Have You Heard This Man?

Photo: by Lyle Ashton Harris

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The legend, it turns out, is completely true—though outdated.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.”

Over his career, Thomas has inspired musicians to try things they might not have thought possible. As Gonzales, a Paris-based musician whose new album, Soft Power, comes out this spring from Mercury/Universal, says, Thomas “has the balls” to combine a “slick cocktail instrument ensemble with his decidedly unslick voice.”

His popularity is necessarily bound up in obscurity. People like to think of him as their find. Still, Thomas has not abandoned hope that his music will earn him a bit of money and perhaps even real fame. “People tell me almost all the big ones got famous outside the U.S. [first]. My friends say, ‘You’re going up the ladder,’ and they don’t mean to heaven, either.” When success comes, Thomas believes it may—at last—bring marriage. “I’ll be meeting more people and one of them will probably want to hook up for love or companionship. It’s more than possible.”

Thomas’s new album is a collaboration with musician Taylor Savvy, a Canadian living in Berlin. In many ways, Savvy could not be more different from Thomas. His specialty is electro-rock, and, as he puts it, “I like to wear makeup and stage-dive and do all that shit.” Yet Savvy and his friends became fascinated with Thomas’s music in the nineties (the first bootleg Savvy heard can be traced to an album Thomas gave to a teenager named Eric Columbus who lived on West 76th) and spent a lot of time speculating on who he was. “We thought that Gordon Thomas might have saved the life of a child of some record-company CEO—like the child was drowning and he just jumped into the lake—and the CEO repaid him with studio time.”

The two musicians were eventually introduced by Canadian filmmakers Stacey DeWolfe and Malcolm Fraser, who, after hearing Thomas’s music, went on to make a documentary about him. Thomas calls his collaborator a “musical genius” but, oddly enough, insists that Savvy in no way changed his sound. The album will be sold via his new Website, GordonThomas.com, created by the filmmakers. No one, it seems, can stay off the grid forever. Besides, Thomas says, he has decided to stop giving away his work for free on the street. “Things are finally starting to take off. It’s time to start selling some albums.”

Have You Heard This Man?