Ural Thomas has always been there.
Since starting to sing and play music at age three, he has been in the vicinity of soul music history. The "middle" of 14 children (and named for the Ural Mountains in Russia), Thomas grew up in North Portland, in what had primarily been an African-American neighborhood until recent years.
As a teenager in the '50s and '60s, Thomas was part of a doo-wop group, the Mono Rays, that played around Portland and Seattle, and then, like the Forest Gump of R&B, Thomas popped up seemingly at every moment of popular contemporary soul music history—but in the back, not the foreground. He says he opened for one of the Rolling Stones' first American shows, and that he played with Otis Redding in one of that singer's final shows, and has shared the stage with Stevie Wonder and James Brown, and played at the famed Apollo Theater a reported 44 times. Under his own name, he recorded for Uni Records, which also helped launch Neil Diamond.
Sitting in his home in North Portland, a low-slung house with the curtains pulled on a sunny afternoon, Thomas also claims to have brought the song "Louie, Louie" to two other Portland bands—Paul Revere and The Raiders, and the Kingsmen—both which he sang backup for, and both which went on to Billboard fame with their recordings.
Yet, in spite of his proximity to musical fame and greatness, until two years ago, at age 73, Thomas was never really in the spotlight. Like last year's Academy Award winning documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, which showcased the backup singers for the Rolling Stones and Michael Jackson, and like Charles Bradley, who languished near homelessness and obscurity for decades before emerging three years ago at SXSW as one of the most powerful soul singers of the past few decades, Thomas was never fully recognized for his talent. Like Otis Redding, Thomas' singing voice is infectious and truly remarkable; at turns soothing and sincere, and then, suddenly, belting a high, yearning note.
In 2013, a drummer and local deejay in Portland, Scott Magee, discovered that the singer was living just a few blocks from Mississippi Studios, a former church that now serves as one of the city's most prized music venues. On Sundays, Thomas often hosted jam sessions. At the time, Magee was looking to start up a cover band to play some of the old blues and soul songs he regularly played at his deejay shows. When Magee showed up at one of Thomas' jam session, he was asked to join in.
That audition (who was auditioning for whom?) quickly led to a few debut shows. To back up the singer, Magee organized a six-piece band, including a three-part horn section and keyboards that soar like a church organ. The band takes its name from one of Thomas' earlier recordings, "Pain Is The Name of Your Game."
In late 2013, Ural Thomas & The Pain played a few shows around Portland. Far from nostalgic showcases, those first few shows were barnburners—and Thomas' demand, and his regional fame, has only intensified since. Last summer, the band played at Pickathon and the Waterfront Blues Festival, two of the biggest outdoor shows of the season, and in a readers' poll by Willamette Week, was named, somewhat ironically, the Best "New" Band in Portland.
And, on Wednesday, Ural Thomas and The Pain will play for the first time in Central Oregon.
Ural Thomas & The Pain
7 pm, Wednesday, March 18
McMenamins Old St. Francis, 700 NW Bond.