Songwriter, composer, producer, and former national touring musician Richard Paul Thomas has lived in Salado for nearly four decades now but at one time the Milwaukee, Wisc., native earned his living playing auditoriums, colleges, clubs and other venues all across the country.
Thomas has opened concerts for an all-star cast of big-time musicians, but one of his more memorable shows was a last-minute call to open for the famed 1970s duo, Loggins and Messina, known for selling more than 16 million records that included such hits as “Danny’s Song,” “House at Pooh Corner,” and “Your Mama Don’t Dance.”
“That was up in Green Bay,” Thomas recalled recently. “It was a one-off. They needed an opening act for one night. We get up there and it’s this big auditorium – 7,500 to 10,000 people or something – and the DJ is making the announcements.
“He says to the audience, ‘I’ve got some bad news for you. The band that was going to open is not going to be able to make it, but we have Susan and Richard Thomas to play for you.’
“The band that didn’t make it was ZZ Top.
“So, the audience was not happy with us at all. I think we won them over (although) I’ve got a few dings in my guitar from people throwing stuff at us. That was one of our highlights.”
Born and raised in Milwaukee, Thomas – also known as RpT – started playing guitar as a 10- or 11-year-old kid after trading his accordion for an Eko electric six-string.
“I was born and raised in a Polish household – my cousin played accordion – and accordions were part of the thing back then,” he explained, adding that he did not take guitar lessons but learned to play by watching other musicians perform.
“There was a band called … The Legends, I think. I’d hang out in front of the stage and watch the lead guitar player. That was pretty much it.
“I took a semester of classical guitar back in Milwaukee at a conservatory of music, but then I started touring, so I stopped going to school.”
His early influences as a kid were performers like Buddy Holly and Richie Valens. He played in various childhood bands and once did some recording in the same studio as his boyhood hero.
“I did a session at Norman Petty’s studio in New Mexico. He produced Buddy Holly, so I was singing on some of the same mics Buddy Holly sang on. That was a high point in my life for sure.”
Many moons ago, Thomas and his ex-wife played as a duo and wound up touring with a host of legendary musicians. The couple earned a living as full-time musicians for six or seven years until they divorced.
“We had a band for quite a few years, and then we got a deal … I don’t know if you remember anything about a thing called the NEC, the National Entertainment Conference. The colleges all belonged to this group, and they would send their bookers all to a weeklong thing. We attended one in Washington, D.C., and so we auditioned for all these colleges, and that’s how we got a lot of gigs.
“We’d do the whole eastern seaboard, from New York down to Florida. Toured colleges and clubs. In the Midwest, there were a lot of folk clubs – listening rooms, basically, not necessarily folk.
“You’d play (the same venue) from Wednesday through Sunday, and so we’d play with Townes Van Zandt, Odetta, Bob Gibson … tons of other people. James Lee Stanley, Michael Martin Murphy (Michael Murphy at the time). I can’t remember anymore all the people we’ve done stuff with. A lot of them were regional people – Tom Rush, Jean Ritchie.
“Everything from pure folkies to bluesy people – whatever would happen. When we had an album out, local promoters would call us up whenever there was a gig and they needed somebody to open.
“Right now, I’m working with Merel Bregante, who was the drummer for Loggins and Messina for many, many years. He lives just outside of Georgetown and has a studio there.”
Along with being a professional musician, Thomas has owned his own computer software company, and also once worked for the late French environmental and marine conservation pioneer, Jacques Cousteau (1910-1997). That gig is what brought him to Houston to live, and also where he met his wife, Linda, whose ancestors were early Salado settlers.
“I came down here in the mid-70s to work on a project for Jacques Cousteau and just kinda stayed.
“I was part of the production team for his environmental festivals that he did all over the country. My job was to come in, set things up, start gathering volunteers, and then after the show was done, I’d stay another week to shut everything down and move on to the next one.”
After visiting Salado frequently over the years, Thomas and Linda moved here permanently. He does not play live gigs much these days, but stays busy in his recording studio, RpT’s Library.
“Just taking it easy; having a good time,” Thomas says.
“I’ve been working with a guy – Roberto Ramos, who played with Little Joe y La Familia (well-known band from Temple) – who is a really good bass player. We’ve been working on arrangements for some new songs, and we’re talking about it.
“We were getting real close to starting to do something and then this whole (COVID-19) Delta variant came out. One of our cousins here in Salado just caught that – and he was vaccinated. So it’s still pretty dangerous out there. I’m getting old – 75 years old, I think – and my wife has some lung issues, so we’re just playing it safe. No sense taking any chances.”
Thomas, who has recorded several albums over the years, says he mostly sticks to singles and videos these days. He misses playing in front of a live audience, but also loves the studio recording process.
“It’s just so much fun, taking the raw song and taking it apart. How do you want to do the turnarounds, and how do you want to do the changes? What if we do this there and what if we do that here?
“But it’s really fun playing in front of an audience – a listening audience. Playing bars and stuff like that, you’re just playing at the audience. Even at some of the (local) wineries … I always like to play a quick end to the song. You’re playing along and the audience is talking real loud, and then you suddenly stop and the audience realizes how loud they’re talking.”
Thomas says he has written more than a hundred songs and has started-but-not-completed hundreds more.
“There’s a difference – completed or written?” he said, laughing.
“I’m a strange animal. I write all over the place. I’ve got country things, Latin-sounding things, jazz-sounding stuff, some rock stuff … it’s whatever the song comes out to be. You’ve got to understand … when I was listening to the radio and being influenced was back in the day when everything was played on every channel.
“You could be listening to your local radio station and hear, you know, Buddy Holly, The Singing Nun, Marvin Rainwater singing, ‘Gonna Find Me a Bluebird.’ That was my song book as a child. My dad also had a great record collection. He didn’t play an instrument, but he had classical, polkas, Broadway shows, jazz, big band. So as a kid, I was just surrounded by everything.”
His approach to songwriting is as varied as his writing style. Thomas says one secret is to always keep eyes and ears open. No one ever knows when or how the muse will strike.
“There’s a couple of things … one, you always get ideas in the middle of the night, so this phone I’m talking to you on has a bunch of ideas (saved) on it. I have files in my studio from every year, all of the song ideas I’ve had. I review those all the time.
“And then, other songs come out. We just finished one called, ‘My Father’s Son,’ which I’m doing for my dad’s birthday next month. It just came out and finished itself.
“I finished one called ‘The Cages of Texas.’ You remember last year when that man and his daughter drowned in the Rio Grande (River)? The pictures of her hanging onto his back and stuff? That really struck me, so I wrote that song and it’s on my YouTube channel.
“I wrote this song called, ‘I Can’t Wait to Taste Your Lips Again,’ and I was sitting exactly where I am right now – on the couch – with my guitar and for some reason, I flashed back to (being a kid in) Milwaukee. It was like 10 below zero and I was ice skating. There was this young lady and we started skating together and talking. Her name was Andrea. I walked her home and she kissed me. That was my first kiss.
“Why that came to mind 55, 60 years later, I don’t know. But there it was – and the next thing I know, the song is done.
“Another time … (Linda’s) ancestors were from Salado and we used to drive up here from Houston all the time, and one day I was thinking about what it must have been like to travel from Houston to Salado by stagecoach. Next thing I knew, I wrote a song called, ‘Salado.’
“You literally never know. Sometimes it takes a long time. Like the song I mentioned, ‘My Father’s Son.’ I finished that within a month or so. I’ve had other songs that have been five years in the making.
“Hang out with songwriters. There are a number of groups – there’s one in Salado called Songsmith. There’s a couple of groups in Austin. You bring your songs and they analyze then and talk about them. People give their critique, and you get to hear what other people are doing. You can’t help but learn something.
“If you immerse yourself in something, it just surrounds you. You just have to keep your mind open.”
Thomas said the area music scene appears to be well on its way back from the pandemic doldrums, and he looks forward to writing and recording music for many years to come. For more information on JpT and his music, go to: www.johnpaulthomas.com.
“Check out my website and drop me a note,” he said. “I love having people come over, playing music and talking about music. I’m always interested in people coming over with something I’ve never heard before.”