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
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...