Since 2004 Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the Secret History of Chicago Music to shine a light on worthy artists with Chicago ties who’ve been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.

Covering dozens of blues artists in the Secret History of Chicago Music has taught me that a few of the cliches about old-time bluesmen are rooted in reality. Many such musicians indeed began doing grueling labor in the fields as children, and many built their own first instruments. Often they started playing on the street or at parties before being “discovered,” if they were ever discovered at all. Most grew up very poor, in no small part because they were viciously discriminated against as Black people in the rural Deep South. 

Back in the day, most Chicago bluesmen weren’t from Chicago—many came from the Mississippi Delta, and they made the Windy City their second or third home. Like them, blues singer Little Al Thomas came from a southern family—his parents were from Lutcher, Louisiana—but he was born in Chicago, at Cook County Hospital, in 1930.

“My mother and grandmother had records they had brought from the south in 1926. And I used to climb up on a box and wind the old Victrola and listen to the records,” Thomas told Justin O’Brien at Living Blues magazine in 2011. “They had Mama Rainey and another woman called Black Patti, and they had some old spirituals. I don’t know who was playin’,’ but it had a groove, you know. And my grandmother, she would bang on the piano.” 

Thomas and his family attended Zion Hill Baptist Church on Ashland just south of Roosevelt, where giants of gospel such as Mahalia Jackson sometimes performed; the church was where he first learned to use his voice. According to his wife Edwina, he used to sing as he walked to Medill Elementary School, at the current site of Chicago Tech Academy (14th and Throop). 

Thomas got his real musical education a few blocks from the school, at the Maxwell Street Market—a bustling, anything-goes market and bazaar that became internationally famous because so many legendary blues musicians got their start there, performing on the sidewalk or on makeshift stages for tips. Thomas also saw plenty of life-changing blues performances in clubs: while still in his teens, he caught Tampa Red and Big Maceo Merriweather at Club Zanzibar (13th and Ashland) and Otis Rush at the 708 Club (708 E. 47th).

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This live Little Al Thomas album, recorded at a Swiss blues festival in 2000, came out on a German label in 2002.

Thomas held down a day job at U.S. Steel for 32 years, but he began singing professionally on the side in the early 60s, performing on Maxwell Street and opening for the likes of Bobby “Blue” Bland and Lefty Dizz. He gigged regularly at the Spitz Diner & Lounge (7149 S. South Chicago) and the Leather Lounge (69th and King Drive). For a couple decades he worked frequently with guitarist Lacy Gibson—they played a long residency together at the Clock Lounge (73rd and South Chicago), which burned down in 1977.

Thomas was nicknamed “Little Al” because he was short, but he had an enormous voice, inspired by B.B. King and Louis Jordan. “The force of his delivery and the pugnaciousness of his phrasing reflect the decades he spent shouting over crowds on Maxwell Street,” wrote David Whiteis for the Reader in 2005. “He effortlessly matches King’s trademark octave leaps and melodic lines but eschews B.B.’s sweetness; even at his most elegant, Thomas is a roaring bull and proud of it.”

In 1983, when the folks who’d owned the defunct Clock turned the former Queen Bee’s Lounge into Lee’s Unleaded Blues, Thomas quickly began performing there regularly. He also found a rollicking band to match his giant talent, and in 1987 he began working with the Crazy House Band at the Spitz. They’d go on to back him for decades.

The founder of the Crazy House Band, Ohio-born drummer Tom “Mot” Dutko, had experience with loads of blues stars himself, playing extensively with the likes Jimmy Reed, Homesick James, Big John Wrencher, and Eddie Shaw. Dutko’s band also included guitarist John Edelmann, bassist Ed Galchick, and sometimes pianist Sidney James Wingfield. Thomas was a playful, charismatic front man: when he sang “Somebody Done Changed That Lock on My Door,” he’d take out his keys and shake them, and on Big Bill Broonzy’s “I Feel So Good” (which opens with the line “I got a letter, came to me by mail”), he’d pull an envelope out of his inside jacket pocket.

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Little Al Thomas made his album debut in 1999 with South Side Story, backed by the Crazy House Band.

Thomas had already been a south-side celebrity for decades when he finally released his first album, the 1999 Cannonball Records release South Side Story. He’s backed by the Crazy House Band and a three-piece sax section from the late Floyd McDaniel’s band the Blues Swingers: Dave Clark (tenor), Van Kelly (baritone), and Paul Mundy (alto). The album earned rave reviews, and in 2000 Thomas played the Chicago Blues Festival. He also toured with the Crazy House Band along the east coast, all the way from Maine to Key West. 

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Little Al Thomas performs at the Chicago Blues Festival in 2000. His backing band includes Johnny Drummer on keytar.

The group also traveled to Europe, and in 2000 they appeared at the Lucerne Blues Festival in Switzerland, recording a live set that came out in 2002 on German label CrossCut as In the House. Thomas released the album Not My Warden in 2010 with a group called the Deep Down Fools, consisting of Edelmann and Galchick from the Crazy House Band with drummer Marty Binder and keyboardist Rob Waters. That same year they backed him at the Telluride Blues & Brews Festival in Colorado.

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Little Al Thomas sings “Anger Heats My House” on his 2010 album with the Deep Down Fools.

Thomas was beloved as much for his big personality as for his big, warm, smooth-but-raw voice. He loved the French Quarter in New Orleans and visited every year. He also liked to wear a cowboy hat, perhaps a nod to his interest in old western movies—he was a special fan of Randolph Scott and could identify Scott’s favorite horse, Stardust.

At age 86, Thomas was inducted into the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame, but a few years later he died of complications of old age on February 19, 2020, in the Prairie Shores Apartments where he lived. He was survived by his wife Edwina and interred at Lincoln Cemetery at 123rd and Kedzie, where many famous Black Chicagoans are buried—including lots of blues and jazz musicians. Crazy House Band guitarist John Edelmann might’ve summed up Thomas’s talent best in the Sun-Times obit: “Al had just this sort of combination of real grit and elegance when he sang.” May he be remembered as a true voice of Chicago blues by all who’ve heard him.

The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 5 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.


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