Music fashions may ebb and flow, but great voices never go out of style. Which is why it's time for a new celebration of one of the best vocalists ever heard in British soul music, Kenny Thomas. Just as word of mouth on the UKs R&B underground brought Kenny to prominence in the first place, prompting his huge single and album success in the first half of the 1990s, so his overdue return to the scene owes everything to the undeniable power of the soul grapevine.
In response to demand created by his fans rather than some marketing departments sleight of hand, July sees Curbs full release of Crazy World, Kenny's new track that was seized upon by soul cognoscenti in the media and spread like a bush fire through Englands ever-vibrant northern soul club scene.
Soul music inspires more snobbery than almost any other genre, but Crazy World strikes one for homegrown British talent, with a soulful sway to rival Alexander ONeal at his best. Hot on the heels of the single, Thomas will issue Crazy World, the long-awaited album that will confirm his credentials with longtime supporters and new appreciators beyond any argument.
Let's not forget the huge mark that Kenny made during some golden years with Chrysalis Cooltempo label, which included two top ten albums, 1991s Voices and the 1993 sequel Wait For Me, the top ten smash Thinking About Your Love, three more top 20 hits in Outstanding, Best Of You and Trippin On Your Love, and four further top 40 UK singles.
Soul stylist Thomas is thrilled to be back, but he never really went away. After I left Cooltempo, says the genial north Londoner, I needed time to find out creatively where I was at, what was it that defines me. I was still writing and I continued to take my vocal lessons, to gig and meet the fans that were there at PAs and clubs.
I featured on a Stonebridge album, but I didn't want to be a voice for hire, I didn't want to go down that route. So I got involved in things that have been interesting, but I've also had a lot of time to write and absorb. I made this cut called Crazy World that got into the hands of a few DJs and blew up and took on a life of its own, on the northern soul and UK soul scene, and got some big endorsements. That in itself created a buzz. Everything works out in its own strange way.
The irony is songs like Thinking About Your Love, I don't think it has ever had as much airplay, since it was a hit, as it has in recent times. Capital is playing it, Heart is playing it. Maybe it's one of those records that's timeless, and it will remind people of what I did and reintroduce them to the new stuff.
Crazy World features mainly co-writes by Kenny, who's collaborated with such acclaimed talents as prolific hit maker Eliot Kenedy, South African-born writer-artist Jonathan Butler and producer Simon Law, whose credits include Soul II Soul and Chant? Moore. Among them is the much talked-about Let It Rain and the in-demand Him, co-written by Thomas and Butler and effusively embraced among the online community of Britsoul devotees as possibly one of the best UK soul tracks ever made.
The collection proudly wears Thomas' love of the very best classic American soul, funk and fusion on its sleeve, but never as mere imitation and always with his own character as a writer and vocalist to the fore. This album is old and new, he says, and there's always a risk when youre either trying to please someone else or be self-indulgent, because both can miss the mark. But Ive made a record where were being really true with the songs.
Also on the album are two imaginative covers to remind us that Kenny was always an outstanding interpreter too, all the way back to signature hits such as Outstanding and Tender Love. Opening the set is I Will, an ingenious reshaping of Icelandic jazz-funk outfit Mezzofortes top 20 pop crossover instrumental of 1983, Garden Party. Then there's a great reading of Don't Know Why, well known as a Norah Jones hit but now made entirely his own by Thomas, who takes possession of the Jesse Harris composition with a sophisticated update.
Both covers have stories to them, too. Eliot Kenedy is a great writer and a closet soulboy, says Thomas. He's got a great voice, he sounds like Michael McDonald AND he does the best Kenny Thomas impersonation I've ever heard! He mentioned Mezzoforte and I said of course that I knew it, I'm a jazz-funk boy. It was his idea to take the melody, slow it down a little bit, change the structure somewhat, and write our lyrics to it. With the blessing, we might add, of Mezzoforte themselves.
Don't Know Why is on the album as a result of Kenny performing the track to great acclaim in May 2005 on the highly popular ITV series Hit Me Baby One More Time (on which he also sang Thinking About Your Love). She did it as a sleepy jazz thing, says Thomas. I've done covers and I've always believed you've got to do them some kind of justice. That for me is singing.
And that has always been his lifeblood. I was born in Islington, I'm a definite Londoner through and through, but I'm also half-Spanish, my mother was from the Canary Islands he says. Kenny showed great promise as a boxer when he was young, but was hooked on soul even before he started his record collection with a Stevie Wonder album.
I grew up on a housing estate and it was multi-cultural, all different backgrounds. There were some second generation Caribbean kids whose parents brought their reggae over, then lovers rock happened, but we were mainly listening to a lot of US soul. I had a record shop situated just opposite my flats in Stamford Hill called R&B Records, I used to buy all my imports from there. I had friends with older brothers, who said Have you heard Rick James, Funkadelic or Headhunters and all this, so then I got into jazz-funk and jazz fusion. Great stuff, I wouldn't change it for the world. It made me what I am.
Kenny got his school qualifications and went to work in the city, but his passions lay elsewhere. His classy vocals and song writing ability brought him to the attention of Cooltempo, for whom he signed in 1990 and hit the ground running when Outstanding became a major new year success.
He was three hits in by the time the album Voices arrived in the autumn of 1991, becoming a double platinum sensation that led to Brit Award nominations as both Best British Male Vocalist and Best British Newcomer. In 1993, Kenny's second album Wait For Me included contributions from the ultra-funky American singer Carleen Anderson, hit the top ten and featured four chart singles.
He reflects wisely on the pleasures and pressures of his old life in the chart bubble, and is clearly delighted to be rising through the underground again on his own terms. There were certain aspects of that initial fame that were marvellous. One minute I'm living in a council estate environment, the next I'm sitting in someone's house in Los Angeles talking to the Isley Brothers. If that doesn't blow your mind I don't know what will, you've got to approach life with a bit of a wow factor, I think.
But you feel the pressure of being up there, and you've heard it a million times, the hand that feeds you becomes the hand that beats you. I'm much happier being with an independent record label because I dont really want to be in an environment where you've got a month to do well or you're out. With this record, I knew I was sitting on a lot of good material, and now I'm having this underground renaissance. It's about being in the game and putting the music out there.