What makes now The Right Time for the septuagenarian soul singer Ural Thomas to release his debut record?
“I’ve always been the same,” Thomas says. “I’ve always loved music and I’ve always loved people.” So it’s the people that surround him today, his musical family in The Pain, who have helped him craft 11 songs that’ll stand the test of time.
A lifelong learner and musician, Thomas was born and raised a couple of blocks from his current residence near North Mississippi Avenue. “My first real experience with music was with my mom,” who played guitar and sang in the church choir. “When I was a baby, I was always right up under the church bench in a basket,” listening to all those gospel songs and organ sounds. “I opened that can of worms when I was very young, and nobody put the lid back on,” he laughs.
He’s felt plenty of joy and sorrow in his neighborhood, but he’s surely not lived his entire life on these blocks. At age 17 he was touring regionally, making his way to Seattle. Next it was Canada, playing all “those little taverns,” recalling that they only “might have 60 or 75 people in there but it felt like having 500. It was so great.”
Los Angeles followed, where Thomas was part of the first class of artists signed to Uni Records (under Universal Pictures’ umbrella) alongside Neil Diamond and Hugh Masekela. In his early 20s, he did a stint in New York, regularly opening shows for James Brown and Otis Redding at Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater. But the music biz of the day wasn’t for him so he returned home to the Rose City and became a local fixture as well as a father figure to many of the school kids at nearby Boise-Eliot Elementary.
During his enduring career, Thomas has recorded and released music—both under his own name and as a member of The Monterays—but his newest via local label Tender Loving Empire is something of a first, featuring all originals penned by Thomas, Scott Magee (aka DJ Cooky Parker) and The Pain. As drummer, Magee is the man responsible for bringing Thomas back to the scene while many more musical creations were contributed by Brent Martens on guitar, Arcellus Sykes on bass, Steve Aman on keys, and the horn section: Dave Monnie on trumpet, Bruce Withycombe on baritone sax, and Willie Matheis on tenor sax.
“It’s more than just music, we’re a family.” That’s what Thomas has found over the past few years with The Pain as they’ve built up their repertoire jamming, covering hits and B-sides, and writing new music in his cozily cobbled together home practice space.
“Ural would come into rehearsal and he’d have this idea,” Matheis tells. “‘Hey guys, listen to this,’ and he’d just start singing the lyrics and then maybe he’d sit down at the keyboard or maybe he’d just sing the bassline. ‘It goes something like this,’ and we’d all listen and you know, in like half an hour or an hour we’d have a...” Thomas chimes in, completing Matheis’ sentence along with him, both saying, “song” at the exact same moment. “An original,” Matheis adds, finishing his thought.
“I’ve been really lucky and blessed,” Thomas says. “If something was to happen with my life and it ended today, I could have no regrets, because I’ve had so many wonderful people in my life.”
Those people include musicians he’s shared stages with and others who’ve simply inspired him. Listen to Ural Thomas’ Portland Playlist below!
Spent the ’60s and early ’70s opening for James Brown, Otis Redding, Stevie Wonder, The Rolling Stones; 2018 Oregon Music Hall of Fame inductee
Early Musical Memory:
“If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again”: “It’s the first song I remember and I still carry that song with me. ‘If I Could Hear’ was a song that, I don’t know if my mom wrote it, or a lot of people wrote it, but it goes like… [sings chorus]. You know, those kind of things—they just stuck with me!”
“Shimmy, Shimmy, Ko-Ko-Bop” by Little Anthony & The Imperials: “When doo-wop was very popular, we sang [songs like this] on the street corners. We used to have lots of folks standing around, they’d be listening to us. We had no instruments, we just sang and did the hambone. We danced and we slapped booties. We did a lot of a cappella and the slide back and forth. We’d have people lined up doing the slide with us, right on the street. We had so much fun.”
Inspirational & Influential:
“Let Them Talk” by Little Willie John: “When I was coming up I was kind of timid—but at the same time I wasn’t timid, you know what I mean? And his songs, they had an influence, like not letting people hurt ya. ‘Let them talk if they want to, talk don’t bother me / I want the whole wide world to know, that I love you so.’ It has a real meaning. That’s the way I’ve always been. I didn’t care what people said.”
Just Can’t Live Without:
“That's How Strong My Love Is” by Otis Redding: “I love that tune. We don’t do it yet. We could do it uptempo, you know, I just have some ideas.”
“Always On My Mind” by Willie Nelson: “I did a couple of songs off his releases. I put some different words to it and made a few little changes. I was highly influenced by country. We weren’t allowed to listen to too much rock and roll and rhythm and blues—it was a no-no for the church. But we’d always sneak it somewhere in the room and listen to that stuff on the radio.”
Desert Island Song:
“Please Send Me Someone To Love” by Brook Benton: “That would be the one I’d take with me—that’d be my prayer every day too! If I was on a desert island, I’d definitely want to pray and hope that a ship wrecked with a beautiful lady on it.”
“Tryin’ to Love Two” by William Bell: “A guilty pleasure? Like making love to a woman you ain’t supposed to be with?”
Steve Kerin: “He’s got a country band that’s on top of the world.”
Moorea Masa: “That’s my girl! She is such a sweetheart and she sings her ass off.”
Plus backing vocalists like Rebecca Marie Miller and Joy Pearson of Lenore., Sarah Helena King of Love Gigantic, and Sarah Clarke of Dirty Revival appear on the new record—safe to say they’ve got fans in The Pain too.
“No Distance (Between You and Me)” by Ural Thomas & the Pain: “It tells about how people are being torn apart. The easiest way to describe it is: Look how the Democrats and Republicans are toward each other. They’re always fighting and they’re supposed to be our leaders; they’re supposed to be the teachers of the world, make the people come together. Our true leaders should be bringing us together. But if we’re divided, we can be conquered so easily.”
“There are people taking sides instead of saying, ‘Hey, it’s good to have an opinion but I sure am glad we are one.’ To me, that is so important. There’s nobody that’s really preaching that we’re still one country. Or one world.”