Eddie Thomas was one of Chicago’s greatest music promoters, and he might’ve been the most humble. While his name is linked in more ways than one to Curtis Mayfield’s, throughout the 1960s and 1970s he guided myriad R&B and disco artists through the process of making records and getting them played. When I talked to Thomas about his life, he frequently and freely offered wide-ranging advice. He never bragged. The gold and platinum albums on his walls spoke for themselves.
Those awards lined his office, located in a converted garage attached to his home in the Edgebrook neighborhood. The house Thomas shared with his wife Verlene was welcoming and unassuming, like their personalities. During my research on Chicago soul music, I spent several hours with them, and our interviews evolved into a family friendship. So his death on July 26—just a few months before his 90th birthday in November—hit hard.
Thomas had the quiet strength to guide him through a tough business, and he had the insight to see beyond unfortunate circumstances into the better future that could spring from them. Some would call that managing fate, but Thomas chalked it up to faith.
Thomas relied on that fortitude early on. When he graduated from Wendell Phillips High School in 1950, he’d been accepted into West Point—an accomplishment in and of itself, which would have launched him on a military career. But then his stepfather, blues pianist Big Maceo Merriweather, suffered a stroke, and Thomas had to start making money to help support his family’s household. Alongside a series of day jobs, he parked cars at the Chez Paree nightclub.
A chance encounter there shifted Thomas’s trajectory. One night, a doo-wop group called the Medallionaires approached him, believing that he could get them a gig at the glamorous venue—an impossibility for a valet. He did sign on as their manager, though, and talked Mercury Records into releasing their 1958 single “Magic Moonlight.” When the Medallionaires performed at a talent show in the field house of Cabrini-Green’s Seward Park, Thomas talked to the winners—a group of young men who were calling themselves the Roosters.
“The Roosters came over to me and said, ‘We see you all the time at Seward Park. We need a manager,’” Thomas recalled. “I said, ‘I got my hands full with this group,’ and they said, ‘Naw, you can handle us.’ So I ended up managing the Roosters. And I said, ‘You guys got a beautiful sound, you won the contest, but you should change your name. When I met you, I was very impressed with your sound, so why not change your name to the Impressions?’”
Thomas walked the Impressions in and out of the many record-company offices that lined Record Row on South Michigan in the late 1950s. They signed to Vee-Jay, which released the stunning “For Your Precious Love” in 1958. This was a short-lived victory, though, because the label credited the single to Jerry Butler & the Impressions. That billing, which elevated one member above the rest, contributed to the quintet’s dissolution—the other four hadn’t thought of the group that way, and they felt slighted. While Butler went solo, Thomas urged the Impressions to reassemble and feature their lead singer, guitarist, and composer, the teenage Curtis Mayfield.
Mayfield was 19 years old in 1961, when the Impressions reunited and he and Thomas combined their names (Curt and Tom) to christen their own new publishing company, called Curtom. Even though Mayfield’s songwriting skills were blooming, Thomas ran into closed doors at New York-based major labels until ABC-Paramount gave the Impressions a chance with “Gypsy Woman” later that year.
“It was just inconceivable to them then that a Black group from Cabrini-Green in Chicago would come up with singing about a Gypsy woman—they couldn’t put it together,” Thomas said. “And I was trying in vain to let them know that Curtis is gifted, this comes from his head right to him.”
Soon enough, the world did hear the gifts that Mayfield and the Impressions had to share. Thomas saw to it. Without a guidebook, financial resources, or a marketing degree, he drove across the country promoting those 45s and albums to DJs. He forged so many connections that ABC-Paramount soon had him promoting its other artists, including marquee names such as Ray Charles. But this didn’t dilute the attention he paid to the Impressions, even in the studio—Thomas’s wife at the time, Audrey, can be heard singing on the 1968 Impressions hit “We’re a Winner.”
Shortly after its release, Thomas and Mayfield established Curtom Records at 8541 S. Stony Island (both had also run such short-lived labels as Windy-C, Mayfield, and Thomas). As company president, Thomas continued doing the job he knew best.
“We didn’t have the Brink’s truck out front, that was the basic challenge,” Thomas said. “But I’ve always been a fighter, infighter, low profile. And some of the jocks appreciated that, that warmth, that cordiality. That helped me a lot. Some felt sorry for me too. I lived on the road, seven days a week. Whatever little money I had, I’d send some records [to them]. And I knew their families, I knew their kids. My life was on the road.”
The Impressions were Curtom’s primary group, but a number of the company’s other artists also became popular at the time (or recognized years later). Donny Hathaway worked at the label in various capacities, but as Thomas put it, Mayfield and that prodigy “were two powers and couldn’t unite their powers.” He fondly remembered the charismatic yet ill-fated soul-rock singer Baby Huey, who died in 1970 during the recording of his band’s sole album, The Baby Huey Story: The Living Legend. Curtom’s second-biggest act was the Five Stairsteps, a family band that lived near the office and made the most of such Mayfield compositions as “Don’t Change Your Love.”
Thomas also stood apart from typical late-60s record company executives, according to singer Holle Thee Maxwell (aka Holly Maxwell), whose voice soared on the 1969 Curtom single “Suffer.”
“I loved Eddie because he was all business,” Maxwell says. “He would also take an interest in the artist aside from music—how we were getting along. A lot of Black female artists had to lay down on the couch back then, and he was never like that. He never disrespected my talent as a Black woman. Eddie was very upstanding, and that was rare.”
Looking back, Thomas saw how what Curtom accomplished during his years there reflected bigger changes in American society. He remarked that the power of the company’s music could be seen in cultural shifts big and small, right down to the makeup of radio playlists. Curtom’s work producing, releasing, and distributing popular music by many Black artists ran concurrently with Mayfield’s consciousness-raising lyrics.
“WLS was a pop station, and as a rule they played pop artists, white artists, predominantly,” Thomas said. “When you got the white kids listening to [R&B], they’re picking it up. They’re calling into the station and saying, ‘I want to hear the Five Stairsteps.’ So the pop stations were sort of forced into it. The market was changing with the whites listening to the music.”
Civil rights organizations and Black educational institutions noted these contributions. One of the accolades on Thomas’s wall was a 1968 plaque from the Congress for Racial Equality, along with a citation that it designated as a “Recipient Award in Recognition for your efforts for black people.”
“That’s the music that we were making, giving people so much to hold onto, so much inspiration to push and persevere,” Thomas said. “That’s a key factor. Some people gave their lives for what they believed in.”
By the early 1970s, Thomas and Mayfield had mutually decided to separate. Mayfield had gone solo and brought on Marv Stuart (aka Marv Heiman) as his operational partner. Thomas worked on Mayfield’s smash Superfly soundtrack in 1972, but he was no longer part of Curtom—he formed his own promotion company, Thomas Associates, which remained on the south side while Curtom moved north.
Along with publicizing records for major and minor labels, Thomas partnered with recording-studio owner Paul Serrano in his all-in-one management, publicity, and promotion firm Art Productions, which guided local artists for a few years in the early 1970s. They helped put together vocal group the Independents, who had a hit in 1973 with “Leaving Me.” Not at all by coincidence, Chuck Jackson and Marvin Yancy, who sang with the group and cowrote most of its repertoire, had come out of Jerry Butler’s famous songwriters’ workshop. Thomas laughed when he said, “Jerry never forgets that we stole his act!”
Thomas also encouraged young people who wanted to get involved in the industry behind the scenes. One of these was Donald Burnside, who became a producer and arranger for the likes of Captain Sky and Yvonne Gage in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
“When I was a kid, I used to come down to Thomas Associates because I wanted to get into the record business,” Burnside said in 2014. “I had been coming down, and Eddie and his son gave me an envelope and said, ‘Drop this off at the bank.’ It was a wad of money, almost $10,000. I was shaking—I knew these people less than a month and they trusted me to put that money in the bank. They said, ‘We know your character.’”
They also knew how to read upcoming trends. In the mid-1970s, Thomas got a call from Al Coury, president of RSO Records, asking for help with a forthcoming album. RSO felt sure it would get airplay on white pop stations but asked him to promote it on what Thomas called “the other side of the fence,” meaning Black radio. That album was the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever. Thomas received a platinum record as a reward for that advocacy on behalf of the Bee Gees.
The music business in that era had more than its share of egomaniacs, but Thomas put collective goals ahead of individual ambitions when he founded and ran the late-1970s DJ pool the Dogs of War. Eventually including about 400 DJs of mixed backgrounds from across the city and suburbs, the pool allowed DJs to receive advance releases and work as a team in getting them club and radio play. One of the records that the Dogs of War boosted was the 1977 release “Do Ya Wanna Get Funky With Me” by Blue Island native Peter Brown, one of the first widely successful 12-inch singles.
The Dogs of War also provided solidarity as the always mercurial world of clubland went through big musical transitions. Funk and disco coexisted as a backlash against disco arose, especially in the midwest, and house would soon emerge in Chicago. When Thomas reminisced, he preferred to focus on the good times.
“We had so many jocks, we had to rent a place in the McCormick to have meetings,” Thomas said. “I went to different clubs and would talk to the DJs and let them know they would get their product fresh, before the record stores. We bought a building on 21st and Michigan where our product came in. We had great parties with a disco light in back of the garage. They’d be dancing before they came in the door.”
Thomas had endeavors outside music, including a limousine service he operated primarily in the 1970s. But that business he built in part from his entertainment contacts: clients included Elton John, Smokey Robinson, and Liberace. He eventually stepped away from the everyday duties of running companies to care for Audrey, who died of cancer in 1996.
About a year after Audrey’s passing, Thomas met Verlene at a downtown fundraiser for the Alzheimer’s Association. As she told it, a photographer from the Chicago Defender shot a picture of the two of them, presuming they were a couple—and they quickly became one. Both Thomases produced Eddie’s 2005 return to promoting music, a short self-released smooth-jazz CD, I Won’t Be Lonely Anymore, under the name the ET Group. This album was a family affair: former Independents singer Maurice Jackson cowrote the tracks, Eddie’s son Alvin Thomas helped produce it, and another son, Tao Shih, designed the logo (Thomas had six sons and two daughters).
“Family” epitomized Thomas’s outlook. Verlene was always at his side, except on some of his daily trips to the gym. Physical endurance must have contributed to Thomas’s longevity. So did spirituality, which was reflected in his Catholic wake and Baptist funeral earlier this month. Throughout his life, Thomas saw to it that everyone around him benefited from those beliefs.
“We had the Man Upstairs,” Thomas said. “He knew we were on the right track, trying to help people, and not interested in making our heads bigger but making lives better for other people. So He blessed us.”