Ural Thomas is proof that, at one time, the whitest city in America not only had soul but bred it, too. Starting out in the late 1950s singing doo-wop on Portland street corners, Thomas cut a series of hot-shit R&B 45s on his own label in the ’60s, showcasing his roughed-up, been-through-some-stuff voice. He appeared at the Apollo Theater in Harlem dozens of times, opening for the likes of Stevie Wonder and Otis Redding, and seemed poised for a national breakthrough. Then as often happens, things derailed. A manager ripped him off, an old collaborator betrayed him—allegedly taking Thomas’ recordings to L.A. and pawning them off as his own—and in the mid-’70s, he moved back to his old North Portland neighborhood, where he’s lived ever since, hosting weekly public jam sessions in his garage. But Thomas isn’t content just being an artifact. No doubt spurred by the so-called “soul revival” of the last few years, and by his appearance in Wheedle’s Groove
, a documentary on the forgotten Seattle funk band, Thomas re-emerged, recording a new album in 2010. Now he’s got a new band, the Pain, and is performing regularly again. Thomas is a vital link to Portland’s past, but he’s playing in the present and gazing toward the future.
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