Many years ago, my friend Daniel mailed me an audio cassette. No explanatory note, just a ninety-minute home-recorded tape labeled "Gordon Thomas." Having bonded with Daniel over our mutual fondness for the brilliance of Ben Folds Five and trusting his taste thoroughly, I popped in the tape and discovered a unique talent.
Accompanied by a sprightly, jazz-inflected piano, Gordon sang his simple, catchy melodies enthusiastically if not precisely on key. Although his off-kilter delivery wouldn't last a millisecond in the American Idol audition thunderdome, it had its own boisterous charm. But it was Gordon's lyrics which marked him as one-of-a-kind.
Gordon worked from a limited, almost entirely positive, linguistic palette. "Love" and "loving" and "luck" and "lucky" turned up frequently, as did variations of "joy" and "bless." But no word appeared as often as "good." "Good" seemed to be Gordon's default lyric, the word to use when nothing else occurred to him, filling lyrical gaps like spackle, often rhyming with itself, as in this characteristic couplet from "Irene":
"The joy is good/the feeling very, very, very good."
As the tape rolled on, more instruments appeared in the arrangements: percussion, bass, horn sections. Somehow, this guy with his peppy little tunes and loopy "good"-packed verses had enlisted genuine pros to cut some snappy tracks. It built to a peak in the middle of the tape's second side with "Diana." A brief drum, bass and horn intro led to this nearly breathless torrent:
"She is lovely, she is warm and she is very cool.
She can sing and she can dance; she's on top of things.
She's an actress, she's fantastic, she's a human being.
She is loved and she is warm and she is very cool.
Lady Di-aaaaaane -- you're the tops!
Yeah yeah yeah yeah."
Before the tape had finished, I had Daniel on the phone, begging to know more about this man of mystery, but Daniel knew little. As indicated by the copious tape hiss, my copy was a copy of a copy of a copy, the brilliance of Gordon Thomas having passed hand-to-hand, tape-deck-to-tape-deck, obsessive-to-obsessive in those primitive, analog, pre-Napster days. The arrangements were so divorced from obvious musical trends that it was difficult to determine when the songs were even recorded. Something in his delivery suggested that Gordon might have been a Catskills regular, a suspicion strengthened by the klezmer-y ode to Middle-East harmony, "Peace Peace." If Woody Allen's character, Broadway Danny Rose, really existed, I'm positive he would have whole-heartedly represented Gordon Thomas.
Applying yet another coat of hiss, I dubbed a copy for my brother Greg, again heightening the mystique by including no explanation. Another convert was born. Our limited research did dredge up a few facts about Gordon. Turns out he had played trombone with Dizzy Gillespie's big band in the 1940s and, despite those Jackie-Mason-ish inflections we thought we had detected, he was actually a black man born in Bermuda. Greg, naturally more inquisitive than I am, still needed to know more. After lots of digging and many dead ends, he finally tracked down the producer of one of Gordon's CDs, who informed Greg that, yes, Gordon was indeed still alive...and working at a fabric store in New York City.
Greg called the fabric store, but was informed that Gordon was out of the country for a few days. When Greg finally spoke to Gordon the following week, he learned that, concurrent with Greg's search, two Canadian filmmakers had been on their own quest to find Gordon and had brought him to Montreal the week before to perform his material onstage before a live audience -- for the first time ever -- as part of a documentary they were shooting on him.
Compensating slightly for all the sales Gordon had been deprived through years of bootlegging, Greg bought Gordon's entire back catalogue, finally transferred to CD, and Gordon even threw in a necktie which he had personally sewn. (Now there's a perk you don't get from those U2 bastards!) The film by Stacey DeWolfe and Malcolm Fraser, christened "Everything's Coming My Way" after one of Gordon's many optimistic songs, will be released on DVD at the end of this month, and Gordon, now 91 years old, will return to Montreal to perform at a release party on September 29. You can visit www.gordonthomas.com or www.myspace.com/gordonthomasmusic for details or to buy Gordon's albums, which are available on his own Samhot label (read it backwards, almost).
Now, let me be clear, Gordon Thomas is not some unfairly overlooked Cole Porter. Two of the most accurate descriptions I've ever read called him a "charming, albeit incredibly clumsy singer and lyricist" and compared his recordings to "open mike night at your local retirement home with Vince Guaraldi on piano." But unlike much of so-called "outsider" music, Gordon's albums are a genuine, if acquired, pleasure. With an act like the Shaggs, the cataclysmic wrongness of the playing, the singing and the songwriting combine to create an awe-inspiring, disastrous whole, making their "Philosophy of the World" a fascinating yet agonizing listening experience. But the palpable joy that Gordon brings to his singing is infectious and, once you've accustomed yourself to his daffy delivery and less-than-expansive vocabulary, it becomes obvious that, damn, the guy can write hooks, which are ably fleshed out by his collaborators -- most notably, pianist Richard Wyands. The musicianship on most of his albums is first-rate, except for some ill-advised synthesizers locked in the "Cheese" setting and, to be honest, Gordon's occasional trombone solos which suggest that his embouchure must have seen better days when he was employed by Mr. Gillespie.
I've driven around, singing myself hoarse to the best of Gordon Thomas with as much gusto as if it were "A Hard Day's Night" or Sinatra's "Songs For Swingin' Lovers" in the CD changer. One listen to "Singing In The Shower" and you'll be humming this "happy, happy tune" all the frigging day. "Going Home For Christmas" captures a wistful yuletide sentiment so nicely that a friend of mine tried desperately to squeeze it into a holiday film he directed recently, but Gordon ultimately proved too distinctive and distracting to serve as background music. Gordon's dance-floor-ready "Madonna", in which he describes Ms. Ciccone-Ritchie as "soulful", "brilliant", "a joy" and, inevitably, "looking very, very good," is long overdue the high-profile house remix or mash-up treatment. "Don't Come Bothering Me Now" would seem ripe for Tony Bennett if not for the fact that every attempt to cover Gordon so far has failed miserably. Gordon's lyrics in the mouth of someone else sound like poorly translated Japanese greeting cards.
To be sure, some of Gordon's most striking effects are likely unintentional. The spare "Pretty Little Girl" conjures a mood as haunting as Randy Newman's "In Germany Before The War", while "Gone Again" becomes comical as it sticks relentlessly with a single idea longer than even Andy Kaufman might have dared.
But aside from the specific merits of his individual songs, perhaps Gordon Thomas is most valuable to the rest of us for what he symbolizes. Here is a 91-year-old man who, in the face of decades of obscurity and indifference, has still found ways to write and record more songs, remaining true to his uplifting and original inner voice. Anyone who tries to earn their living creatively has to identify with that spirit, that peculiar combination of talent, self-confidence and delusion which keeps us plugging away, even when all logic tells us to hang it up and go work at a fabric store.
At 91, Gordon Thomas is still hoping for his big break, still believing it's going to happen. Heck, it just might.
And that would be very, very good.
Photo by Lee Towndrow.