A mainstay of Chicago's South Side club scene, sadly, Little Al Thomas recorded just one album for Cannonball Records before the label folded. His 1999 debut album, South Side Story, with the Crazy House Band, was an instant classic from a vocalist who so many people in other parts of the country had never heard. It opens with "Memphis Girl," a horn-heavy classic, and because of a tight-knit band, clever arrangements, and good production values, the album just keeps getting better from there.
Thomas was born in Chicago in 1930 and grew up on historic Maxwell Street, where blues musicians would perform on the sidewalks among the vendors and restaurants. He began singing gospel at the Zion Hill Baptist Church, all the while enjoying and learning from the recordings of Tampa Red, Lonnie Johnson, and John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson. Thomas, nicknamed "Little Al" for his relatively diminutive stature, worked by day in a steel mill and sang in the clubs at night as an avocation. By 1960 he began opening shows for Bobby "Blue" Bland. He spent much of the 1960s and '70s working with guitarist Lacy Gibson, and the pair shared a long residency at the Clock Lounge.
In 1987 he began working regularly with the Crazy House Band at Spitz's on Sunday nights, and the music began to blossom after that. In 1987 drummer Tom "Mot" Dutko founded the Crazy House Band, which also included guitarist John Edelmann, bassist Ed Galchick, and pianist Sidney James Wingfield. For Thomas' debut, they're joined by the Blues Swingers Horns, featuring Dave Clark on tenor sax, Van Kelly on baritone sax, and Paul Mundy on alto sax.
A musician with his own notable blues history, Dutko came to Chicago in the early '70s from Ohio and quickly found a gig with Homesick James. As a drummer in various clubs with Homesick James, he also had the chance to back up Chicago blues legends Jimmy Reed, John Brim, Floyd Jones, Sunnyland Slim, Jimmy Rogers, Eddie Taylor, Jimmy Walker, Big Walter Horton, Billy Branch, and others. In the 1980s Dutko joined saxophonist Eddie Shaw in his touring band as they made their way across America and Europe in a series of van and bus tours.
South Side Story is an incredible debut album, marked by Thomas' passionate, soulful vocals. Presuming that he remains in good health, what Thomas now needs is the chance to record more and establish a touring base outside of Chicago.