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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,167

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This is the grave of Marvell Thomas.

Born in 1941 in Memphis, Thomas grew up around music and the church. His father was the legendary Rufus Thomas and his sister the almost equally legendary Carla. Marvell might not have reached the fame of his family, but that doesn’t mean he’s not worth discussing in a series such as this. He became an excellent piano player from the time he was a boy and that soon moved into the professional recording world that was thriving in his home town. He was in the studio by 1958 working on other people’s music, though there was a military stint in there.

Thomas became the house keyboardist for Stax in its early years. He played on a number of major early Stax hits. That includes The Triumphs’ “Burnt Biscuits,” William Bell’s “Don’t Miss Your Water,” and Rufus and Carla Thomas’ “Cause I Love You,” which was the first big hit Stax had.

Thomas would remain in demand for most of his life. If you were a soul singer and you needed a great keyboardist for your studio session, Thomas was an excellent choice. Perhaps his most prominent studio work was on Isaac Hayes’ Hot Buttered Soul, one of the all-time classics of the genre. But he appeared with everyone–The Staples Singers, Johnnie Taylor, Etta James, Albert King, Mavis Staples solo albums, Little Milton, the list goes on and on. He toured as well, most notably with The Temptations.

The studio musician is one of the most underrated type of people in the world. Nothing happens with great music without them. There’s been a bit more attention paid to the world’s great studio musicians in recent years. One example is the 2008 documentary The Wrecking Crew. Another is the 2002 film Standing in the Shadows of Motown. This has brought some attention to some great musicians. But most of them, even the very best, are largely forgotten. One of the many great things about the recent season of Tyler Mahan Coe’s astounding country podcast Cocaine and Rhinestones was his very deep dive into the Nashville A Team, the collection of a few dozen musicians who provided the sound to a genre of music that doesn’t give a lot of attention to the non-singing musicians. But there are just so many and they are unknown. Even though he came from a famous musical family, Marvell Thomas is one of them. Thomas’ Discogs page has 248 entries. So much of it I don’t even know. Wilson Pickett’s cover of “Hey Jude.” Working with the French star Johnny Halladay on his live album recorded in Memphis. Playing with Albert King, Denise LaSalle, Tony Joe White, so many others. What a legend.

The Stax glory days and the height of the Memphis scene ended by the late 70s, but Thomas kept working until nearly the end of his life. One project was working on the soundtrack of Hustle & Flow, the 2005 Craig Brewer film that takes place in Memphis and chronicles a new generation of Memphis music.

Thomas died in 2017, at the age of 75.

Marvell Thomas is buried in Memphis National Cemetery, Memphis, Tennessee.

If you would like this series to visit other studio legends, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Jay Migliori is in Corona del Mar, California and Jimmy Johnson is in Sheffield, Alabama. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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