Ural Thomas has lots of stories. He's been around the block, you might say, even though he's lived in the same North Portland house—which he claims to have rebuilt himself, using all recycled materials, after it burned down in the mid-'70s—for the past four decades. In his youth, Thomas was a hot-shit soul singer, with a voice of equal parts grit and grace, who went from performing on street corners to sharing stages with R&B royalty. He says he opened the Rolling Stones' first show in America and one of Otis Redding's last. He played the Apollo with James Brown. He tells tales of record companies piling money on his bed and sending women to his hotel room, trying to seduce him into signing a contract.
Hearing him recall those days, from a seat in the cluttered rehearsal room at the rear of his home, it's hard to parse fact from fiction, the exaggerations from the misremembrances. But Thomas, 73, who speaks in soft, mannered tones, never sounds boastful. Those memories, for him, aren't about personal glory, but pain and disenchantment. Yes, he met his idols and became their peer, but he found many of them cold, dismissive and mean. He was lied to by labels, ripped off by managers and betrayed by his own friends. No matter how accurate the details, the stories Thomas shares say everything about who he is, and why he eventually returned to the neighborhood where he grew up and never left again: He just didn't have the heart to make it in the music business.
"I didn't have a clue it was like that," Thomas says, a glint of that boyish innocence still lingering in his large, watery eyes.
But second acts are big in 21st-century American life, particularly when it comes to forgotten soul singers. If it were up to certain people, Thomas—like Sharon Jones, Lee Fields and Charles Bradley, artists whose careers were revived after years in obscurity—would enjoy his own moment of rediscovery. And some are actively working to make it happen: Earlier this year, a group of young Portland musicians convinced Thomas, who's performed only sporadically in the last few years, to dust off his old songs and let them back him up. The band, dubbed the Pain after Thomas' big-band weeper "Pain Is the Name of Your Game," has already played two rapturously received shows, and calls this week's Doug Fir gig its true "coming out." For Thomas, the son of a minister, the opportunity to play his music again, free from the pressures of the industry, can only be a gift from above.
"Everything we do comes back to us," Thomas says, "good or bad."
Discovering Ural Thomas was just as much a gift for Scott Magee. A drummer and deep-soul connoisseur, who spins rare 45s as DJ Cooky Parker, he'd been looking to start a cover band, and was hoping to find a singer authentic enough to re-create the voices on those crackly old records. He came across reissues of Thomas' late-'50s doo-wop group, the Monterays, and was amazed to learn he still lived in town. To gauge where Thomas stood musically, Magee attended one of the open Sunday jam sessions Thomas has held out of his home since the '70s.
"It all happened real quickly, because he still has it," Magee says. Instead of simply reproducing bits of R&B arcana, Magee—along with the nine-piece band he's assembled—is helping bring a lost piece of Portland's past back to life. "I just feel fortunate that, here in Portland, we have this person who has this history and is still with us and is now performing, to add to what we have, in a real way."
The ultimate goal, Magee says, is to eventually get Thomas in the studio and record a set of all-new songs. Thomas already has a concept, framed around stories even older than his own: his mother's. Some are supernatural; others relay encounters with brutal racist violence. The idea is to show how our past is never that far behind us. It's something he knows well.
"I want to tell the history of man, and how cruel he is to himself," Thomas says. "People need to come together and really understand we're on this ship together, and if this motherfucker sinks, weâre all going down.â
SEE IT: Ural Thomas and the Pain play Doug Fir Lounge, 830 E Burnside St., with Orquestra Pacifico Tropical and Tiburones, on Wednesday, Nov. 6. 9 pm. $12 advance, $14 day of show. 21+.