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John Charles Thomas: An American Classic

Stilly River Sage 01 Nov 10 - 08:45 PM
Stilly River Sage 02 Nov 10 - 01:54 AM
Chris in Portland 02 Nov 10 - 08:53 AM
Stilly River Sage 02 Nov 10 - 11:06 AM
GUEST,leeneia 02 Nov 10 - 05:11 PM
Stilly River Sage 02 Nov 10 - 05:44 PM
Thomas Stern 09 Nov 10 - 11:07 AM
Stilly River Sage 10 Nov 10 - 11:01 AM
GUEST,guest Swansea 10 Oct 11 - 07:59 AM
Stilly River Sage 10 Oct 11 - 08:42 AM
GUEST,Sam 03 Oct 17 - 12:13 PM
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Subject: John Charles Thomas:
From: Stilly River Sage
Date: 01 Nov 10 - 08:45 PM

A couple of years ago some of you may recall I mentioned a great garage sale find - a bin packed full of classical CDs, top recording houses, and on top of it was a hand lettered sign "ALL Classical Music". For most shoppers, that was tantamount to "don't bother," but as I stood looking at this 30-gallon bin, a woman running the thing approached and said "I'll never sell these. Offer me $20 and you can have the whole thing." I calmly purchased the rest of my items, but since I didn't have $20 with me, I sedately left (not laying rubber as I peeled out for the corner gas station) and got $20. I handed the bill over just as someone else was thinking about looking in the bin. It took two of us to carry it to my truck.

Ever since I've been enjoying the music foolishly cast off by some music educator's family when they cleared his estate. He had comparative versions of various classical and modern composers orchestral and chamber works, and he seems to have also had a fondness for secular choral music and vocal performances. Amazing stuff. And today as I browsed my shelves, I discovered John Charles Thomas.

I'd never heard of him. And as one who grew up in a household with lots of, this surprises me. Because he is really good! I'm a few songs into the CD, an excellent quality production that is taken from his recordings from 1931 - 1941. They did an excellent job of removing what must have been a lot of crackle, considering the age.

The booklet has a brief biography written by Elizabeth Schaaf in 1992. The last few paragraphs sum up his life:

When John Charles Thomas died, he left no insurance and only about $1,000 in cash. Thomas had lived a millionaire's life, with a lavish wine cellar, fine clothes and expensive cars. He quite literally "lived it up." Sadly, John Charles Thomas, a name once a household word, is largely unknown to people born after World War II. As appealing as Thomas' voice is to so many listeners, both his voice and his reputation have always been controversial. For purists, his repertoire lapsed too readily into sentimental and popular songs for it to be ranked among authentic operatic voices. For such critics, the unforgivable incident may have been when Thomas stepped forward for a curtain call at a Chicago Opera performance and sang Home On the Range for the audience. Thomas' broad repertoire reflected both is convictions about music and the commercial realities of classical music in the 1930's. After 1930, the market for records was almost swallowed up by the infant radio. The operatic stars of the 20s (Ponselle, Martinelli, Gigli and de Luca), almost vanished from the RCA catalogue. In ten years, RCA released only a dozen classical arias by Thomas. Today, or even in the 50s, Thomas would be represented in full length recordings from the French and Italian operatic repertoire, perhaps in oratorios, lieder, art songs, and certainly in popular songs. It simply wasn't possible in the 30s and 40s.

Critics of Thomas' repertoire overlook his importance as a patron of American composers. The 1930s and 40s were the golden age of song writing with Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and many others pouring out popular and enduring songs. Some of the finest 20th century American poetry, including lyrics by Langston Hughes, Carl Sandberg, Walt Whitman and Joyce Kilmer, was set to music for him. Their poems were generally life-affirming and bouyant, ideally suited to Thomas' style and his extraordinary sense of fun. Many songs introduced by Thomas, including Home on the Range and The Lord's Prayer, remain familiar to audiences today.


Pardon any typos, I had to transcribe that from the booklet. After typing it in I got smart and did a search. Here's a link to an online version of this essay.

I did a search before starting this, and find reference and fans, but no thread just for this talented fellow. I am listening to the Nimbus Records disc "Prima Voce" (NI 7838) that is mentioned by Q in another Mudcat thread. Don Firth posted a link to a YouTube performance.

Here is the full text to the very nice essay by Elizabeth Schaaf, so it doesn't get lost of the link goes away. And I found some information about Schaaf as well - she's an "urban archaeologist" archivist, apparently. More information here.



PRIMA VOCE
John Charles Thomas
An American Classic

'If I had to choose the four greatest voices I've heard, I would list Thomas along with Caruso, Ponselle and Pinza,' said Frank Chapman in Opera News in 1961.

For decades, John Charles Thomas was the most popular singer in America. A rare singer who could sing 'Boots and Saddles' and Beethoven's In Questa Tomba Oscura with equal aplomb, Thomas had a voice as rich as a cello, the physique of an athlete, and natural charm. He achieved enormous popularity as a matinee idol before achieving success as a concert artist and operatic star. But the stage and radio were only parts of a romantically active life. John Charles Thomas loved automobiles, raced hydroplanes, played a mean game of golf, raised chickens and champion hogs, and was famous for his spaghetti sauce.

This sometimes wild, always entertaining, larger-than-life figure was born in Pennsylvania in 1891. His preacher father was a Welsh coal-miner's son and his mother the daughter of German immigrants. Both parents had extraordinary voices and 'Mother Thomas' (as she was known) became John Charles' first singing teacher. He entered medical school in Baltimore, supporting himself as a soloist and church musician. A fellow church musician suggested that he audition for the prestigious Eaton Scholarship at the 'Peabody Conservatory of Music.' Thomas won the competition but was immediately faced with having to make the choice between medicine and music. Pulling out a coin, he called 'heads for music, tails for medicine' - and music it was! He began his studies at the Peabody Conservatory, studying with Blanche Sylvana Blackman and Dutch baritone Adelin Fermin, who became Thomas' mentor and life-long friend.

In 1912 Thomas auditioned successfully for the part of Passion in George W. Chadwick's Everywoman for a 70 week tour. This period set off the meteoric rise in Thomas' career. His engaging personality, robust good looks, and splendid voice quickly won him an adoring public. Thomas made his Broadway debut in The Passing Show of 1913. He played the part of Franz Schubert in Fritz Kreisler's Apple Blossoms in 1919, a role he would come back to late in his career, and sang in Jacobi's The Love Letter at the Globe Theatre in 1921. He became good friends with the brother and sister dancing team who appeared with him in these last two shows, Fred and Adele Astaire, who were just beginning to make their way to the top. By the start of the Roaring Twenties, Thomas had become Broadway's leading matinee idol, commanding astronomical salaries with his name emblazoned on Broadway marquees in letters two feet high.

Thomas, growing weary of performing the same music day after day, turned his back on Broadway to pursue a career on the concert stage. He made his concert debut in New York winning high praise from critics. In 1922, he went to Europe and made his London debut with Tetrazzini. 1924 was a banner year for John Charles Thomas: on the eve of President Coolidge's inauguration, he made his operatic debut in Washington as Amonasro in Aida, made his Carnegie Hall debut and then sailed to Europe to work on his operatic repertoire. After auditioning at the Royal Opera in Brussels at the urging of Adelin Fermin, Thomas was engaged to sing all the principal baritone roles. He proved such a success that his contract was extended for fifteen roles over three seasons, including the world premiere performance of Milhaud's Les Malheurs d'Orphée and the Brussels' premieres of Salome and Returning to America, John Charles Thomas devoted his time to concerts and sang leading roles for opera companies in Philadelphia, San Francisco and Los Angeles. His debut with the Chicago Opera as Tonio in their 1930 production of Pagliacci was a resounding success, causing the biggest demonstration at the house since the debut of Galli-Curci. Thomas made his Metropolitan debut in 1934 as Germont in La Traviata with Rosa Ponselle. That same year he was made a Cavaliere of the Crown of Italy. For the next decade, Thomas' career was at its peak. In addition to his opera performances and frequent radio broadcasts, he sang over seventy recitals a year in towns and cities all across the country, touring nine months out of each year.

A milestone in Thomas' career was the series of 'Five Song Recitals' at New York's Town Hall opening in 1939 with a programme of French vocal literature. A second recital was devoted to songs of the British Isles and early in 1940, Thomas sang a recital of Italian art songs. His fourth programme, just two weeks later, consisted entirely of German Lieder. The series concluded in March with works by American composers. A Texas cowboy song, arranged by David Guion, receiving its New York premiere, brought a surprisingly enthusiastic response from the audience. Sung in broad prairie dialect, Home on the Range became a John Charles Thomas standard. Robert Lawrence, critic for the New York Herald Tribune, wrote that 'John Charles Thomas scored one of his greatest triumphs.'

At the start of John Charles Thomas' career, the recording industry was in its infancy and commercial radio broadcasting was still on the horizon. The growth of his career coincided with the coming of age of these powerful industries. Thomas began recording for the Edison Company and Rex Records in 1914. In 1931, he began his long and successful association with RCA Victor's prestigious Red Seal Records. Victor had succeeded in becoming as pre-eminent among phonographs as the Steinway was among pianos. The Red Seal records were reserved for the aristocracy of the musical world (no 'popular' artists were recorded on the label). They were expensive - selling for a staggering $3.00 in 1910 when you could get a first class meal for a dollar. A collection of Red Seal recordings established one as a person of both taste and property.

As an already established radio singer, Thomas began broadcasting for the fledgling National Broadcasting Company (NBC) in 1927. Songs recorded by Thomas or sung live on the airwaves immediately made their way into the mainstream of American popular cultural (a fact not lost on the composers who sent him their compositions). John Charles Thomas' long recording and broadcasting career made him a favourite in homes across the country. He saw radio and the recording industry to maturity, and, in the process, won the hearts of ordinary Americans who had never entered an opera house or a concert hall.

Thomas' involvement in radio and his career at the Metropolitan involved a delicate balancing act. During the first two months of 1943, Thomas sang seven performances with the Metropolitan starting with Faust in January, then Giving up Grand Opera did not mean giving up music. During the 1947-48 season, Thomas took on a 40,000 mile concert tour to sing in 110 concerts throughout the United States in addition to a triumphant twelve week tour of Australia and New Zealand. Theatres sold out weeks in advance and additional concerts were scheduled in town after town. In the days before commercial flying made transversing the country an everyday occurrence, touring was a gruelling business that meant hours aboard transcontinental trains and weeks aboard ships. One of Thomas' managers complained of sleeping in a Pullman berth for 54 consecutive nights. For Thomas, the rigours of touring were balanced by the excitement of capacity audiences and standing ovations in city after city. His last big concert tour, the 1952-53 season, was accomplished in high style, travelling to 50 cities across the continent in a private railroad car.

When John Charles Thomas died, he left no insurance and only about $1.000 in cash. Thomas had lived a millionaire's life, with a lavish wine cellar, fine clothes and expensive cars. He quite literally 'lived it up.' Sadly, John Charles Thomas, a name once a household word, is largely unknown to people born after World War II. As appealing as Thomas' voice is to so many listeners, both his voice and his reputation have always been controversial. For purists, his repertoire lapsed too readily into sentimental and popular songs for it to be ranked among authentic operatic voices. For such critics, the unforgivable incident may have been when Thomas stepped forward for a curtain call at a Chicago Opera performance and sang Home on the Range for the audience. Thomas' broad repertoire reflected both his convictions about music and the commercial realities of classical music in the 1930s. After 1930, the market for records was almost swallowed up by the infant radio. The operatic stars of the 20s (Ponselle, Martinelli, Gigli and de Luca), almost vanished from the RCA catalogue. In ten years, RCA released only a dozen classical arias by Thomas. Today, or even in the 50s Thomas would be represented in full length recordings from the French and Italian operatic repertoire, perhaps in oratorios, lieder, art songs, and certainly in popular songs. It simply wasn't possible in the 30s and 40s.

Critics of Thomas' repertoire overlook his importance as a patron of American composers. The 1930s and 40s were the golden age of song writing with Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and many others pouring out popular and enduring songs. Some of the finest 20th century American poetry, including lyrics by Langston Hughes, Carl Sandberg, Walt Whitman and Joyce Kilmer, was set to music for him. Their poems were generally life-affirming and buoyant, ideally suited to Thomas' style and his extraordinary sense of fun. Many songs introduced by Thomas, including Home on the Range and The Lord's Prayer, remain familiar to audiences today.

While other singers of his generation made their reputation on the operatic and concert stage, and a few found fame in Hollywood, none achieved the broad popularity in grand opera, concert, light opera, radio and recordings as did Thomas. This much-loved virtuoso was possessed of a special gift: men and women, rich and poor, the cultured urban dweller or the farmer in the fields, could see in John Charles Thomas something of themselves. The things he liked to do were the things that most people liked doing - playing golf, going to baseball games, boating, fishing and telling a good story. Thomas not only dreamed about these things, he actually lived them, and lived them superbly.


© 1992 Elizabeth Schaaf


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Subject: RE: John Charles Thomas: An American Classic
From: Stilly River Sage
Date: 02 Nov 10 - 01:54 AM

Maybe the fact that this man had three first names renders him of no interest to modern day Mudcatters?

(Running it back up to the top)


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Subject: RE: John Charles Thomas: An American Classic
From: Chris in Portland
Date: 02 Nov 10 - 08:53 AM

When I was growing up in the 50's, my mother had her Bing Crosby records, but my Dad stuck with JCT's records. Was Mr. Thomas Welsh?
If so, that may explain my Dad's interest. But I do remember being impressed with his voice. Both he and Paul Robeson would be on the top of my list for great singers of this style.
Chris in Portland.


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Subject: RE: John Charles Thomas: An American Classic
From: Stilly River Sage
Date: 02 Nov 10 - 11:06 AM

I think his father was a Welsh immigrant and his mother a German immigrant. The essay gave an overview; I wonder if there is more written about him somewhere? In that brief story it looked like he'd be a great subject for a movie. Or a documentary. ;)


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Subject: RE: John Charles Thomas: An American Classic
From: GUEST,leeneia
Date: 02 Nov 10 - 05:11 PM

Thanks for the post, SRS. You inspired me to go to YouTube and search for John Charles Thomas. There are a number of his recordings, both operatic and popular, to be found there.

I'd never heard his voice, but my husband has often mentioned that John Charles Thomas was a favorite singer for his family. About time I got up to speed, right?

My favorite on YouTube was 'Abide with Me.'


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Subject: RE: John Charles Thomas: An American Classic
From: Stilly River Sage
Date: 02 Nov 10 - 05:44 PM

You can preview the songs on the CD I mentioned at Amazon, and they sell the mp3s of those songs for 99 cents each.

He had a humble background, a rich music heritage, a larger-than-life demeanor, a non-conformist attitude, what a great story! I'd love to know more about him.


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Subject: RE: John Charles Thomas: An American Classic
From: Thomas Stern
Date: 09 Nov 10 - 11:07 AM

note this connection with JJN

http://www.john-jacob-niles.com/gambling_songs.htm

best wishes, Thomas.


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Subject: RE: John Charles Thomas: An American Classic
From: Stilly River Sage
Date: 10 Nov 10 - 11:01 AM

Here's that link:

http://www.john-jacob-niles.com/gambling_songs.htm

There's quite a bit of information on that page. It starts with

The Gambling Songs were written by my father, John Jacob Niles, at the request of the famous baritone John Charles Thomas. John Charles Thomas, who had a very distinguished Metropolitan Opera Company of New York, became very well known with the American public on the radio. His renditions of "Annie Laurie" or "On the Road to Mandalay" were very popular with the radio audiences.


It goes on to talk about how the two worked together on some songs for Mr. Thomas, and other Niles side stories. An interesting read.


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Subject: RE: John Charles Thomas: An American Classic
From: GUEST,guest Swansea
Date: 10 Oct 11 - 07:59 AM

John Charles Thomas is featured singing "open road" on the current Audi tv Ad (Oct 2011). I was not previously aware of JCT but carried out a search as his voice sounded Welsh.


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Subject: RE: John Charles Thomas: An American Classic
From: Stilly River Sage
Date: 10 Oct 11 - 08:42 AM

Interesting! I wonder if Audi just lifted it or if there is an estate they paid? I'll have to listen for it. Did you hear this ad in the UK?


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Subject: RE: John Charles Thomas: An American Classic
From: GUEST,Sam
Date: 03 Oct 17 - 12:13 PM

I ws fortunate to study voice briefly with Blanch Blackman, JCT's teacher at Peabody. She had an enormous photo of Thomas on her piano but at the time I was only 15 and didn't appreciate the significance of my opportunity. I thought Thomas was the greatest singer I had ever heard and listened faithfully every Sunday afternoon to his program, learning his favorite songs by heart. He and Paul Robeson are my favorites of all time.


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