Mickey Thomas : From Cairo, Georgia, to the Coachella Valley
What a trip it’s been
By Matt McKay
As a successful musician and singer, Mickey Thomas could live just about anywhere he wants.
But he fooled around and fell in love with the Coachella Valley.
Now 68 years old, Thomas has been on your radio since 1976 when he sang “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” for the San Francisco-based Elvin Bishop Band. That stint was just one in a musical career that began in 1965, when he and two of his boyhood friends from his hometown of Cairo, Georgia, made a road trip to Atlanta to watch The Beatles perform.
“I was 15 years old and got to see The Beatles live,” Thomas says. “And it pretty much changed my life, really. We were so overcome by the experience of seeing the Beatles, and experiencing Beatlemainia firsthand, we said, ‘you know, we’ve gotta try this.’”
The next week they started their first band. “We really didn’t know what the hell we were doing. One of my buddies was a drummer in the high school marching band, so naturally we figured he was going to play the drums so we at least had one real musician. And one of my other best buddies was left-handed. Paul McCartney was left-handed, so we figured, hey, he’ll play the bass. That’s kind of how we sussed it out.”
To quote another famous band of the Bay Area, it’s been a long, strange trip for Thomas since that night in1965 and that first band back in Cairo. These days, he leads what now must be considered his “old” band, Starship, from his desert home base.
While some things in life, like his move to the desert, have been under his control, others have seemed strangely pre-planned, including a musical career that has taken him from Georgia to San Francisco to Lake Tahoe and eventually to Palm Desert, largely based on two “bolt out of the blue” telephone calls.
When it came time for college, Thomas left Cairo to attend Valdosta State University in Georgia, where he helped form a college band with a number of likeminded musicians. He admits it was all mostly for fun and “to get girls to notice you.”
Eventually, he began to think it was time to leave behind the fun and games of fiddling around in a band and to settle down and get serious about his college education in order to properly prepare for a real job in the real world.
But his world changed one day in 1971.
“I got a call, it was a bolt out of the blue, really, from this guy named Gideon Daniels, who was a gospel singer originally from Philadelphia and based in San Francisco,” Thomas says. “His musical concept at that point in time was basically pure gospel music, but with contemporary lyrics. And his band was kind of multiracial, multicultural and he really wanted it that way. He had a Japanese guy, an Italian guy, an African American guy, a Filipino….He got it in his head that he needed a white male southern tenor to complete this puzzle. So he came down south looking for a singer.
“He met some people at a restaurant that knew about me, and they struck up a conversation. He told them what he was looking for, and they said, ‘Hey we know this one guy, Mickey Thomas, he sings pretty high! He may be available.’ So they gave him my number, he called me up, we had a little meeting and a week later I was in California.”
Under Daniels’ tutelage, Thomas learned to really sing for the first time, rather than simply being an imitator of whatever song he was duplicating. “Gideon really taught me how to discover my voice and to use it in a more original way,” he says.
Daniels had cultivated many friends and connections in the music business, and after about a year, he introduced Thomas to Elvin Bishop, a guitarist who’d risen to fame as a member of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and had gone on to form his own group. Thomas started doing studio work for the Elvin Bishop Band in 1973 and became an official member of the group in 1975. The next year, the band’s signature tune hit the airwaves, peaking at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Just a few years later, Thomas was set to embark on a solo career complete with a new album, and that’s when the second bolt struck.
The remnants of Jefferson Airplane, the San Francisco-based band that blew kids’ minds and scared parents nationwide in the late 1960s, had largely stuck together through the mid-to-late ’70s in the form of Jefferson Starship. The band had renamed itself after replacing Airplane bassist, Jack Casady, and guitarist, Jorma Kaukonen, who left to form Hot Tuna.
Then in the late ’70s, Marty Balin, another of the original six Airplane members, also left the band. After much consideration and discussion between original members Grace Slick and Paul Kantner and the remaining members of Jefferson Starship, they decided to push on and recruit a new singer.
“They were based in San Francisco and I was in San Francisco at the time,” Thomas says. “The story is that one of the roadies somehow had my number and brought it into the band. And again, for me, it was another one of those phone calls right out of the blue. I didn’t know anybody with the Jefferson Starship and you couldn’t really say I was a huge fan of the music or anything. So all of a sudden, here I get a call from the Jefferson Starship asking if I’d be interested. I said, ‘Yeah, it’s kinda weird, but what have I got to lose?’”
Thomas went to meet the band and hear the new music they were working on. “I heard what direction they were trying to take the band,” he says. “The next thing you know, we’re sort of jamming on “Jane,” and I thought, man, this sounds pretty cool, let’s give it a shot. So we came in and recorded “Jane.” It was the first song we ever did and the first single we ever put out. And it became kind of the calling card for the ‘new’ Jefferson Starship.”
Thomas says part of the reason he loves living in the desert fulltime is that, more often than not, he’s out on the road with Starship during the heat of the summer. While the band’s lineage has over 50 years of history, he likes to point out that this version of Starship—which includes himself, singer Stephanie Calvert, guitarist John Roth, bassist Jeff Adams, drummer Darrell Verdusco, and keyboardist Phil Bennett—has been together longer than any other Airplane/Starship lineup.
Thomas and Rachel moved to the desert after 12 years in Lake Tahoe, where they grew weary of shoveling snow and driving on icy roads. After Rachel paid a visit to a friend in the Coachella Valley, she told Mickey he should come down to have a look. He only needed one.
“The next week, I came back down with her and just fell in love with it,” he says. “I love it here. I even like the summers. I don’t mind the heat. I grew up in South Georgia so at least it’s not humid here.”
They’ve been living fulltime in the valley now for nearly 15 years. Thomas says there’s a magical, mystical, sort of transcendental quality about the desert. “Especially when you get over to that side, north of 1-10, it gets even more mystical. And there’s actually an entire music scene in what we call the High Desert, “ he says. “It’s very underground but there’s some really interesting music going on up there. Someone described it to me as psychedelic harmonicas. I love that.”
Another reason Thomas loves the desert is the occasional opportunity to play great golf near his home, at facilities such as Desert Willow, The Classic Club and the JW Marriott Desert Springs.
“You know, sometimes it’s hard to find that five- or six-hour commitment that it takes to go out and play a round, but I do enjoy golf. It’s a great game, it’s a great game for sharing fellowship on the course. I’ve made great relationships and friendships on the course through my whole life. I’m involved in the Patrick Warburton Classic here every year,” he adds, “which is just one of the greatest events in the world for a good cause and a good time.”
The summer is shaping up to be a busy one for Thomas and Starship. Their current schedule has them on the road from March to June, including a show in Santiago, Chile. As a result, there may not be much time for golf in Thomas’ future, particularly if he wants to fulfill the longtime goal of recording a Christmas album. If that happens, it would be just another interesting stop on Thomas’ trip of a lifetime.
“It’s been a rather charmed life,” he says. “Sometimes I believe with some of the crazy things that have happened to me, there must be some sort of predestination here, some sort of manifest destiny or something. Because it’s been kind of a weird trip, how I got here from Cairo, Georgia.”
Matt McKay is a staff writer with Desert Golf & Tennis