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Obituary: Leon Thomas

Pierre Perrone
Wednesday 02 June 1999 00:02 BST

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.

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