From track and field to the spotlight on stage, singer Lillo Thomas cemented his place in music history in the 1980s.
Thomas, a successful teenage track star, qualified for the Olympics and was sidelined by a car accident that would change the course of his life. He discovered his love of music and the rest is history.
The singer/songwriter released three albums on Capitol records with hits such as “I’m in Love,” “Sexy Girl,” and “Wanna Make Love,” each reaching the top ten on the R&B music charts. Before the 80s came to a close, the smooth as silk vocalist turned his microphone off and walked away from the music industry.
Years later Thomas resurfaced but with a new purpose, as a businessman that owned the rights to his own music and the iron will and determination to thrive in the industry on his own terms. In 2010, Thomas released the album Come and Get It and followed up with his most recent release, his Greatest Hits album.
Soul Train: What has been the highlight of your career?
Lillo Thomas: Probably just performing at Radio City, and taking control of my business, that would be about it.
Soul Train: Since you were an Olympic qualifying athlete in track and field when you were a teen, do you watch the Olympics?
Lillo Thomas: Yes! I watched swimming. I love the competition, but I don’t swim at all (laughs), but I’m very much into the track and field part of the Olympics since that was what I was interested in.
Soul Train: Speaking of athletics, how did you make the transition from sports to music?
Lillo Thomas: Well, I’ve always done both. I ran track in high school and college. I went to school on an art scholarship; I studied at Parsons School of Design. I always sang at my dad’s church as a kid, I always just enjoyed singing. I never really gave it a shot that I felt it deserved, so I decided that singing was what I wanted to do for a living. So I gave up everything else, walked out of school and pretty much starved for about a year. I pretty much got into doing background vocals for a lot of different people and then Capitol Records offered me my own record deal.
Soul Train: Wow, so you really took a leap of faith to make it happen. That’s awesome! Do you think that is what is missing today in the industry, the lack of sacrifice and really learning the craft and starting from the bottom and getting the foundation they need without the “microwave success” that seems to be on the rise?
Lillo Thomas: I think that is part of the problem because I don’t think they quite understand what it is, since artist development doesn’t exist anymore. That’s why a lot of artists seem to get so crazy with a lot of different things that they are doing, because they haven’t had that artist development. There’s the music business and there’s the record business. I think a lot of things are being mishandled now, and people don’t realize they are in the record business. It’s necessary to know the difference.
Soul Train: Do you think that R&B is dead?
Lillo Thomas: I think they are trying to kill it, but I don’t think its dead yet. I think the powers that be decided that they want another type of music to be heard right now. It’s always happened throughout history, R&B music is constantly changing. Then you have country music, that never changes, rock and roll, that never changes either. There are other extensions of those genres, but the core of it never changes. Now, we on the other hand, are being forced to change our music, because we’re not really taught to be entrepreneurs, to learn to own our own music. So, they depend on us to change, so I think that’s a big problem with music.
Soul Train: You actually own all of your music, right?
Lillo Thomas: Yes, I bought all of my music from Capitol Records.
Soul Train: Why did you take a break from the music industry?
Lillo Thomas: Well, I realized that I was in the business and it wasn’t what I thought it would be, as far as what I needed to do in my life. So when you have other people that just constantly bring things to your life and you don’t understand why and they aren’t trying to explain it because they have their own agendas, I just got sick of not being in total control of my life. I do think the meat, or the core of being an artist is to know where you are in your life, and you have to own yourself. You have to be the one that guides the ship. I just had to stop because there were things that were making me crazy, putting things aside in my life just to please other people, coming up short, and I just didn’t feel that anyone would make that sacrifice for me that I needed to make for myself. So I had to stop and think about it for a minute.
Soul Train: In previous interviews with other media outlets, you mentioned that you didn’t feel like a true artist. Why not?
Lillo Thomas: I noticed that I never had the Billboard ads, and I was seeing other people get it, I never did a lot of the major television shows. I just felt like I was percolating, but never really happened like it should have happened, I was underground. I always felt like I was out there, but I wasn’t really being seen the way an artist should be seen.
Soul Train: How did you feel about being compared to Freddie Jackson?
Lillo Thomas: I never had a problem with it. I think the only thing that made me wonder was because people were comparing me to Freddie when Freddie actually started with me. He was my background vocalist. I understand why they do it, because they heard Freddie more than they did me. My deal didn’t lend itself to the platinum success; instead my deal was more of a start up deal. In normal circumstances, the deal that Freddie had, I should have been in that deal also, but they decided they wanted to give it to Freddie for whatever their reasons were. However, for the work that I put in, the normal progression would have been me in that deal, but they chose to put Freddie in it, and that’s okay.
Soul Train: You just released your Greatest Hits album earlier this month, but you did things a little bit differently and let the fans make the decisions. How was that experience?
Lillo Thomas: Everyone was pretty much unanimous on what songs to put on the album. There were a few that were off the album tracks. That wasn’t too hard. I believe that you should just give people what they want so I’m glad I gave the fans the chance to help pick what songs to put on the album.
Soul Train: What would you say are your top 3 favorite Lillo Thomas songs off the album?
Lillo Thomas: My personal favorites would be “Holding On”–that’s my favorite song that I’ve ever recorded, “All Night Long” and “I’m in Love,” which a lot of people think it’s called “I Surrender” (laughs). I’m happy with the release of the Greatest Hits album.
Soul Train: Do you have plans to release new music?
Lillo Thomas: I’m starting to work on some new stuff now.
Soul Train: Do you have any memories of Soul Train that you’d like to share?
Lillo Thomas: (laughs) I was very much afraid of Don Cornelius for a long time! He was like one of the first people that I used to watch on television. So when I had the opportunity to meet him, he just had so much presence and he was bigger than life to me. I was just a little intimidated by him. I remember one time he called me into his office before the show. They said he likes to talk to the artists and get to know you a bit, so that when he does the interview you’re comfortable with the questions that he’s going to ask. I thought that went well, so I got a little relaxed. Now when we got onto the show, he asked me some questions that he hadn’t prepared me for! (laughs) It freaked me out! If you see the interview, he asked me what I thought about hip-hop, and at that time, hip-hop was still very new. I just blanked out (laughs). I just backed up and laughed and was freaking out. I answered the question and after the show I asked him why he asked me that question and he said well, in this business you have to stay on your toes! So I never forgot that.
Soul Train: Sounds like you learned a valuable lesson!
Lillo Thomas: Definitely because I never forgot it. Don Cornelius was a very special person.
Follow Lillo Thomas on Twitter @LilloThomas and check out his website at www.lillothomas.com.
Shameika Rene’ is a journalist of all trades. She can usually be found producing television news and writing for various websites such as Charlotte Vibe, Creative Loafing, or her own site, www.themofochronicles.com. She’s also a special guest contributor on The Social Hour on Urban Soul Radio. Follow her on Twitter @mofochronicles.