Sometime in the late 90s or early 2000s, I heard the music of Gordon Thomas for the first time via my friends Mocky and Taylor Savvy. It was on a tape, that had clearly been copied a bunch of times, with a surprisingly large number of songs on it. The singer’s strange voice and simple lyrics contrasted the slick, full-band jazz arrangements; plus, the music had a weirdly timeless quality—that is to say, there were no obvious signposts to indicate in what era it had been recorded.
Stacey and I were fascinated and curious to know more, but nobody seemed to have much info about this singer apart from his name, Gordon Thomas. In 2001, sitting on a patio in Berlin, we and Mocky came up with the idea of making a documentary about trying to find him.
Long story short, with a bit of old-fashioned journalistic/detective work, we were able to find him in his lifelong hometown of New York City. When we met him, he was 86, still fully lucid and, to our surprise, full of optimism and future plans for his music career.
He’d played trombone in big bands in the 40s, most notably with Dizzy Gillespie, and since the big band era petered out, he’d been working odd jobs and using his meagre earnings to record and self-release his music. The film became a portrait of his life, music and philosophy.
Everything’s Coming My Way was completed in 2005 and has shown at festivals, on TV and even, thanks to the diligent efforts of our sales agent, on airlines, in classrooms and in other strange markets around the world. And when the film had had its life, we continued to visit him as often as we could, and helped him out by selling his music online (you can stream or download much of his catalogue on Bandcamp; future earnings will go to an appropriate charity to be determined or in accordance with his will, as the case may be).
Getting to know Gordon was a joy and a privilege. Ever optimistic and positive, wise, funny and spiritually rich, he brought happiness and inspiration to everyone he met. He was a bridge to another time—when he grew up, people still rode around Harlem on horses and buggies, and the modern world was a bit of a mystery to him, but he always rolled with it.
It bothered me a bit when people referred to Gordon as “childlike.” He was a fully functioning adult, a union dues-paying musician, and a lot smarter than he let on. He was certainly eccentric, but not more so than any number of artists I’ve known. I eventually concluded that his naïve persona was a bit of a put-on, a defence mechanism against the world’s cruelties, but his optimism was very real.
Gordon was always full of fantastic stories, and at times you couldn’t tell if they were real memories or just dreams or fantasies. (The one about Miles Davis having planned to write a song for him was particularly suspicious.) That said, some of the things we did with him, like seeing him perform in front of adoring fans in Montreal or going to his birthplace of Bermuda for a film festival, where he was treated like a total rock star, probably sounded like tall tales to people he told—but I can confirm they’re true!
As the years went by and his health deteriorated, Gordon talked less about his future plans, but every time we spoke he’d still say that we should aim for Hollywood. The last time we hung out, in the summer of 2015, he spoke openly about wanting to die and wondering why he was still alive. With his friends mostly passed away, and his health getting worse, he didn’t feel he had a lot to live for. It was a hard conversation to have, but there wasn’t much we could say.
Gordon spent the last years of his life in a seniors’ home, and the level of care he received was pretty minimal. It was a sobering reality check of what happens to you in the USA if you’re old, black, poor and alone. Luckily for him he had health insurance from the Veterans’ Administration after having briefly served in the army during WWII, as well as a pension from the musicians’ union, which along with his Social Security covered his expenses and basic needs.
I wish we could have helped him more, but our resources were limited and, if I’m honest, so was the audience for his music. The very things in his songs that appealed to me turned the average listener off, while at the same time his music lacked the dark or “edgy” quality that endears certain obscure artists to an underground audience. His fan base was the definition of “small but devoted,” and spanned the entire world. Just a few weeks ago I received a CD order from Wales, not the first or the furthest such order from around the globe.
Last week, I got a call from a good friend of Gordon’s. He had suffered a stroke and become unresponsive. I flew down to New York and visited him at a nursing home in the upper Bronx. He was rail-thin and couldn’t speak, but he kept trying to get out of bed, though he was too weak to complete the action. It was heartbreaking to see. “It’s OK Gordie, you don’t have to get up, just rest,” I kept saying. I’m hardly the first person to note that the very elderly, in their fragile and dependent state, revert in a circular way to being a little like babies, and here I was speaking to him in the same tone that I use to soothe my one-year-old son.
I held his hand and talked to him a bit. I told him that I loved him, that Stacey sent her love too, that his music had meant a lot to people, and that he would soon be with the friends he always talked about wanting to reunite with in the next life. At one point, he opened his eyes, squeezed my hand and smiled. He also made one of his classic expressions, a sort of facial shrug that communicated “Whaddya gonna do?”
Another friend of his from the seniors’ home came to visit. He had a different take on the situation, encouraging “Mr. Gordon” to get better soon so he could celebrate his 100th birthday. It was a very appropriately GT-esque expression of optimism, but I wasn’t sure I could share it.
As I walked down 7th Avenue to the train station, I looked around New York with a strange feeling. Would it ever be the same without Gordon Thomas? Then I noticed the eccentric characters floating by me on every corner. Each one of them could probably star in their own documentary.
A few days later, I got another call. Gordon passed away on January 25, 2016. He would have been 100 years old on February 7. He touched my life in a profound way and he’ll always stay with me. I feel sad that he’s gone, but he lived a long, meaningful life, and it was time. I love you Gordie, rest in peace.