Featured Interview – Crystal Thomas

Cover photo © 2021 Taki “Tiki” Nishino

imageWhile she may have been flying under the radar for many in the blues community, Crystal Thomas is working hard to get the attention of listeners around the world. She will tell you that music has always been a part of her life, a fact made clear as her story unfolds. Her talents have been featured on two CD releases, but her latest project really showcases her striking vocal skills.

Thomas, born in a Shreveport, LA hospital, grew up in Mansfield, a small town south of Shreveport. She would go back and forth between her parents and grandparents, staying at home during the week to go to school, then going out to her grandparents farm on weekends. She had three brothers and two sisters to keep her company.

“It was country – but it was awesome! I was able to get in-tune with myself, growing up humble. I was grateful for what we had, although there weren’t a lot of local attractions. Most of the time growing up we had to be creative.

“I started singing when I was two years old, so I got into it pretty early. My Dad played guitar and my Mom was always singing. She was my biggest influence. Music had a dominant presence in our home. And my grandparents had all kinds of 8-track tapes, so they always played music. My mother had a room filled with LPs and 45 rpm records.

“The first song I ever sang was the Dukes of Hazard theme song! That was one of the only things that was on television at that time. It was a great song. And that speaks to the power of music, that even at that young age, it was awesome enough that I was able to catch on and build something from that song. I think that it what music is supposed to do.”

Her grandparents had a little battery powered portable jukebox. Every weekend she would ride around with them listening to Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Jimmy Reed. Spending time on the farm taught Thomas plenty of lessons about life, even some that snuck up on her, knocking her out of her comfort zone.

“Growing up, the hog was one of the most exotic animals my grandparents had. I would always feed it when I was there. One weekend, my Paw Paw and I went to the barn to feed the animals, and I quickly noticed, there was no hog. I don’t think they wanted to tell me that the hog had gone to the processing plant. But I saw all of this stuff wrapped in white freezer paper filling their freezer – big, fresh pork chops and bacon. I said no way am I eating any of that! I was in elementary school when that happened.”

“It wasn’t to the point where I thought of it as my pet pig. That was one of my chores that I became accustomed to, and I was intrigued by the hog. I had never seen a pig before. That was when I began learning about where our food we are eating actually comes from.”

Thomas also did plenty of singing in church in her younger years.

“Church was really the only thing we had to do. Especially in the country, it was the one constant. We were always in church, and that is where I learned to sing. I also learned about singing with conviction in church. These days, when I meet other aspiring artists, I try to work with their mindset. I have been trained to be disciplined. A lot of artists today haven’t had to pay those kinds of dues. I remind them that they can be the best vocalist in the world, not still not make a connection with anyone. When you can sing from the soul, that’s when you are doing your job.

“I came up in a true Baptist church. There was no dancing and they didn’t even want a drum set in church. Then I left for college, and when I can home, they had tambourines and praise bands! I was like, wow, I leave and now y’all get creative. But I struggled for a long time with the singing the gospel and then being a blues singer. But my pastor supports me. He told me one day he was going to come out and surprise me at a show. His thing is God gave me a gift to bless others. When I write, even if it is secular music, I still have a responsibility to heal. The fact that the pastor said he is coming to see someday, I feel like I have the green light!”

In addition to singing, Thomas also started learning to play an instrument as a youngster, although it was not her first choice, falling victim to the ever-present policy that often rules over family decisions in these types of matters.

“My one brother and I are five years apart. When he was old enough to take band in school, my Mom invested all of this money to purchase him an instrument. It was a trombone. He played it for about a week. When I got in fifth grade, the band instructor brought out all of these cool instruments, and gave us envelopes to take home to our parents. When my Mom saw the letter, it was nope, no way. If you want to be in the band, you can get your brother’s trombone out of the closet. I told her I didn’t want to play the trombone. But I ended up playing the hand-me-down.”

Starting in 5th grade, the aspiring trombonist began to study music. She participated in general band in elementary school, learning to read music. In junior high, she graduated to jazz and concert bands. Once she moved on to high school, Thomas was involved in the marching band as well as the symphonic band and orchestra. Music kept her busy throughout the school year.

image“I was still singing every day, but I didn’t get into the school choir until my junior year of high school. And I was writing songs, too. I wrote the first one while in the 5th grade. It wasn’t until I left college in 1996 that I sang with a band outside of the school environment. That was the first time I got into the whole idea of singing being the thing that I wanted to do.”

The trombonist attended Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi for several years, majoring in music while being a part of the college’s famed Sonic Boom of the South marching band.

“Once I was in the college band, I appreciated the fundamentals that I had learned in high school band. Mr. Appleton was band instructor from when I started through high school graduation. That relationship made things fun and easy. Once I was at Jackson State, it was a totally different arena. We danced, we did high stepping, not heel to toe marching. The training was different, and the music was awesome!

“One key lesson I learned is that listening is everything. You can never play with anyone if you can’t hear each other. Music is like cooking, it’s a blend. You have to learn to play together. We were taught one band, one sound. If one person is off, everyone is off. That has prepared me for working in the music industry. Musicians have different motivations, and they don’t always have the same passion that I have. That is the biggest thing I run into out on the circuit now. There is no structure. The discipline that I learned in school doesn’t seem to exist any more in music today. That is frustrating.”

When her grandfather needed help caring for her grandmother while he worked, Thomas left college early to help out back home. She looks back on that as one of the disadvantages of the “small town curse.

“Even today, before I go out to do a show, I either take my grandfather with me, or I make arrangements for someone to watch him while I am gone. There are things that I have not been able to do because I refuse to leave him alone with no one to check on him. That’s why I left school.”

Settled in at home, Thomas worked a number of odd jobs, but music was still the only thing she wanted to do. She would produce her own music on a small Yamaha Casio keyboard. At one point, she went to a record store in Shreveport to meet several guys to go to a recording studio.

“I got there to find that they had no idea of what I was talking about. It was a really weird situation. I was so disappointed as I had made the trip up there, but I did get a chance to sing. One of the gentlemen was impressed, so he started putting me in rap and R&B shows. One day I was in the studio recording with a local rapper. One of the saxophone players on the session heard me. He had a band that was getting ready to do a show with Bobby Rush. He invited me to come sing with the band.

“I always love to sing, so of course I said yes to his offer. That was the first show I did, opening for Bobby Rush in 1999. It was on from there! After that show, I joined the band and we played every club, restaurant, anywhere they had live music from Shreveport through Louisiana into Texas, every weekend. We opened for the Temptations, we opened for Parliament, we played casinos.

“In 2002, the trumpet player for Mr. Johnnie Taylor’s band invited me to reach out Mr. Taylor, who was looking for a new trombone player. I didn’t believe he knew Johnny Taylor. But I walked over to pay phone, called, and Mr. Taylor answered. He told me that they were already on their way out of town. He wanted to come the next week on Wednesday for rehearsal, which meant going to Dallas. I rehearsed with them on Wednesday and Thursday, and Friday we left for Houston for my first show, and then we played New Orleans on Saturday night.”

Having grown up listening to Taylor, as her entire family loved his singing, being a part of his band was a mind-blowing experience.

“I was so nervous before that first show that I left my shoes on the bus. And I had never played with a podium in front of me. I can read sheet music, but the podium was so far from the microphone, and I had never played into a microphone! In the school bands we would always project through our instruments, so that was something I had to get used to.

“The only thing that saved me was that I was already familiar with his music. I got caught up in watching him. We had two trumpets, me on trombone, and two saxophone players, an alto and baritone sax.

One benefit of being in Taylor’s band was the education Thomas received on handling the business end of a career in music, that there is more to it than just getting up on stage and playing.

“One difference was that I had never been involved with a professional soundcheck before that. Playing locally, everything was through the clubs and we set up on our own. Now it was a big company, there was an itinerary, and a lot more structure. I appreciated seeing how things operate on a different scale. Being a part of the Taylor Made Orchestra made me realize I was ready to be out here by myself.

image“When I went back to the bus to get my shoes that first night, I was crying. I was excited to be on a big stage, and I was thinking God, give it to me. I knew being with him that that was definitely where I wanted to be.”

She worked with Taylor for a few months before the singer passed away after a heart attack.

“We had done a show in Birmingham, Alabama. The trumpet player lived in Shreveport, so every week we would catch a Greyhound out to Dallas for rehearsal, then the whole band would leave from there to go out to the shows. On the way back from Birmingham, the radio station was playing Taylor’s song, “Stop Doggin’ Me Around,” as we were pulling into the Trailways stop in Shreveport. I said, Mr. Taylor, can you tell me who is singing this song? I love this song, it is so beautiful. He put his arm around me and said, I don’t know who that is, then the whole bus fell out. He told us to have a safe week, to stay in touch, and we would have a rehearsal before the next show.”

The following Wednesday Thomas was surprised as her phone blew up and stations were playing his music, doing tributes. The singer called her mom to check to see if she had heard anything. It took a few days before someone reached out to inform her that Taylor had passed.

“He was definitely a treat for the music world. So many don’t realize that he came from a gospel background. He was with the Highway QC’s out of Chicago before filling in after Sam Cooke left the Soul Stirrers. He had the gift, that natural talent. That was a very sad moment.

“After that, Big Jack Williams, who had been in Taylor band longer than anyone, took me under his wing. He would book me on gigs as a trombone player after Mr. Taylor’s death, plus even to this day, he continues to encourage and support me. It is a very special relationship as he is like another Dad to me.”

Eventually she formed the GCR band with her good friend, keyboardist Gary Smith, and trumpeter Don Crenshaw, the man who made the initial contact about Thomas joining Johnnie Taylor’s band

Through it all, the singer continued to work on creating her music in a variety of styles from rap to blues, country, even writing special wedding songs honoring the happy couple. But she found herself running into the issues that bands always seem to have at some point in their existence.

“There could be jealousy, band members that don’t want to rehearse any more. So I started leaning on my own original music. For my CD, I reached out to some of the church musicians that I knew, got them to back me, put together my original tunes, and I dropped the disc, Lyrical Gumbo: The Essence Of Blues.”

“At that time, social media was getting stronger, For an artist, social media is a dream, particularly compared to what artists could do 30 years ago. It is a big advantage. I was doing live blues shows. But media gave me an opening to be creative about promotion using live shows, video, social media promotion, digital, dropping songs. I went old-school by beating the pavement and grinding away.”

Around the time of her second release, Drank Of My Love, Thomas received a phone call out-of-the-blue that changed the trajectory of her career.

“The gentleman introduced himself as Eddie Stout, and told me that some people from Japan had reached out to him about me. I’m sitting there thinking, who is this weird guy on my phone? Nobody knows me, so is this some kind of game? I wasn’t thinking about the power of social media. Eddie invited me to go down to Austin to sit in with him and his band. When the time came, my Mom and I drove there to meet the Eastside Kings for the first time. They became my second musical family.”

The singer also recorded two songs for a release that came out at the end of 2018, Texas Queens 5 on the VizzTone label, featuring five female vocalists backed by the Japanese band Bloodest Saxophone, complete with a three piece horn section. Thomas covered “Losing Battle,” the Johnny Adams classic, and one written by Roscoe Robinson.

“I met all of them in the studio. One secret I will tell you is that I had no idea who Johnny Adams was until I was in the studio for the recording session. Johnny was a phenomenal singer. I was familiar with “Losing Battle” from a version that Lynn White recorded. But when I heard Johnny’s voice, I felt horrible. How could I have not known about him?”

imageHer current project, Now Dig This, has been released on Stout’s Dialtone Records label in the LP format. It was originally released in Japan as Don’t Worry About The Blues. Stout, along with Japan’s blues ambassadors Yasfumi Higurashi and Akira Kochi, selected the songs and put together the band. And what a band it is with Texas guitar ace Johnny Moeller, brother Jason on drums, legendary bass player Chuck Rainey, and the late Lucky Peterson on keyboards.

“Lucky Peterson was another musician I met for the first time in the studio. The only one of them that I had played with prior to that was Jason. The song “The Blues Ain’t Nothin’ But Some Pain” is my favorite. I was in awe of Mr. Peterson. He was coming from Africa, so he was dealing with major jet lag. I was so grateful that he would take time to come work with little old me. Once he heard me sing, I think he was excited to be there.

“Once again, that was the first I had heard of him as well. To hear him on that Hammond B-3 organ, oh my! We even did a little of “Got My Mojo Workin’ “ with him on guitar and me singing. He really enjoyed that moment. We had a lot of fun doing a duet on “Let’s Go Get Stoned”. That was beautiful. You aren’t going to find many people out there like him. Most of the recording was done in two days in April, 2019, a month after my Mother passed away. To be able to produce that quality of work under those conditions, I was definitely pleased.”

“I really and truly want to make an impact in the blues world, to reciprocate the feelings that I received growing up listening to those greats. I want to pick up that torch to represent that good down-home music. There is not a lot of that out there right now.

“You don’t have to know anything about music to be #1. You don’t have to sing in key any more, don’t need to know flats and sharps. You can just have a nice gimmick song and , hey, you’re a star now.

“I’ve worked too hard to settle for that. I want to do as much music as I can while I can to touch as many souls as I can. My goal is to be the next blues queen. It is more than a privilege to be out here creating good songs that blues listeners can enjoy.”

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