In conversation, blues singer Earl Thomas is as captivating and charismatic as he is onstage. There’s a swagger and a swing as he talks excitedly about his quarter-century in the business, an effortless flow, that matches his smooth performance vibe.
He’s also humble and even a little self-effacing: The guy has written songs that have been covered by artists as highly regarded as Etta James, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Solomon Burke and Tom Jones yet still bumps at the notion that he’s a “great” songwriter.
This weekend, Thomas will perform at the Ventura County Blues Festival, a rare SoCal appearance for an artist who spends nine months out of the year in Europe nowadays. But it’s an opportunity to catch up with him, and look back on 25 years of highlights.
“It all started with me getting a record deal in 1990,” Thomas says. “I had no music business experience. We just did a senior project to graduate from university, and the project was to make an album. We could have either written an operetta or made an album, so we made an album. That album got me a record deal. Getting that deal when I had no idea that I was going to get one was a highlight.”
His well-received first appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland was another, as were his two Grammy nominations and four San Diego Music Awards. Accolades are nice but, for Thomas, the experiences and the friends he’s made worldwide are far more important.
"When I was starting with all this, I had a goal and it was this: I wanted to sing my own songs and have friends all over the world,” he says. “I definitely, 100 percent, do that. There are at least 25 cities in this whole world where, if I were to get put in jail, somebody would come and bail me out. I did all right.”
That right there is an interesting and inarguably accurate marker. And it says a lot about the man that “Whose lives have I genuinely impacted?” is more important to him than “How many awards have I won?” That said, when his song “I Sing the Blues” was covered by the great Etta James, he allowed himself to savor the moment.
“Etta James — how I can I express how important she is to me and my family?” he says. “I could tell the mood that my mother was in by the song that was on. If ‘Tell Mama’ was on, it was a great day. If ‘Rather Go Blind' was on, there’s gonna be some furniture moving in here tonight. It’s a great honor. Especially because I never really thought of myself as a songwriter. I don’t sit around writing all day. One thing I should mention is that I don’t have a journal, and lyrics written on napkins laying around the house. The songs just come to me when they come to me, and I write them down.”
When asked about the current blues scene, Thomas stutters for the first time during the interview. He doesn’t listen to the radio; in fact, he says he doesn’t listen to music at all, and has no idea who’s “hot.” This might seem strange for somebody who loves music so much, but it keeps him focused. He needs to be, too — his Crow album came out in 2016 and he’s working on the follow-up.
“I’ve written some new songs that I’m extremely proud of,” he says. “This would be the first time in my career that I’ve come out saying something like that. I didn’t have the confidence as a songwriter — I’ve got a few feathers in my cap from Etta James and Tom Jones. But this time, I really feel like I’ve written some good songs, and I want to make this new record. But also, after 25 years, I’m trying to decide if I should do the new record or a 25-year anniversary ‘best-of’ thing. I do have a whole album worth of music ready to be recorded.”
This will be Thomas’ debut appearance at the Ventura County Blues Festival. He’s psyched to be back in California and he promises a great show.
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“I’ve worked very hard at presenting a good show,” he says. “My band is very well-rehearsed. We’ve got great songs. We’re doing all the songs from the Crow record, and a few select covers that will surprise people. I’m a big Rod Stewart fan, so I always have to have a little Rod in my show. I will give this one away — I do a song that was on the Smiler album. That album went nowhere. I only had it because I was such a big fan. There’s a song that was written by Elton John, and performed by Rod Stewart, Elton John and John Lennon — “Let Me Be Your Car.” I’ve loved that song since I was a teenager.”
After this festival, Thomas will be back off to Europe again. He’ll be playing more festivals, clubs or dive bars — he cares more about connecting with people through his music than how prestigious the venue is. And he feels that he has a unique perspective to offer.
“Here’s what I bring: a contemporary, 21st-century, modern-day blues show,” Thomas says. “I do have the lineage, but I did not grow up in the land where the blues came from because my dad was in the navy and we did a lot of travelling. I got exposed to a lot of different music, especially rock & roll, British rock in particular, and that flavors my blues. It truly does. I’m just bringing a good show.”
The Ventura County Blues Festival takes place on Saturday, April 28. For more information, go to venturacountyblues.com.