Ural Thomas Finally Finds ‘The Right Time’


Ural Thomas and The Pain are set to issue The Right Time (Tender Loving Empire), an album of all-original material, on Sept. 28.

(Photo: Walters Photographers)

The timeline of soul and r&b in America has followed some interesting byways during the past decade, as the once-quiet careers and lives of a number of older singers finally have been given full amplification. The late Sharon Jones went from Rikers Island guard to mainstage performer at Coachella. And after grinding away to little acclaim in the ’70s, Lee Fields went into real estate to make ends meet, before getting a second chance at success in the 2000s. He’s now soaking in critical acclaim and audience adoration.A similar story has been brewing in Portland, Oregon. From that enclave of indie rock, a septuagenarian singer named Ural Thomas finally has arrived, 50 years or so after his first attempts to break into the music industry.

“You never know how these things are going to work out,” Thomas said, sitting in the roughly constructed space attached to his North Portland home, where he and his backing band, The Pain, rehearse. “I never really cared about being a star. I was just happy that I was part of God’s plan. But the next thing I know, I was bigger than I ever knew about.”

It took a while, though. When he began performing and recording in the ’60s, first as a member of The Monterays and then as a solo artist, Thomas found a modicum of success. But the experience left him soured on the music industry. Performing at the legendary Apollo Theater, for example, wound up being pure drudgery, as Thomas said he was completely ignored by headliner Otis Redding.

“We did five shows a day for 15 days,” Thomas remembered. “He wouldn’t even speak to me after the first set. I set that stage on fire, but I was trying to impress him. If I’d have been around him a longer time, he might have been a nicer person.”

After a few false starts and seeing some debauchery that was encouraged by record company executives, Thomas retreated back to his hometown of Portland. He didn’t give up on music, however. He hosted regular Sunday jam sessions in his home, inviting seasoned players and kids from the neighborhood in to have a meal and mess around on some tunes.

It was on one of those Sundays about six years ago that drummer and DJ Scott Magee entered Thomas’ life. He had been looking to put together a band that could play old school soul music in the vein of the 45s he collected. His buddy, Eric Isaacson, co-owner of record shop and label Mississippi Records, pointed him toward Thomas.

A musical kinship quickly was born.

“I didn’t know what this guy was going to want to do,” Magee said. “I didn’t know what his interest level would be. And of course, he blew us all away—his continued energy and limitless joy. We’re still blown away by Ural.”

That energy has been apparent to anyone who has seen The Pain perform live. They rip through a set of vintage r&b covers—like “Pain Is The Name Of Your Game,” a track Thomas first recorded back in 1967—and new material with beaming energy and well-rehearsed grit. The spirit also is evident on The Right Time, a new album set for release Sept. 28 on Portland’s Tender Loving Empire imprint. Made up of all original songs, many written by Thomas and Magee, the record was made with clean, modern production techniques but still feels like it could be a lost 1966 Atlantic recording.

The new album also might be the first step in getting Thomas recognized for his talent outside of the Northwest. He and The Pain have been touring the West Coast and a bit into Canada, but they have yet to reach the level of national attention that Jones and Charles Bradley attained before their deaths. Maybe all it would take is a big promotional push on the part of Thomas and his band.

“We have talked about it,” Thomas said. “I don’t know that everyone could do it and travel like that, because you have to commit. But to speak for myself, I’d love to do it with the same guys that I’ve got right now.”

What no one seems concerned about is that Thomas is pushing 80 years old. It’s a surprising revelation, considering he looks and acts decades younger. Even so, Magee said, it is something that he and the band have to keep in mind when planning for the future.

“He has way more energy than half the band,” Magee insisted. “It’s pretty unbelievable. But just like if you had a grandparent or someone who’s a generation beyond you, your mind does go there every now and then. You just can’t allow yourself to get hung up on those things. We’re just going to let him tell us when he’s done.” DB

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May 2019
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