Tabby Thomas’ passing marked with musical celebration

Musicians, friends gather downtown

Family, friends and fans of Rockin’ Tabby Thomas marked the bluesman’s New Year’s Day passing with “A Musical Celebration” on Tuesday night at the Manship Theatre.

Thomas “got his hat,” as he always said of departed bluesmen, four days before his 85th birthday.

Fittingly, the Manship Theatre is only a few blocks from the second and final location of Thomas’ long-running blues club, Tabby’s Blues Box and Heritage Hall. The club and its authentic atmosphere brought the blues singer, guitarist and recording artist perhaps his greatest recognition, locally and throughout the blues-loving world.

The Thomas tribute’s music began with a brass band procession by the Michael Foster Project. The group, increased to 12 musicians by guest players, began outside of the theater with the traditional second-line song “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.”

By the time the band reached the Manship stage, it had struck up a joyful “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

Later, the Rev. Gus Washington, of St. Luke Baptist Church, led singers, including Thomas’ Grammy-winning son, Chris Thomas King, in a performance of “Amazing Grace.”

“Tabby touched a lot of lives with his music,” Washington said. “He recognized young talent and did everything he could to push that talent to the highest levels.”

Singer-guitarist Kenny Neal, one of the young people who played at the Blues Box, performed early during the tribute. Neal got his first record deal by playing a showcase at the Blues Box.

“Throughout my life, Tabby was right there,” he said.

Thomas and his swamp blues peers, including Silas Hogan, Arthur Lee “Guitar” Kelley, Raful Neal and Henry Gray, found a stage at the Blues Box. So did a next generation of blues artists, including Neal, Tab Benoit, John Lisi and Larry Garner.

On tour in Europe, Garner sent a heartfelt message that emcee Johnny Palazzotto read from the stage.

“There will never be another Tabby Thomas,” the note read. “As much as we disagreed about things, he was just trying to teach me about these blues out c‘here.”

Thomas opened the Blues Box on North Boulevard in 1979. He operated it except for a break during which he searched for a new location, which he found on Lafayette Street in 2000. Ill health finally led him to close the venue with a marathon, guest star-filled grand finale in November 2004.

Thomas recordings were released from the age of vinyl 45s to the digital download era. They include the early 1960s Excello releases “Popeye Train,” which capitalized on the Popeye dance craze, and “Hoodoo Party,” a New Orleans-set Mardi Gras song.

“Drinking Blues,” a digital album released in September, is the latest album by Tabby Thomas listed by the online retailer Amazon.com.

Thomas found another venue for blues, his personality and his storytelling with his long-running WBRH-FM radio show. He always signed off with a pet phrase, based in part on the French phrase that translates to “That’s life.”

“The blues is my life,” Thomas said in his one-of-a-kind tone. “I’m not saying it’s wrong, I’m not saying it’s right, but c’est la vie.”