"We used to play acoustic delta blues on the corner of Prospect and Herschel. We would put on really nice suits and shine our shoes and look like we didn't need the money. But we'd make a fortune."
That's how Earl Thomas remembers the late 1980s, singing the blues on a La Jolla street corner with his band the Rumboogies. "But we started drawing too big of a crowd and obstructing traffic. They shut us down."
After his stint in the Navy and graduating from Humboldt State, the Pikeville, Tennessee-born bluesman started singing the blues locally in 1987. Since then he has released eight albums and won four San Diego Music Awards, including Best Album and Best Artist. Three major artists, Etta James, Solomon Burke, and the late Screamin' Jay Hawkins, recorded six of his songs. "When Etta recorded [my song] 'I Sing the Blues' in '91, my life changed. Her version was used on [TV's] ER. I still receive royalties."
Thomas has played Street Scene and locally opened for B.B. King and Taj Mahal. "Etta James has asked me to be her permanent opener when she goes on tour [in 2005]." In April, Memphis International Records (Carla Thomas, Tracy Nelson) will release Thomas's ninth album, Intersection. The album was recorded in Memphis, not Thomas's favorite town. "I hated Memphis. There is a huge statue of Jefferson Davis downtown. To me that's like putting up a statue of Adolf Hitler in Berlin."
He prefers San Diego to Memphis. He admits, "It's too pleasant here to have any real blues," but he says, "this is conservative, white, old-ass San Diego, and they let me be me.... Where in the world could a gay black man work steady and just be free and be himself?"
And with that statement, he has quietly moved somewhere else.
"I hope I have made San Diego proud. But I need to go and have some solitude now. I love San Diego, I just don't want the desert. I need rain. I need green trees."
So Thomas, 44, has moved to a small seaside town in Northern California. "I like the fact that redwood trees go all the way to the beach."
He says opening for Etta James has let him experience the finer things.
"I'm not interested anymore in doing three sets a night from 9:30 to 1:30 and some club owner saying, 'You're late.' Thanks to Miss Etta James, I have a taste of what real artists have."