Vaneese Thomas, singer-songwriter, chats with Kevin Cooper about what it was like growing up in the Thomas household, her latest album Blues For My Father, her late father Rufus Thomas and her forthcoming appearance at The Great British R & B Festival in Colne.
Vaneese Thomas is an American R & B, jazz and soul blues singer, best known for her 1987 US Billboard R & B chart hit single, Let’s Talk It Over. Born in Memphis, Tennessee, she is the youngest child of Rufus Thomas; her brother Marvell and sister Carla are also musicians.
In addition to her concerts and numerous recordings, Thomas has worked in both film and television; famously providing the voice of Clio the Muse in the Disney film Hercules. Her work has also included record producing and song writing duties. Her material has been recorded by many artists, including Diana Ross who had a top ten UK hit single with the Thomas penned One Shining Moment.
Her most recent release was Blues For My Father (2013), for which Thomas wrote most of the material. The tracks include a ‘duet’ with her late father, and another with her sister, Carla Thomas, on the song Wrong Turn.
She now lives in Westchester County, New York, with her husband and fellow songwriter and producer, Wayne Warnecke, which is where Kevin Cooper caught up with her for a chat. This is what she had to say.
Vaneese how are you today?
I’m good and how are you Kevin?
I’m very well thank you and let me just thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.
It’s my absolute pleasure Kevin.
And I have to ask you, how is life treating you?
Life is treating me beautifully Kevin. It is a great summer and I am sitting here looking at a beautiful day. We will take it as it comes (laughter).
I have to come clean and tell you that I first fell in love with your voice back in 1987 with the ‘Vaneese’ album.
Oh Kevin you make me very, very happy (laughter). Thank you.
I just thought that it was fantastic.
Why thank you Kevin and I was fortunate to be able to have a couple of top ten R & B hits from that album; it did very well for me.
You are going to be in the UK in August when you will be playing at The Great British R & B Festival in Colne Lancashire. Are you looking forward to performing over here?
Oh my gosh Kevin, I simply can’t wait. I have a friend who is acting as my agent over there in England and he has worked so hard to get me more well-known over there. So the Great British R & B Festival over there in Colne is going to be quite a jewel in my cap I should say.
And does it feel that you have finally found your way home now that you are singing the blues?
Yes it does Kevin, it really does. It is going to be a great experience for me especially now as you have mentioned that I have made the long journey home and I am now getting to sing the blues. It is my heritage, my legacy, so I will be performing selections from my new album Blues For My Father, and also from traditional blues hits which I hope that people will enjoy.
Do you have any plans to play a full UK Tour in the future?
Yes Kevin and as a matter of fact we are thinking of touring the UK early next year, maybe February. I would like to do a blues tour and play some clubs over there. So we are looking into that as we speak so to say (laughter).
I have to tell you that for the past couple of weeks I have been playing your latest album Blues For My Father to death. I absolutely love it.
I am so glad that you like it Kevin, thank you. It is a very important album for me in so many ways. It is my Memphis heritage, my blues heritage, and of course my legacy from my daddy, Rufus Thomas. I really am so glad that you like the album Kevin (laughter).
Was it an album which you felt that you needed to make?
Without question. It has taken me a while to embrace the roots of my heritage and it is from whence all of this comes; gospel and the blues are the basis of everything that came next. I just couldn’t wait to sing that kind of music. And now that I have I can’t lay it down. It’s just wonderful.
How did it feel recording at Willie Mitchell’s Royal Studios; home to Ann Peebles, O. V. Wright, Ike and Tina Turner, Rod Stewart, Syl Johnson, and Al Green to name but a few?
Well Kevin it was rather like family meets family (laughter). Contrary to what people think the Hi Records music people and the Stax music people were all good friends. People would always be saying never the twain shall meet but the truth is that they did. I have known Willie Mitchell since I was a little tyke so for me to be able to record with his son Lawrence ‘Boo’ Mitchell was just priceless for me. And for Boo to have Marvell, Carla and me in the recording studio at the same time, it was like Christmas for him (laughter). It was a wonderful, wonderful experience.
Willie’s work is well known over here in the UK on the Northern Soul scene.
I am so glad to hear that Kevin and let me tell you that Boo will be happy to hear that too.
On the subject of Northern Soul I interviewed Mr Burt Bacharach a few weeks ago and I mentioned to him a song called Long After Tonight Is All Over which was recorded by Jimmy Radcliffe. Everyone over here in the UK goes mad for that record. And he was shocked when I informed him that it was written by one Mr Burt Bacharach and a certain Mr Hal David (laughter).
(Laughter) that’s amazing Kevin, but you have to remember that they wrote so many hit records. But I have to say that is pretty funny that he couldn’t remember writing it (laughter). Hal David was a precious, precious man and a very good friend of mine. I miss him all of the time.
Going back to Blues For My Father if I may. What was it like recording the duet Can’t Ever Let You Go with your late father; a song which he had first recorded and released back in 1962?
It was good to finally get to actually sing a duet with him but it was also very, very emotional. I wasn’t expecting that but as you might imagine he was a very much larger than life personality. I miss him so much so getting to sing with him was very gratifying but also very bittersweet Kevin.
A few months ago now I was fortunate enough to interview The Colonel, Mr Steve Cropper and we were talking about the old days at Stax and I have to tell you that he was remembering your father fondly with an enormous smile on his face.
Oh yes he always does Kevin. What you have to remember is that back in those days everyone was very young and were all new and fresh to the business. We entertained them at our house all the time. There would be Steve (Cropper) Booker (T Jones) and Duck (Donald Dunn) who were all regular visitors to our house.
Good times, good memories, good old days.
Oh yes very much so Kevin. It was like that throughout my whole childhood. I’m truly glad that you love this music. I feel a lot like daddy did; that I am an ambassador for this music and especially as he and I were from Memphis where a lot of that good old soul music came out of.
You have sung with some truly remarkable artists; Lenny White, Bob James, Carl Anderson, Freddie Jackson, Melba Moore, Joe Cocker, Luciano Pavarotti, Sting, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Celine Dion, Eric Clapton and Carly Simon to name but a few. Who has given you the most pleasure?
Oh my gosh Kevin, that is almost impossible for me to say (laughter). What I can tell you is that I sang on Pretending with Eric Clapton and that was quite an experience for me. Because, once again, I was a very young girl and I knew Eric’s keyboardist and singer Bobby Whitlock very well, and so Eric and I would talk about Derek And The Dominos and those days. So we had a little commonality and so that was fun. James Taylor is one of my absolute favourite artists. If I were left on a desert island I would just love to have his music with me (laughter).
Of course I would also have to mention The Queen Of Soul (Aretha Franklin) who I have now sung with for the past eight years. Every experience with her on stage is like a dream but it is also a lesson because she is so technically good. You suddenly realise that all of those riffs and everything that we have heard for years are part now of our whole lexicon. Everyone does them.
I have to ask, back in 1992 did you write One Shining Moment specifically for Diana Ross, and I will tell you why I am asking. I was recently speaking to Lulu and I asked her if she had written I Don’t Wanna Fight specifically for Tina Turner and she said that she hadn’t. She said that in fact it was Sade who had passed it onto Tina.
And so Kevin the same applies to One Shining Moment (laughter). It was not written for Diana. At the time I was signed to BMG Music Publishing and I had planned to put the track onto my next album (laughter). The record company were shopping the tune and apparently Diana loved it and recorded it. I am so glad that she did because it was, as you know, a very big hit over there in the UK. I am so pleased because that is how people over there know me. Whenever I did a gig over there in the UK people recognised the song when I sang it and they then understand the significance of it when I told them that I had written it.
It went into the top ten here in the UK.
Yes it did and I am so grateful for that Kevin.
Are you still lecturing at the City College of New York?
Yes I am. I used to be on the staff there but I am not anymore. One of my favourite things in life is just talking and telling stories. So the lecturing part; when I talk about the origins of R & B, or talk about Beale Street or Memphis music, that is what I love to impart to people, because if we don’t tell the story and keep this history it is going to die. The young people really need to know the history behind the music. So I do that whenever I can.
I totally agree with you Vaneese regarding the history and heritage. It’s a crazy situation that we find ourselves in. On Saturday April 18th they demolished The Philadelphia International Recording Studios in order to build a SLS International Hotel on the site.
Yes they have Kevin, talk about crazy. How can you tear down something that was living history? But you do know that they did it to the Stax Studios as well. I think that obviously money is behind it, but the builders who want to build something new in its place have no sense of history or the importance of what they are pulling down; its nuts. I am fighting right now to get Rufus Thomas into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and that seems crazy to me that you don’t put your pioneers in there first.
I love your 2009 album Soul Sister Volume 1 A Tribute To The Women Of Soul. However the burning question is, will there be a Volume 2?
(Laughter) yes there will Kevin, in fact I was talking to my manager about that the other day. He said that although I was doing the blues legacy music now, he thought that I had to give the people a Volume 2 (laughter). So perhaps in a couple of years there will be a Volume 2 (laughter). I wanted to tell people how important that record was to me because these are the women who inspired me. And it was really important that I honoured them in this way so I hope that they feel honoured.
I have to ask, what was it like growing up in the Thomas household?
(Laughter) very loud (hysterical laughter). My brother Marvell is a writer, producer and keyboard player and so the piano would be going, and the record player would be going, the television would be on, Carla (Thomas) would be singing, daddy would be doing whatever he was doing, and I was very shy in those days so most of the time I would go into my room and close the door (laughter). Oh my gosh it was very powerful. Having said all of that I was absorbing all of that amazing music.
Did Marvell not co-produce Isaac Hayes Hot Buttered Soul album?
He did Kevin, yes he did. Also Marvell would co-play; sometimes Isaac would play the organ and Marvell would play the piano and visa-versa. So yes, he has that wonderful credit. I was going to say earlier when I was talking about the people who would have their feet under my mother’s dinner table, Isaac was one of the ones (laughter). He was a very sweet guy and we all loved him.
So when you say that you used to lock yourself away in your bedroom, was it always going to be a career in music for you?
No Kevin it was not. When I was asked that question at the end of my days in High School in Memphis, I simply replied “oh heavens no” (laughter). I loved then, as I still do, the French language and I majored in French in college. I always thought that I would use it in some way; interpreting or something. But you know when God has something planned for you, you eventually listen (laughter). So I listened to the call and I assumed my place in the music industry.
So when you ventured outside of your bedroom, who were you listening to when you were growing up?
The simple answer to that Kevin is everything. Remember, daddy was a broadcaster so he got every genre of music sent to him from the record companies. In those days, believe it or not, it wasn’t totally programmed and so the DJ’s had the freedom to play the things that they liked. So he got everything sent to him so we could choose what records he played on the radio. I was the one who influenced him to play I Saw Her Standing There and She Loves You on his radio show. I loved The Beatles when I was a little girl (laughter) so I influenced daddy to play them on his show. And so I listened to everything in answer to your question Kevin in particular the blues and jazz. My brother Marvell was hugely into jazz and there were all kinds of people who he would listen to. I just heard it all.
Who did you first see perform live in concert?
That’s a hard one Kevin because, I don’t know if you know that WDIA where daddy worked was the first African-American programmed radio station in the whole of the USA and because of that, they would have two major shows per year. They would bring in lots of artists on what they used to call ‘Package Shows’. And so I saw these shows right from the time that I was a baby and so I can’t answer that question for you Kevin (laughter). I saw everybody. Maybe my first memories may be of The Staple Singers because they came all of the time to Memphis.
Who would you say has been your biggest inspiration along the way?
That would have to be my sister Carla. First of all she is an amazing singer and together with my brother’s influence on the piano, they taught me a lot of songs when I was growing up. That was the beginning of my career. Song writing is as important to me Kevin as the singing. So the two of them really got me started on the road.
I love listening to Carla when she sings with Otis (Redding).
Oh my gosh Kevin. Whenever I am doing my Women Of Soul show I always sing Lovey Dovey because their version of that is just so good. That is almost like another part of my life. I remember standing there in the Stax studios leaning against the wall as a little girl watching Otis and Carla recording. My mother wanted me to be a lawyer of course (laughter). She didn’t want me to have anything to do with that music business (laughter). I am so glad that I was allowed to go down there in the early days and just watch because of course I absorbed all of that and to meet all of those guys who became like my big brothers.
Otis was another one who left us too early.
Otis was such a dear friend of Carla’s and in fact he has a daughter named Karla which is spelt with a K (laughter). But yes you are right Kevin, he really left us far too early. But it shows you just how powerful his music is because it is still so prevalent today. I will be walking through the market and I will hear Otis singing Try A Little Tenderness in the background.
It was so nice to sit and talk to Steve (Cropper) about the time that he was writing (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay with Otis. He has so many wonderful memories and not one bad word to say about anyone.
That’s because he is a sweetheart Kevin. And don’t forget that he was in the thick of all of the recordings down there at Stax. He has such great memories from the era. Whenever I see Steve he will always talk about just how much he admired daddy and how good daddy was to him. You have to remember Kevin that daddy was the elder-statesman of Stax and he got them off the ground and they were all teenagers and so they all looked up to daddy.
Being honest, if Rufus hadn’t recorded Ooh Poo Pah Doo and had a hit with it then Stax Records probably wouldn’t have existed, as this forged the relationship with Atlantic Records that allowed Stax Records to grow.
Yes Kevin that is exactly right. Without Carla and without daddy there would have been no Stax Records. That is why I don’t understand why certain people get more press than the original artists who started the process. They simply get forgotten. The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame are supposed to be very knowledgeable and if they know the history then there is no way that daddy should not be there because he got two record companies off the ground, Stax and Sun.
From a collector’s point of view, I never felt that Rufus got the recognition which he deserved.
Kevin I agree. Believe it or not, as happens to a lot of black performers, is that in Europe they are much more appreciated than they are back home here in the USA. Daddy worked constantly in the UK and The Netherlands but you are right, in the USA I don’t think that the music industry gave him his props.
The UK audiences will always embrace artists from the USA.
I am so grateful to the UK for having embraced One Shining Moment and hopefully they will also embrace my new blues career (laughter).
I’m sure that we will. Now if I have to press you on one single event, what would you say has been the highlight of your career so far?
Oh my, there have simply been far too many to single out any one event. I can’t even answer that for you Kevin. There is no one moment because I have been very, very fortunate to have had a career that encompasses all styles of music; to have worked with Burt Bacharach and Hal David, to be involved with the songwriters Hall Of Fame. I have just done so many things. I have sung commercials for television and radio, I have kind of done it all within the music industry.
And don’t forget working with the Walt Disney Company.
(Laughter) and working with Disney, yes. I had a role in the movie Hercules; I was an actress called Clio the Muse (laughter). So it has been a lovely ride for which I am very grateful and I really do want it to continue especially now that I have embraced these roots. I want people to appreciate the blues music.
In 1997 the City of Memphis opened Rufus Thomas Boulevard. How did that make the family feel?
Oh my gosh it was amazing. Now that day I remember very well. It was a very cold morning and I remember my mother standing there with her fur coat on and a big hat that covered her ears (laughter) because it was so cold. We were all out on the corner of Beale Street and Rufus Thomas Boulevard. As you can tell Kevin it is such a beautiful memory for me because finally Memphis were saying to my daddy we appreciate you. You are our son and we love you and we appreciate you.
I think that is the perfect place to end so I will just say Vaneese, thank you for taking the time to speak to me.
It’s been my absolute pleasure Kevin. Thank you and bye for now.
Vaneese Thomas will be appearing on the International Stage at The Great British R & B Festival at Colne on 28th – 31st August 2015. For full details go to http://www.bluesfestival.