Thomas was the first chick I had anything to do with. I was about twelve, she was three or four years older and lived on Dumaine Street, between Claiborne and Robertson. It was the kind of thing where the grown ups are gone and you’re in the house. Blanche was a very forward girl. She dared me. “You don’t know how to do nothing”, being a young, feisty dude, I said, “Yes I do!” You know, the kind of braggadocio attitude. “I bet you never had a girl” “Sure I did!” “Aw, you don’t know what to do” I had sensed this was going to be the time. But I still wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d slapped me and said, “Get the hell away from here!” I was kissing on her and feeling on her and I told her I was going to put it in her. Next thing you know, that’s just what I did. I remember thinking, “Jesus, I really don’t know how to do this” All I could think afterwards was “I should have done this earlier!
Blanche Thomas was born in New Orleans 6th Ward on October 5, 1922; one of seven siblings, her daddy Sam Thomas was a well-known trumpet and bass player who performed with Kid Howard, and Jim Robinson. Her mama, Malvina Stripling, was a homemaker.
A 14 years old Blanche got the itch to perform, and though only a youngster, quickly found a venue that would book her: Henry E. Braden’s Tick Tock Tavern on the second floor of the Astoria Hotel at 235 S. Rampart St. She sang as part of the Chocolate Kiddies Revue.
I grew up singing. I made my first public appearance at the Tick Tock, and just down the street was the Pelican where I was a waitress and where Stepin Fetchit shuffled his slow way, and Ray Charles came to sing his blue notes. Later I sang at the Club Bali …Then the jazz focus moved from Rampart Street to Bourbon Street after the war and I sang at the Mardi Gras Lounge, THE place to work. It was a good time for music in New Orleans; I was happy to be part of it.
A wartime advertisement for Club Bali at 426 Bourbon offered work for a “five piece Negro band” and soon enough they had more than that as Miss Blanche began fronting Adam Lambert’s Six Brown Cats.
Lambert must have had a keen eye for talent as he also hired a teenage Miles Davis to play trumpet for him years later in June 1944. The young Miles was ecstatic as his weekly salary was $100.
During WWII Blanche Thomas toured with the USO and played in Japanese internment camps in neighboring Texas.
Like many young hustling musicians Miss Thomas next found herself traveling with C.G Dodson’s World Fair show on a tent circuit through the Deep South. There were tons of touring carnivals during that era but Dodson’s was particularly diverse featuring:
Minstrel show, Jungleland, Webb’s World Wonder, Water, Lilliputian Village, Over the Top, Wild West, Athletic, Crazy, Mysterious Sensation, Land of Oz, McDougals Dream, Penny Arcade, Beautiful Baghdad, Goat Track, Juanita, War Exhibit, Motordome, Caterpillar, Mercy Mix Up, Carousel, Ferris Wheel, Whip, Band.
After shaking off the road-dust once she returned to New Orleans, Blanche set about getting gigs around town.
“Whether you were from out of town or from the city your goal was the Dew Drop. If you couldn’t get a gig at the Dew Drop you weren’t about nothing.” Joseph August aka Mr Google Eyes.
The Dew Drop had opened in April of 1939, and by the time Miss Blanche was being booked into the room you could get a ticket for the princely sum of .75c
Readers of a certain age may recall that you could score reservations via telephone by dialing JA-605
Dave Bartholomew had one of the hottest bands in the city, and his sharp eye for talent soon spotted the lovely Blanche. He hired her to front his act and they began a series of regular gigs at the Dew Drop. Thomas made her recording debut for Imperial on July 3rd 1954 with her 78 of You Ain’t So Such A Much, it’s a burner.
The life of any working musician is an itinerant one; after the Bartholomew series Blanche would find showcases at the 500 Club and Mardi Gras Lounge on Bourbon Street. Bear in mind that the old thoroughfare used to be classy. During that era, men put on pressed suits to go out for a night on the town, and their ladies were decked out in the chic fashions of the day. Certainly a far cry from today’s tattered shorts and flops crowd that wanders aimlessly down the street.
In 1958 the Wallace Davenport Quintet cut a 45 with Blanche in New Orleans for the Pontchartrain label. Thomas sang This Love Of Mine on the B-side.
Blanche next sought fortune in Chicago where she worked for a couple years including a stint at the Red Arrow Jazz Club at 6929 West Pershing opening for the legendary Franz Jackson. The cold weather must not have agreed with her as she returned home to New Orleans to play with Paul Barbarin at a New Orleans Jazz Club’s Municipal Auditorium concert.
I’ll never forget her. Blanche came on stage in her shiny lime green, tight-fitting dress. Paul had boasted of Blanche as a “crowd charmer”. How right he was. Before she was half-way through her opening number, there was fluttering through the audience, signifying its complete approval of the robust gal on the stage
That’s New Orleans Jazz Club President Helen Arlt aka the Grand Dame of Jazz.
Buoyed by her enthusiastic reception, Blanche would hit the studio to record her debut LP Am I Blue with the Papa French Band. It’s on the Nobility label and you can normally prospect an original edition for about $25. Blanche’s whiskey-soaked vocals are the perfect ticket for a rainy New Orleans afternoon.
During the 70s you could find Miss Blanche playing around town at Al Hirt’s Basin St. South Pete Fountain’s joint, Dixieland Hall as well as Heritage Hall
Thomas also made a big trip up to New York City with the Heritage Hall Jazz Band where she performed at Carnegie Hall on February 12, 1974.
In 1975 the former 6th Ward schoolgirl played a concert at the Grande Parade du Jazz. Here’s a Youtube link to the concert. I hope you enjoy it.
Louis Cottrell – Clarinet
Teddy Riley – Trumpet
Waldren “Frog” Joseph – Trombone
Walter Lewis – Piano
Placide Adams – Bass
Freddie Kohlman – Drums
Blanche Thomas – Vocals
Special Guest: Pee Wee Erwin
Blanche Thomas, the Soul Queen of Treme passed away on this day in 1977. She was just 54 years old.
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B.October 5, 1922
D.April 21, 1977