London-born blue-eyed soul singer KENNY THOMAS spoke to Tony Cummings about his music and faith.
If you're a student of the British pop scene you'll know the name Kenny Thomas. This blue-eyed soul singer, born on a North London council estate, had a string of major hit singles and albums. In fact, in 1991 Kenny had three Top 20 singles, "Outstanding", "Thinking About Your Love" and "Best Of You", while the album from whence they came, 'Voices', made number three on the UK album charts. But after Kenny's last chart hit, the single "When I Think Of You" in 1995 the soulful voiced singer seemed to slip from the mainstream radar when EMI bought Chrysalis Records for which, on their Cooltempo subsidiary, Kenny recorded.
The singer still made a comfortable living though, even after the hits stopped, touring places like Ibiza, Majorca and the Middle East. Now the release by Curb Record of the 'Crazy World' album shows that the singer has lost none of his winning ways with a funky groove or a slinky soul ballad. From the clever recasting of an old jazz funk hit once a top 20 instrumental hit for Iceland's Mezzofortes as "Garden Party" but now retitled "I Will" through to a smouldering interpretation of the Norah Jones hit "Don't Know Why" and a classic, achingly sad soul ballad "Him" co-written by Thomas and South African Christian Jonathan Butler, 'Crazy World' is pure pop class. With the new release Kenny is hoping to find new fans for his soulfully satisfying music. He is also finding that the evangelical media has finally awakened to something known to readers of the Catholic newspaper The Universe for several years, that Kenny Thomas is a deeply committed Christian. He told The Universe back in July 2000, "My experience of people in the music industry is that they are intrigued by my whole approach to Catholicism. I meet many people who don't go to church but are really good people. There are areas though where I will have to part company with them and where I will have to stand my ground. What strikes me is that people are desperate for God. It was St Augustine who said our hearts are restless until they rest in God."
Over a crackling telephone line, Kenny brought his story up to date and spoke to me about his attitude towards soul music. "We mustn't forget the roots of soul music come from gospel. We can't underestimate the power and the influence that gospel has had on music of many genres. It has been far reaching and I know that at the time Ray Charles came with his first lot of records all the gospel devotees in America weren't pleased because they thought he had taken something which was quite sacred and kind of profaned it in a way. But Ray hadn't really. I think he had just kind of changed it into something quite beautiful - soul music. Music has got the power for good or bad."
Having said that, Kenny has little time for the bump-and-grind bedroom themes of much contemporary R&B. He freely admits to vetoing some songs because of their over-explicit nature. "There have been things I have rejected and there have been times when I have had to make quite a stance with different things, you know. People generally know where they stand with me. There are times when you just have to stand your ground faith-wise. I'll give you an example. I walked off a TV set once in a Scandinavian country. I find it amusing now looking back on it but while I was singing they had a girl sort of taking her clothes off behind me. It was in the papers there: 'Kenny Thomas storms off TV set.' Apparently girls stripping was quite normal for that show, which was a normal pop show. Obviously a very liberal culture. I just said, 'Look you know that this is just degrading to women and even though she may be willing to do that, I'm not willing to take part in this TV show unless that doesn't happen.' There was another time when I was on a video shoot. It was in the time of the '90s when crucifixes and crosses suddenly became a fashion item as opposed to a religious item. One of the chaps who was dressing the models for the video pinned a crucifix on her and I said, 'You are going to have to take that off.' He said, 'What, don't you like it?' I said, 'No. The problem is I love it!'"
One of the outstanding songs on 'Crazy World' is "Him", penned by Kenny and Jonathan Butler. It's a beautiful song though I wondered about the lyric with its stark line "What's the point of making love when all you are thinking of is him." Kenny responded, "It's actually been played on a gospel show, that record! I think it was quite gospelly. The thing with songwriting, you are sometimes in the third person and sometimes you are in it and believing it. Sometimes it's almost like an actor in a role. It's like if you play the Passion Play. Someone has to play Judas. The actor isn't really Judas but someone's got to do it. Like in the Passion Of The Christ movie; the only appearance of Mel Gibson in the movie was his hand, the hand that was holding the nail, and quite aptly because haven't all of our hands held that very nail? The thing with songwriting, although I'm not a married person and stuff like that, I can write about things other people can relate to, married and un-married. So 'Him' does have that particular lyric. But let's not forget the Scriptures. In the books Solomon wrote, where he talks about when God refers to Jerusalem as the bride, wisdom and mentions her body, her 'breasts'. You know, there is some quite sexual stuff in the Bible, isn't there?"
Kenny is happy with his role as a Christian working in the mainstream. He does though hope to see aspects of his Christian world view expressed on future releases. "On the next album I hope to have a few things which are a little more socially conscious. I think with things like the Christian music scene, you certainly have to know people in it and you have to have an opportunity presented to you and that hasn't happened for me so far. If it did I think it would a good thing. My favourite artist Aaron Neville has recorded a few gospel albums now. One got nominated for a Grammy if I'm correct. I would love to if the opportunity presented itself, I could see nothing better than doing that because I love gospel music. Also, it would be a thing of witness."
The world of showbiz is dominated by performers who neglect friends and family as, driven by demons of ambition, they endlessly tour the world. Kenny isn't like that. Over the last seven years Kenny has pulled back from the bulk of his touring commitments after both his parents became ill and he became their full time carer. Kenny nursed his mother until she died of cancer and the singer continues to care for his father, chronically ill with Alzheimer's. I asked Kenny whether the switch from pop star to full time carer was hard to make. He responded, "I think it was a very fortunate position to be in; to be able to take time out to do that. Not many people get that and I think being a musician and having done well I had the chance to step down. Although it's not true that I left showbiz completely because I did do some work in that time, little bits here and there, caring for my parents was very valid and legitimate escape for me to do something normal.
"My mother and I were extremely close and our bond was not just mother and son, our bond was a very, very spiritual one in terms of our love of God and what I learnt from her with regards to faith. I would say I more or less downed tools during a lot of those periods and she convalesced for a short while in the Canary Islands, which is where she came from and I went out there with her for a little while. Yes, it was a difficult, particularly after my mum passed away, God rest her soul. Then my father fell ill. Now I am pretty much his main carer along with another social carer. That's quite a test. But God gives you what you need for the day. He provides you the grace you need and I can't say I have never been provided with the grace that I've needed."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.