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Have You Heard This Man?

Record stores ignored him. MySpace didn’t exist. But Gordon Thomas went viral anyway.

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Among those who pride themselves on being connoisseurs of “outsider music”—the sort of people who prefer strictly self-produced “bedroom labels”—there is a legend that many of them cherish, and it goes something like this: A friend once paid them a visit in Berlin, or Tel Aviv, or Brooklyn and gave them a bootlegged tape with the name Gordon Thomas scrawled across the front. Its songs had an old-school swing-band sound and lyrics that were often strangely beautiful, if occasionally completely nonsensical. The piano and sax were smooth (think Duke Ellington during his Cotton Club days), in direct contrast with a voice that sounded like it could have been your father singing in the shower—which is to say, joyous, unself-conscious, more than a little rough around the edges. One song is, in fact, called “Singing in the Shower,” with such lyrics as “Singing in the shower /  singing happy, happy tunes … Chanting in the shower / Chanting a happy, happy tune.” Typically, the bearers of these tapes have a similar tale: A friend of a friend of a friend got it from a handyman on the Upper West Side.

The legend, it turns out, is completely true—though outdated. Although his tapes have been turning up all over the world for decades, even many of Thomas’s most devoted fans don’t realize that their idol is now 91, living in a retirement home in the Bronx, but still recording music. He has no agent or distributor. You can’t buy any of his stuff on iTunes. He is 100 percent off the grid.

He can, however, be tracked down. I found him in the backroom of a Manhattan fabric wholesaler’s (in addition to working as a handyman, he also toiled in the garment district for a good half-century, and he still likes to hang out there). He was dressed in a gabardine suit, his silk tie emblazoned with a print of golden drapery. Up close, the stitchwork revealed a few minor imperfections. Thomas sews all of his clothing by hand, using scraps he gets for free. “The better stores will charge $200 for a tie like this,” he says. “And I am wearing one with $2 in my pocket!”

Not much more than five feet tall, he looked to be in excellent health, and he commenced to give me the capsule version of his life. Born in Bermuda in 1916, he immigrated with his family to New York three years later, landing in a 134th Street flat with no electricity. At 19, he discovered his true passion—the trombone—and dedicated himself to becoming a musician. During the fifties, he finally got his big break, a job filling in for a trombonist in a band with Dizzy Gillespie and Ella Fitzgerald. But by his own admission, he was never an especially talented player: “Ella didn’t make too much of a fuss about it. Dizzy even gave me lessons. But I just couldn’t do it!” So he took a job in textiles instead. Then, one day in the late sixties, new inspiration struck. When a customer suggested that Thomas would be a showbiz natural—star material, even, not just backup—he took this as a sign and began writing music. Soon, he became convinced that his voice, unusual though it was, had something special. “I am able to reach people,” he says, almost in a whisper. “There is pretty singing, there is nice singing, and then there is in-depth singing. I have the depth. I can move you.”

Thomas’s friend George Kelly, a renowned tenor saxophonist, rounded up some musicians and found a studio. The only sticking point was money: Thomas would have to pay for the studio time. Fortunately, not only did he make his own clothes but he also managed to avoid paying rent by working as a night watchman for a developer. A lifelong bachelor, he would sleep in apartments that were being renovated or sold. “As soon as I got myself a few pennies, I would record an album. That’s how I was able to produce fourteen in 30 years.”

It’s hard to know just how marketable any of Thomas’s albums would have been because, well, he never really attempted to sell them. The few record stores that he approached were rarely interested. And so Thomas simply distributed them for free, often to the tenants at 320 West 76th Street, where he was a handyman. “I gave away thousands,” he says. “I would hand them out as Christmas presents—any holiday, really. Sometimes I would just stand on the street and give them away.” Thomas did this for decades, and gradually his albums, or bootlegged copies of them, became the darling of fringe-music gurus like Irwin Chusid, the radio-show host who first coined the term “outsider music.”


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