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Jazz's Most Famous YodellerCopyright © 1999The Scotsman, 1999
Thomas, LeonLeon Thomas was best known for the unconventional "yodelling" vocal style which he developed in the late-60s avant-garde jazz scene in New York, and which had its most famous incarnation in his contribution to the song he co-wrote with saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, "The Creator Has A Master Plan". Thomas recorded his own version of it, but it was the extended half-hour exploration included on Sanders's Karma album in 1969 which established his reputation.
Thomas later recalled that he had been working in New York with pianist Randy Weston when Sanders and saxophonist Arche Shepp began to drop into the club, and frequently sat in. Sanders had been using a tune entitled "Pisces Moon" in his own set, and asked Thomas to put a lyric to it, and the singer came up with the simple chant which forms the song.
He was born Amos Leon Thomas Jr, but changed the spelling to Leone in 1974. He studied music at Tennessee State University and worked with saxophonist Hank Crawford before moving to New York in 1958.
In his early professional days, he sang at the famous Apollo Theatre in Harlem, and was a straightforward jazz and blues singer with a powerful, soulful delivery. He began to pick up engagements with well known jazz leaders, including drummer Art Blakey, pianist Mary Lou Williams, two stints with the Count Basie Orchestra in 1961 and 1964, saxophonist and arranger Oliver Nelson, and Randy Weston.
At the same time, he began working with musicians who were closely involved with the visceral free jazz movement of the 60s, including the remarkable multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Thomas also took on many of the spiritual teachings of the time, and attributed his yodelling style to the manifestation of the spirits of his ancestors, which he discovered by chance when he was unable to sing conventionally following an accident while practising yoga.
Thomas dubbed his glottal, ululating invention "Soularfone", and claimed both American Indian and African antecedents for the method of throat articulation employed in producing it. He used the style alongside more conventional methods, both with Sanders and in his own recordings for Bob Thiele's short-lived but influential Flying Dutchman label, and subsequently for several other labels. In the midst of all this involvement with the radical wing of jazz, however, Thomas also appeared as a guest on a Louis Armstrong record in 1970.
Following a parting of the ways with Sanders, the singer was invited to join the successful Latin-rock band Santana by its leader, guitarist Carlos Santana, in 1971. He remained with the band for two years, and reached a large new audience in the process, but never really built on the foundation of his popular exposure in the way many expected at the time.
Nonetheless, he continued to perform and record throughout the ensuing decades, both in his own projects and as a guest or sideman with a variety of other leaders, notably trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, while the rise in interest in so-called Acid Jazz and jazz-funk in the late-80s brought a resurgence of interest in his work. He had been suffering from leukemia, but sang in a concert in Brooklyn the night before his death from heart failure.