Leon Thomas was born in East St. Louis, Illinois on Oct. 4 1937, and studied music at Tennesseee State University, eventually moving to New York City in 1958. Leon was one of the most unique and gifted of all jazz vocalists, he shocked the jazz world with his amazing capabilities when he took it by storm in the late 1960s with his collaborations with Pharoah Sanders that continues to entrance listeners today.
Early sessions included work with names like Count Basie, Randy Weston, Roland Kirk and Oliver Nelson.
Leon recorded on two of Sanders’ most renowned classics “Karma,” (1969) and “Jewels Of Thought,” (1970) and his vocals on the cuts “The Creator Has A Master Plan” and “Hum-Allah” have ensured his reputation. Just as Sonny Sharrock's startling guitar was the unique foil for Pharoah's slashing saxophone, so Leon Thomas had the virtuosity, intensity and blinding originality to keep up with Sanders. It was on these recordings that Leon revealed his unique vocal gift which might best be described as kind of scat-yodelling, offbeat and wonderful sounds which seem to well up from his inner being.
Having made his name with Pharoah, Leon was ready for a solo career and the Flying Dutchman label stepped in with a deal. The label represented total freedom and support for the artist and Thomas responded to this environment with a series of great albums.
He started with the majestic “Spirits Known And Unknown,”(1969) followed quickly by “The Leon Thomas Album.” A couple of engaging live albums followed before the release of two excellent albums, “Blues And The Soulful Truth,” (1972) and “Full Circle,” (1973) the first of these was an up blues-based LP full of vivacity and humour which included a vocal take of “Gypsy Queen” which is a testament to Thomas' invention.
These Leon Thomas albums were a heady brew of soul- jazz, free-jazz and African rhythms. Thomas' profile was very high in the free-jazz scene as witnessed by dates with high profile figures in the movement like Ornette Coleman, Roland Kirk and Archie Shepp but he was also catching the ear of some of the jazz greats including Louis Armstrong and Johnny Hodges. In one of the most curious but exhilarating combinations in jazz, Leon Thomas appeared on Louis Armstong's last album and cut a version of “The Creator Has A Master Plan” with “Pops” himself.
Thomas was asked to join the Santana band in 1971, where he remained for two years. Santana's 1973 tour was possibly the greatest in the band's history and Thomas added a massive gravitas to Santana that helped to shoot them into the Latin-soul-jazz stratosphere. Thomas had the role of vocalist and multi-instrumentalist; for instance, as well as the maracas he is credited with on the Lotus sleeve he brought a variety of whistles, flutes and even conch shells to the live Santana sound.
The pace of the tour was too much for Thomas and he left Santana at the end of the year and he entered a downward spiral of indulgence and indolence that lasted quite a few years. He toured Europe with Freddie Hubbard in 1979, a partnership that spawned the enjoyable “A Piece Of Cake,” (1980) and later in the 1980s he resumed his relationship with Pharoah Sanders and cut tracks with him on the albums “Shukuru,” (1983) and “Oh Lord, Let Me Do No Wrong.” (1987) Shukuru included what might be the best Leon Thomas composition, the exquisite “Sun Song” which is a paean to meditation but manages to transmit feelings of peace, tranquillity and uplift to the listener. “Oh Lord, Let Me Do No Wrong,” was more of a blues work out and found Thomas in great voice and contributing new tunes like “If It Wasn't For A Woman.”
The most recent Leon Thomas release came in 1993 with the release of “Precious Energy,” a live date recorded in conjunction with sax player Gary Bartz. This includes a mammoth version of the great “Sun Song.”
The story gets a bit sad after this with Leon descending further into the world of drugs and self-abuse until shaking himself out of it in 1994 and recording new material for an album which has, unfortunately, yet to be released.
Leon Thomas died of heart failure on May 8, 1999 in New York, New York.
Clay Corley Sr.
My name is Clayton E. Corley, Sr. aka Big Trigger host and producer of an award winning internet program!