The best music isn’t always found in night clubs or concert halls. Sometimes all you have to do is go to church.
The Thomas Family of Elgin, Texas is a perfect example. The group has been serving up great gospel music in church and in public for generations.
The family of musicians is an integral part of the service each Sunday at the Greater Mt. Vernon Zion Church. They also perform at benefit concerts and festivals such as Hogeye and Western Days.
Patriarch of the group is Monty Thomas. He is 66 and has been singing gospel for about 50 years. He plays guitar, bass guitar and steel guitar.
Although he is passionate about gospel music, Monty’s top priorities are his church and his family. “When I was in the Gospel Tones we would sing in Houston or Dallas and get back at 5 a.m. I was not able to go to church,” he said. “I am here with my family. We sing and worship together. Most gospel singers say they belong to a church and the church doesn’t even know who they are. I don’t sing for style or getting the money. If I made lots of money and no soul got anything out of it, I have not benefited at all.”
In addition to Monty, the Thomas Family’s musical contributions come from his wife Ivory (piano); daughters Barbara (organist), Denise, Deborah Edwards, Montie Franks, Gloria Hill (when she comes down from Dallas); grandsons Sterling Monty Thomas (drums) and Donavan Monty Thomas.
Ivory was already a musician when she and Monty met in high school. She has been playing piano in church since age 11.
Monty’s grandson Sterling, who will graduate from Elgin High School next week, plays drums in the EHS jazz band and will soon study sound engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos. His grandson Donavan, 12, also plays drums.
Drummers have a great advantage as singers, Monty said. “You’ve got to have good timing, a beat within yourself. A person that does not have timing can’t be a very good singer or musician.”
Barbara Thomas, who serves as organist for the group, also works as a DJ for KAZI 88.7 FM under the name “Pepper.”
Monty sang with the Taylor-based group, the Gospel Mourners in 1963. They still produce music, though only two of the original members are still living: Monty and R.L. Killingworth.
His second group was the Elgin-based Gospel Tones, from 1985 to 1995. In addition to Monty, the group featured Rev. Roy Rogers, Walter McDonald, Wayne Davis, Bobby Reed and the late Brother Aires.
Monty and Eugene Stark, husband of Rev. Bunnie Stark, are members of the Taylor Quartet Association. On the second Sunday night of each month, they travel to area churches like Hornsby Bend Church. Monty is also part of a group of musicians who provide backup for gospel groups who don’t use instruments.
Monty has an encyclopedic knowledge of gospel music. His favorites include the Dixie Hummingbirds (the group that sing backup on Paul Simon’s “Love Me Like a Rock”) and the Mighty Clouds of Joy. Monty is also a big fan of the Soul Stirrers, a group made famous by member Sam Cooke – though he is quick to point out, Cooke didn’t “make their sound.” He was in and out of the group, which featured other great singers like Paul Foster. Two versions of the Soul Stirrers still perform, one based out of Chicago and one in San Antonio.
Although he’s a fan of the blues, Monty is a dedicated gospel player. He has been asked to play blues before, but refused. He says gospel music has challenges and advantages that blues doesn’t.
“You can take a blues singer and put ‘em in a gospel band and they don’t make it too well,” he said. “You never seen a gospel player look down at his guitar. When I play, I forget about my guitar and concentrate on my voice.”
Even some of the blues greats don’t have that skill, he said. “BB King, as good as he is, doesn’t sing and play at the same time. John Lee Hooker didn’t either.”
He reads music, but prefers not to except when he’s learning new songs. “Bass guitar and lead guitar, if you’re reading word for word it’s not gonna be as good. You’ve got to memorize and go according to the Spirit. We never sing our songs the same. We always do something different.”
Getting to know the music and singing from the heart is important for the congregation as well as the gospel singer, he said. “If you see a person singing and looking down at a book, very seldom he gets happy and shouts. The spirit can’t come in.”
The Greater Mt. Vernon Zion Church at 215 A Church Street will have a Homecoming celebration on the fourth Saturday in September and will receive a plaque commemorating the congregation as one of the oldest in Elgin.
Check out the Thomas Family’s music
The Thomas Family has put out two CDs of their music, both released by Figment Studio in Austin: “There’s Not a Friend” and “Hold On” — the second one has proven quite popular, said Monty. “This CD has been very good to us.” The family doesn’t market the albums, but they are available at shows. If you can’t make it to one of their shows, you can order a copy directly from Monty at (512) 281-3153.
Here are some freely downloadable songs, posted with permission:
“There’s Not a Friend”
“Til We Meet”
“Tell the Angels”
Say you kind of like the sound of gospel, but your experience is limited. Maybe you’ve only heard a song or two from Aretha Franklin or caught a few verses of something while dialing through on the car radio; you liked what you heard but didn’t know where to go next. Monty Thomas has a few recommendations to get started down the gospel road.
Troy Ramey and the Soul Searchers of Atlanta, Georgia
The Dixie Hummingbirds
The Soul Stirrers – Chicago version and San Antonio version. “The Soul Stirrers are still good,” he said. “There was a split years ago. The one in San Antonio has more volume. The one in Chicago is more traditional. You won’t catch them doing hip hop.”
The Sensational Nightengales of North Carolina.