NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

May 23, 2013

Mickey Thomas pilots Starship to Beverly

By Will Broaddus
Staff writer

---- — With a tenor voice that soars like a rocket, Mickey Thomas is the perfect singer to lead a band named Starship.

But it was as lead vocalist for the Elvin Bishop Group on the 1976 hit single “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” that Thomas got his breakthrough in the music industry.

“In the business and among peers, it was a great calling card for me after that,” said Thomas, who will appear at the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly on Saturday.

Fans are less quick to identify Thomas with “Fooled Around,” until they hear him sing it in concert.

“To this day, when I perform it live, people say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that was you,’” he said.

“Fooled Around” reached No. 3 on the charts and elevated the Elvin Bishop Group from playing in clubs — where it had a loyal following as a blues and roots rock band — to touring with acts like Lynyrd Skynyrd.

The song also elevated Thomas to the job of lead singer for Jefferson Starship in 1979, when he started recording the string of No. 1 hits that people do associate with his name, many of which he will perform on Saturday.

“We do everything from ‘Jane’ to ‘Stranger’ and ‘No Way Out,’” Thomas said. “‘We Built This City,’ and ‘Nothing’s Going to Stop Us’ and ‘Not Enough.’ And, of course, ‘Fooled Around and Fell in Love.’”

Starship Featuring Mickey Thomas, as the act is known, will also reach back to the band’s origins in the music of Jefferson Airplane.

“Stephanie and I take a portion of the show, and like to pay homage to the whole history of the band,” Thomas said. “Stephanie does ‘White Rabbit.’”

Stephanie Calvert, who now tours with Thomas, has a powerful voice and bears a passing resemblance to Grace Slick, one of the original lead singers for Jefferson Airplane and its successor, Jefferson Starship.

“She has a great voice, a lot of stage presence and a lot of personality,” Thomas said. “People comment that she seems to be channeling Grace — everything except for the blue eyes.”

Slick sang lead on “White Rabbit” and also “Somebody to Love,” hit songs that both appeared on Jefferson Airplane’s 1967 album, “Surrealistic Pillow.” She left Jefferson Starship before Thomas was brought on board, but rejoined them later and sang with Thomas on the No. 1 hit “Nothing’s Going to Stop Us Now” and many other songs.

Thomas got his own start as a singer at age 15 by channeling John Lennon, after he and two friends saw The Beatles perform in Atlanta in 1965.

“Like a lot of people my age, I was a Beatles fan, a Beatles freak, I had Beatlemania,” he said. “And I was lucky enough to see them. That was the biggest factor in inspiring me to pursue music as a career.”

Although the concert had a huge impact on his life, when Thomas looks back from his vantage point as a professional musician, he recalls that it was a disaster in many ways.

“The Atlanta show was two or three days after their famous Shea Stadium show the same year,” he said. “Stadium concerts were unheard of in those days. The sound system was horrible. They weren’t prepared to put on a show like that.

“The concert was exactly like all the old black-and-white things you’ve seen,” he said. “You could barely hear the music over the screaming. It was chaos.”

Even if they couldn’t hear the songs, the show motivated the three young musicians to form a band modeled on The Beatles.

“One friend was left-handed, so he played bass like McCartney,” Thomas said. “I liked Lennon, and I played a bit of guitar and knew a few chords, so I was rhythm guitar and vocals.”

Thomas followed the rest of the British bands that invaded the U.S. in those years, including The Kinks and The Hollies. But eventually, he came to appreciate that it is passion in music that makes for an effective performance.

“I was drawn to the great soul singers of the ’60s, who were very popular in Georgia where I grew up,” he said. “I developed a real affinity for the emotion of singers like Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett and Percy Sledge and Jackie Wilson. I really wanted to emulate that style of singing.”

Thomas’ long career has included a range of experiments that include solo albums, a bit part in a major film and performing a duet with Mel Torme. But he has never tired of trying to capture strong feelings in song.

In addition to touring, Starship has been recording its first album in a decade, scheduled to be released in August.

The music was produced, and much of it was written, by Jeff Pilson, who has played bass for Foreigner for many years and was a member of Dokken in the 1990s.

“I’m really happy with it,” Thomas said. “It’s very organic in nature. It’s got all the elements of Starship, but it’s got more of a ’70s and early ’80s Starship feel. More ‘Find Your Way Back’ than ‘Nothing’s Going to Stop Us Now.’ It sounds very current to me.”

IF YOU GO

What: Starship Featuring Mickey Thomas

When: Saturday, 8 p.m.

Where: North Shore Music Theatre, 62 Dunham Road, Beverly

Tickets and more information: Tickets $29.50, $39.50 and $75. Available at 978-232-7200 or www.nsmt.org