Q&A with veteran British blues musician Dave Thomas - has toured, lived and recorded all over the world

"Soul, for me, is by far the most important thing. As Buddy Guy said recently "the blues don't lie". The best blues music tells the truth straight from the heart. You can hear the depth of a man's soul through his voice."

Dave Thomas: Road To The Blues

A veteran of the British blues bloom in the 1960’s Thomas has toured, lived and recorded all over the world. First inspired by gospel, then by blues, Dave Thomas picked up his first guitar at the age of 12. Music has been at the centre of his life ever since. From his first group, Skid Row, when he was a teenager in Newport, through Blonde On Blonde, Reign, Double Trouble, Shortstuff and The Diplomatics to the present day with The Dave Thomas Band, performance has been the heart of what he does. He has worked with some of the finest musicians in this country and in the US and has produced several critically acclaimed albums of original and traditional blues. In recent years, he has built an international reputation as a fine blues guitarist and singer. For 10 years he led the house band at Shake Down Blues, a specialist promoter of black American blues in the UK. During this period, he worked with 40 great black American blues musicians. Also featured are producer and partner-in-crime Steve Jinks, James Goodwin, Phil Marshall, Gareth Tucker, Michael Smith and John Thirkell. Dave’s latest album of mainly original material – Road To The Blues –  released in June 2022.

(Dave Thomas, a veteran musician of the British blues bloom / Photo by Pete Smith)

There’s no better man than Thomas to sing songs about life on the road and on ‘Everywhere Man’ and ‘Leaving San Francisco’ he highlights the emotional effects of touring on a musician. What is immediately noticeable about the album is that it is a full band affair. On several songs, Thomas lets other musicians take prominence within the music, underlying his generosity as a musician. Just listen to the spine tingling piano work of James Goodwin on ‘The Lady’s Not for Turning’, ‘Road to The Blues’ and ‘Another Girl’ while the saxophone playing of Phil Marshall takes centre stage on ‘Eye on The Money’. Switching tempo on the brooding ‘Last Thing’, simmering organ underpins Thomas’s guitar work and rounding out the album is a folk blues acoustic based re-interpretation of Chuck Berry’s ‘Memphis Tennessee’. ‘The Road to The Blues’ is a fine example of a master craftsman at his work. Soulful, upbeat and fun with a sound that mixes various blues styles into an album that’s best enjoyed on repeat.

Interview by Michael Limnios                   Archive: Dave Thomas, 2021 Interview

How do you think that you have grown as an artist since you first started making music? What has remained the same about your music-making process?

I have grown as an artist by finding my own voice. I remember hearing Memphis Slim say that this was the most important thing one could achieve. Naturally I have been standing on the shoulders of giants e.g. B.B. King, Muddy Waters, J.B. Lenoir, Otis Spann and many more. I first began playing blues when I was only 12 years old. After 60 years I believe I am just about getting there. What has remained constant since my earliest attempts to write my own material is writing from the heart; from my own experience and observations of life.

What's the balance in music between technique and soul? Why is it important to we preserve and spread the blues?

Soul, for me, is by far the most important thing. As Buddy Guy said recently "the blues don't lie". The best blues music tells the truth straight from the heart. You can hear the depth of a man's soul through his voice. Technique is testimony to dedication. It is an integral part of a bluesman's art - to continue to improve through practice and performance. The most important thing is to convey feeling, depth and beauty. Blues reaches our souls. Blues musicians share their feelings and experience. It is a gift that is given to us that enables us to touch others and stir their sensibilities and emotions.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

If I could change one thing in the musical world I would find a way to ensure that musicians and songwriters were properly rewarded for their talents and efforts.

Are there any specific memories or highlights with Blonde On Blonde that you would like to tell us about?!                                     (Photo: Dave Thomas with Blonde On Blonde)

Blonde On Blonde was a seminal progressive rock band that grew out of a great little blues band called The Cellar Set. When I put my first band together in Newport in South Wales where I lived (as did The Cellar Set) they used to let us play in the breaks between their sets at some of their local gigs. Three members of The Cellar Set went up to London to become professional musicians and they formed Blonde On Blonde with a singer called Ralph Denyer. When Ralph decided to launch a new band, Blonde On Blonde asked me to take over as lead singer. I was two weeks away from going to university, but it was a no-brainer! Life on the road for the next three and a half years was wonderful as well as hard. I learnt so much as a singer and as a songwriter working in close collaboration with Blonde On Blonde's lead guitarist, Gareth Johnson. At the time Gareth was well ahead of the game. Eric Clapton used to watch him very closely. During my time with Blonde On Blonde I recorded two albums and a single. Blonde On Blonde shared stages with some other bands that become enormously successful e.g. Genesis, Deep Purple, Jefferson Airplane, the Steve Miller Band. One memorable claim to fame was being supported by Fleetwood Mac!

What moment changed your music life the most? What´s been the highlights in your life and career so far?

The moment that changed my music life most was when I saw J.B. Lenoir take the stage at the Colston Hall in Bristol, when he was appearing in an American Folk Blues show in the mid-60s. I had gone to see young buck guitar slinger Buddy Guy but when J.B. Lenoir opened up the show singing Alabama Blues accompanying himself on acoustic guitar everything changed for me. It was a deep lament following shootings of black folk during the time of Martin Luther King. It was a powerful cry from the heart. I will never forget it. The highlights in my personal life have resulted in two exceptional daughters. The highlights in my musical life include playing with some great musicians. Over a 15-year period, as band leader at Shake Down Blues, I worked with over 40 black American blues artists visiting the UK. This has led to me extending my network widely in the USA. I have made appearances at the Chicago Blues Festival working with some of Muddy Waters' band. I recorded an album in Cleveland, Ohio, with the great Chicago style harmonica maestro Wallace Coleman (who I first met at Shake Down Blues in the UK). I have played for Paul McCartney by special invitation in the Texas Embassy in London. The last three years have been incredible. During the pandemic and lockdown live performance was impossible so I turned my attention to releasing music that I had recorded previously. In 2021 my album One More Mile reached the Number 1 slot in the Roots Music Report's Top 50 UK Album Chart. It also got high in the Top 10 in the USA Blues and Contemporary Blues Charts. It even got to Number 5 in Australia!

In 2022 I signed my second record contract and released a rock album called G&T with the great keyboard maestro Dave Greenslade of Jon Hiseman's Colosseum and the eponymous Greenslade. This album was wholly original and quite unique!  Later in the year I toured the Southern states of America. By the time I got to Chicago for the Chicago Blues Festival my second original blues album, Road To The Blues, was released and by the time I got back to the UK that album had reached the Number 1 slot in the Roots Music Report's Top 50 UK Album Chart where it stayed above Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton and Ed Sheeran. I held my ground until Eric Clapton's album got to Number One, soon to be followed by Buddy Guy. Game over! Road To The Blues also got into the Top 10 in the Blues and Contemporary Blues Charts in the USA. In 2023 I won the Independent Blues Award's Best Contemporary Blues Band. That's an honour indeed and I am particularly grateful for the support I have received from blues fans in the USA.

"The highlights in my personal life have resulted in two exceptional daughters. The highlights in my musical life include playing with some great musicians. Over a 15-year period, as band leader at Shake Down Blues, I worked with over 40 black American blues artists visiting the UK." (Photo: Dave Thomas)

Do you have any interesting stories about the making of the new album Road To The Blues?

Road To Blues was the result of close collaboration. Most of the songs were written by me and my long-time friend and musical collaborator, Steve Jinks. The album was recorded in his studio, Pine Trees, in the heart of rural Norfolk. I also collaborated closely with the talented lyricist, Julia Smalley, on several of the songs. One of the songs on the album was written by my ex-wife, Gill Rose. There was one cover, Memphis Tennessee by Chuck Berry, which I performed very much in my own style. This track was recorded in one take in the control room: a very small, intimate place. Steve Jinks and I couldn't have worked more closely. Sadly, we never will again because he died at the end of 2022.

Do you think there is an audience for blues music in its current state? or at least a potential for young people to become future audiences and fans?

I do think that there is an International audience for blues music. The blues is the root of all popular music and, although it goes in and out of fashion, it never goes away. As Otis Spann said "the blues never die". Personally, I prefer more traditional blues, but the blues is a broad church and I think that's healthy. There are some great young artists out there now and I wish them well. I do see some younger folk in the audiences these days and I am a natural optimist. The blues will win through.

John Coltrane said "My music is the spiritual expression of what I am...". How do you understand the spirit, music, and the meaning of life?

I agree with John Coltrane. Music is so much more to me than what I do.  After over 60 years it is really what I am and what I will become. I will continue my blues journey until I die. Sometimes I think I am walking down my blues road but sometimes I think it is better described as a river flowing. As you travel towards that deep blue ocean you see, hear, meet and engage with many kindred spirits.  You make music and you make lifelong friends who share your journey, at least some of the way. I began my journey singing in my local Baptist church. For me singing is a deeply spiritual experience and the blues has given me.

Dave Thomas - Home

(Dave Thomas / Photos by Laurence Harvey)

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