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Tabby Thomas, ‘King of the Swamp Blues,’ dies

6th January 2014   ·   0 Comments

By Geraldine Wyckoff
Contributing Writer

Tabby Thomas was core to the Louisiana blues. As a guitarist, vocalist, composer, club owner, radio deejay, Rockin’ Tabby, the King of the Swamp Blues, put the state’s unique style of blues on the map. He sang it, he played it, he promoted it and influenced a wide range of blues players including his Grammy-winning son, Chris Thomas King and others such as Tab Benoit and Troy Turner. Thomas died on the first day of January 2014 at the age of 84.

Thomas’ life and musical experiences were far-ranging though his birthplace of Baton Rouge, Louisiana remained central to his life and music. It was there that he began singing in church, it was at McKinley High School that he first heard his most influential artist, Roy Brown, doing his jump blues hit, “Good Rockin’ Tonight.” Thomas returned to his hometown after traveling to Chicago, joining the Air Force and while residing in California beating out now-legendary vocalists Etta James and Johnny Mathis in a talent contest and soon thereafter recorded his first single, “Midnight Is Calling.”

ERNEST JOSEPH “TABBY” THOMAS January 5, 1929 – January 1, 2014

January 5, 1929 – January 1, 2014

Rockin’ Tabby Thomas opened Tabby’s Blues Box and Heritage Hall in 1979 on North Boulevard in Baton Rouge. It was the first establishment of its kind in the area.

“Baton Rouge wasn’t a city where different people from different races and walks of life really broke bread or shared merriment,” says his son, Chris Thomas King. “He created an atmosphere in his little ramshackle joint and it was ironic that he would attract people from all walks of life.”

“He was stubbornly focused,” King continues. “He was stubborn in the sense that he didn’t care if the blues was popular or if was no longer popular, he wasn’t going to take his club and change it to disco or whatever. Blues is all he wanted to be involved with, something he wanted to do. It didn’t matter if there were three people in the club. One of his greatest legacies is that through music he brought people together. It {the Blues Box} became the blues social club.”

In a warm and informative piece on his website, King tells of Tabby being complimented by Louis Armstrong for his performance at the Dew Drop Inn, where, in the years following his return to Louisiana he often performed. Vocalist Johnny Adams was sitting next to Thomas that night and subsequently helped set him up with a booking agent.

Thomas, who was primarily a jump blues singer and organist that, according to his son, really didn’t play much guitar until he was in his mid-30s, was most often heard in New Orleans performing at Jazz Fest, sometimes at Tipitina’s and occasionally at the Maple Leaf. “Jump blues was the thing that got him hooked on music,” says King, referring to his father’s first encounter with Roy Brown.

“Once he opened his club, he didn’t see fit to play other clubs,” King explains adding that he did go on European tours. “He stopped playing the clubs once he ended up with seven children and went to work at a chemical plant.”

Thomas recorded for several different labels including Excello, which released the hit “Hoodoo Party,” Maison de Soul, Flyright Records and his own Blue Beat Records. On his label, he released Blues from the Swamp, a recording that like most of his output was filled with his rich, often humorous original material. While less known as a composer, Thomas’ lyrics were full of stories about the scene in which he lived as heard on “Little Old Juke Joint.”

The last time the father and son — Tabby and Chris — played together was at the 2009 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Donned in overalls and a fedora, the elder, who suffered a stroke in 2004, just sang and left the guitar work to his son as he dug into classics like “Big Fat Woman.” Thomas often looked over and smiled when King played a particularly tasty lick. With the two sitting so close together and both wearing shades, the family resemblance was definitely in evidence. In the back, Thomas’ other son, Tammy, manned the drums. In 2007, Thomas performed with guitarist/vocalist Tab Benoit at the Crescent City Blues & BBQ Festival. His last club appearance in New Orleans was performing at the Circle Bar.

Chris went to visit his father on New Year’s Eve. “I sat next to him and I played hoping that he could hear me or feel my presence. After a little while, I said, ‘See you tomorrow.’ The most valuable lesson I learned from him was humility and he taught me by example how to treat people.”

On his Blues from the Swamp album, which was recorded live at the Blues Box, Rockin’ Tabby Thomas mournfully sings, “Tomorrow, yes tomorrow, you’ll be in sorrow because I’ll be gone.”

The blues world is in sorrow on the departure of the wonderfully gracious Tabby Thomas yet grateful that he walked the earth and played and lived the music that he loved.

This article originally published in the January 6, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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