Asked to name an important or influential musician to come out of Houston, many people will trippingly trot out the Usual Suspects of Beyoncé, Lightnin’ Hopkins, ZZ Top, or even Kenny Rogers (also, of course, an influential name in the chicken business).
A name lesser known – but no less important – is Bubbha Thomas. The drummer was raised in the Fourth Ward and is an alumni of Booker T. Washington High School. He had a widely varied musical career both backing other musicians and with his bands. But the four albums he put out in the early/mid ‘70s with a rotating lineup as the Lightmen both celebrated and expanded the boundaries of spiritual/free-form jazz, funk, and soul.
Now, all of them – Free As You Wanna Be, Fancy Pants, Energy Control Center, and Country Fried Chicken have been lovingly reissued by the Now Again label. Each 2LP or to 2CD release features the original album and a second disc of alternate mixes and bonus tracks, and a booklet with a career-spanning essay and photos. All were recorded in Houston at either the Nashville Sound or Soundville Studios.
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As part of the special events occurring nationwide to celebrate Record Store Day this Saturday, April 13, Thomas will make a rare public appearance at Cactus Records for signing and Q&A at 2 p.m., followed by a set by DJ Flash Gordon Parks spinning selections from the albums.
“I’d always heard about the Lightmen but had never seen the records, but I know they were highly revered. I’d seen them go for something like $600, $700 each when they came on the market,” Cactus Music owner Quinn Bishop says. “Among deep jazz guys and those who like spiritual or improvisational jazz, they are very important. But even if you’re not, it’s just great music.”
Now Again Records founder/president Eothen “Egon” Alapatt’s history with Thomas goes back to the 1990s when – as a college student on a quest to find these albums – he tracked down Thomas himself to see if he had any copies to sell. The drummer didn’t, but through purchases and swaps, Alapatt eventually got them.
“Bubbha’s a unique drummer and his band was unique. In the late ‘90s, most of Bubbha’s work wasn’t appreciated for what it was, which was revolutionary music,” Alapatt says.
“There had to come a point where there was a descriptor for that nexus between funk, jazz, political unrest, and social struggle…when people finally started clamoring for ‘Spiritual Jazz.’ I realized, finally, I might be able to do this project right.”
But even though Thomas himself anointed Alapatt as the “right man for the job,” there was still a lot of work involved in bringing the reissues to reality. “I went to his house a couple of times, once with the producer Madlib,” he recalls. “And we all felt out the conversation around this music. And the need to let people hear it. Bubbha was a fearless community activist and a fiery musician. Few people can commit that to wax. Bubbha and his bands did.”
In addition to music, Bubbha Thomas has also been a journalist, book author, radio DJ, TV host, and community/cultural activist. Perhaps his favorite role is that of jazz educator to young students in schools and programs like his decades-old Summer Jazz Workshop and other programs through Jazz Education, Inc., which Thomas founded in 1970.
As for Record Store Day, it began as a grassroots effort among independent outlets in 2008 as a way to both celebrate its culture and remind customers that they were still open for business. That’s despite very stiff competition from the Big Box Stores like Best Buy, Walmart, Barnes & Noble, and Target. Stores which could (and did) offer deep discounts on music as a loss leader just to entice customers in to perhaps buy other things.
Fast forward to 2019 and how things have changed. All those Big Box stores have either eliminated or greatly reduced their CD shelf space (though, oddly, some stock…vinyl!). There are now more than 1,400 indie record stores around the country, and labels have gotten wise to catering to those who actually still buy physical music.
“It’s become an international celebration of record store culture, and brilliantly coincided with the resurgence of vinyl. And if anyone told you that they anticipated that, they are lying to you!” Bishop says. “It’s helped to re-engage older record buyers, and engage a [newer] audience.”
Thus, there are more than 400 exclusive RSD releases on the official website, issued on vinyl and in collector’s frenzy-inducing limited runs (though the Thomas records are available now). Artists range from the mostly unknown to household names, and across just about every genre from obscure world music to rock and alt rock icons to a picture disc for “Baby Shark.”
Bishop anticipates that he’ll see up to 800 customers pass through the doors just in the first few hours of the day, with the hardcore camping out on the sidewalk the night before. Twelve other stores in Houston including Sig’s Lagoon, Sound Revolution, Black Dog Records, Vinal Edge, Heights Vinyl, and Soundwaves are also participating with RSD releases and activities.
Of course, a good portion of those in line are not fans but making purchases to instantly resell on eBay or other avenues. Bishop says that can’t be controlled or helped, but says that violators should come down with “Bad Record Store Karma.”
“If you’re in line to buy something just to flip it, causing someone who’s in line behind you who is really into that band and wants to hear it…that bill’s gonna come due to you one day,” he says. To help combat that, Cactus’ policy is to sell only one copy of any single release to a single customer.
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“But everyone is looking for something different,” Bishop adds. “The guy who is looking for the Weezer record is not the guy who’s looking for the deep jazz reissue on Resonance while the next person wants a teen artist.”
But let’s leave it to the DJ — Flash Gordon Parks – to sum up what makes these reissue records so special – and why he’s enthused that they will now find a brand new audience.
“I think what makes the music of Bubbha Thomas and the Lightmen special is the fact that it was a collective effort. Each musician contributed not only sonically to the recordings but philosophically as well,” he says. “In this music you find purpose, intention, progressiveness. This is Message Music! No notes are wasted. Every song is an offering to the people, to nature, to God.”
Bubbha Thomas will have a record signing and Q&A on Record Store Day at 2 p.m., April 13, at Cactus Music, 2110 Portsmouth. DJ Flash Gordon Parks will play Lightmen music at 3 p.m. Free. For more information, visit CactusMusicTx.com or call 713-526 -9272.