Mickey Thomas possesses one of the legendary voices in rock. From his time fronting the Elvin Bishop band, through Jefferson Starship and Starship, Mickey has been the voice behind countless classic songs. He is now taking a turn at another kind of classic, classic Christmas songs. Mickey recently took some time to talk about his new Christmas single and look back on his amazing career.
Please press the PLAY icon for the MisplacedStraws Conversation with Mickey Thomas –
On why he recorded a Christmas single after all these years – Oh, I’ve always wanted to do Christmas music, a Christmas album. For years and years I’ve thought about doing it, but the real opportunity just never came up until now. I expressed to my manager that I’ve always had a desire to do some Christmas music. So he kind of arranged the session with a friend of his, who is a producer in Nashville. He put together the players and kind of set the whole thing up, made it easy for me. So I said, “Well, these are the songs I want to do because I’m interested, I like classic Christmas songs, traditional Christmas, the things that I grew up listening to as a kid”. I’m not a big fan of rocking up Christmas too much, I don’t do that. I like “I’ll be Home for Christmas”. So I wanted to just do that, capture that vibe and that feeling of the classic and traditional Christmas songs that I grew up listening to and the singers I liked back then, Jack Jones and Andy Williams and Tony Bennett and Nat King Cole. So that’s what we went with… What I like about it is it comes around every year, so you hear the same songs that you heard when you were five years old or ten years old or twenty years old, so it takes you back to that time to that feeling of Christmas, which hopefully for everyone is a very warm and nostalgic and happy feeling a happy time. So Christmas songs have the power to do that, cut off the stuff that’s bothering us, making us feel down..
On the possibility of a full Christmas record – It’s just something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. So we said, “Well, let’s, let’s test the waters” because with the way music is created and delivered in this day and age, it’s not like we just have to jump right in and do a whole album right now. You can start out with a couple of songs. We’ll put out the two singles and, and if we get some good reaction, if it seems like people want to hear more, then then Christmas 2024, we’ll have a whole album ready to go, kind of approach it that way…”Silver Bells” is definitely what I want to do. “I’ll be Home for Christmas”, that would be one. Give me an old-fashioned Christmas. I kind of want to keep it in that sort mellow, nostalgic vein where you imagine that you’re just sitting in front of the fire with the snow falling outside the window and having a glass of brandy or something.
On how he met and started singing for Elvin Bishop – I had actually met Elvin in 1972 when I was in San Francisco for that year performing with a gospel singer who was my mentor, who really taught me how to sing, and, and he was friends with Elvin Bishop. His name was Gideon Daniels. my mentor. Gideon, introduced me to Elvin and back then Gideon and I would go and hang out and jam with Elvin whenever he might be playing around San Francisco, some of the local clubs, or whatever. So I got to know Elvin through that. Then I went back to Georgia. in 1973 and 74 when I was in the Jets band. During that time, Elvin signed with Capricorn Records, which was based in Macon, Georgia. So he came down to Georgia to record a couple of albums, and he knew that I had subsequently moved back to Georgia myself, so he called me up and said,” Hey, we’re only a three-hour drive away. You want to come up and sing some background vocals on my record?” So I went up to Macon, did that, and it went really well. So the next year he came back to do his next album for Capricorn and said, “Hey, want to come up and sing some more? Cause it was good last time”. So I said, “Sure”. So I went up and that was the album right before Strutting My Stuff. So at that point in time, he said, “Well, hey, what, how would you like to just join the band? We need some help vocally as a backing vocalist?”, and we also did some duets. Elvin and I would trade off. lead vocals sometimes. So I joined the Elvin Bishop Band and we toured for about six months together. Then we were off to Miami, Florida to do the Strutting My Stuff album and then during the course of making that album, we recorded “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” and Elvin was going to sing it originally, but his voice didn’t quite seem to fit the lyric and the mood of the song and the track, the way we had cut it. So the producer, the great Bill Szymczyk asked me and said, “Would you like to give this one a shot?” I said, “Oh, hell yeah”. So that’s how it happened. It was kind of a spontaneous moment in the studio and I jumped out and did the lead vocals on “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” and it was two takes. There was one take, one track before the guitar solo, and one track after the guitar solo, and that was it. That obviously, became a gigantic hit for the Elvin Bishop Band and opened many, many doors for me in my career.
On joining Jefferson Starship and replacing Marty Balin and Grace Slick – Well, that was a daunting task, obviously. Craig (Chaquico, guitar) and I worked on that, the soundtrack for “Skate Out”, a skateboard movie, I think, but we didn’t really meet each other during the course of that soundtrack. I did my stuff separately from when he did his stuff. So it was really just kind of coincidental that we were both on that record. What really got me into the Jefferson Starship was one of the roadies for the band. As you mentioned, Grace and Marty had both left the band, so they were looking for a new singer and kind of wondering what direction the band was going to go in, because not only had Grace and Marty left, but the drummer John Barbata had gotten into a terrible car crash and he was out for several years, so Ainsley Dunbar joined the band right before I came in. So one of the roadies brought in a tape of my stuff that I had done with the Elvin Bishop Band and from my first solo album and said, “Well, hey check out this guy. He lives right here in the Bay area. He’s right under our noses”. So, they listened and Paul Kantner called me up out of the blue, I’ve never met any of the guys in Jefferson Starship. So I got this unexpected phone call from Paul Kantner saying, “Hey, you want to come over and maybe hang out and jam and check out the new stuff we’re working on and see how it goes, maybe sing with the band?” I went, “Whoa, really?” I wasn’t quite expecting that because coming out of the Elvin Bishop Band, blues, R&B, gospel, I was wondering, “Well, how is what I’m doing going to fit into musically with the Jefferson Starship?” I said, “Well, let’s come over and give it a shot and let’s see how it’s going to work out”. And I said,” All right, let’s let’s roll the dice and see what’s going to happen here”. So, I decided to go over to one of the rehearsals, Paul Kettner’s living room, and there we are. They said, “Well, let’s play you this. This is a new thing we’re working on”. They kind of played me a real rough version of “Jane”. I went, “Oh, I wasn’t expecting this”. Because around that point in time, it was mostly Marty Balin ballads that was associated with Jefferson Starship, like “Count on Me” and “Miracles” and, “Runaway”, and I thought, “Boy, this doesn’t sound anything like that.” This is pretty hard edge, this is kicking. So we started jamming on “Jane” and, next thing I know, we’re in the studio recording Freedom at Point Zero.
On if he was nervous when Grace Slick came back to the band – No, I was very excited about that possibility. It’s got to be nothing but a positive to have Grace Slick come back into the band. So, no, I was like everyone else, I was very excited and thrilled with the idea of being able to record and perform and hang out with Grace. It was quite a trip. I remember we were kind of the tail end of recording the Modern Times album and she started sort of coming around and hanging out in the studio. Then the last track we recorded was a song called “Stranger”. So we said, “Well, hey, this one might be a duet, you want to. You want to come out and sing it with me”? So that was the first thing that we ever did together was “Stranger”. Then after that, she said, “It looks like you guys are really having fun. It wasn’t like this when I left the band”. We said, “Well, yeah, we are having fun”. She said, “Well, hey, you guys think you could use a female background vocalist?” We said “Well, maybe let us think about it”. So we said, “Of course”, so she rejoined the band and it was just a great time for the two of us from that time on. We had a great working relationship and, as I said, she was a very interesting, intellectual, strong personality, just fun to hang out with and fun to talk to. Obviously, our voices blended together pretty well. So we had a blast.
On if he was prepared for the huge success and eventual backlash to Starship – Well, I was prepared for the success because we consciously set out to reinvent ourselves at that point in time. Musically it was our total intention to use all of the new recording techniques and processes and machines and computers that were available to us at that point in time. So it was just an adventure for us. We kind of knew at that point in time, the transition that we were at and with radio changing the way it was in the eighties that we either were going to have a strong presence on contemporary hit radio, or we would probably not go on anymore. So the Knee Deep in the Hoopla album was definitely a gamble and a pivotal point for the history of the band because either it was going to work or it was not going to work. Fortunately for us, it worked really well.
A lot of the critical stuff really sort of came along after the fact. It really started to steamroll with Blender magazine article in the late nineties when Blender magazine came out with this thing about the worst songs ever recorded or something like that. “Built This City” was number one on their list of the worst, even though in the top 10, there were a lot of great songs. I think there was a Stevie Wonder song, a Paul McCartney song, Huey Lewis, Phil Collins. So, I’m thinking, “Well, we’re in pretty good company anyway”. I was kind of bummed out at first because I thought, “Wow, really the worst song ever? I mean, how do you come up with that?” Our manager said, “Well, Mickey, if you’re going to be on a list, always be number one”. So I said, “Okay”. So, then that kind of started the steamroll. A lot of people picked up on that Blender thing. Then a lot of other magazines started coming out with their “Worst Of” list, which is. in and of itself kind of a negative thing. The next thing you know, it’s like the worst guitar solos ever recorded and all that stuff. So, the backlash kind of started almost 15 years after the song came out. But I don’t worry about that at all these days and I get it, I understand as I’ve said before, part of the reason for that was a lot of people, older fans and music critics didn’t particularly like the way that music was starting to trend in the 80s, too much electronics, too much programming, too many sequences, too many samples. “We Built This City”, almost became a poster child. for that whole process of making music that a lot of people didn’t care for. The other thing was that just because of the history of our band with the Starship coming out of Jefferson Starship and Jefferson Starship coming out of Jefferson Airplane, the association with that era and with the counterculture and the revolutionary music, the stakes were higher. I think for Starship the standards were higher. We were, more than any other band of that era, accused of quote, “selling out”, so that was part of it too.
On the band embracing technology – Actually, the cover of Freedom at Point Zero album, which came out in 1979, there’s kind of a strange disc on the cover of the album that the little Boy Scout is chasing. On the deck of the aircraft carrier, and that disc was actually a prototype for one of the first CDs ever. It wasn’t really intentional that we were kind of in a way signifying what was going to come. What was in store for us in the future with transitioning from the analog world to the digital world but it happened and yeah it’s funny when you talk about the first cassette single. If you buy a new car today, you don’t even get a CD player. My, how we’ve changed.
On if he would ever play with Grace Slick or the current Jefferson Airplane – Well, I’d love to have Grace on the Christmas album. That would be, that would be wonderful. But, I just don’t think that Grace is really interested at all in doing anything musical anymore. She’s so involved in her painting and her art, and that’s kind of where she gets her enjoyment and her livelihood from these days I don’t know, I sort of doubt it, but if she would do it, that would be awesome. I don’t really see the Starship and Jefferson Starship getting together to do anything because I don’t know how it would really benefit either one of us right now, unless Grace was involved. To me, any kind of Jefferson Starship reunion, if you don’t have Grace Slick, then what’s the point?
On if it bothers him that Jefferson Starship was not inducted with Jefferson Airplane into the Rock Hall – Well, it does. It’s not something that I lay awake at night worrying about. But, I do think there’s a place for it. I think it’s a little tough for them to decide which version of Jefferson Starship it would be, but as you mentioned, it would be all of it, like the Small Faces evolved into the Faces or whatever. So I would say, yes, I think there’s a place for Jefferson Starship in the Hall. I think it would be easy to do it. It would just be everybody that was ever involved as part of Jefferson Starship. Unfortunately, many of them are no longer with us, so it’s not like you’d have a whole stage full of people there, but I think I think Grace and myself, and of course, Craig, Marty Balin’s no longer with us, Paul Kentner’s no longer with us, but Pete Sears is with us, Pete should definitely be up there Ainsley Dunbar. I think that would be the way to go.