He may bill himself as The King of the Swamp Blues, but Louisiana music legend Tabby Thomas is most intriguing in the ways he doesn’t live up to that title. For one thing, his bearing isn’t regally pompous; he’s quite the affable and low-key veteran, one who’s mentored any number of South Louisiana blues masters when he could have easily hogged the spotlight. His musical stylings are also considerably less monochromatic than you might expect—although he’s been focusing on the blues these last few decades, his history reveals a man, like many of his peers, willing and able to adapt to whatever’s popular. If that means bending to a dance craze (“Popeye Train”) or playing a little rock ‘n’ roll, so be it. (There’s a reason he’s sometimes referred to as “Rockin’ Tabby Thomas.”)
The most important difference, however, remains Tabby’s work ethic. He may be The King, but one gets the impression that he wouldn’t behave like other musical royalty, say, your Elvises and your Michael Jacksons, even if he had their fame and fortune. No, Tabby’s crown, to hear him tell the story, was gained by being in the right place at the right time. But what he never mentions—and probably should—is that he also got to the throne by working his ass off.
Born on Baton Rouge’s Washington Street in 1929, Ernest Joseph Thomas went by a more regional name as a child—“T-Boo.” Like many of his generation, he was exposed to secular and religious music in equal doses: his mother owned a Victrola, which T-Boo would happily keep winding so he could listen to some of her Son House sides, and his grandfather was the founder and pastor of St. Luke Baptist Church, where the young Thomas happily sung second bass in the junior choir. T-Boo became Tabby in high school, where he was quarterback for the McKinley High Panthers. “I was playing football, and we had just started using the T formation,” he recalls. “There was one girl, her name was Delores George, a cheerleader. And she said, ‘Tabby can fake that ball, he just like a cat.’” And Tabby he became.
Thomas was such a jock, in fact, that he briefly considered a career in coaching; that is, until he saw Roy Brown at a local dance. “We had a band coming every Monday night back then—B.B. King, Lowell Fulson. It was 75 cents or something. Something just happened to me when I heard that band,” says Thomas. Of course, “I didn’t know then that it was gonna lead me into what I do now.” Brown had definitely made an impression, however: by the time he’d graduated school and entered the Air Force, Tabby was indulging both passions at once, playing quarterback on his base’s team and singing in the service club in his spare time. Eventually stationed in Riverside, California, Tabby stayed in the area after his tour of duty ended and found himself within arm’s reach of a burgeoning East Coast blues scene nearby in San Francisco. “I stayed on Gary Street,” says Tabby, “right around the corner from Bop City. That was the musicians’ part of town. We’d go to the pool hall, drink wine, smoke a little grass, all kinda stuff. Mess around, you know.”
Eventually, some of his buddies encouraged Thomas to try out for a local talent show; although he’d been singing for fun, he hadn’t really thought about making a living at it. When he stepped into the Ellis Theater, fate took over. KSAN DJ Fatso Berry asked Thomas, “Hey, what you want?”
“I come here to try and sing,” Tabby replied.
“Well, come here,” said Berry. “Let me hear you. What key you sing in?”
“I don’t know nothing about keys,” replied Tabby, and began to sing. “Long about midnight,” he wailed in one key or another, and he was in the contest before he finished the song.
Thomas was equally impressive during the show itself, beating out a teenaged Etta James (then known as Jane Etta) and an equally young Johnny Mathis (doing a rendition of Nat “King” Cole’s “Nature Boy”). “This guy come on ahead of me,” Tabby remembers, “and he was dressed nice. I wasn’t dressed nice. I was half out in the street at that time, you know? I said to myself, ‘Well, he got it.’ Then when I come on and did my song, the crowd started hollering and stomping, and the applause meter broke. I mean it BROKE. At the end, they had to put their hands over the heads to see who won.” Tabby ended up with the grand prize of 15 dollars.
Although he kept his job selling shoes, the memory of that victory never left the young bluesman’s mind. “It kept me going,” says Tabby. The flame lit by Roy Brown was now burning brighter. Eventually, a tenor sax man named Roland Mitchell mentioned that J&M studios was recording young singers, so Tabby went down there on his lunch hour to see if lightning could strike twice. As Thomas entered the studio, he saw R&B legend Larry Williams recording; between sessions, producer Ollie Hunt, tipped off to Tabby’s talent-show victory, gave him a shot at the mic. The piano player hastily scrawled a few words on paper and handed it to Thomas; the minute the neophyte got out the first phrase, “Midnight is calling,” Hunt yelled “Cut it!” Tabby, who’d never even heard his recorded voice, suddenly had a record on the jukeboxes of San Francisco: “Midnight is Calling” b/w “I’ll Make The Trip,” on the Recorded In Hollywood label (RIH 237).
Unfortunately, Tabby soon found himself falling victim to the temptations of big-city life, and also found himself in jail after a dalliance with an ever-so-slightly underage girl. Writing back home to his mother, Thomas asked her to take him in when he finished serving his 60-day sentence; when he got out, he had a friend drive him to the airport. Tabby gave him his car on the spot, returned to Baton Rouge, and never looked back.
He returned to South Louisiana to find that he “had a little rep.” New Orleans DJ Ernie the Whip was using “I’ll Make The Trip” as a theme song for his radio show, and Thomas also kept running into old friends from the West Coast, such as booking agent Alex Shaw, who immediately took Tabby on as a client. (“He saved my life,” says Thomas now. “If I hadn’t listened to him I’d be in the graveyard. He’d say, ‘You don’t stop drinking that Old Charter, you gonna pee on yourself when you an old man. You won’t be able to hold your water.’”) He also ran into Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, who was in desperate need of a backup band; Tabby hastily assembled one so good it made the crowd forget all about headliner Johnny Ace. Excello Records honcho Jay Miller was in the crowd that night, and he was impressed enough to write “Hoodoo Party” for Thomas. It remains his biggest hit.
Replicating that success proved to be difficult—the aforementioned “Popeye Train” was, according to Tabby, released too late to cash in on the local dance craze—but it didn’t break the bluesman’s heart; he just kept right on working his day jobs. “I was in trouble when I got married,” laughs Thomas, who’s been with his wife Jocelyn, since 1953. “I had to get up there and pay rent, washing dishes, waiting tables, driving a truck. I had to work. My children had to eat. We were at Prince La La’s house, and Papoose, Fats Domino’s guitar player, he said, ‘Tabby love them children, and if he can’t get no job, he’s gonna take his .38, his topcoat, and he’s gonna go rob somebody.’ And I was on that edge a couple of times.” Eventually he wound up at the Brown-Eagle fertilizer plant, where he rose to the position of supervisor and became the first black union steward in a mostly white workplace.
Thomas had been born illegitimately, but his wayward father had owned a few nightclubs, so perhaps what happened next was a product of heredity. Or maybe it was environment: the blues were all but dead in Baton Rouge during the disco boom of the late ’70s. In any event, Tabby, once again working from gut instinct, suddenly got the urge to open his own blues club in the decidedly un-bluesy year of 1980. To that end, he found a dilapidated old building that had once served as a record shop and grocery store until the neighborhood thieves made it difficult to keep stock. “I told the owner, ‘I want to open up a blues club,’” recalls Thomas. “He said ‘I tell you what. Here’s the keys. The lights, gas, water, all that is already on. You come back and see me in six months, we’ll talk about the rent.’ I couldn’t turn that down.”
Running what came to be known as Tabby’s Blues Box proved a bit more difficult. “I don’t see your liquor license on the wall there,” said one of his customers. “What license?” said Tabby, who wound up giving his whiskey away that first night. That customer, John Digillio, eventually became Thomas’ lawyer. Still, Tabby had a few tricks up his sleeve from the get-go, paying a minister to come in and bless the place before it opened its doors. “People laughed,” he says now, “but nothing ever happened in that club. We never had a fight. We had good race relations. All the LSU students started coming in there, and we had prostitutes, people had just come out of jail, sissies, everything. And they’d be transformed.” By keeping the club in a strict blues format, encouraging young area musicians like Tab Benoit, and hosting jam sessions, Tabby’s soon became the toast of the town. And then some: quite a number of celebrities, from Mike Tyson to Shaquille O’Neal, have found their way into one of the South’s finest juke joints. Tabby remembers watching Shaq being interviewed on TV: “They said, ‘Where you used to hang out when you were at LSU?’ and he said, ‘A little club called Tabby’s.’ I jumped up, man! I started to scream.”
Several more infamous members of society have passed through the club’s portals, including alleged Baton Rouge serial killer Derrick Todd Lee. “My daughters work at the bar,” recalls Thomas, “and one night this guy came in, musta been about 8:30. He sat at the bar, he was smoking, we served him a drink, and he kept looking around, you know. Every now and then I’d look at him, and he’d look like—man, I don’t know what it was. He was nervous, man. Then a few weeks later my daughter, the one that waited on him, saw his picture in the paper.”
Tabby’s become such a central figure in the Baton Rouge scene that he’s been given a weekly radio show of his own (Saturdays at 1 p.m., WBRH 90.3 FM and 1260 AM). For the past nine years, the elder statesman of swamp blues has played his own records, spun other blues artists, and offered callers the benefit of his years of hard-won wisdom. To wit: “I tell the young ladies, when you at a club and you go to the bathroom, finish your drink and turn your glass upside down. That way, when you come back, you’ll know if somebody’s been fooling with it. They might put a date rape drug in there, you wouldn’t even know. Their mamas and daddies won’t tell ’em that.”
The Blues Box remains his true love, and not just because it gives him the kind of exposure that’s led to overseas tours and new albums (like his latest, Blues from the Swamp). “It soothes my passion for the music,” he says. “I’m in a direct mode, now. I do swamp blues.” And what is that, to the uninitiated? Tabby’s explained it as “semi-laid-back jump rockin’ blues with a little touch of jazz in it,” but he adds: “Harmonica, Piano, Bass, Drums, Guitar. No horns. In Europe, they don’t like horns. I learned that from Jay Miller. I didn’t get money from him, but I got an education.” Now that his wildest days are behind him, Tabby spends his days “looking at my plaques on the wall. It ain’t money, but it reminds me that I tried to do my best.” He’s also a voracious reader: “Sometimes, I get the encyclopedias out, and it’s like I’m right there, riding with Genghis Khan and the golden horde, you know? Some people don’t get like that with books, but I do. I mean, you got to have imagination.” For modern rulers like Tabby, hard work and a little instinct don’t hurt, either.