Lee O Thomas: Reggae's man in Chicago


Lee O Thomas: Reggae's man in Chicago

Observer senior writer

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

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CHICAGO. The Windy City, hometown of Barack Obama, soul music, and the blues. Since the 1970s, it has been home to a flourishing reggae scene, and one of its go-to men is Lee O Thomas.

Born and bred in Chicago, Thomas was a booking agent and promoter for 30 years at Exedus II and the Wild Hare, two of the city's best-known reggae venues.

He is “still in it, back and forth” but has stayed out of the limelight for the last six years.

Though Chicago is not as busy as New York or Los Angeles, Thomas told the Jamaica Observer recently that its reggae beat is far from dormant.

“Reggae was big in Chicago because of the clubs. Like jazz and the lues, people want to see reggae artistes because it's live music; they love sound systems but they want to see a band,” he said.

Thomas got into the music business 40 years ago booking soul and blues acts like Little Milton, Syl Johnson, BB King and Buddy Guy. By the early 1980s, he was working with the Wild Hare, a former country and western club, signing top reggae acts to perform there.

His first clients were Freddie McGregor and Michigan and Smiley, followed by Canadabased band Messenjah.

The Wild Hare had competition from slightly bigger venues like Negril which hosted Mutabaruka, Burning Spear, The Mighty Diamonds, Big Youth, The Wailing Souls and Pablo Moses.

Other venues in Chicago that attracted reggae acts back in the 1980s were The Park West, The Aragon and The Rivera which seated up to 1,000 patrons. Marquee artistes like Black Uhuru and Dennis Brown were able to fill those locations.

The dreadlocked Thomas remembers a typical Chicago reggae show in the early days.

“The crowd was all white and if there wasn't a dreadlocks with an accent on the stage, they would turn around [and leave],” he said.

Thomas' family migrated to Chicago from Texas and Oklahoma. He grew up there during the 1960s when blacks were marginalised by racial and social prejudice, but found solace listening to soul music and the blues.

It was not until 1974 that he discovered Jamaican music. This came while riding the train one day and getting acquainted with a Rastafarian who had a copy of The Wailers' Burnin' album.

“What struck me most was what he [Bob Marley] was saying. It was just good music. Then I got deeper into Bob and Rasta culture,” Thomas recalled.

As his fondness for reggae grew, Thomas began listening to Inner Circle, Third World, Culture, Burning Spear, Peter Tosh, and Dennis Brown.

He became an established 'booker' for the Wild Hare and Exodus Two, but also worked the reggae circuit in other Midwest cities such as Milwaukee and St Louis where artistes like Eek A Mouse and Yellowman drew strong audiences.

Chicago retains a thriving blues market, while acts like R Kelly and Kanye West have helped keep the soul legacy of Curtis Mayfield, The Chi-Lites and Donny Hathaway alive.

Reggae, according to Lee O Thomas, still holds its own. “To this day it's still big. It all depends on the act,” he said.

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