Born Clifton A. Thomas, 18 June 1941, Jackson, Mississippi
Cliff Thomas was born into a large Catholic family in Jackson, who had built up a prosperous garment business. His music is very much a family affair : Cliff was the singer and guitarist, his older brother Ed (a University of Notre Dame graduate) played piano, wrote the songs and provided backup vocals where needed, and sister Barbara also sang backup vocals, as well as taking the lead on one of the four Phillips International singles by the Thomas siblings. Label credit went to CLIFF THOMAS in capitals, with "Ed and Barbara" added in smaller print.
In my opinion, Cliff was not a very good singer and sang a lot of flat notes, which were not always adequately covered up by Ed and Barbara. It's agony listening to his voice wavering through a ballad like "Tidewind". Fortunately, this was the only slow tune that Cliff recorded (at least for Sun ; I haven't heard all of his Ace material). Still, the Thomas siblings made some truly exciting records, not in the last place because of Ed's powerhouse piano playing, which has touches of both Fats and Jerry Lee. In fact, Ed was such a good pianist that it's quite strange that Sam Phillips didn't use him more often as a session player, probably because he already had two very capable pianists in Charlie Rich and Jimmy Wilson. To the best of my knowledge, the only Sun session for which Ed gets credit is the Sonny Burgess session that produced "Sadie's Back In Town" (with fantastic glissandos!), "A Kiss Goodnight", "Little Town Baby", "Mr. Blues" and "I Love You So".
The Thomases paid their first visit to the Sun studio on September 15, 1957. Nothing from this session was originally released, though "Jumpin' Jack" and "Dance Little Girl" finally found their way to Charly CD compilations of obscure Sun material almost 40 years later. A return trip on November 29, 1957 (in the company of Jimmy Van Eaton, Bill Justis and Sid Manker) proved more fruitful and resulted in Cliff's first single : "I'm On My Way Home"/"Treat Me Right" (Phillips International 3521). Billboard (Feb. 10th 1958 issue) gave it a positive review : 77 (out of 100) for "I'm On My Way Home" ("Thomas renders a strong, driving rockabilly performance") and 73 for "Treat Me Right" ("Here's a blues in a boogie woogie rhythm framework"). The second single, "Sorry I Lied"/"Leave It To Me" (Phillips International 3531) was recorded on September 12, 1958 (with Billy Riley, Jack Clement and Jimmy Van Eaton), after earlier attempts in April of that year. This time Billboard was even more impressed : 78 for both sides. "Sorry I Lied" is my personal favourite and the only Cliff Thomas record to receive a vote (from yours truly, of course) when Steve asked the SAO membership to send in their ten favourite Sun recordings, about two years ago. "Mean Old World" from that same September session stayed in the can until 1997, when it was released on "Sun Rock 'n' Roll, Vol. 1" (Charly CPCD 8277).
A final Sun session on February 1, 1959, produced two singles : "All My Love"/ "Tidewind" (Phillips International 3538) and "These Silly Blues"/"To Tell The Truth" (Phillips International 3543), the latter with Barbara Thomas taking over the lead vocal and credited to "Bobbie and the Boys". The fifth song from this session, "The Last Goodnight" did not see a release until 1999, on "Sun Rock 'n' Roll, Vol. 3" (Charly CPCD 8353).
In the early sixties, Cliff recorded for Ace Records in his hometown of Jackson, Mississippi. I don't know how many recordings he made, but very little was released. Only one single, "Do You No Wrong"*/"Shame" (Ace 613, 1961), which bore the misleading credit of "Cliff and Ed Thomas featuring Fats on piano". Of course, it was Ed on piano, though his playing on "Do You No Wrong" owed more than a little to Domino's "The Fat Man". As strong as anything they had recorded for Sun. "Gonna Do The Fish" ended up on the Various Artists LP "Let's Have A Dance Party" (Ace LP 1019), as did "Don't Pony With Pony" by the Marvels. Cliff led and produced this group for some time and takes the lead on "Don't Pony With Tony", which was later reissued (on a Westside CD in 1998) as by Cliff Thomas and the Marvels. While with Ace, Ed and Cliff also co-wrote "Pop-Eye" with and for Huey "Piano" Smith ; it became the second biggest hit of Huey's career in 1962.
Gradually, Cliff and Ed became more responsible for running the family shirt business, but they managed to continue their musical activities, albeit on a more modest scale. They wrote mostly soul material (for Huey Meaux's publishing company), for Barbara Lynn, the Tams, Peggy Scott & Jo-Jo Benson, and others. Cliff was nominated for a Grammy award in 1968.
In 1990 Cliff was involved in an attempt to restore the Ace label, together with founder / long-time owner Johnny Vincent. They pooled their resources, but soon found that the budget, being of the shoestring variety, could only support one partner. Cliff, deferring to Johnny's experience, made off for Jamaica, where he ran a clothing factory.
* "Do You No Wrong" was used in the 1994 movie "Blue Sky", featuring Jessica Lange. The track is not easily available at the moment. I have it on the CD "The Heartbeat of New Orleans Rock 'n' Roll" (Ace 2041), now out of print.
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