Ernest “Rockin’ Tabby” Thomas, a swamp-blues performer, recording artist and founder of what for decades was the home of the blues in Baton Rouge, Tabby’s Blues Box and Heritage Hall, died before dawn Wednesday morning, days before his 85th birthday.
Thomas operated Tabby’s Blues Box for 24 years, first at its original location on North Boulevard and, for the club’s final four years, downtown on Lafayette Street.
The Blues Box closed in November 2004 after Thomas suffered a stroke.
The father of Grammy-winning singer-guitarist and actor Chris Thomas King, Thomas largely retired from performing after the stroke paralyzed his left side and prevented him from playing guitar. A bout with cancer followed.
“Even when my dad was most ill,” King said Wednesday, “he still found a way to say something to put a smile on people’s faces. His legacy is that he touched people with his music and his conversation.”
King saw his father Tuesday afternoon at the Heritage Manor nursing home and rehabilitation center, where Thomas had been a resident for nearly two years.
“I just sat by his bed and sang some songs to him,” King said. “I didn’t know I was saying goodbye.”
King also noted his father’s stubbornness, albeit stubbornness for a good cause.
“People who knew my dad well knew that he could be a little bit ornery,” King said. “His stubbornness was that he loved his music. He was a champion for Louisiana’s blues music during times when a lot of people turned away from it. He carried it on and passed it on.”
Tabby’s Blues Box served as a performance venue for Thomas and swamp-blues peers Silas Hogan, Arthur Lee “Guitar” Kelley, Raful Neal, Whispering Smith and Henry Gray.
“All those guys, they didn’t have anywhere to play,” Thomas told The Advocate in 1999. “They played little cafés. People didn’t pay to go see them, didn’t care nothing about them. But those guys had records out all over the world. They didn’t get the money for the records they made, but they kept the blues alive, plus they ignited the people overseas to know about Baton Rouge.”
The Blues Box also became an informal blues school for aspiring young performers such as Houma’s Tab Benoit and Baton Rouge’s Kenny Neal and Larry Garner.
In addition to being a club owner, Thomas made many recordings. He was among the Louisiana blues artists who recorded at J.D. Miller’s studio in Crowley, a regional hot spot where Slim Harpo, Lazy Lester, Lightnin’ Slim and Katie Webster cut their future classics.
The best-known Thomas recordings include “Hoodoo Party” and “Popeye Train,” both released by Excello Records in Nashville.
In the 1990s, Thomas’ fibrous bluesman voice, expansive personality and storytelling were on full display during his blues-centric Saturday afternoon radio show on WBRH-FM.
A Baton Rouge native, Thomas’ public singing began in the choir of the church his grandfather founded, St. Luke Baptist Church. Later at McKinley High School, he won a talent show by telling jokes. He also appeared in a school play, “A Womanless Wedding.”
The play, Thomas said in 1997, “that’s one of the things that started me in show business. I can dance and sing and joke, do all kind of stuff. They say ‘blues singer,’ but I do stuff like ‘Danny Boy.’ But blues is my forte, that’s how I make my living.”
A performance by Roy Brown and the Mighty Men inspired Thomas when he was a teen.
“When I heard him sing and play, I knew right then that’s what I wanted to be, a blues singer,” Thomas said.
Musical ambitions had to wait until Thomas finished a stint in the U.S. Army. After being discharged, he won a talent show in San Francisco by singing Roy Brown’s “Along About Midnight.” His competition included future stars Etta James and Johnny Mathis. Hollywood Records in Los Angeles subsequently issued Thomas’ recording debut, “Midnight Is Calling.”
Thomas returned to Baton Rouge in 1953. For many years he supported his late wife, Jocelyn, and their seven children by working at a chemical plant by day and performing at night.
“I’m glad that I took care of my family and that my kids know me,” he said. “I’m glad I didn’t do that (touring). I’d rather stayed there and watched them and given them a fatherly security when they were young.”
Thomas opened Tabby’s Blues Box and Heritage Hall in 1980. Blues fans from throughout the world visited the raw, genuine blues club. Other, much better-financed venues followed the Blues Box’s lead, including Buddy Guy’s Legends in Chicago and the House of Blues and B.B. King’s Blues Club chains.
“I was just chosen for this thing, the Blues Box,” Thomas said in 1997. “I’m not on no ego trip, I’m just out here hustling, trying to take care of business.”
King and the Thomas family are working with the Baton Rouge Blues Foundation to erect a historical marker at the downtown location of Tabby’s Blues Box. The family hopes the marker will be the first of many Louisiana music markers to come.
Services for Thomas are planned for Tuesday, the location to be announced.