Ian Thomas: A career spanning five decades

By Dave Flaherty/Active Senior’s Digest

As he enters his fifth decade in the music industry, Ian Thomas is showing no signs of slowing down.

The veteran Canadian singer-songwriter is returning to Oshawa’s Regent Theatre on Sunday, Nov. 10, at 8 p.m.

“I love that theatre, and the audiences in Oshawa are great. Even though it’s a reasonably-sized theatre, it has a real intimate vibe,” Thomas tells Senior’s Active Digest. “And it actually sounds good…there are a lot of theatres that certainly weren’t designed by people with an ear for sound.”

Thomas has seen his share of stadiums, music halls, and theatres, having toured across Canada, the U.S., and Europe countless times as a solo artist, or part of his groups The Boomers and Lunch At Allen’s.

Born in Hamilton, Thomas grew up in the small town of Dundas, Ontario. It was during his teen years his love for music began to cultivate.

In the 1960s, the world was changing dramatically.
The Second World War was almost two decades old, and many young people were asking for peace – particularly through song.

“I was quite impressed with the whole folk scene in the 60s. It drew very heavily on traditional stuff – folklore and older stories,” Thomas recalls.

At the age of 15, Thomas began writing his own songs and instantly became
enamoured with the art.

“I was smitten in some respects,” he says with a laugh.

As the 60s rolled on, and acts such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones rose to fame, Thomas began to be influenced by them as well.

He eventually joined a folk group called the Tranquility Base, which released two singles; one, “If You’re Lookin,” reached #24 on the Canadian charts in 1970.

He recalls he spent most of his Grade 13 year either writing songs or meeting with publishers.

Thomas joined
Murray McLaughlan, Marc Jordan and
Cindy Church in the group, Lunch at Allen’s, in 2004.

Eventually, Jack Feeney, an A & R man and record producer at RCA, got wind of them.

“He started hearing my songs, and hearing my band at that point,” Thomas says.
Thomas made the trip to RCA’s offices in Toronto and signed with the label out of high school.
“It was something I worked away at, and it all just fell together organically.”

Thomas takes a second to note his method of getting signed isn’t likely in today’s industry.
While he believes there are “some amazing young artists” out there, to him, record labels aren’t as willing to give them time to develop.

“They are given one single, and if that single song doesn’t do anything, they are done. A & R is a dead art.”

Despite being signed, Thomas says he had just started a family, and his musical career wasn’t enough to “pay the bills” just yet.

He gained employment as a producer at the CBC, producing several live concerts and transcription recordings.

“It was a wonderful gig. It fed my family, and gave me time to write my first album,” he says.
In 1973, Thomas released the song “Painted Ladies,” which to this day remains his biggest chart hit, reaching #4 on the Canada RPM 100, and #34 on the Billboard Hot 100.

It’s a song with quite a backstory to it.

Early in his career, Thomas notes he often played in some “questionable” locations.
“There was one club that we played in Toronto, I think had go-go dancers – they might have been topless – on each side of the stage. I was playing in some of the seediest establishments in Ontario, and often sharing dressing rooms with strippers,” he says.

Thomas says while “Painted Ladies” was a hit, he does not consider it “his biggest song,” and far from the height of his creativity.

“I was really young, and consequently, I was already tired of that direction by the time it was a hit. I’d already moved on to other stuff,” he says.

He also noted while the song was in the top 10 in most major U.S. cities, it never broke the Top 20 charts.

This provided a lesson about the music industry to the young songwriter.

“It took about $250,000 to cross palms to independent promoters before you would break that Billboard Top 20,” Thomas recalls. “I was a little disheartened by those realities.”

But Thomas forged ahead at a frantic pace, releasing 12 albums between 1973 and 1984.
He had 15 charting singles in Canada in the 1970s and 1980s, including five top 40 hits.

A number of his songs were covered by, and became hits for, other artists such as “Hold On” by Santana, “Runner” by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, “Right Before Your Eyes” by America, and “Chains” by Chicago.

Thomas notes the royalties from these covers probably paid him more than “Painted Ladies” ever did.

“When another artist is investing in your song or investing their career in your song… it’s the ultimate validation,” he says.

In the late 80s, Thomas was working on another solo album, but with the cast of players he was playing, it felt different.

“It was such an interesting cross-section of folks. I thought I really can’t put my name on this as a solo artist,” Thomas explains.

This group eventually became The Boomers, an act that had several hits in the mid-1990s, including You’ve Got To Know (#20), I Feel A Change Coming (#17), and Saving Face (#18).
While the Boomers were received “reasonably well” in Canada, Thomas says this group opened him up to a new audience overseas.

“It just took off organically in Europe,” he says.

The Boomers made a number of successful tours across Europe, which Thomas recalls as a “wonderful experience.”

According to him, having a successful record in Europe is much more rewarding financially for the artist.

“The mechanical licensing fees were three or four times greater. The business in North America is much more ‘mob-run.’ Author rights get some serious consideration in Europe,” he says.

As the new millennium dawned, Thomas, like many other artists from the 1970s and 1980s, eventually disappeared from the Canadian charts.

He admits this reality is difficult to accept at first.

“It affects you as an artist for a while, because you feel completely irrelevant – because you can’t get played on the radio if you are over 35 years old,” he says.

While his live shows are his bread and butter these days, Thomas continues to write and record.

He’s released three albums with Lunch At Allen’s, a project that also includes Murray McLauchlan, Cindy Church, and Marc Jordan.

His last solo album, Little Dreams, was released in 2012. In 2015, he performed with Darcy Hepner and the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra, also recording a CD with them.

Thomas isn’t the only member of his family to make a name in the entertainment business.

His older brother Dave is known for his work on SCTV, especially his duo comedy performances with Rick Moranis as Bob & Doug MacKenzie.

Thomas has added acting to his resume as well, appearing on the popular 1990s CBC program The Red Green Show.

He has also written scores for several movies and television shows, including Strange Brew, which featured his brother’s and Moranis’ iconic brothers, Bob and Doug.

Thomas says he and his brother are “each other’s biggest fans.”

“He’s the quintessential big brother, at least every week we are on the phone just laughing our asses off,” he explains.

Looking ahead to his show at the Regent Theatre, Thomas recently took to Facebook and asked his fans to throw out some songs he hasn’t played recently.

Thomas says he was impressed by some of the choices, including songs he has never performed live.

“I think it will be a fun night. There will be a lot of road stories, a lot of behind the scenes stuff,” the Canadian music icon says. “It’s a pretty solid musical conversation with the audience.”

For more information, visit ianthomas.ca.