It took a lot of courage for Mickey Thomas to take on the daunting task of replacing not one, but two iconic voices in the already successful Jefferson Starship band back in the late '70s. On top of that, there was the other problem — the group's reputation for internal fighting that could have seen any other prospect opting for less volatile employment.
But the guy with the soaring vocals took a chance, let his talent speak for itself and the San Francisco band flew to the top of the music charts throughout the '80s.
Thomas' voice had also lead the Elvin Bishop Band to fame in 1976 with his compelling lead vocals on “Fooled Around and Fell in Love.” In both cases, it was Jefferson Starship and Elvin Bishop who were the recognizable names, not so much the man behind the voice.
Thomas has never had it easy. Going in as lead singer for Jefferson Starship, he had to replace Marty Balin and Grace Slick. Then there was the awkwardness of having to share the stage with Slick when she rejoined the group after a couple of years.
The real pressure, too, was in the fact the sound was such a musical departure from what Thomas had done before, but it was Thomas’ approach that inspired Starship to take a fresh look at their music and it was like starting over for both parties.
That’s where the title of the first album he recorded with them came from, Freedom at Point Zero. Thomas toured and recorded with the band for seven years. So, when you think of “Sara,” “Jane,” “We Built This City,” and “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” you should be thinking Mickey Thomas.
"Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" and "Sara" were included on Starship's pivotal album, Knee Deep in the Hoopla, an album that was among those that helped define the '80s. It debuted at No. 1, at a time when album-oriented radio was big and to take that top spot right out of the gate was huge.
Not only was album-oriented radio becoming the thing, technology was also changing drastically, giving music not only a bigger voice, but a face to go with it, all because of the music video.
In the mid-’90s, after Jefferson Starship had been dry-docked for a couple of years, Thomas decided to get back into the tour bus and get back on the stage. This time, he wanted everyone to know that his was the voice that led Starship through its second round of monster hits. Thus, he launched Starship featuring Mickey Thomas and began a tour and a second career that continues today. In addition to Thomas, the band includes Stephanie Calvert (vocals), Phil Bennett (keyboards and background vocals), Jeff Adams (bass and background vocals), Darrell Verdusco (drums) and John Roth (guitar and background vocals).
Starship and Thomas return to the Edgewater's E Center on Saturday, July 27. We talked with Thomas about his career, the music and the show he brings back to town. Here's his take…
Starship recorded a new album in 2013, Loveless Fascination, which was the first new project since 1989.
It's a good one, I'm real happy with the way it turned out. It didn't really get quite the recognition I had hoped but that's kind of true for most artists of my ilk, from the '70s and '80s artists that put out new stuff. People still just want to hear the classic songs that they've heard over the years over and over and over again — that's what they want.
You worked with Jeff Pilson (Dokken, Foreigner) on the project. What does he bring to the table?
He's a great guy, really talented, tons of energy, and was really a blast working with him. We really wanted it to sound and feel more like a '70s album, or an '80s or '90s album. We wanted to go back to the feeling of just guys playing live together in the studio, you know, and give it more of that '70s rock vibe. I think we accomplished that pretty well. He's able to also capture that feel and that time. Even with songs that are new, Jeff has a talent — he can write a song and it sounds like something you've heard a hundred times, even though you've never heard it.
You're of the era where power vocals were a must. Every group had that signature lead guy and people recognized the band by the voice. Where in the world did your voice and your approach come from?
I listened to a lot of soul artists in the '60s, rhythm and blues, and then I sang with a gospel singer for a while in the early '70s. I think my style is sort of a hybrid of soul, gospel — and some Beatles run in there too. It's kind of a weird hybrid, but it works.
Starship was a big part of the MTV era of the music video. All of a sudden you didn't just have to sing into a microphone, they were filming you and that had to be a bit uncomfortable.
It was very complicated when that whole era came along because there were a lot of things about it that were really fun and really creative, then there were a lot of things about it that were kind of tedious, and then difficult after a while. If you put out a single, you had to put out a video and the budgets for the videos just kept expanding, and expanding. So all of a sudden, you're spending a quarter of a million dollars on a video for a song. You know, early on it was really, really fun. We were fortunate in the fact that the manager of Starship was close friends with one of the guys who started MTV back in the day, a guy by the name of Les Garland. So we had a pretty good in at MTV. Les is also the DJ voice on "We Built This City." On the one hand, sometimes it's better to let people listen to a song and interpret it the way they hear it in their own head, rather than picturing it for them, which they had to do with the videos quite often. When I look back, I wonder, "Jesus, who dressed us?" Why did we let them? I was a T-shirt and jeans kind of guy but I look back at some of these videos and see all these poofy shirts and shoulder pads and baggy pants, I'm like, "Who's that guy?" But overall I would say it was a fun experience.
Starship music is featured everywhere: Glee, Guardians of the Galaxy, Rock of Ages, etc. What do you think about that?
I think it's great. It's so cool to me when the first Guardians of the Galaxy came out. It turned out not only to be a huge movie, but the soundtrack was the biggest record of the year, too. Having a song like "Fooled Around and Fell in Love" on there was really cool for me because it introduced that song to a whole new younger generation that never really heard it before. My son was about 18 when the first movie came out, I heard when he and his buddies went to see Guardians of the Galaxy and the song came on he said, "That's my dad!" But I love that. It keeps songs alive. "Fooled Around" has been in a lot of movies over the years, I would say at least a dozen and then "Nothing's Gonna Stop us Now," keeps popping up in movies occasionally, and so does "We Built This City." Movies just keep the songs alive and keep them fresh in some people's memories, and introduces them to new audiences.
Did you ever think you'd still be doing this, what, 40 years later?
I was never one of those who said, "well, you can't do this past age 30, and you can't do this past 40," especially watching the Rolling Stones over the years. Well, they're into their 60s and their 70s now, but I probably imagined honestly that I would be doing it into my 50s, but probably not much beyond that. But now that I am still doing it, it's like, "yeah, great, I can still do it." I feel good, my voice is OK, I'm having fun, and the band is great. I love performing with these guys every night. Sometimes people say, when are you going to retire? I'm like, Why? Why would I do that when I'm having so much fun doing what I'm doing and I can still do it? It doesn't make any sense to me.
Do you ever think how daunting a task it was just to become a member of Starship? The band was volatile and had a lot of internal problems before you were even there, yet you seemed to be a target, and you stepped into seriously big shoes. The fact you survived and thrived in spite of all that is pretty amazing.
It took me a while to actually decide to join the band when the opportunity first presented itself because of all the reasons you just said. First of all, I'm coming out of the Elvin Bishop Band. My whole background is soul and blues and R&B and gospel, and Jefferson Starship, which at that time was coming out of the Marty Balin mid-'70s era of " Miracles" and "Runaway" and these kind of pivotal ballads — plus all the turmoil we heard about and read about associated with the band. The whole reason I had the opportunity to get into the band, of course, was because Grace Slick and Marty had both left, and they took a lot of the turmoil with them when they left. Then, the drummer at that time, John Barbata, got in a really bad car crash. He was disabled for a while, so Aynsley Dunbar was on drums as a new member and he joined right before I did. We were two new guys coming in at the same time, and that made it easy for both of us I think.
Once I started hanging out with the guys and seeing where they were at musically and what they wanted to do, I realized, "oh, they want to completely reinvent this stuff, they want to come out with something totally fresh and totally new." We started jamming out on "Jane," and I thought, "well, this is pretty cool." Also, I knew no matter how good the album was or how popular "Jane" was, that when we started touring it was gonna be rough because people were gonna go, "Where's Marty? Where's Grace? " They're both such iconic singers from the '60s and the '70s, so I was prepared for that. The band made it a lot easier, because everybody's mindset at that point was we're just going to come out as if we're a new band and we're just trying to build up our audience from the ground up. Then, after a couple of years, Grace came back, and that was cool. Then we recorded and toured together for about seven or eight years and that was a great experience. She was in a different mindset by the time she came back to the band.
Is there an accolade or achievement that means the most to you?
Performing at the Academy Awards. It was a big thing for me because I'm a big movie fan. As a matter of fact, when I was in high school, I wanted to be an actor before I thought about getting into music, so I've always followed movies and actors. Performing at the Academy Awards and seeing a lot of the actors that I loved, had grown up with and admired, then getting to see a lot of those folks up close and personal and performing for that audience was very daunting and very special and it's something I'll never forget.
Talk about the show this time. Do you still do the Elvin Bishop stuff?
We'll definitely have "Fooled Around and Fell in Love" in there. I have to do that one every night. It’s still one of my favorite songs to sing on stage because it's a real nice change of pace for me in the course of the show where I can take a breath and get back to my roots a little bit — get a little bluesy. We do a thing in the middle of the show where our female vocalist, Stephanie Calvert, and I do a medley, which is kind of a tribute to the earlier history of the band where we do a couple of the Grace songs like "White Rabbit" and "Somebody to Love," and I do some "Miracles" and "Count on Me." Of course, there's all the Starship stuff — "Jane," "We Built This City," "Sara," "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now." And this band is a very energetic group of guys and gal. We have a lot of fun on stage, and they keep me inspired.