'Blessed to be part of the music'
Celebrating his 80th year on Earth, Ural Thomas couldn't be happier.
He's toured Europe, he's working on a new album, and he's singing with his band The Pain and sounding as sweet as ever. Portland's longtime soul man plays Revolution Hall on Friday, April 19, as he and The Pain embark on spring and summer shows — and he's not slowing down.
"I feel that I'm blessed," says Thomas, who turns 80 in December. "I see younger people not as much into music as I am. They think it's all lights and glory and money, but you have to work; it's a job. I guess we opened the doors for a lot of them to feel that way.
"I'm still blessed to be part of the music. I feel that I still have a lot to give."
Thomas, who's lived in Portland since 1942, has been making music since the 1950s. He's been a regional star who's never gotten national notoriety, but he's as worthy of acclaim as anybody up and down the West Coast.
If The Pain's Scott Magee has anything to say about it, Thomas' golden years could be his best.
The Pain and Thomas have put out two albums, mostly reworking Thomas' older music (the latest being 2017's "The Right Time"), with a third of new music in the works. It's a personal endeavor for Thomas and the band. Magee, the drummer and bandleader who's been a part of the group all six years, says it's his mission to honor Thomas with any and all music.
"The kind of overarching ethos of the band is that really we're helping Ural, because he has such a good time performing, he's a natural," says Magee, who met Thomas through a mutual friend. "Getting him on stage is honoring him. Not that he couldn't do it, but he probably wouldn't without the band. We prop him up, make plans, rehearse once a week, it's an involved project. We think of it as sky's the limit for Ural. And, the coolest thing is he says yes to everything.
"He hasn't had a band with this sort of effort, as somebody acting as bandleader and musical director. He's had people play with him all the time. But, this is a real focused effort."
It'd be easy for Thomas to call it a career, live comfortably in North Portland with his wife of five decades, Rosie. But each and every time a tour calls, or a gig has been scheduled, Thomas joyfully goes for it.
The seven Pain members inspire and excite him.
"It started with one nostalgic show, but we found out we had been looking for each other. It was that kind of feeling, you know what I mean?" Thomas says.
Thomas and The Pain had a successful three-week tour in Europe, starting in Paris and playing in nine countries. They're big in Europe; at least the tour indicated Thomas and The Pain had fans across the Atlantic Ocean.
"It was so wonderful, each place had such a wonderful reception for us," he says. "Some of them already were singing our songs. We had no idea; they just accepted us like we had been living there the whole time. Somebody hinted to us maybe we should have our album released over there, hoping we come back right away. But we want to get the music done first. We wanted to have something that will represent us. We'll have our own songs and label and stuff and fresh recognition before we even go back. We'll take our time — we're not in a big hurry."
Through the years, Thomas has performed at most venues in Portland, indoors and outdoors, including Revolution Hall, and with various bands and musicians. He's performed at the Waterfront Blues Festival.
Thomas is a Portland icon at this stage, especially given his background story.
His parents moved here in 1942. His father bought property and worked for the likes of Fred Meyer (the man) and churches and golf courses in Northeast Portland (where Lloyd Center and Interstate 84 now sit); his dad also was a minister. The city eventually bought his father's property through eminent domain, but his parents remained entrenched in North Portland.
Thomas has lived in the same house in North Portland, in what used to be called Albina City, since 1960.
A schoolboy pal of famed local jazz drummer Mel Brown, Thomas remembers doing early gigs at the Elks Lodge and Cotton Club, and parties galore. He attended Jefferson High School, and also says he used to sneak into college classes just for the education.
Later, he played about 40 shows at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, had a hit song ("Can You Dig It"), opened for or played with the likes of James Brown, Otis Redding, Stevie Wonder and Sonny and Cher and worked with Jerry Butler and the Impressions, Major Lance, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Little Willie John, Tommy Edwards, Etta James and Big Mama Thornton.
Thomas never felt inclined to move anywhere to seek greater fame.
"This has always been home to me," he says. "I've never been so happy than when I'm ready to come back home."
Thomas and Rosie met in the late 1960s. They have two adult kids, three grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.
"She's been right by my side," Thomas says of Rosie. "We've been through the trials of life and learning, and we're still in the moment of just being God's little children."
Thomas doesn't dwell on age. Living for eight decades has given him perspective.
"We're all here to be inspirational to each other, and I was taught to help along the way and you get help," he says. "It's not a one-way street. ... I feel like God has given me something to be proud of. I still have my mind and strength. I see so many people who are absolutely lost. I've been a happy person, always happy to be a part of something."
It's why Ural Thomas and The Pain has worked well.
"He's brilliant. I've never played music with anyone on his level," Magee says. "He's the whole package — incredible personality, just a great human, a totally professional performer, he's also himself on stage. His voice is still stunning, if anything it's improved; he has all the range still, and history and character. He's the man. Playing with him is a dream come true."
Ural Thomas and The Pain play Revolution Hall, 1300 S.E. Stark St., at 8 p.m. Friday, April 19. Tickets: $17, $20 day of show, www.revolutionhall.com.
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