Colton Thomas has devoted the vast majority of his young life to the pursuit of a most soulful, and highly unlikely, passion.
Story by Dick Baltus, Photos by Thomas Boyd
There are looks that are deceiving, and then there are those, such as the ones that occupy Colton Thomas’ noggin, that just lie to your face.
But don’t let the boyish countenance fool you. Behind Thomas’ rosy cheeks and beneath his wrinkle-free, 26-year-old surface, resides a soul as old as, say, Smokey Robinson or Sweet Pea Atkinson or any of the other soul music legends about whom Thomas can recite chapter and verse at the drop of a high hat.
As a 16-year-old at Roseburg High, when other kids his age were preoccupied with the likes of Foo Fighters or Rhianna or 36 Crazy Fists, Thomas was conducting radio podcast interviews with the likes of Little Anthony. Even sans Imperials, it was a heck of a score for a kid who’d yet to even score his driver’s license (he still hasn’t, but you get the point).
“Little Anthony told me I was the youngest person ever to interview him,” Thomas remembers, “He didn’t like to do interviews, but when his publicist told him I was 16 he said, ‘I gotta do this.’”
By that time Thomas already was a decade into his exploration of a musical genre that, while still alive and well today, saw its heyday nearly half a century before Thomas was born. Nonetheless, by age 5 Thomas was bringing to Kindergarten show-and-tell a cassette tape of himself singing Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” At 13, he was with his parents at the BrittFestival, being mesmerized by James Brown.
Three years later he was interviewing Little Anthony. In the years since, Thomas has talked to, and often befriended, many other soul artists, some obscure to the general public but not to aficionados.
These days he has turned his passion into a part-time gig as an A&R (artist and repertoire) man for a soul record label, Transistor Sound. He’s helping the label find and re-release obscure old soul records or uncover previously unreleased music.
And to think, if it weren’t for Kenny Sherman, Thomas might be acting his age right now instead of combing through his multiple catalogs of black-and-white publicity photos, collecting vintage soul LPs and hanging with musicians and artists old enough to call Grandpa.
He spent much of his youth in the same setting in which he is spending much of his young adulthood — Roseburg’s Days Gone By antique store. He remembers working alongside his dad, the store owner, and listening to the music Sherman, then a local radio personality, would play on 101.1 FM (way back in the late 1900s, early 2000s).
“That’s how I got into music,” Thomas says. “Kenny was playing Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, The Drifters, all the soul hits. Early stuff; doo- wop stuff. It caught my ear right off the bat.”
With the built-in advantage of having a dad with an antique store and regular estate-liquidation jobs, Thomas started collecting old vinyl. When he got hold of a Little Willy John record, it inspired him to start digging deeper into the stories of different artists. At age 15, he started following an online music forum devoted to the history of Detroit soul labels and artists.
Between that and the emergence of YouTube, Thomas was able to connect with artists who would post where he was posting. People like Bob Babbitt, who played bass with a later version of The Funk Brothers, a group of Detroit session musicians who backed a long list of Motown hits, including “My Girl,” “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours” and “The Tears of a Clown.”
He also met and learned much from the late Bob Abrahamian, a well-known Chicago soul deejay, record collector and historian, and Tony Drake, a soul musician.
Thomas launched a blog talk radio show on his MySpace page, called Soul Legends, and started interviewing his new connections, some of whom, he guesses, were being interviewed for the first time.
“A lot of them loved to talk to me or anyone, really, who was interested in hearing their stories,” Thomas says.
Thomas made a new friend in T.L. Harris after the latter ran across his Soul Legends page. They communicated for years without meeting in person. Then one day Harris ran across a photo Thomas had posted on social media of himself posing with Duke Fakir of the Four Tops. Thomas was soon reading an email from Harris. “He said all this time he’d assumed I was an 80-year-old black man; it blew his mind,” Thomas says with a laugh.
In 2011, Thomas met Gary Foote, bass player for Smokey Robinson, who helped the young fan get backstage at Spirit Mountain Casino to meet the legendary soul star.
The next year, one of Thomas’ favorite contemporary soul acts, Monophonics, appeared at Roseburg’s Music on the Half Shell, which led to a conversation with lead singer Kelly Finnigan, which led to a friendship and, ultimately, Thomas’ new role with Transistor Sound, the record label Finnigan founded. (Still singing, Thomas was planning to record a single, backed by Monophonics, in June.)
Last January, Thomas was featured in the blog of another soulful friend, Art Brown of the Polyrhythmics. Brown wrote of Thomas’ passion for soul and the accompanying sadness that comes with having older heroes who become friends and then pass away.
“It’s hard for me to not feel a sense of urgency in Colton’s mission, as so many soul legends have gone in recent years,” Brown wrote. “It has to be hard for him to say goodbye to more and more of his heroes as time goes by. But there is no doubt in my mind that they all are very proud of, and thankful for, Colton’s unending passion for their lives and their music.”
It was a nice tribute — for either an 80-year-old or a very young man with a really old soul.