Chris Thomas King knows blues
By Naughty Mickie
You probably are familiar with Chris Thomas King from his roles in
"Ray" and "O Brother, Where Art Thou," but did you know that he is a
recording artist as well? Thomas' most recent effort is "Live on Beale
Street" (21st Century Blues Records) and he's been hitting the road,
playing everywhere from Africa to the United States, including Los
Angeles and his hometown, New Orleans.
"My uncle was in the service in Japan and brought back a little
coronet trumpet for me," starts King. "He played trumpet in the
marching band and he would invite me to his house on Saturdays and
show me how to play the trumpet. I was maybe in fifth grade. My dad's
a musician, his name is Tabby Thomas, and he opened up a blues joint
called Tabby's Blue Bar in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, my mother's from
New Orleans and my father's from Baton Rouge, and it was really there
that I understood that I wanted to do music.
"I would be there cleaning up or working for the family in the grocery
store and I would hear this music from the local musicians. That
really was my inspiration to start learning songs and I started
playing on records with those guys and touring as a backup musician.
That was my introduction to the music business." King goes on, "I'm
not a formally taught musician. Coming from New Orleans down there
you've got a lot of guys from Berkeley and studied musicians-- the
jazz guys. Sometimes it's not so much a matter of someone sitting you
down and saying, OK this is how you play this note or that note,
sometimes it's just being in that environment. My family ran this juke
joint for almost 25 years, being in that environment, a young teen
absorbing the music, those blues guys, they don't have time to sit
around and talk about guitar strings, they talk about women and life
and lot of things that probably a kid my age shouldn't even being
hearing, but you learn life from those guys, they don't really sit
around and talk music as much as people might think."
"When I first began recording music, my first album came out on a
little label out of Berkeley called Arhoolie Records and Arhoolie is
notable because, well, the name arhoolie is interesting." King
explains, "The name Arhoolie Records, the guy, his name is Chris
Strachwitz out of Berkeley, he got the name for his label from what
they would call 'field hollars.' When the Southern blacks were working
the fields, they would sing while they worked. Back in the days when
the Southern blacks worked in the cotton mills, they worked in groups
and they sung to keep the rhythm and the work moving. But then in the
sharecropper days it was more individuals working and so you have
somebody way out in the fields somewhere and he would hollar to
himself. The hollar was called arhoolie.
"He named his label Arhoolie Records and that will tell you right
there that this guy's a real purist and basically more from a academia
scope or background in recording his albums. He's making music as a
document recording, more than 'I'm going to record this young teenage
blues singing and he's going to sell a million records." King
continues, "So I started with a real purist and that's important in my
journey because I wasn't a purist at all. I made that record, it was
called 'The Beginning,' I played all the instruments on that album,
produced it myself, and when I moved on from there I got this huge
deal with Warner Brothers Records. I recorded for Warner Brothers, a
couple of albums, but the albums I recorded for them I wanted to add
hip-hop and things that were happening. I grew up in this juke joint
with the old guys, but hip-hop was my generation's music. I wanted to
make a statement that I felt was more true to my experience about
being from a bygone era."
King merged hip-hop with his blues roots and unfortunately learned
that '80s hip-hop fans didn't care for blues and blues fans didn't
want anything to do with '80s hip-hop. His new music sparked such a
big controversy in the industry that it stalled his career. So King
moved to Denmark, changed his name (from Chris Thomas to Chris Thomas
King), started up his own production company, 21st Century Blues
Records, and began recording the material he wanted.
We take a break to discuss King's free time.
"It's hard to do anything else, but I love to go to the movies. I'm
also a gadget person," King says, adding that he enjoys tinkering with
things and learning all about how they work, such as his camera. He is
also a big fan of college football, rooting for Louisiana State
We talk about writing and King tells me that he used to start with a
story or lyrics before the music, but it was a slow process. Today he
is trying to work faster and has discovered that some of his best
material comes when he just lets it flow. King will go into the studio
and play and let the song come out, allowing the words to be whatever
"If you overthink it, it can be cumbersome," says King.
King has no real set way to write, but always has a tape recorder or
notepad and his guitar handy in case inspiration hits.
In February, King celebrated his roots and Black History Month by
traveling to Africa. He commented that you would think of Lagos,
Nigeria as a jungle filled with tigers and other wild animals, but he
discovered it was a sprawling city filled with bustling streets. In
Abuja he led some music workshops and felt comfortable with the
people. What was strange, however, was that he had to travel in an
armored vehicle, but he enjoyed interacting with the local musicians
and absorbing all of the inspiration of Africa.
"I am sure that it will seep into my music," King says.
King didn't expect the African people to know his acting background
nor his music, but they did. They have followed his films and even
requested songs during his live shows. King also went to a
MTV-sponsored record release party at a club one night during his trip
and was impressed by how modern the people were. He notes that there
is no middle class, just rich and poor and that all of the people are
very educated, particularly about things going on around the world.
The women were exceptionally graceful too.
"It was a great experience." King shares and thinks back, "I'm not
sure I can find the blues there, they're just as contemporary. It's
easier to find West Africa's Lil Wayne than it is to find West
Africa's John Lee Hooker. They've moved on just like we've moved on in
the South from the blues. For my generation, I'm one of the few, I can
probably count all the blues people who are out touring and still
making records from my generation on one hand and that's unfortunate.
"The blues is a doable music." King goes on, "The blues that I do, I
say blues, but people that don't know a lot about blues, they might
have seen 'O Brother Where Art Thou' and 'O Brother Where Art Thou'
appealed to people from all kinds of different backgrounds and all
kinds of music. The same thing with 'Ray,' even though Ray was
essentially a blues musician and I played Lowell Fulson in the movie
and recorded with Ray for the score. People don't sit at the movie
thinking I'm watching a blues movie, they're being entertained by a
great artist and a genius singer. So when I say blues, it's not like
the music that I play is trapped in some box. I understand my roots,
but when people come to my concert they shouldn't be surprised to hear
me do a Joni Mitchell number, they shouldn't be surprised to hear me
do some New Orleans jazz things from my original stuff or even a Hank
Williams' tune. All this music comes from blues, Hank Williams, jazz,
rock and roll, some hip-hop. When people come to my concert, they're
going to see me reaching and bringing some of those things back into
my blues base."
"I'm writing my first book," King shares. "It's actually more of a
memoir about my experience as a kid growing up in a juke joint, which
those things don't really exist too much down here no more, they've
been replaced by the House of Blues and more commercial clubs. A
friend of mine, Morgan Freeman, he has a couple of juke joints called
Ground Zero, one in Clarksdale and one in Memphis, but it takes big
money now. What my dad used to do, run a little mom and pop-owned juke
joint, these days a little mom and pop health food store, a little mom
and pop grocery store or record shop or blues club, it's really tough
to do that. All these things are kind of big business now.
"My acting, there's two things out right now. 'Kill Switch' came out
on video, that's the movie where I play a detective, starring Steven
Segal, and there's a series that's running on the Smithsonian Channel,
a documentary that the BBC and Smithsonian combined to do called
'Sound Revolution,' it's hosted by Morgan Freeman." King continues,
"I've put my acting on the side at least for this year unless some
project is thrown my way that I can't resist. This will be my first
club tour, playing blues clubs like this, in 10 years. I haven't been
on a club tour like this since I started acting in 'O Brother Where
Art Thou.' I think too many people know me through my movie characters
and don't really know the essence of my music and don't really know me
as a music artist as much as they know me as an actor. So I've decided
to take the time out this year and maybe next year to try to play as
many cities around America as I can so people can feel what I am as a
musical artist and not as an overall entertainer or actor or writer or
King's next album, "Home," is slated for Japanese release in May,
followed by an American release this summer. This mention led to a
discussion of labels and the industry.
"A lot of people right now in the record business are trying to deal
with the new record business, meaning that the major labels are losing
money, people don't know what the new model will be or what the new
format is going to be." King explains, "I was one of the early people
to start his own record label, get national distribution with his own
record label and I had to do things myself. I did more from an
artistic standpoint, but it turned out to be pretty a lucrative thing.
If you're making $8, $9, $10 a record wholesale you don't have to sell
a whole lot of records to make 100 grand, whereas when I was recording
for a major label, you sell 100 thousand records, you're so far in the
red that you might not make another record with the label.
"But now that a lot of other artists are coming to the realization
that you don't have to sell a million records to make a million
dollars, a lot of artists are coming to the realization that they want
to have their own label and with iTunes and digital distribution they
can do it themselves." King states, "I'm here to say that I am ready
to turn over my catalog of music and work with a label because that's
another reason I haven't been able to tour. I can't tour consistently
because I'm in the office selling records and doing my bookkeeping and
marketing and all sorts of other stuff. That's not why I got into
business. While I'm in the office, no one's seeing me play my guitar.
I supposed to be out on the road, touring up and down the highway,
sharing my music with audiences.
"My acting needed to be put on the shelf," continues King. "The label,
even though I'm still running it, I need to get out there, get on the
road and take my music to places out there. A lot of musicians when
they do get their own label and they start running their label,
they're going to find out that it's a 24-hour job. There's not a whole
lot of time to pick up your guitar if you're going to run your own
label. It's a pretty tough choice that somebody's going to have to
make, but that's the new music business."
Still not convinced that you should, no, need to catch King in action?
"If people like the music from the movie 'Ray' and they like the music
from the movie 'O Brother, Where Art Thou' and they want to hear me
waling on my guitar, giving my guitar a real workover, then this is
the show they don't want to miss," King ends.