Little Al Thomas
How many more excellent unrecorded blues artists are out there on the back streets of Chicago, or in the small crossroads Delta towns in Mississippi, or playing the tiny jook joints of Texas? You'd think that everyone who deserved to cut an album and gain national recognition would have already been discovered. Then along comes this CD, South Side Story, the debut recording by 69-year-old Chicago singer Little Al Thomas.
South Side Story is a great album featuring the vocals of a strong, raw singer and a solid, tight backing band. This is just good basic Chicago blues. It's already secured a spot on my 1999 Top Ten list.
Thomas is a native of Chicago, growing up in the Maxwell Street blues hotbed. He's been sitting in at clubs and jam sessions for years, but unfortunately never got close to a recording studio. He's got a nice, rough blues voice, and a knack for taking cover tunes and remaking them into his own style. The Crazy House Band, along with the Blues Swingers Horns, backs Thomas on this session. Led by drummer Tom "Mot" Dutko, this ensemble turns out to be as big a part of this disc's success as the singer himself. Especially noteworthy is the amazing piano work of Sid Wingfield.
The best showcase for both Thomas and the band is on Muddy Waters' "Rollin' & Tumblin," a much more frantic, slide-driven version highlighted by Thomas' raw vocals, John Edelmann's guitar work, and Wingfield's fine piano playing.
"Stranded In St. Louis" is a great horn-infused blues shuffle with still another hot piano solo. This upbeat version is hardly recognizable from the original by Bay Area pianist Omar Shariff.
Wingfield kicks off "Feel So Good" with a blistering boogie woogie solo, and Thomas follows with his strongest vocal work.
Another cover drastically different from the original is the rollicking uptempo version of "Somebody Changed The Lock On My Door."
Of course, there's gotta be a good slow blues here somewhere, and "Nobody Sleepin' In My Bed" features killer gospel-style piano from Wingfield and a good guitar solo from Edelmann.
What more can I say? I'm glad that Little Al Thomas has finally gotten the chance to share his South Side Story. Let's hope the folks at Cannonball make up for lost time and release a second CD from Thomas real soon.
--- Bill Mitchell
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