Ural Thomas performed alongside some of the greatest soul singers in the golden era of rhythm and blues. Back then, he laid the foundation for a promising career, playing dozens of shows with the greats at Harlem’s Apollo Theater and cutting some fantastic 45’s that still stand the test of time today. But before he could fully realize his own potential, Portland’s “Pillar of Soul” walked away from the business, coming back to his family in North Portland.
Limelight or not, music is in Ural’s bones, so naturally he’s been hosting revolving jam sessions for decades since he left the business. A few years back, with some gentle poking and prodding from drummer Scott Magee–AKA DJ Cooky Parker, one of Portland’s preeminent crate diggers and purveyors of obscure soul jams–Ural decided to put together a proper band and start getting back to it in a serious way. In the beginning, his new band, Ural Thomas & The Pain, mined gems for live shows from Magee’s collection of B-Sides as well as Ural’s own back-catalog. Since then, they’ve come into their own, collaborating on a wealth of new material, some of which will appear on what is the crooner’s first proper full-length album, The Right Time, out September 28 on Portland’s own Tender Loving Empire.
ELEVEN sat down with Ural in his house’s hand-built practice space off of Mississippi Avenue to get the latest from Portland’s most celebrated soul man.
ELEVEN: This is a cozy little place, how long have you been in this house?
Ural Thomas: I’ve been here in this house since about ’82. But before that, I’ve been on this lot since ’62. The old house burnt down and the city knocked it down while I was up in Seattle working. They didn’t think I was coming back, but I came back.
11: Looks like you did a lot of this work yourself.
UT: Yeah, a lot of this stuff I pulled out of the river years ago. There used to be a lumber mill right down at the bottom of Mississippi Avenue there. The concrete place was right next door. But now things are scattered all over. It’s not as easy. I used to walk down there and get four or five ten-foot two-by-fours at a time and walk up the hill with them.
11: What’s it been like seeing the city change over all these years?
UT: I was born in Louisiana in a little-bitty town, but I’ve been in Portland since I was four years old, so I’ve been here for it all. It has its good and its bad. I’ve never complained because change just happens, there’s nothing I can do about it. This area used to be a warzone. It was infested with drugs, and there were just a lot of young kids with nothing better to do. We got so many people here now though, it’s just overwhelming. You see the traffic now? You got people on bicycles and all those scooters. People love to cluster together. They feel better when there’s a whole bunch of them and they can just bump into each other. I guess it’s kind of magical to know that you’re not alone in the world, you know? It’s like at the beginning of a gig, when there’s maybe only two or three people there. Somebody might come in and be like, “Ain’t nobody here!” They leave cause they want to be where the people are, but then when they come back they can’t get in!
11: How far back does your interest in music go? Do you come from a musical family?
UT: Yeah, I’ve been in it forever; I was born into it. My mom played guitar in the church choir. I’d be sitting under the bench listening while she played. I’ve always loved music, and I’ve always loved people. From the beginning, it’s always been that I already had the two most important things for me in this life. The purpose of music is to help people get through the day. You know? I’ve had people walk up after a gig and say, “I feel so much better, Ural. I didn’t even know I was going to enjoy the show tonight, but I feel great.”
11: Fast-forwarding to now, tell me about The Right Time.
UT: Everybody has something to say, so the name, “The Right Time,” is trying to express that this is the only time to say it. Tomorrow isn’t promised to any of us. We’re not kids. But at the same time, we’re all kinda kids inside, I guess. “The Right Time” is all about saying, “Hey, if you got something to say, you better say it. If you’re going to do it, you better do it, man. You got support, you got love, you got a shot at the world, and you know the world is in need right now.” Everybody has a part to play. I think we’ve all been given a part, and I think, the guys that I’m with now, we were put together for a reason. They’ve all put in extensive time to get where they are in their minds and in their music. Playing together is a real blessing for all of us; we all really care about each other a lot.
11: Is it pretty exciting to be releasing your first proper full-length after all these years?
UT: Oh sure, but we’ve got a lot of original material that isn’t on this or any other album, so we got a lot in the can for later. By the time we get this album out, if it works, fine, if it don’t, that’s fine too because we’ve got something else for you. We’re moving. Nobody’s really worried about trying to get rich, we’re just trying to share with everybody what we’ve shared with each other. You know what I mean? It’s the right time, man: Hey, let’s dance! The right time: come on, sing with us. The right time: bring your kids! I’ve always loved the mixture of parents and kids out there together. We were always taught it takes more than just mom and dad to raise the kids. You learn from your friends, you learn from other parents, you learn from experience. You even learn from getting knocked down. You learn how to get back up–or maybe just stay on down and just do it from the bottom.
11: How’d you get hooked up with The Pain?
UT: Eric Isaacson from Mississippi Records found some old 45’s I’d forgotten about that I did when I was younger and bringing up the kids. We made this record called Smile back then. He found a copy of it–I don’t know where, I didn’t even have a copy of it. I just gave mine to my kids. Anyway, he connected me with Scottie Magee. Scottie’s a DJ, goes by Cooky Parker. He picks up a lot of old 45’s for his DJ nights. The A-Sides were supposed to have all the hits, but he found a bunch of B-Sides that should have been the hits, so he brings them to the table. That’s what the first show we played was supposed to be about. He always wanted to do some of that live stuff with what he was finding in those records. He’s younger, so he missed a lot of the real thing from the musicians and records he loved. He was saying, “Man, I wish I could have been a part of that.” So Eric told him about me, because I was doing the same thing: taking my ideals from old music.
You know, I’ve played for audiences where there were maybe about 10 people, but we played like it was 10,000. And when we had 10,000 people, we played like it was 20,000. We always put our best foot forward. Sure, you can’t get blood from a turnip, but we still try to give it as much as we can to make it good for the people and good for us too.
11: How do you keep that fire going that allows you to perform the same, no matter what?
UT: When the guys first met me, they said, “Man, we’ve been playing these songs over and over again, Ural, and we haven’t done anything,” and I said, “That’s because you didn’t really put yourself into it.” Once you learn the song, you can sing it identically, but there’s always got to be some inspiration that’s still there to make it real, and that’s up to you. I can’t make you feel it unless you want to feel it. With me, every time I hit the stage it’s like the first time. That’s how I keep myself going. I try to do it like we just finished rehearsing all these songs last week. Maybe we’ve been on the road for a long time, but I tell them, “Hey, this is our first night guys!”
You know how music is: it’s magical! You never give the same performance. Even when you’re playing that same old song on stage and you’ve got charts sitting right in front of you, there’s something special that’s going to come out ‘cause every audience is different. And, man, you just can’t get lazy. You gotta keep that groove and that drive and the interest. You can’t let the music get old inside of you. Some nights I’ve maybe played five or six gigs at five or six different places, and use the same set. Before the night’s over, there’s two or three songs you’ll change because of the audience. If you’ve got an audience that kinda wants to just sit and listen, you know, check it out, you gotta give them something interesting. A lot of folks don’t like to dance, they come to get their minds filled, so we try to do that. You can tell if you’re paying attention to your audience. But I always tell ’em to get up and dance either way. Even if you got your mind full, get your body full! Enjoy the whole thing, you know?
11: You seem like you’re still so young at heart. You’ve got a lot of passion for what you do.
UT: I really do.That’s real. My momma told me, whatever you do, be sure you don’t lie to yourself. If you lie to yourself you can never be real with no one. You can fake, but you can’t fool yourself in the end. If you be real to yourself you can’t miss.
11: What’s been inspiring you recently when you write new songs?
UT: Some of the stuff we’re doing is revamped from my earlier years, but most of it is supposed to bring happiness. I try not to talk too much about that “she did me wrong” stuff. When I was younger that’s the kind of song I would write because you could fall on the floor and make the girls cry, you know? Now I try to focus on the lyrics instead of all that “scooby dooby wop, my baby is this or that, wham bam mam, I don’t give a damn.” I try to make it more like, “I lost my love, sure would be nice to have her back.” It makes more sense than trying to sound so hip just so somebody wants to buy the record. I like to make it all make sense. Also, if I was to say something about a love affair or heart break I would try to make it not so she’s just at fault or I’m just at fault. I try to make it show that there’s a two-way street. Even when I sing a happy song, it takes two people to really have a good time. One can think about it, but two can do it, you know? I always try to make it all universal. I try to make it so the woman is just as much a part of my life as I am a part of hers. And if it’s about my friend, and how he’s having some problems, I want him to know I’m with him. He don’t have no problems all by himself. If you’ve got a problem, come on and I’ll help you. Most music that’s really touching, it involves all people. I don’t care where you’re from. You may be from Spain or from Maine, but everyone falls in love. I don’t care where you are, you’ll find someone you’re very compatible with and sometimes you might find someone who you’re just attracted to momentarily. We can all relate to this stuff. Life is what we make it, no matter how it goes.
11: What’s your favorite part of playing live?
UT: The live shows are just so touching. Each crowd is different. It’s like painting a picture. You can have all these plans and think, “This is gonna be perfect! We’re gonna kill!” Then, you get out there and someone yells “Get off the stage!” You never know what’s going to happen. There was a time back when I was staying with my manager in Cincinnati. He had connections; he was James Brown’s road manager. He hooked me up with this gig in Covington, Kentucky. They hired me because of what they had heard about me. I went down there and it was a big club, probably held 500 people. When I walked in, the band was glad to see me, but I swear some of those people had never seen a black man before. The band was all country western players. I told em, “That’s cool. Don’t make no difference. I can sing country, I can sing rock ‘n’ roll, I can sing rhythm and blues, I can sing gospel, and I can make you enjoy it!” But when the boss, the guy who owned the place, came in the room and saw me up there, he said, “God dammit! I don’t know he was a n*****! Get him out of here!” So, I grabbed the microphone and I said, “Yeah! Get that n***** out of here!” Everybody just screamed and they picked up the guy and passed him over the top of the crowd in rhythm. You know, like, “Huh, huh, huh!” They took him all the way to the back door, pushed him out and closed it. It was so wonderful though, because the next day he came up to my hotel room and he said, “God damn, you’re the craziest mother fucker I know. I’ve never seen anything like that.” He says, “Where you really from?” I said, “Hey I’m just here man, I’m from everywhere.” He said, “Well let me tell you, the next time you come through here you’re staying at my house.” We became friends actually because I wouldn’t let it be any other way. I saw he had a problem he didn’t even know about. I tell people that if you have prejudice, that’s your loss. You come with all that to me, I’m not gonna have it. I’m going to be myself, and I’m going to let you be yourself, and hopefully we’re going to be alright.