We spoke with Vaneese Thomas about her new CD Down Yonder, with guests Kevin Bacon and violinist Katie Jacoby, and discussed both sides of the biggest hits from her father Rufus Thomas and sister Carla Thomas on the Stax label.
By Warren Kurtz
GOLDMINE:Thank you so much for your music. Your new CD, Down Yonder, has a wonderful variety of songs.
VANEESE THOMAS: You are so kind. Thank you so much for reporting it. I want to tell you that this particular compilation of music, I think, is the most important I have ever done. My writing, in terms of the blues genre, has expanded. I think blues is an ever evolving style, because it comes from so many different sources. This time I wasn’t thinking about the traditional delta blues, I was just letting my mind and my creativity go beyond that and out came some of the best stuff I have ever written.
GM:“I Tried” is slow blues with brass and showcases your vocal power.
VT: Well, thanks. I love that song. I love my collaborators on this album. Al Orlo and I wrote a few songs, including that one. I am a keyboard player. With Al being a great guitar player, his writing comes from a different place.
GM:You have a wonderful violinist, Katie Jacoby, with you as well on “Highway of Regret.”
VT: Oh my God. Have you seen her this year? She has been on tour with The Who.
GM:Yes. My daughter Brianna and I saw The Who with a 40 piece orchestra in Tampa. On the way to the concert we played your new CD and Katie’s EP, which I will share my notes with the readers on at the end of this article. Not only did Katie play with The Who, but she was the final featured musician as the night closed with “Baba O’Reily,” you know that song about “teenage wastleland.” It was her violin playing at the end of the song that ended an incredible evening.
VT: That is so wonderful. Her playing on “Highway of Regret” is mournful, isn’t it? She is a friend who we have known since she was a teenager. She plays with The Ed Palermo Big Band, who is from the New York area, known for taking on the tradition of Frank Zappa’s music. The Zappa family just love him and gave him permission to use the music and he has played it all over the world.
GM:“Wake Me” is certainly a song that caught Brianna’s and my ear on the way to see The Who and Katie, with it being such a rock song with the organ and brass. Brianna plays both keyboard and trumpet.
VT: Yeah. My husband, Wayne Warnecke, prefers that style so we took the song and rocked it with a twangy guitar too.
GM:“Second Chance” is soulful with a Stax/Staple Singers sound.
VT: “Second Chance” and “Last Kiss” are so traditionally Memphis in sound. I feel so at home sitting in the middle of that kind of song.
GM:Your sister Carla is with you too.
VT: Yes, and my girlfrield Berneta Miles, who has been hanging out with me for years and years. We went over to Royal Studio in Memphis, which is now owned by jazz trumpeter Blue Mitchell. I had to put some of that Memphis grease on it, so we did overdubs with horns there and background vocalists with Carla, Berneta and me. Reverend Charles Hodges played organ on “Second Chance” and “Handle Me Gently.” I wore Blue out. We were there all day just doing overdubs.
GM:When I was listening to your album, “Legacy of Pain” came on and I heard you joined by a soulful male voice. My first guess was Leon Bridges, then I picked up the CD and read “featuring Kevin Bacon.” What a surprise and a great blues rock number.
VT: Thank you. People are really surprised with this collaboration but that is just because they don’t know what a music head Kevin is. They may know he has a band. He has just been doing music his whole life, playing guitar since he was a teenager, and I’ve known Kevin for thirty years. I sang with him and his brother on their first record. I have done some live work with him, too. It has been a long friendship and collaboration. I was driving around in Memphis before I recorded that song and I was trying to think whose voice would suit that. Without any delay, Kevin came to me. Kevin is a passionate soul for justice. I told him the story behind the song and he was in from the beginning. If you look up unsolved murders in Rosedale, Mississippi you will learn about a not so well kept secret that a man who murdered women, but no one is willing to talk, to this day. There is a fear, because he has friends in high places. One of his brothers is the sheriff, one is the mayor. His best friend is the district attorney. He did get fifteen years in jail for raping a young girl. Vanity Fair magazine published an article on this last year because he was due to get out last fall and people wanted to know what is going to happen to this guy and I was wondering the same thing.
GM:Kevin was interviewed by our magazine on records that influenced him growing up and he sited albums by Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind & Fire and The Rolling Stones and I can hear all of that coming together in his performance on “Legacy of Pain.”
VT: Very much so. It is soulful.
GM:You mentioned that you’ve known Kevin for thirty years, so let’s go back around thirty years ago to “Rockin’ & Lovin’,” the flip side of “Let Me In,” which sounds like something that could have been on the Footloose soundtrack.
VT: It does, doesn’t it? I didn’t even think about that. It is from my first album on Geffen. Wayne and I co-wrote that one and you can tell already that he is the rocker of the two of us.
GM:Prior to that, another favorite flip side of mine is “I’m Losing You,” capturing a soulful power as Mississippi’s Dorothy Moore delivered that decade with her “Misty Blue.” This is one that you recorded with Carolyn Mitchell.
VT: Carolyn is my best friend from my college days. She, Lisa Fischer and I wrote “Ebony Man” and Carolyn and I wrote “Lies,” both for the new album. Carolyn and I are going to get together and write more songs, too. She and I love to tell great stories in the songs. I think people are losing that, getting so busy with the beats that the story gets lost. Carolyn and I have been singing and writing together for a long time.
Vaneese & Carolyn
Flip side: I’m Losing You
A side: Let Me In
Polydor PD 14395
GM:We talked about your sister Carla. The flip side of her gold single “B-A-B-Y,” from 1966, is “What Have You Got to Offer Me,” a slow, beautiful, ¾ time song with a nice piano backdrop.
VT: I remember it very well. Did you know that I sang on the “B-A-B-Y” recording?
GM:No, I didn’t know that.
VT: Yes, I was a young girl. “B-A-B-Y” was co-written by David Porter and Isaac Hayes. They knew me since I was a baby. When my mother would allow it, Daddy would bring me down to the studio. David knew that I could sing. I’ve been singing since I’ve been in the world. He asked if I wanted to sing on “B-A-B-Y” and the three of us sang background, David, Carla and me.
GM:How about that. When my wife Donna, Brianna, and I lived in Virginia, our friend Sandi, would play “B-A-B-Y” on her beach music radio show all the time, which is where I learned it.
VT: Beach music! I had a friend who lives in Norfolk and had a band of his own and they were just cleaning up because people in that area just love that beach music. They love the music of Eddie Floyd, who is like a big brother to me. He has been there five times to perform at a beach music festival.
GM:One of the first singles I bought as a kid, when I was ten years old, was Eddie’s “I”ve Never Found a Girl (To Love Me Like You Do).” It was my first Stax record.
VT: Isn’t that a great song? You can tell he was a great songwriter too, by that song.
GM:Going back further on Stax to your dad in 1963, on the flip side of his gold single “Walking the Dog,” was “You Said,” a steady piano driven dance number with background vocals and an overall feel that reminds me of Lee Dorsey’s “Ya Ya,” which was also on his album. Whether it is “B-A-B-Y” or “Walking the Dog,” when you flip these gold singles over, you hear a gentle surprise.
VT: That is a good way of putting it. It is more gentle music. My brother Marvell played piano on it. The first song that got Satellite records, which became Stax, on the map in Memphis was the same way, nothing like Daddy’s “Walking the Dog” or Carla’s “Gee Whiz.” It was a little more New Orleans’ in its feeling, so it is interesting that you mention “Ya Ya” by Lee Dorsey from New Orleans. I have lived in New York since the 1980s and have made many wonderful friendships and have had many great musical collaborations. My husband Wayne and I have Segue Records here.
GM:On Segue, from your prior album, The Long Journey Home, one of the songs that I really enjoy is “Mystified.”
VT: Ah, thank you. That is one of my favorites too, and I continue to play it in concerts.
GM:Thank you and your family for all of your music. On the fourth of July I play “Walking the Dog,” and each December I play Carla’s “Gee Whiz, It’s Christmas” and driving to The Who, Brianna and I certainly enjoyed Down Yonder.
VT: I am so glad. Hopefully I am carrying on the legacy. It is so nice to be appreciated.
In addition to bringing an emotional Papa John Creach-like violin flavor to Vaneese Thomas’ “Highway of Regret,” and playing a key role on tour with The Who this year, Katie Jacoby has released a six song self-titled EP. It begins with the sole instrumental track “Two Kinds,” a strong violin driven opener. She sings about a troubled relationship on “Ain’t Right,” which has an incredibly powerful instrumental ending. “Oh, Bright Stars” is beautiful, with a gentle beat reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen’s “My Hometown.” “Clara Jane” has a lilting sound that recalls the era of 1970s’ It’s a Beautiful Day and their violinist David Laflamme’s solo albums. “Red Guitar” is an edgy rocker and “Order of Operations,” a mathematical term, is a gentle finale.
Warren Kurtz is a Contributing Editor at Goldmine, writing the In Memoriam and Fabulous Flip Sides series. “Warren’s Fabulous Flip Sides” can be heard most Saturday mornings, in the 9 a.m. hour, Eastern time, as part of “Moments to Remember” at wvcr.com or iHeart Radio – search WVCR.