with James Brown's saxophonist Alfred "Pee Wee" Ellis, the drummer Bernard "Pretty" Purdie and the guitarist Larry Coryell. Thomas was voted best vocalist by the readers of Downbeat magazine from 1970 to 1973.

He found himself in even more stellar company when he joined Santana in 1973. Carlos Santana, the Mexican-born guitarist and leader of the band recalls how he recruited the singer:

I was in a restaurant in New York with my wife and I went over to the jukebox and there was this record by Leon Thomas. I decided to look him up and see if he wanted to join the band. When I called him, he said he had just had a dream about me. I told him we were going on a tour of Japan and he said he'd always wanted to go to Japan so he joined.

After the Japanese concerts, later documented in the triple live set Lotus, Thomas recorded the album Welcome with the group. Though his contribution was limited to three tracks ("When I Look Into Your Eyes", "Light of Life" and "Love, Devotion and Surrender"), Thomas broadened the scope of Santana, helping make Welcome a Top Thirty album on both sides of the Atlantic.

However, Thomas couldn't take the hectic pace of touring and developed a drug habit. He relaunched his solo career, recording Piece of Cake with the trumpeter Freddie Hubbard in 1979, and reuniting with Pharoah Sanders in 1985 on Shukuru, as well as fronting his own blues band. In 1993, he released Precious Energy, an excellent live album recorded with the saxophonist Gary Katz, before relapsing into drug abuse.

More recently, Thomas drew great comfort and support from London's Acid Jazz scene. Galliano covered his composition "Prince of Peace" (Thomas's nickname) and the DJ Gilles Peterson championed Thomas's work. Last year, Soul Brother Records also compiled The Leon Thomas Anthology, a comprehensive career overview.

Amos Leon Thomas, singer, percussionist and composer: born East St Louis, Illinois 4 October 1937; married (one son); died New York 8 May 1999.

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas