The famous Curtom Records logo 1968-75
Artist manager, music promoter, label executive, owner/partner of record companies – these were the many hats worn by legendary Chicago-based record man Eddie Thomas. As manager of Curtis Mayfield & the Impressions as well as the co-founder of Curtom Records (with Mayfield), Eddie promoted their careers & hit records as well as the music of many other artists from Ray Charles to the Bee Gees. In addition, as owner of Thomas Associates, he was responsible for guiding the career of the Independents (“Leaving Me”), led by songsmiths Chuck Jackson & the late Reverend Marvin Yancy. Our soulful conversation with Eddie took place via telephone on a Sunday afternoon as he was resting in his home located in the Lincolnwood section of the Windy City.
EDDIE THOMAS (a/ka/ E.T.) – In 1957, I was working full time at the US Post Office while taking care of my mother – we lived on 47th & King Drive. In my travels I passed by the Chez Paris nightclub and saw a help wanted sign – they needed to hire a part-time parking valet. I applied for the job & was hired. I was parking cars for many celebrities, including Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. (The Rat Pack!) as well as Nat King Cole & his trio. I earned enough money from both jobs to support my mother & purchase a yellow Cadillac convertible for myself to get to & from work. One day a group of teenagers came up to me at the nightclub and asked if they could audition for a gig at the Chez Paris – they were from Cabrini-Green and sang doo-wop as the Medallionaires. I told them to come back tomorrow so I could talk to the manager – hoping that they would not come back because I knew there was no way the management would book a doo-wop group! But lo & behold, the next day they showed up and this time they knew my name since I had to think of something – and fast! So, I told them that I would come by their rehearsal and “audition” them for the Chez Paris. Went to their rehearsal and they were just terrible!!! So, I had them polish up on their harmonies, stage presentation and such. That day group member Woody Anderson asked me to be their manager and I agreed – even though I had no experience with managing a singing act. The Medallionaires came up with a song called “Magic Moonlight” and we recorded a rough demo in the recreation room of the Cabrini-Green housing projects. I grabbed a phone book and wrote a list of all the record labels in Chicago, starting with the top label in town – Mercury Records. Went to the Mercury headquarters on East Wacker Drive with their demo and the A&R man there wanted to sign the group – mind you that Mercury was my first stop! We took the Medallionaires into Universal Recording and cut the song.
(The Medallionaires’ “Magic Moonlight” wasn’t a national hit but it made enough noise locally to help Eddie book the group on gigs, including a “battle of the groups” show at Cabrini-Greene…)
EDDIE THOMAS – The Medallionaires went up against another group called the Roosters and lost – badly!!! The Roosters had a great sound with their harmonies and their lead singer had a smooth baritone. The group consisted of Jerry Butler, Sam Gooden, Richard Brooks & his brother Arthur and a young guitarist named Curtis Mayfield. When they learned that I managed the Medallionaires, the Roosters asked me to become their manager as well. I told them that I dug their singing but the name “Roosters” had to go! The last thing I felt they needed was to go on-stage at the Regal with that name and get heckled left & right before they could sing a note. So, we thought of some names and came up with “The Impressions” since folks were so impressed with their singing.
(Jerry, Richard & Arthur wrote “For Your Precious Love” and the group auditioned for Vee-Jay Records on a Saturday afternoon – in the middle of a snowstorm! But when the label released the single, Jerry’s name was in big bold letters whereas the Impressions name was in a lower font – a sign that Vee-Jay wanted Butler but not the group. Jerry left the group for a solo career & the Impressions were soon dropped from the Vee-Jay roster).
EDDIE THOMAS – The Impressions were out on the streets. Fred Cash came up from Chattanooga to replace Jerry (Richard & Arthur Brooks were also from Chattanooga & returned there in the early 1960s, disgruntled over what happened). One day Jerry called me up and offered me a job as his driver/valet. At first I was insulted with the notion of doing something like that but I took the offer because I looked at the up-shot of the deal – I could use that opportunity to meet radio DJs and record store folks while touring. So, I washed his laundry, fetched him his dinner, took his wife shopping and drove him from show to show – anything he told me to do. It was humiliating – one time Jerry ordered me to shine his shoes backstage in front of disc jockey Georgie Woods and his wife. But at the same time I met many radio announcers & record distributors while on the road. One day, guitarist Phil Upchurch announced his resignation to join Dee Clark (of “Raindrops” fame) so I suggested to Jerry that he should hire Curtis Mayfield as his guitar player. He agreed so now Curtis was touring with us. While on the road, Curtis & Jerry wrote “He Will Break Your Heart” (with help from Vee-Jay producer Calvin Carter) – Curtis played guitar and sang harmony on the record. With a hit record and touring money under our belts, we felt it was time to get the Impressions together to cut some tunes. We went back to Chicago and recorded “Gypsy Woman” with Sam & Fred at Universal Recording – Johnny Pate ran the session (as he would for later and several Impressions releases). This was 1961.
(That year, Jerry Butler played New York City’s Apollo Theatre & Eddie shopped “Gypsy Woman” to the music labels. After being rejected by RCA Victor Records, Eddie tried his luck with ABC-Paramount, who was on a hot streak thanks to Ray Charles, Paul Anka & Tommy Roe).
EDDIE THOMAS – I met with Sam Clark – the president of ABC-Paramount Records – and his right-hand man Larry Newton. When they heard “Gypsy Woman”, they weren’t sure that the tune had legs until an executive named Clarence Avant took a listen and told them it was a smash. So, they offered to release the single on the condition that I would promote the record while I was working with Jerry Butler. That was no problem – wherever Jerry was playing I made my rounds to the radio stations. It was Georgie Woods & Rockin’ Robin in Philadelphia who broke “Gypsy Woman”. Then Maxie Waxie in Baltimore/D.C. went heavy on the record, followed by Bill Summers of WLOU in Louisville and WAMO’s Porky Chedwick in Pittsburgh. ABC-Paramount had to press up thousands of copies to meet the demand and record shot up the national charts (#2 R&B, #20 Pop). After “Gypsy Woman” sold over a half-million copies, Sam Clark offered me a job with ABC-Paramount to work as a national promotion manager. So now, I was not only managing the Impressions but promoting other ABC releases as well – from Ray Charles’ album “Modern Sounds Of Country-Western” to the Tams’ “What Kind Of Fool Do You Think I Am” as well as records by B.B. King and Tommy Roe. It was a busy time!
(By the mid 1960s, Eddie was juggling many jobs – the ABC promotion gig, managing the Impressions while Curtis set up his own music publishing companies as well as two record labels – Windy C and Mayfield Records. Eddie also launched Thomas Records as well – all of this happening in Chicago).
EDDIE THOMAS – Boy, did we have talented folks! Curtis signed the Five Stairsteps to Windy C and the oldest boy in the group – Clarence Burke, Jr. – could write his behind off! He came up with the group’s hits “World Of Fantasy” and “Danger - She’s A Stranger!” with his buddy Greg Fowler (who also wrote “You Waited Too Long”). Then we had the Fascinations (“Girls Are Out To Get You”) on Mayfield. Now, with the Thomas label, Jamo Thomas (no relation!) came up with “I Spy (For The FBI)” and that got him on the TV music show “The Beat!!!” We also had Cash McCall as well – even Richard & Arthur Brooks cut a few singles for the label. Curtis & I had so many acts that we turned down a couple of groups – the Jackson 5 auditioned for us as well as the Esquires (“Get On Up”). We just couldn’t sign the Jacksons because we already had the Stairsteps (the Burke family) and the Esquires sounded too much like the Impressions.
(In 1967, the Impressions released their last singles for ABC – “I Loved & I Lost”, “We’re Rolling On” and the classic “We’re A Winner” – the woman shouting “all right now, sock it to me baby!” on that hit was Eddie’s first wife, Audrey. Even though they had a solid run of hits on ABC, Curtis & Eddie were unhappy with the company’s financial belt-tightening. So, that year, they launched a label together….)
EDDIE THOMAS – I always abbreviated Curtis’ name, calling him “Curt” and he never called me Eddie – it was always “Tom”. So, when we formed our own music publishing company in the early 1960s, it was called “Curtom” – we just put those names together. After “We’re Rolling On” was released in late 1967 and the Impressions’ contract with ABC had expired, Curtis & I started the Curtom Records – I was label president, Curtis was vice-president. The scorpion & the gemini in the logo represented our astrological signs. We had our road band the Winstons on Curtom for a brief time (the single “Need A Replacement”) before they jumped to Metromedia Records (and recorded the classic “Color Him Father”). June Conquest cut a few sides as well. At the same time, our friend Neil Bogart (who was the vice-president of Windy C’s distributor Cameo-Parkway Records) was appointed general manager of Buddah Records and was interested in carrying the Curtom label. So, we brought on the Impressions, Five Stairsteps and a great talent of a man – Donny Hathaway. Donny could do everything – sing, arrange, produce, play keyboards, write songs – many talents. But, he butted heads with Curtis a lot – both men had equal skills yet had very strong & stubborn personalities. Curtis wouldn’t do things Donny’s way and vice versa. I was sad when Donny left the company and heartbroken when he died but while he was here with us Donny made some great music and had a lot of hits.
(Curtom Records indeed was a successful label – the Impressions hit the charts with “Choice Of Colors” and “This Is My Country” while the Stairsteps gave us “Don’t Change Your Love” and “Baby Make Me Feel So Good”. However, behind the scenes Eddie & Curtis started to drift apart.)
EDDIE THOMAS – Curtis started hanging out with Marv Stuart, who managed one of our acts Baby Huey & the Babysitters – a great band that would’ve been more successful if Huey had lived. Curtis wanted to bring Marv into the company as a vice-president but I disagreed - feeling that Marv should work his way up the ranks. When Curtis left the Impressions, I suggested to him that he just focus on producing & writing. Marv told him that he should start a solo career – another disagreement at the time because I feared that Curtis would burn out in short time. When Curtis’ first solo album became a hit, he was off & running. So, I felt it was time for me to move on but I agreed to make it a gradual transition. Therefore, I stayed to help promote & market the “Superfly” soundtrack and sold my share of the company to Curtis in 1972 (Kevin’s note – smart move, since the “Superfly” album went to #1 on the pop album charts and sold over a million copies. Eddie left the label with a bang.)
(Eddie moved to 23rd Street in Chicago and launched Thomas Associates, an independent record promotion company. In addition, he partnered up with producer/studio owner Paul Serrano and formed Art Productions)
EDDIE THOMAS – I had many labels as clients and promoted many records that became hits – worked all the Stylistics’ releases, Barry White’s singles and albums as well as the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. In 1972, after I left Curtom, I met Chuck Jackson & Marvin Yancy – they were part of Jerry Butler’s Songwriters Workshop. They had a tune called “Just As Long As You Need Me” that was quite good and another entitled “Leaving Me” that was just out-of-sight. So, I suggested that they form a group to cut these tunes. Chuck & Marvin recruited Helen Curry and Maurice Jackson and the Independents were born. We recorded the group in Paul’s studio and Tom Washington (a/k/a Tom Tom 84) was the arranger. Scepter/Wand Records agreed to sign them. “Leaving Me” went to #1 on the R&B charts (#21 Pop) and the Independents had eight hits altogether. But when it came down to getting paid, Scepter/Wand president Florence Greenberg told me that the group’s monies had to be used to pay back-royalties to B.J. Thomas & Dionne Warwick – and both acts were no longer on the label! By the time we considered legal action Ms. Greenberg closed down the label & declared bankruptcy. We were all burned by what happened. Chuck & Marvin went on to work with Natalie Cole. I focused on music promotion and started a DJ record pool called the Dogs of War. The record pool did well – we pushed a lot of disco music that did well. Henry Stone – the head of T.K. Records – came up from Miami to give us a gold record of Peter Brown’s “Do You Wanna Get Funky With Me” as a way of thanking the Dogs of War for making it a hit in the Chicago area.
(Fast forward to the present – at the ripe young age of 77, Eddie is still involved in music, this time in the Gospel field)
EDDIE THOMAS – I’m working with Captain Sky right now, putting together a Gospel record. Maurice Jackson of the Independents recorded a Gospel/smooth jazz record we did with the E.T. Group a few years back as well. I’m very thankful to the Almighty for being blessed with this great journey. I’m healthy, work out at the gym five days a week, don’t smoke or drink. My first wife Audrey passed away years ago and my son Alvin left this earth as well but I’m not sad – I’m grateful for what God has given me and have no bitterness towards anything or anyone. I’m now married to Verlene, a wonderful woman and a great friend who has been my companion for quite some time. I’m just happy to have my health because that is where you find your true wealth.
(And this writer is forever grateful to have a mentor and friend as Eddie Thomas).
If you'd like to know more about Eddie Thomas (plus check out some retro photos from back in the day), check out this site -
The Eddie Thomas songbook -
JAMO THOMAS I SPY FOR THE FBI - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xtqckyQhSJ8
IMPRESSIONS WE'RE A WINNER EXTENDED VERSION - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T88RH9RSpgI
INDEPENDENTS LEAVING ME - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n33yZanR1PE
(Thanks to Midnite Johnny of the Soulful Detroit Forum and Universal Music Group for the extended version of "We're A Winner")