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LILLO THOMAS 2011 INTERVIEW
SILKY SMOOTH SOUL RETURNS
Phone Interview Conducted on January 8, 2011

It’s been over 20 years since Lillo Thomas released his last full-length album. After arriving on the scene in the early ‘80s, he enjoyed great success as a singer, songwriter and producer. His silky smooth voice was featured on albums by Kashif, George Benson, Melba Moore, Kenny G. and his former background vocalist, Freddie Jackson. He launched his solo career in 1983 but only five years and three albums later, he would walk away from the music industry, seemingly never to return. However, he is back with a brand new album of silky smooth soul called ‘Come And Get It’. He shares with Darnell Meyers-Johnson why he left, what he’s been doing, why he returned and if he’s back to stay...


Darnell Meyers-Johnson: Good Day, this is Darnell Meyers-Johnson for SoulMusic.com. It is a snowy Saturday but I got something here to keep you warm. I am speaking with a blast from the past and I don’t mean that in any disrespectful kind of way. But he was a man who, back in the day, gave you smooth vocals and a smooth look. You heard his voice on many hits in the ‘80s by the likes of Freddie Jackson, Evelyn “Champagne” King, and Melba Moore, but you also know him from his own solo hits like “I’m In Love”, “Sexy Girl” and my personal favorite “Wanna Make Love (All Night Long)”. He’s back with a new album called ‘Come And Get It’. He is Mr. Lillo Thomas. How are you sir? Lillo Thomas: Oh great, and you Darnell? How’s it going?

DMJ: It’s going good. Are you staying warm? You’re in New York, right?

LT: Yeah, I’m upstate New York.

DMJ: Did you guys have a lot of snow up there?

LT: Oh yeah, we get snow like crazy ‘cause my home is on a mountain so it’s like an extra 20 degrees colder up here so it gets a bunch of snow.

DMJ: Wow, well be careful with all that but you’re probably used to it.

LT: Yep, Brooklyn-born so you know the snow is not a problem for me.

DMJ: Sounds good. So as I said in the intro, a lot of the old-schoolers who know you are going to be familiar with your own hits but even they may not be familiar with the fact that you’ve been involved with other hits, either as a session vocalist or as a songwriter. So, real quick if you can for me, run down a list of hits you’ve been involved with other than your own solo joints.

LT: I sang on and also wrote “Mind Up Tonight” for Melba Moore. Kashif, I did a lot of work on his first two albums. Freddie, “You Are My Lady”. Freddie was actually on tour with me and that’s how we hooked up. I did a lot of stuff on Freddie’s album. I did some vocals with George Benson and Kenny G. So you know…

DMJ: I’m sure that list is much longer but that’s good to start with, just to give people an idea of who you are besides the solo stuff that you’ve done. But I gotta tell you, when I was trying to prepare for this interview I wasn’t really sure where to start with you because it seems we haven’t heard from you in such a long time. So let me just ask you, when was your last album released?

LT: My last album was about ten years ago. It was a ‘Best Of’ that I actually put out.

DMJ: Were there any new tracks on that?

LT: Yeah, there were two new tracks on there that I had written after I got involved with Brunswick Records. It’s owned by Paul Tarnopol, his father was Nat Tarnopol. And they have a catalogue with Jackie Wilson, The Chi-Lites, a bunch of stuff like that. So he came to me and asked me if I wanted to put my stuff back out and I was like, “yeah, great, I’d like to do that” and I wrote two tracks for that.

DMJ: I’m curious, why at that time a ‘Best Of’ as opposed to a full album of new material?

LT: Well, I had been on the road a lot and I felt I needed to back up a minute and just reevaluate where my career was. So I took a break from everything and I needed time to get a better direction on what I wanted to do.

DMJ: How long before that was your last full album?

LT: That was the ‘Lillo’ album in ’87.

DMJ: Were you doing a lot of touring at that time, between ’87 and the ‘Best Of’ (which was released in 2001)?

LT: I toured for almost a year after the ‘Lillo’ album and that’s when I took the break and got into other ventures. I did some real estate development. I’m an illustrator so I visited that for a little while just to take my head in another direction. I traveled a lot. And you know, was just really looking for myself. I was out there (in the music business) fighting, trying to position myself so much and when you have other people in your life pulling you in different directions, you can get a little lost with that, especially someone like me. I’m not used to anyone taking the lead in my life. I’m one of those kind of guys, I’m basically a hands-on kind of person. I love working with people but I’m not the kind of guy you can just tell (to) show up to a place. I wasn’t comfortable with that. And where I was at that time, it seemed either you were that or things didn’t happen the way that they should happen for you. So I felt it better, if I couldn’t do it the way that I see it, then I would rather back away from it than to hurt it because it would start showing up in my music.

DMJ: Do you think in a sense you quit music? Was there ever a time in your mind when you said, “I’m just not going to do music because I’m not feeling how I need to operate within that arena, so now I need to figure out in my mind other things to do”? Was it that conscious for you, where you just pushed it to the side?

LT: No, I never quit music. I think the passion for the music is why I decided to just stop for a minute and think about it. There’s one thing being in the music business and there’s another being in the record business. I think I was just so preoccupied being in the music business but things (were) not panning out the way that I felt they should pan out until I realized that there’s something else involved with this. I need to be a part of the record business to get my point across. And I needed to back away for a minute and learn that. That’s when I started taking on the whole thing of being in business and understanding what product is and understanding that to really help this vision happen I need to understand what the business of this is. I took the break for that and got into other businesses and learned business. And I did really well in my other businesses. So I’m like, ok now I can really take care of the thing that I have such a passion for, which is the music and the art. Now I can put it out and share it and be comfortable with how I’m doing it.

DMJ: You mentioned a moment ago that you got into illustration. What type of illustration were you involved in?

LT: I got a scholarship, even before I got into music, I had a scholarship at Parson School of Design. I studied there for like, three years. And it was being able to illustrate anything from magazines to book covers. And I used to do a lot of my own album work.

DMJ: You were making a name for yourself back at Capitol Records. When that relationship ended, you still seemed to be relevant at that point so why do you think some other label didn’t snatch you up? Or were you approached by other labels and just didn’t want to do that?

LT: Yeah, I was approached by a few labels. RCA wanted to do some stuff with me. MCA wanted to do some stuff. I had meetings with them but it was basically the same kind of thing. And I just didn’t feel that was right for me. I’ve already been through that.

DMJ: Let’s go back to the beginning. Tell me a little bit about how you started and how that first deal with Capitol came to be. Because my understanding is, initially you began in athletics and it wasn’t necessarily about music. So tell me how you made that transition from athletics to that first deal with Capitol.

LT: It came out of competing around the world running track. I ran track in college and I also ran track in high school. I figured ok, track was the thing I was famous in and that was nice because I enjoyed that. But your body only allows you to do that for so long. I always loved music. I started in my dad’s church. Music has always been a part of my life. I’m very passionate about it. And I decided, this is what I wanted to do for a living. And then I got out and I started trying to find out how to get into this music thing to make a record. I met Kashif and he heard some song I was writing and he’s like, “hey I’m with this group called the Mighty M Productions and if you come down and let them hear your song…” The guy that was in charge was Morrie Brown and Kashif said, “well, if he hears it and likes it maybe we can get it placed.” And I’m like, ok they were fairly new. I was new at writing songs so I said, “let me take a shot at it.” I went down and they liked the song “Mind Up Tonight” that I wrote. It was originally supposed to go to Evelyn “Champagne” King. Kashif and Paul Laurence Jones was there at the time as well. Morrie felt I needed a better sounding demo. So he had his guys, which were already staff writers, reproduce my demo. We reproduced it and I’m waiting to hear if Evelyn was going to do it and the Evelyn thing didn’t pan through. I heard she passed on it and that’s when I heard that Melba picked it up. And then there was a song that came out after “Mind Up Tonight”. I think she went with some song Kashif wrote called “Love Come Down”.

DMJ: You mean Evelyn?

LT: Yeah. Melba came out with “Mind Up Tonight” first and then Evelyn came out with “Love Come Down” by Kashif. From that point, there was a production group. I think it was Ted, he had a deal with Capitol and they had given him some production deals and he heard some of the stuff I was doing with Melba and with Hush Productions, they were handling Melba at the time, and I went into one of the deals that they had. Hush Productions became advisors and I had a production deal that was tied with Paul Laurence Jones until I was able to learn better on how to produce my own records.

DMJ: I was going to ask you about how that core group of people came together with Kashif and Paul Laurence and who else was on that team?

LT: First it was Kashif and Paul Laurence. They came from Mighty M Productions. And then I came in right after them. And then Freddie used to do background vocals. Freddie came in after me. And then Meli’sa Morgan and everyone came in a little later.

DMJ: Of that group, who did you feel closest to musically speaking? Who did you connect more with on a musical level?

LT: That would probably be Paul Laurence.

DMJ: And why is that?

LT: I think, at that time, Paul was still finding himself and I was still finding myself and Paul was just very good at putting music together. I’m more of…I can splash the paint on the canvas and it’ll take me forever to work it out and put all the pieces together, where Paul always seems to have a very strong formula on how he approaches his music and he was able to get it done quickly. I think we just connect with that. And I definitely needed that or I probably wouldn’t have the album out yet.

DMJ: How is your relationship with those people today? Are you still close with any of those “Hush People”, for lack of a better phrase?

LT: “Hush People”, sounds like they’re from another planet. No, I don’t really keep in touch with them. They do their thing and I do my thing. I left there early. I left there right after my ‘All of You’ album (in 1984). They were like advisors to me. A lot of people were thinking they were management. They weren’t my management; they were advisors. I wasn’t getting what I needed to have as an artist and decided to leave. And I did the ‘Lillo’ album on my own.

DMJ: We’re going to jump way ahead to the present day. Tell me how this new project ‘Come And Get It’ came together.

LT: Well, ‘Come And Get It’ pretty much came together because I do music all the time. Even when I’m doing other things, I always find the time to sit down and songs just hit my head and I go to my studio and just sing them out. It was basically that. I really didn’t have any desire to get back into things right at that time but people started really connecting with it. Friends and family of mine would come over and they’d be like, “what are you doing because you’re always working on stuff” and I’d let them hear it and they’re like, “why don’t you just put it out” and I’d be like, “yeah maybe” and I’d be like that about it. And then it just kind of clicked one day. I said, you know what, I did this album without the pressures of the major record companies. This was just stuff I did because I felt like doing it. And I felt really good about working that way. You know, just getting back into my own space. And I decided, well, you know, let me do this. So I spoke to my friend at Brunswick Records and he was like, “well, let’s put it together and put it out.” Before that I said if I’m going to get back into this, I really need to get back in it comfortably. I bought all my music back from Capitol Records and I put that out. That’s on iTunes now because you couldn’t find any of it before. I was hearing people on the internet asking about me, because I disappeared from it all. Nobody really knew what happened. I would read something or people would come and tell me, “what happened to you, why aren’t you doing music” and I just decided well, let me put this out. The album has been really well received. I was shocked in how much people still remembered what I was doing. So I just put it out because I could at this point.

DMJ: Right. I think what it is, is that so many people remember you from that era and all the people you were involved with, all of the names we already talked about: Kashif, Freddie and all of those. And throughout the years, even when their popularity faded off a little bit, you still heard about them here and there. You know, Freddie would release an album. You knew that he was still around. But nobody knew where you were. There was no occasional album coming out, no independent album coming out. That was the thing, people were just curious because you’re a very talented person. It’s like, how does somebody with so much talent be there and then they’re not around at all anymore. I’m glad that we’re having this interview so that at least people can know you’re still doing your thing and you’re back.

LT: It was just a little frustrating for me at that time because I would see people, they would have the videos and they were getting the magazines and I just couldn’t understand why wasn’t I getting any of these things as well. It was almost like I was a secret, I felt. And things were going on, to my surprise later, because once I got out of it, I started touring on my own. I decided one day, I’m going take my band and I’m going to Europe. I just picked it out of a hat. I was working with an attorney at this time and I told him, “look, I want to go to Europe. I want to do something over there. I never been there, I just want to go.” And I worked out a deal with a promoter that was pretty much getting my band there and getting us back. And I would take a percentage off anything, IF anything. We could work that out. To my surprise, I went there and found a whole other market that my music was in and that I had no clue about. I did three shows at the Hammersmith Odeon, when I thought maybe nobody would even come. That sort of woke me up to things and then I started touring other places and the same thing was happening. It was just amazing how I was embraced overseas when I felt like nothing was really happening here (in the US) for me. I was kept so in the dark about things that were going on in my life. It was just amazing for me.

DMJ: At the height of your popularity, did you feel embraced? What were you feeling at the height of your success?

LT: That I wasn’t there yet. I didn’t feel like a true artist. I don’t think it was because of the public because the people have made me feel great. But it was the things that was going on in my life, like I said, I wasn’t getting the television shows. I didn’t feel like one of those artists that the business and the opportunities were happening for. I almost felt like I got passed over. There’s a lot of people that don’t even understand, Freddie toured with me. He was my background vocalist. And I’d see that a lot of people would say, “oh Lillo, he sounds like Freddie”, but it’s like wait, I was out before Freddie.

DMJ: I was going to ask you how you felt about that comparison because people made that a lot between you and him. Vocally, I don’t necessarily hear it. What I hear is a lot of the same production which makes sense since you guys were all kinda sharing the same producers and songwriters. I hear it on the production end but I don’t necessarily hear it vocally.

LT: Yeah, well that was Paul Laurence. Even with Kashif, I did a lot of Kashif vocals and a lot of people didn’t know that as well. They were saying, “whoa, you sound like Kashif”. It’s like, well no, a lot of that that you’re hearing is me. But that kind of stuff nobody talked about.

DMJ: At any point did you feel like you were in Freddie’s shadow, particularly? Of course he went on to be very successful, had the Best New Artist Grammy nomination and all of that and, as you said, he started out doing backing for you. Did you somehow feel that you were now in his shadow and not really getting the credit that you deserved?

LT: I never felt I was in Freddie’s shadow. I talked about Freddie because I think Freddie is an amazing vocalist. I used to talk about Freddie when I was doing my promotional tours. I used to tell people, “hey, watch out for this guy Freddie, he’s going to get an album soon and he’s really going to blow your mind” because Freddie to me is an exceptional vocalist. I don’t feel like I was in his shadow because I do Lillo and I do Lillo well. So I don’t feel I’m in anyone’s shadow. Freddie, the way that he was brought in and his commitment to the record label was a little different than mine. Freddie came in, and I know people probably won’t understand this but his deal was structured differently than mine. I had a production deal. In a lot of sense, I wasn’t even directly signed to a label. It was almost like a deal like, “I think I can”. If it does ok then you can graduate into a real deal. So that was pretty much what it was. I was selling the units, I was banging it out but you only get a certain amount of pressings.

DMJ: Like a trial offer.

LT: Right! Exactly. So if that deal is only like, we’re only going to press 200,000 units and you blow out of that 200,000 units, well it’s like, “ok, on to the next album.” It wasn’t the kind of deal that they just keep pressing and the more you sell, you sell. You can get everything to happen for you. I didn’t have that kind of situation. And those kind of deals come with built in budgets for videos and magazine covers. And I think that’s what happened to me. I got kind of, jumped over and got lost in that.

DMJ: Actually, lots of artists kind of felt that way, particularly “back in the day” artists, especially when they compare it to how things are with current day artists. A lot of them back in the day felt controlled to a degree by the label.

LT: That’s what it was about in those days. I used to always have a problem, only because this is what you were going to do for your life. And I’m the kind of person, if it matters to me and I’m going to be the one that’s going to be the spearhead of this situation, then I feel I need to be involved in everything that goes on in that business. Back then, they didn’t want you to be involved. The manager that you paid, the attorney that you paid and everybody that you paid could be involved with your business but you. To me, that didn’t make a lot of sense. And I realize some people may need that, but I was always very focused on things I had in my life and where I needed to be in my life. Back then, they just wasn’t ready for the kind of person that I was to be in that situation, so I backed away.

DMJ: Your (new) album is very sensual in parts. I’m not necessarily going to recite any of the lyrics. We’ve certainly heard more explicit stuff by other people, but let me ask you this: how do you address critics who say that lyrics in R&B music are often too sexual?

LT: Well, how can it be too sexual? We’re sexual. I mean, it’s what we do. I’m a passionate person so that’s what all that’s about. There’s sex in there, there’s love in there, there’s hurt in there, there’s hate in there. These are the elements that make us who we are. For me, when I sing about that, I sing about it because it was something important in my life at that time. I mean, deceit, being cheated on, being betrayed, all of this is who we are. I like expressing that. It’s therapeutic for me. I can pour it out into music and I can let it go and share it with somebody that might be going with it. They can cry along with me. And I feel good about that thought, that it may touch someone that way. I have a song on my new CD called “Only Son” that was sort of an awakening for me and the issues I had with my dad.

DMJ: I was going to ask you about that song so I’m glad you brought it up. Tell me about that.

LT: That song to me was an awakening. I had to be a grown man to even figure out that that was a problem in my life, the way my dad left me. As a teenager, I had to go back to him to even understand some of the crazy stuff I had going on within myself. I had to learn him and try to understand where he was coming from as a man and understand what his life was about to even understand me because I’m his core. So I’m going to have all of that in me, but I had to learn what kind of man I want Lillo to be. I had to put these things in a different direction.

DMJ: Were you able to get those answers from your dad?

LT: Oh absolutely. I sat with him and watched him and I’m like, “wow, I do that.” Why does he do that and what’s that about? I was a young adult. When you get older, you get a little softer so he was revealing a lot of things to me about the relationship he had with my mom, why he had to leave and it gave me clarity. All those issues I was dealing with, until I wrote that song, I didn’t even realize I was carrying it. Even though I was developing into the man that I wanted to be, I was still bringing a lot of that with me. I was carrying it. And a light went on in my head once I finished that song. I felt like I lifted all this weight off of me. And it’s like, I get it, I understand. I don’t have to drag that around with me anymore. The lessons that I was teaching myself had all sort of made sense to me at that point. That’s what music is for me. It’s always been that for me in my life. I used to sing when I was sad just to make myself cry harder. I sing when I’m happy because it made me feel happy. I love to sing.

DMJ: When I was listening to the album, as I said before it is very sensual in parts and as you’ve already talked about, there’s some heartbreak things in there, but when I got to “Only Son” it was very emotional and it was like the album shifted. Not that the rest of the album doesn’t connect with you but that song connects with you on a raw emotional level. I want to commend you on being able to transfer that emotion from the studio to the listener because lots of people aren’t able to do that. Even though they may feel very passionate and emotional about the song, they’re not able to make someone else feel that emotion and I think you did that with that song.

LT: Thank you very much. It was totally real. I don’t even know if I can actually perform it. But I was glad I was able to get it out.

DMJ: Another thing I wanted to ask you about on the album is one of my favorite songs, “I’d Really Love To See You Tonight”, the pop song from the ‘70s. Why did you cover that song?

LT: That was a song that I used to listen to when I paint. It reminded me of when I was drawing and a time in my life. I felt it was kind of quirky, the way that they did it, and I felt that, “wow, I can bring a little more soul to that.”

DMJ: It was nice. What are some of your favorite tracks on the album, besides the ones we already talked about?

LT: One of my favorites is “If You Are My Lady” and “Let’s Have a Good Time Tonight”. That one has an interesting swing. It actually happened to me in a club one night. And “What’s Not To Love”, I think every guy can get with that one. I’m not going to say anymore about that one. That actually may be the next single.

DMJ: What’s the current single?

LT: The current single is “Rubbing Your Body”. I got a chance to work with Paul Laurence on that one and two other new writers from Brooklyn, Corey and Kenji.

DMJ: Did you do most of the songwriting on the album?

LT: Yeah, I did most of the songwriting on it. Paul has a track on there called “Baby Girl” and it was good to work with him again too. We used to talk and it took me a little while to get him to come aboard because he’s doing his thing and is always busy with what he does. But I finally got him in. I wanted to do something with Timmy Allen but I couldn’t catch up with him at the time. He’s another writer that I really enjoy his work and his bass playing.

DMJ: As we think forward, are you going to continue recording or is there a chance that you may do another ten-year break? Basically, I’m asking if you’re here to stay or if you’re going to leave us again.

LT: I would love to be here to stay. I mean my plans are that. I just take it day to day. I started touring again. I got a feel for that. I launched the project in Belgium and I had a great time there. I did some stuff with the O’Jays so I’m planning to get back out on the road. I’m just taking it a step at a time, feeling it all out. And if it pans out the way that I want, then yeah I’m here to stay.

DMJ: I was going to ask if you’re touring.

LT: I’m setting some stuff up now. The album has been really well received. It’s getting some legs and now I’m putting a band together and I’m going to go out on the road and see how it works out.

DMJ: As we close, how can people stay updated with what’s happening with you, if they want to get tour information when that’s ready or find out about the next single or anything like that ?

LT: I’m getting into this whole new internet and all this computer stuff. That’s a different thing in itself, but people can catch up with me on LilloThomas.com. Or follow me on Facebook; I have a Facebook page now. I’m still working it out, but you can check it out. Definitely you can find out everything on LilloThomas.com.

DMJ: Well Lillo, I do appreciate your time today. Is there anything you want to say that we didn’t cover?

LT: I want to thank you guys for this interview. I’m hoping it helped you get to know me a little better and I just want to thank a lot of my fans, the ones that stuck with me, for being there with me. I thank them for their support and being with me through the rough times. And I hope to see them on the road this time out.

DMJ: It was really nice talking to you, man. I wish you nothing but success with the album and with life in general. You sound like a really nice person. You’re a great talent. I know many people are going to be happy to hear you again. And so I’m glad that I even got to play a small role in letting people know that you’re back out there. So all the best to you moving forward.

LT: Thank you so much. You know, just check me out: LilloThomas.com. I’m there. I’m going to be there.

DMJ: Alright, man. Thank you so much. Take care.

LT: Thank you too, bye-bye.

About the Writer
Darnell Meyers-Johnson is a New Jersey based music journalist and creator of The Meyers Music Report (www.TheMeyersMusicReport.Tumblr.com). Previously, he served as Entertainment Editor for the now defunct publication Nubian News and as Editorial Coordinator for SoulMusic.com. When not conducting interviews or writing liner notes, Darnell hosts a weekly radio show, Vocal About Jazz, which streams online every Saturday from 12-2pm, EST on JazzOn2.org and iTunes.
  
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