Area musician Doug Thomas traverses ‘Autumn Road’ on album
Doug Thomas spent most of his life singing other people’s songs.
Now he also is making time for his own songs.
The 1967 Howland High School graduate sang with some of the most popular local cover bands in the late 1960s and ’70s. After a 30-year stint in Atlanta, where he performed on the side while working for the Kimberly-Clark Corp., Thomas moved back to Warren in 2010 and can be heard singing with several different bands that do everything from dance favorites to the songs of Joe Cocker and Chicago.
But he also used the down time caused by the COVID-19 pandemic to work on “Autumn Road,” a collection of original songs mostly co-written with Gary McCoy.
Thomas, 72, said his singing career started at a talent show at Howland Junior High, when he sang “House of the Rising Sun.”
“A couple young musicians were starting a band. Roger Lewis, he recruited me to be in his band The Jaguars, which changed its name to The Jaggs,” Thomas said. “Then I was poached by Holes in the Road and sang with them.”
McCoy played guitar in that band.
“I knew Gary because my dad was band director at Howland and Gary played the drums,” he said. “When we started getting involved in music, we developed a fast friendship that’s gone on for about 60 years.”
With teen dances at Christ Episcopal Church and Packard Music Hall, there were plenty of places for bands to play. Holes regularly played two to three times per week, especially in the summer.
“This was the height of Beatlemania,” Thomas said. “Every neighborhood had a garage band, and a lot of venues were realizing how popular that music was. Music brought the girls, and if the girls came, the guys wouldn’t be too far behind.
“We had a whole lot less choices in those days. The kids looked forward to the dances. It was the primary way people mixed in those days. I’ve had people tell me, ‘I met my wife at Packard Music Hall at one of the dances’ or at Christ Episcopal or one of those places we played.”
He continued to play in bands when he was a student at Kent State University, and after he left college, Thomas sang with The Shaddows and MF Rattlesnake, which he said may have been his most popular local band.
“We were really good,” he said. “We had two really great guitar players, Mike Donadio and Gary McCoy. Gary Sloas was back on drums, and Randy Smith was a terrific bass player. We were doing stuff that other people really weren’t trying — Allman Brothers, a lot of Rolling Stones, (David) Bowie, that kind of thing.”
Thomas didn’t really start writing until he joined the jazz / blues / rock band I Don’t Care, which was signed to Kama Sutra Records and released the band’s debut “Ask Anyone” in 1976.
“I was always interested in poetry and there were some opportunities,” he said. “I Don’t Care was largely instrumental; they didn’t care about lyrics. They didn’t really want a singer, but they knew they needed some kind of front person and I fit the bill.”
Thomas said the band got a legitimate shot. “Ask Anyone” was reviewed by Rolling Stone, the label provided tour support and they traveled the country playing shows with acts like Orleans, Henry Gross and jazz guitarist Larry Coryell. But the band was in debt to its record label, and a traffic accident involving its equipment truck that destroyed most of its gear was the breaking point.
“I had to borrow money from my parents to pay my way out of the band,” he said.
The experience did continue his interest in songwriting, and he and McCoy began penning songs together and pitching them in Nashville. Blues musician Guitar Shorty recorded their song “Runaway Train” for his “We the People” album, which won a W.C. Handy Award for best contemporary blues release.
And they had plenty of near-misses, Thomas said. County singer Aaron Tippin had one of their songs on hold, which means an artist has asked they don’t pitch it to other acts while it is being considered for his next album. But the song was about fatherhood, and when his wife had a miscarriage, it was a topic about which he didn’t want to sing.
Thomas and McCoy did get the chance to record some of their originals with Levon Helm and Garth Hudson of The Band at Helm’s recording studio in Woodstock, N.Y. Those songs were released on an album called “The Howlin’ Hill Project.”
“Working with them was some validation,” Thomas said.
Thomas estimates he and McCoy penned about 100 songs together. A few of those older songs were reworked for “Autumn Road” along with songs they wrote more recently. One track on the album, “Twilight Again,” Thomas co-wrote with George Tricomi.
He recorded the album at Tune Town Studios with Mike Talanca and many past and present musical collaborators — McCoy and Robert “Rollo” Miller on guitar, Dennis Csiszer and Talanca on bass, Dominic Reto and Danny Shapira on keyboards, Jim “JR” Richley, Sloas and Talanca on percussion, Marc Paige on saxophone, Tricomi on sax and horns and Rozz Coleman and Bob Fiorino on backing vocals.
Thomas said he’s working on making “Autumn Road” available on streaming services, and it will be available at his gigs. (It also can be requested by emailing Thomas at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
He hasn’t given up singing other artists’ songs. Thomas currently can be heard as one of the three lead singers with the dance band Backtraxx, singing songs by Joe Cocker and other soul, blues favorites with Memphis Soul Brew and performing the music of the band Chicago with the tribute act Brass Metropolis. But he’s incorporating some of the “Autumn Road” material when he plays out with RTR, the trio he has with Reto and Richley.
“I never do anything the same way twice with RTR,” Thomas said. “Everyone’s really creative in that little group. … It’s pretty close to magic. It’s really fulfilling, and I love playing with those two guys.”