From the moment he was born, blues played a big part in Jimmy Thomas’s life growing up in Osceola in Arkansas. Raised by his aunt and uncle, it was their family friend Albert King who nicknamed him ‘Popeye’ and would go on to influence him throughout his life and play a very important part in his career…
It was back on a dreary day on Preston railway platform that I first met Jimmy. This lone guy dressed top to toe in black leathers and a hat pulled down over his rugged features made him stand out from the crowd. We were waiting for the same train and I thought he looked a lot like Jimmy Helms and so I sidled up and told him. He laughed and said that Jimmy was a good friend of his. He mentioned that he’d been a guest of honor at the Blackpool Northern Soul weekender that had just taken place. Luckily for me as the train to London rolled in, Jimmy invited me to share the journey that day and what a trip it was as he told me all about his career. I felt I’d known him for a very long time and the journey went by so quickly when you get lost in the conversation that flowed that day. We swapped numbers and have kept in touch ever since. So when I started writing for a music magazine a few years later, I felt it was time to tell you all about his incredible life too.
THE EARLY YEARS
At school with a few of his friends, he formed the Rock and Roll Trays. “Just a bunch of school kids but Son Seals and I were the only ones to come out of it than anything professionally” recalled, Jimmy. “We just played good music which we liked at the time, like doo-wop and blues, but mainly doo-wop because we were fourteen or fifteen years old at the time”. Then in 1958, Thomas got his first big break when Albert King recommended him to Ike Turner. Jimmy explains “Albert had moved to St.Louis where he became an internationally renowned singer and he was good friends with Ike. The singer in his band Clayton Love had just left and so he was looking for a replacement. So Ike recommended me to him and he sent Eddie Jones his sax player and Albert down to get hold of me. So five in the morning they knocked on my door and told my folks we’ve come to get Popeye to meet Ike to join his band. Sure enough, they packed me off to St.Louis in the car with Albert and met Ike. As I was young, my voice wasn’t strong enough at that time to replace what great singers Ike at in his band before him but he liked me and he liked the way I sang so he decided to keep me. I could do all that other stuff in the band like rock ‘n’ roll and doo-wop. His band was hardcore rhythm and blues”.
THE KINGS OF RHYTHM DAYS
To Jimmy, it was an exciting time. “For as long as I can remember I had been dancing to Ike’s records. I mean, Jackie Brenstone was in the band, wow!! Rocket ’88 and at all that man”. For those that may not be aware, that 1951 song is widely regarded as the first-ever Rock & Roll record. Another young singer in Ike’s band at that time was Little Ann. Jimmy recalls “she had a great voice and would come round to the clubs but like me was too young to sing in the clubs officially. I could get away with it by wearing Ike’s big suits and grew a mustache but for little Ann Bullock, it was harder. She’d come along every now and again and sit next to the stage and occasionally Ike would call her up to sing. At Ike’s house where I was staying, he used to write and experiment as I did on these rock and roll records (Ike had been writing ever since he was young) and doo-wop and we were making all these crazy records. He had written this song for Art Lassiter called Fool In Love but he didn’t turn up for the session. Ann had been sitting around like us all had been and had listened to him sing the song and so she offered to take his place. She sung it like Art would have sung it”. Having sung for Ike several times and released the odd record under her name, Ike planned to replace her vocals with Art’s but fortunately, the producer ‘Juggy’ Murray thought she had this incredible ‘earthy’ raw voice and so bought the track and paid her an advance to own the rights.
The resulting song was a huge ‘R & B’ hit that put them on the road and persuaded Art to make little Ann Bullock star of his show. She changed her name, the band morphing into The Ike & Tina Turner Review as Thomas recalls. “It grew from there as we had several girls join us which went on to become the Ikettes and it snowballed from there really. We had lots of different faces and voices and all but we basically kept the same sound but we had a lot of fun on stage”. Jimmy would have these amazing ‘dance-offs’ with Tina in the show and in all he would spend 8 years with Ike’s band. Writing and releasing tracks whilst still touring, one song I Can’t Believe was released with Ikette Wilhelmina Weaver under the name of Jimmy & Dean. “Ike would have all these ideas on the road and if there was a studio somewhere we’d record these songs we’d come up with us singing and playing stuff on the coach with Ike on his acoustic guitar”.
TAKING PP ARNOLD’S ADVICE
It was in 1966 on a UK tour backing the Rolling Stones that Jimmy first toured the UK and it changed his life. “I fell in love with the country. It’s people, it’s history with the kings and queens and all, and I met a lot of good people where I first met producers Tony Visconti and Denny Cordell”. Three years later, Jimmy decided to move across the pond for good and I asked him how he came to that decision. “PP Arnold did that tour with us in ’66 and she had a relationship with Mick Jagger at the time and had huge success over here and they both said I should make that move as did those producers I met earlier on the tour. They paid my fare to fly over and so I did. Ike didn’t want me to leave the band but I felt it was time to go. I’d done all the touring and things but I wanted to get into more of the producing side of things and making records. They were producing acts like The Move, Procol Harum and Joe Cocker and so I joined them and was left to do my own thing. Eventually, I left to do my own thing”.
THE BIRTH OF THE OSCEOLA LABEL
Through the 60’s and 70’s, releases like Where There’s A Will (There’s A Way) would eventually blossom on the Northern Soul scene, he also sang on other artist’s songs that kept him busy. In 1979, he formed his own label Osceola Records, and was advised to get a big name to record on it to bring success. Jimmy recalls “every time Albert King would come over to do a tour we’d hang out and he said now you’ve got your own label you need a big name on it. He said I’ll do an album for you. Just fly me over, sort out the hotel and I’ll do it”.
Unfortunately, it was not to be as King died of a heart attack in the Christmas of 1992 before he could fulfil his promise to Popeye. “He was just a good guy and a great friend whom I knew all my life” added Jimmy. “So I’d started to record and met Tony Cook who was James Brown’s drummer and did an album on him and released a few singles but it was hard work. Everybody thought I had a hit with Hang Right On In There because the radio DJ’s played that song. It had a lot of radio play that’s for sure but I wasn’t shifting that many records. So after that, I decided to do my own thing, recording from home, work on production and do what I love doing which is where I’m at now”.
The 10th of August this year sees Jimmy release The Weak End Is Mine which will feature on a proposed new EP and album in the making. “It was recorded years ago on an album I had done which I’ve re-jigged with a few friends of mine and Phil Harding with whom I’d done a lot of session work down the years. We broke it down and I re-wrote the song but kept the guitars. There was a real good feeling around the song and everybody said it should be a single and the album is almost ready but as yet untitled”, added Jimmy. Popeye is back? I suggested, to which Jimmy’s infectious laugh sowed a seed that he liked that idea. Who knows what the title will be but one thing is for sure. Popeye has never been away and he’s here to stay.
The great Albert King himself would have approved of how his protégé turned out.