Jesse “Babyface” Thomas
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192 Jesse “Babyface” Thomas —Eleanor Ellis After Lead Belly, Jesse Thomas (1911–95) is arguably the best-known and most widely recorded blues man associated with the Ark-La-Tex. He certainly had the longest career, one that was well documented over a period of more than sixty years. It began in August 1929, when the teenaged Thomas stepped into a portable recording studio set up by the RCA Victor company in Dallas, Texas. The four selections recorded under the name Jesse “Babyface” Thomas were released many months after, when the Depression had decimated the industry. Thomas later recorded several dozen selections for a wide variety of labels beginning shortly after the close of World War II. In this two-part piece, originally appearing in the August and September 1993 editions of the D.C. Blues Society Newsletter, Eleanor Ellis focuses on Jesse Thomas’s early career and shares his perspective on musical creativity as a process of lifelong learning. Thomas discusses music making in the Thomas family and differences in earlier and later blues storylines. He also recounts life as a musician in search of work, traveling to different cities across the United States. His memories touch on his songwriting, performing, and recording, beginning with “Blue Goose Blues,” a 1929 homage to an African American section of Shreveport now all but erased. Rather than setting this piece as an interview, Ellis edited the questions and retained Thomas’s answers. The resulting narrative captures the voice of this legendary Shreveport singer/ guitarist. Ellis’s interview with Jesse Thomas took place in Shreveport in April 1990. Thomas’s music and life have been subject of a number of short pieces appearing in special-interest print sources like Blues Unlimited. This magazine, for example, also printed Gayle Dean Wardlow’s “A Quick Ramble with Ramblin’ Thomas, Jesse Thomas, Will Ezell, Bessie Tucker, Elzadie Robinson, and Texas talent scouts R. T. Ashford and the Kendle Brothers.”1 Wardlow’s piece covers the same 1929 Victor session and mentions the presence not only of Ralph Peer but of Jimmie Rodgers as well. He also JESSE “BABYFACE” THOMAS 193 records Thomas’s sketchy memories of other notable but elusive Shreveport musicians who all made a handful of recordings around the same era. These include Thomas’s older brother Willard “Ramblin” Thomas, as well as Elzadie Robinson and Will Ezell, who played mostly juke houses and turpentine camps in Louisiana, near Shreveport, and in southern Mississippi. Another related source is the short piece by Ray Templeton in Blues & Rhythm that conveys the sketchy information we have on Jesse Thomas’s brother, Ramblin’ Thomas.2 The elder Thomas remains a biographical cipher largely because he left home at an early age and never kept in touch with his family. He may have been born in Logansport, Louisiana, (at the southern tip of the Ark-La-Tex) sometime in the 1890s, and split his time between Shreveport and Dallas during the teens and 1920s. He lived until at least 1932—the date of his final recording session—but the date (even the decade) of his death is unknown. The only concrete material on Willard Ramblin’ Thomas are his phonograph records, which he first made for Paramount in 1928 (probably by way of the Dallas talent scout R. T. Ashford) and completed his recording career with RCA Victor four years later. Depending on the particular song, his guitar style is reminiscent of two pioneer blues artists, Lonnie Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson. In other tunes, his playing style calls to mind the Shreveport slide guitarist Oscar “Buddy” Woods. Notes 1. See Wardlow,“A Quick Ramble . . .” in Blues Unlimited 141 (Autumn 1981): 14–15. 2. See Templeton,“Ramblin’ Thomas and the ‘Texas & Pacific’ Country Blues,” Blues & Rhythm 34 (1988): 12–13. Part One Jesse Thomas recorded forVictor in 1929, using the name“Babyface”Thomas. He made many recordings in the years to follow, but they were on small labels and didn’t receive wide exposure. In the 1980s some of these recordings, from the late ’40s and early ’50s, were included on the Nighthawk anthology Down Behind the Rise. It was the first time in years that his music had been given national distribution and the impact, at least among certain other musicians, was considerable. ELEANOR ELLIS 194 I first heard a cut from this album on Steve Hoffman’s show, The Blues Experience, on WDCU 90.1 FM, and was immediately intrigued by the music. In asking around—“Have...


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