By TARA BENNETT
Arts & Culture Staff Writer
In the early hours of New Year’s Day 2014, Baton Rouge lost a legend, blues powerhouse ‘Rockin’ Tabby Thomas. Four days shy of his 85th birthday, Thomas passed away due to natural causes, leaving behind a place in Baton Rouge music history.
Thomas’s life long affiliation with music started as a singer in the youth choir of his grandfather’s church, and continued on while serving the U.S. Air Force in the 1950’s. During his service, Thomas was stationed in San Francisco, where he won a local talent contest on KSAN radio. His win led him to earning a record deal with Hollywood Records, a Los Angeles-based record label.
It was in Baton Rouge, though, where Thomas saw success with his band Mellow, Mellow Men, scoring a hit with the single “Hoodoo Party” under the well-known blues label Excello Records. For decades, Thomas and the Mellow, Mellow Men were a leading Southern blues band, and in the late 1960s Thomas formed his own record label, Blue Beat, which allowed him to release his recordings as well as musicians from the area.
Thomas’s most cherished role in the blues music scene however was as the founder of Tabby’s Blue Box and Heritage Hall in the late 1970’s. Eventually, Tabby’s became known as Baton Rouge’s most famous blues club, and served as the place where aspiring area musicians got their first start, including musicians such as Tab Benoit, Troy Turner and Thomas’s own son, Chris Thomas King.
“He was a wise man and he taught me not only the foundation for music, but his wisdom about the business of music,” said King. “It wasn’t any wisdom you would find in a music magazine. It was one of the things that helped me make a career. He did that for so many others who attended Tabby’s, and kind of pointed the way and showed them how to make a career out of music. He helped bring the community together with his music. With Tabby’s, my dad helped pass the music on to the next generation.”
Tabby’s became a staple of Baton Rouge nightlife, and a hot spot for blues musicians, as it gave them a place for jam sessions as well as networking for blues artists who couldn’t cut it due to the popularity of the disco scene.
“The blues musicians really had nowhere else to play,” said King. “Disco music had really made a lot bars and clubs. It was a Saturday Night Fever type of culture. Tabby’s became the social club of the regional blues musicians. And of course in creating that kind of environment, it set the tone for young musicians who would receive a first hand sort of apprenticeship. It’s best to study the blues hands on.”
Locals and visitors from around the world would come to Tabby’s on any given night and listen to top blues artists such as Silas Hogun, Henry Gray and Raful Neal. Celebrities such as Mike Tyson and Shaquille O’Neal were even known to visit the popular juke joint.
Unfortunately, Tabby’s was forced to relocate after 20 years of successful business when the construction of the North Boulevard freeway overpass raized the juke joint in 2000. Tabby’s reopened on Lafayette Street that same year, where it remained in operation until it closed down in 2004 after Thomas suffered a stroke. Playing music was no longer an option for Thomas, but he still continued to sing and host his weekly blues radio show on WBRH-FM up until his passing.
“My last night with my dad was New Year’s Eve, and he wasn’t able to speak, but I played my guitar for him and I think his spirit felt it,” said King. “That last night with him was special for me and I’m glad I got that moment with him.”
After his passing, Thomas’s presence still resonated in his fans and members of the Baton Rouge blues community as they paid their respects with “A Musical Celebration” held at the Manship Theatre on Tuesday, January 7.
“I was heartbroken, and sad,” said King. “And as a music man I knew that a lot of other musicians wanted to pay tribute to him. It was my dad’s spirit bringing the Baton Rouge community together one last time.”
Currently, King is in the process with city and state officials in creating a historical marker for his father, perhaps naming a park in his honor.
According to King, money needs to be raised for the marker, and people can contribute by sending donations to the Tipitina’s Foundation or by attending the 2014 Blues Fest after party. King will also keep the celebration of his father going by creating the Chris Thomas King Blues Social Club, which will play once a month at the Manship Theatre.
“That’s my way to continue the celebration,” King said, “and I invite all local musicians to come out and jam with me.”