Loads of tall tales surround legendary Portland soul singer Ural Thomas.
Some say Thomas opened for The Rolling Stones and Otis Redding and played alongside James Brown at New York’s Apollo Theater. Others say Thomas lives in the same north Portland home he rebuilt from salvaged material after a fire burned down the structure in the 1970s.
Who knows if any of it is true — and frankly, it doesn’t matter. “Love for my people” is what Thomas says keeps him going after nearly six decades as a performer.
Born in 1939, he got his start in the late 1950s with the doo-wop band The Monterays. “I’m just repaying the people,” he continues. “I feel like I’m 15!”
Thomas evokes a time when mythmaking was practically as important to a performer as what he did on stage. Those were the years when Ali was “the greatest,” and he told us so.
Thomas’ mother played music in church. “I absorbed all that music,” he says, as he did his mom’s interest in blues players like Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters.
After meeting soul aficionado and drummer Scott Magee about a decade ago, Thomas formed the Pain and, until recently, the band played a weekly residency at Portland venue The Goodfoot Pub and Lounge. The shows quickly became one of Portland’s hottest tickets.
Before Magee found Thomas, he tells me, he was “itching to play soul music.” Finding a genuine soul music survivor to front his band felt like a blessing. “I knew of his music,” Magee says. “We all know how lucky we are to play with Thomas.”
So far, Portland has managed to keep Thomas under wraps. But now, after finding a manager, Magee says Ural Thomas and the Pain are ready to spread the love — to get “outside our comfort zone,” Magee describes it. “We’ve had a lot of developments,” he adds, including a new record coming out next fall on Portland label Tender Loving Empire.
The album will be all-original material, Magee explains, with some new tunes but also some music that’s been with Thomas for years. “Songs he’d forgotten about,” Magee explains. “Or just kind of had in his head.”
Sometimes Thomas just sings a tune, Magee continues, and the Pain will take it from there, figuring out the key and backing arrangements.
This won’t be the band’s first recording project. In 2016, the group released an eponymous compilation of the Pain working through a variety of Thomas’ material from over the years. The album came out on well-known Seattle curators of lost soul, funk and R&B masterpieces Light in the Attic Records.
Throughout, Thomas and his band attack the music with working-class tenacity, whipping up the dance floor like their suppers depended on it — because, for musicians from Thomas’ era, it did. ■