Starship, Thomas soar into Tahoe
October 9, 2008
Considering Mickey Thomas’ high-reaching harmonics and Elvin Bishop’s folksy, front-porch style of singing, it might be hard to find a greater contrast of musical voices. But when the song “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” by the Elvin Bishop Band hit the top of the charts in 1976, there was confusion.
“The natural assumption was that it was Elvin Bishop who was singing,” said Thomas, who performs with his band Starship on Saturday, Oct. 11, at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe.
“Fooled Around and Fell in Love” was the first major hit Thomas sang and the highest-charting single ever by Elvin Bishop. Thomas, of course, would go on to have numerous singles with Jefferson Starship.
Bishop, a former Paul Butterfield Blues Band guitarist, was already established in the blues world. But the single Thomas sang brought mainstream attention to Bishop’s new band, and listeners had a burning question: “Who is this mystery voice?” Thomas said, remembering how hearing himself on the radio changed his life.
“A lot of peers found out about me through that, and ultimately I did get credit for it,” he said. “It opened a lot of doors for me. I feel fortunate and thankful.”
Although Thomas was not the lyricist, he did improvise a verse that remained in the song’s final cut.
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“Free, on my own, that’s how I used to be,” Thomas sang into the phone to Lake Tahoe Action.” But since I met you, baby, love’s got a hold of me.”
Thomas’ first musical inspiration came from seeing The Beatles in Atlanta in 1965. Afterward, he and his friends started a band, with Thomas trying to emulate John Lennon, singing and playing rhythm guitar.
“We were pretty terrible, but it was a start,” Thomas said.
A native of Cairo, Ga. (a coastal town just north of Tallahassee, Fla., known for producing athletes, not musicians), Thomas went on to play in a rock and R&B band called the Jets. Gospel singer Gideon Daniels befriended Thomas and changed his musical direction.
“He inspired a vocal style rooted in black gospel,” Thomas said. “Really, pure emotion is what it’s all about.”
It was Daniels who persuaded Bishop to hire Thomas.
On the heels of “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” Thomas was set to launch a solo career when his telephone started ringing. Jefferson Airplane was re-forming without Marty Balin and Grace Slick, and the band wanted Thomas to be the new singer. After meeting Paul Kantner at his home, Thomas joined the band.
Slick eventually rejoined the band, sharing vocal duties with Thomas. Renamed Jefferson Starship and later simply Starship, it filled the air with hits including “We Built This City,” “Winds of Change,” “Jane,” “Stranger,” “Find Your Way Back,” “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” “It’s Not Over (‘Til It’s Over)” and “Sarah,” a song Thomas wrote about his wife, whom he met at the Christiana Inn.
Shortly after Starship’s November 2006 Tahoe concert, singer Stephanie Calvert joined the band.
“She’s a great singer with a big stage presence,” Thomas said. “Having Stephanie does give us the opportunity to go back and play some of the older songs that are associated with the history of the band like the Grace Slick songs ” and do ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’ as a duet, as it was originally done.”
The remainder of the band remains intact. Lead guitarist Mark Abrahamian and bassist Jeff Adams have been with Starship for eight years, and drummer Darrell “Pelican” Verdusco and keyboardist Phil Bennett for 16.
“This band has been together as an entity longer than any band I’ve been with in my life,” Thomas said. We’re all on the same page musically and all get along great personally. There’s down time together where it’s king of like being married to five people at the same time, so you better be able to get along and have the kind of chemistry to work out any problems if they do arise.”
Thomas oversees every aspect of the band and said, “It’s more fun now than ever.”
“It’s just not the big machine that it was in the ’80s, when we had 30 people. There is a lot less pressure.”