The setting was 1930s Meraux, Lousiana, now a suburb of New Orleans, then a sprawling rural area with cotton fields and swampland. Ural Thomas — age 3 — his mother and a dozen or so of his siblings and neighbors settle down on their front porch at sundown.
“The porch was like our TV, that’s where all the stories were told.” Thomas relates before launching into one such story with a sly grin on his face. “The Greenwood [song was derived] from a story my Mom would tell about experiences from when she was a little girl. The Greenwood was a place that was too wild, where you weren’t allowed to go. Once, my grandfather went into the Greenwood to go hunting, he was gone 3 or 4 days. He hadn’t found anything. He sat on a log to rest and eat, and took his knife out and a block of cheese. He cut off a piece of cheese and he took his knife and he stuck in the log. He ate his lunch and then he pulled the knife out of the log and blood came out. He saw the blood running and he said, “Damn, I never seen no tree bleed.” He followed the tree to its end and it turned out to a great big snake, turning with his mouth open. My grandpa was so scared he threw down his rifle and he went running!” Ural clasps his hands as he laughs at the thought.
His mother’s stories and memories are a web of cautionary tales, folklore, and regional myths that haunt her son and inspire his writing to this day. “I don’t even know if there is a really place called the Greenwood.” Ural admits, but those were the stories.
The storytelling septuagenarian before me is the proclaimed “Pillar of Soul” in Portland, Oregon, a city he has lived in since he was 4 years old, far from the fields of Louisiana. Ural Thomas’s childhood in the Historic Mississippi District where he still lives was centered around the church, where his Mom played guitar and sang in the choir. He would go with his mom and soon learned to sing all the songs. “I watched and learned.”
There was creativity in the gospel music. “I was raised on country songs like Red River Valley and Be Honest With Me Dear. My mom would sing in the church and she would put gospel words to those songs. The gospel players would leave the church and they would go and put [the melody] into Rock ’n Roll or Rhythm & Blues songs. It wasn’t that one came from the other. It was people from all colors and cultures coming together playing music and making up words.”
By middle school, Ural was playing secular music and had a signing group, The Streetcorner Singers with neighborhood kids. By high school Ural was performing with an accapella group called the Monterays. They performed in parks and schools and saved up enough to record their own album. They sang on the weekends and would work during the week.
In the early 60s Ural started a tradition that would eventually lead him to where he is now, a standing Sunday morning “open house” and jam session in his North Portland home. Ural invited all the neighborhood kids to his house (still the property he owns today). He would feed them, offer them clothes that he had found at Good Will and cleaned, and he would play music with them. “Those kids were so talented they didn’t have any training, they just had something to say. They had life experiences.” With a few Monterays albums under his belt and a recording of the neighborhood kids singing under the name House of Entertainment, Ural was a central father figure for a troubled Portland neighborhood.
All the recording and performing paid off when a friend took Ural to LA and got him signed with the record label, Uni (a subsidiary of Universal Records). From there he moved to New York where he became a regular opener at The Apollo in Harlem for James Brown, Otis Redding and other soul legends in the 60s and early 70s. “Those were fast times. I would open up the shows. I was living at 12th and Vine and I would walk everywhere. I was there a little over a year.” But just as his star was rising, Ural made an abrupt move back to Portland.
Ural had become disenchanted by the music industry and embroiled in arguments with other musicians over rights and style. “It was the battle of the bands.” He decided he needed time away. “I wanted to see what was coming out of me. I didn’t want to sound like anyone. I don’t want to be in the middle of that.” While he left the toxic industry behind, music remained a part of his life.
“I kept my music inside of me. Someone would come along and I would give them a song if I could. I’ve got stacks of songs on single pieces of paper all over.”
Far from the limelight of his early music career, Ural worked many jobs in Portland. “I was a busboy at the Imperial Hotel [now Hotel Lucia] for 15 years and I worked weekends at the Cotton Club. I was a machinist at the shipyards. It was like being inside a car engine. I was a seed sorter for a nursery. I learned how to tell the difference between a good seed and a bad a seed.”
When his home was bulldozed on the lot he still occupies, Ural literally had to rebuild his life in Portland. Using recycled and found materials he painstakingly and lovingly built a new house — with ample space for the neighborhood kids to practice music on Sunday after church. Decades later, on one of those Sundays, drummer Scott Magee stopped by. Within minutes they were playing music together and Scott quickly learned that this living legend still had the talent, the passion, and the voice he did 50 years previous.
Magee soon found a backing band of 9 musicians worthy of playing with the ageless soul legend and thus “Ural Thomas and The Pain” was born. Ural reflects, “We had harmony from day one. All the guys in the band came from an educational side of music, but they all loved it all their life. We put all of our ideas together and we are really tight about the simplicity of the music. All the guys have input. They have wonderful voices, but they put their voices in the their instruments. You can sing the melodies. I learned to sing what I can play.”
Ural is still actively writing songs (writing 4 just last week) and feels more inspired than ever. “I may not write anything for 10 years, but then I have 10 years of collected memories. I never try to take my life and put in it one perspective.”
Ural has been telling stories with his new band for 6 years now. “It was supposed to be a one night gig,” he smiles. But one show led to another and by 2014 they were named by Willamette Week as Portland’s Best New Band 2014. Now picking up steam, they are playing regular gigs around Portland and even toured back to Ural’s old stomping grounds in New York City.
As lead singer of The Pain, Ural wows audiences with his buttery smooth voice and his high energy dance moves. But what differentiates Ural from other performers, is his genuine, unending positivity, despite life’s hardships. “I express a lot of people’s feelings. If I’m positive, it’s going to effect others. I try to remain positive and give them the positivity of my soul. It can only produce more positivity. In life you have a choice.”
Back on the front porch in Louisiana, his grandfather’s Greenwood memory sparks another story.
“My mom’s sister was out in the cotton fields and she heard a whistle, and thought it was someone they knew, so she shouted ‘Over here!’ But it was a snake, standing up! A coachwhip, a real coachwhip, they whistle just like man and when you acknowledge where you are, they hit the ground and come at you. They whistle like a man and they stand up on their tail, that’s how they catch their game. They hit you with their tail. She saw it coming and she took off running, but it bit her in the bottom of her foot. They are deadly, but she ran so fast and so long that there was no poison. She was swift like a deer — that’s what I want to call the song. She ran the poison right out of her foot.”
Snakes as big as fallen trees or that whistle like men. Those are the stories still rattling around Ural Thomas’s head 70 years later. “Those are the stories I want to turn into country songs.” He says. “The reason I haven’t told a lot of my stories about my life is because I want to put them in music. Some of the stories my mom used tell were scary, but you can find a way to make it fun.” For Ural, his 7 decades of life from rural Louisiana to drug-laden North Portland to Harlem, make for richer song material. “Nobody in the world ever wrote their own song. You have inspiration from all the people around you, from your life experiences, to a person next to you who cracked a joke.”
When asked exactly how old he was, Ural doesn’t skip a beat, “I’m 76. No, no, Im 79, I’m endless.”