Thomas finally embracing his God-given talent
As a child, Russell Thomas watched a live band perform and was instantly drawn to the guitar.
So when he was 13, he and a friend saw an electric guitar in a store window, and he just had to have it.
“I was baptized in the guitar at that point,” he said. “Actually, the clerk let me layaway the guitar with all the money I had, and it was a penny back in 1971, but he was a smart salesman cause he knew I had a mother who would give him some money for it.”
Thomas, one of seven children, said his family didn’t have a lot of money, but his mother, Margie Thomas, and his uncle somehow pooled together $65 to buy him the guitar.
He started playing and soon developed a small following.
“My sister and them, they all praised me. I liked the attention,” Thomas said. “Like everybody, I like attention.”
Attention is what he got as he played with local soul bands while he was still a teen. After high school, he enrolled at Winston-Salem State University before transferring to Marygrove College in Detroit, where he heard Earl Klugh perform jazz with a classical guitar, which, unlike other acoustic guitars, has non-metallic strings. Klugh’s artistry inspired Thomas to retire his electric guitar in favor of a classical, wooden one.
Thomas eventually returned to Winston-Salem and WSSU, earning a music business degree. He befriended two of his professors – Dr. Winston Bell and Dr. Fred Tanner. The two men are among Thomas’ main sources of encouragement as he now pursues his musical endeavors.
Thomas stopped playing publicly after college because he believed his sound wasn’t refined enough for public consumption. He still played for friends and family members, but mostly spent two decades writing and refining his style, all while working a regular 9-to-5 at Collier Aluminum.
“He never would lay his guitar down; he would continue and he would continue,” said his mother, Margie Thomas.
A year ago, Thomas, who is now on disability, got an offer to play at a local health facility; he was well received, so much so that he was encouraged to once again pursue his musical ambitions.
He signed with Oklahoma-based Tate Music Group and recorded a CD using his own sound equipment. Tate released the disc in June. “Morning Train” features 10 tracks.
“I hope everyone will get onboard,” Thomas said about his “Morning Train.” “This is all God gave me; this is my train. This particular train, it’ll make you feel good riding it.”
At the suggestion of a friend, he auditioned for the owners of local Bojangles restaurants. He now plays at two locations each weekend.
Thomas likens his music to sunshine.
“All the sun does is shine, on those who don’t like it and those who do like it,” he said. “Those who don’t like it, they seek shelter, those who like it, they bathe in it.”
Most Bojangles customers seemed to bathe in his gentle melodies on Sunday as he sat facing the dining room, one foot propped on a stand, at the South Stratford Bojangles. Thomas played one of three guitars handmade specifically for him by Albuquerque, N.M.-based Pimentel & Sons. Patrons showed their appreciation with kind words, by placing dollar bills in Thomas’ open guitar case and with generous applause.
Over the years, Thomas has perfected 233 compositions. He already has a second CD recorded and ready, but is waiting to hear from Tate. The artist said that for now, he is just taking it day-by-day and enjoying entertaining.
Margie Thomas, who drives Thomas to his Bojangles gigs, said she’s proud to see her son come into his own as a musician.
“I think it’s a good step for him,” she said. “He’s so proud of it because he had put a lot of work and energy into his work, and he did it all by himself.”
Thomas performs from 5-6 p.m. at the Bojangles at 3652 Reynolda Rd. on Saturdays and at the location at 1610 S. Stradford Rd. on Sundays at the same time. “Morning Train” is available as a CD or digital download at tatemusicgroup.com.