Who is “the invisible man of Rock and Roll”? Mickey Thomas – that’s who!
Many music aficionados probably aren’t aware that the Cairo, Georgia native sang the lead vocals for the Elvin Bishop Band's 1975 number three hit single, “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” from the album, Struttin' My Stuff. But you can’t deny his mark as the lead voice on Starship’s biggest hits: “Jane”, “Sara”, “We Built This City”, “Stranger”, “No Way Out”, “Find Your Way Back”, “It’s Not Over (‘Til It’s Over)”, “Layin’ It On the Line” and “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now”.
“I was doing lead vocals for Elvin Bishop. It said Elvin Bishop Band on the record label, so people naturally assumed, if they didn’t know better, that Elvin Bishop was the vocalist,” Thomas explains. “Ironically, in spite of the many hits I had with Starship, because a lot of the times I was in the band at the same time as Grace Slick or I was following in the footsteps of Marty Balin, people may still not put my name together with the songs. But, I think they recognize the voice.”
When Mickey Thomas joined Jefferson Starship in 1979, he faced the daunting task of replacing not one but two star singers, Grace Slick and Marty Balin. But Mickey not only proved himself capable of stamping his own imprint on the band, he also played the most significant role in transforming the band into Starship six years later. On one hand, Mickey is credited with leading the band to its greatest success. On the other hand, he is vilified by fans for instigating the band’s commercial sell-out.
Mickey grew up listening to gospel music, but was inspired to become a singer after attending a Beatles’ concert at age fourteen. His later influences included soul artists Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave, and Otis Redding.
In 1972, Mickey sang backup for a black gospel singer named Gideon Daniels, who was a friend of Elvin Bishop’s (ex-Paul Butterfield Blues Band). Two years later, Mickey joined Bishop's band, originally as a backup singer, but eventually gravitating to lead vocals. Mickey’s easy-going tenor on “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” (1976) only whetted his appetite for more of the limelight. The song went to number three in the U.S., but, as Bishop’s name was on the label, Mickey got little of the credit. After appearing on four albums with Bishop - Let It Flow (1974), Juke Joint Jump (1975), Struttin' My Stuff (1976, which contained Fooled) and Raisin' Hell (1977) - Mickey left to go solo.
After his 1977 solo debut went nowhere, Mickey received a call, in early 1979, from Jefferson Starship, who were interested in him as lead singer. Mickey was dubious at first. He later told Rolling Stone that he knew nothing about Jefferson Airplane or Starship, except for “all those wild stories”. The band members were equally uncertain about him: The singer of “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” seemed an odd choice for a band that wanted to overcome its middle-of-the-road image. Nevertheless, a mutual friend had played them a tape of Mickey’s other material, prompting their interest. After meeting with the band once without singing, Mickey gradually worked his way into their rehearsals. On April 12, 1979, he signed on for two albums.
With the release of “Jane”, later that year, Mickey’s soaring falsetto instantly established a bold new direction for Jefferson Starship. The song reached the U.S. top twenty, a success no one could have expected in light of the drastic changes from their Miracles-era plateau. Mickey served the band equally well on Freedom at Point Zero, on which he shares lead vocals with Paul Kantner. The dynamic exchange between their voices is particularly evident on the title track.
By the release of Modern Times in 1981, Mickey had grown accustomed to the idea of being the sole vocalist of the band. Ironically, he soon found himself sharing the stage with his own predecessor, Grace Slick, who rejoined the band after guesting on two of the album’s tracks. Despite whatever reservations Mickey had over this arrangement, he quickly developed a rapport with her, dueting on such songs as “Stranger” (Modern Times) and “Winds of Change” (off the same-titled album). The arrangement seemed to work so long as Mickey got to sing lead on the hit singles (which included “Find Your Way Back”, 1981; “Be My Lady”, 1982; and “No Way Out”, 1984). But although Grace willingly took a backseat during this period, there was no denying that she still commanded the public’s attention - a situation which had partly driven Mickey’s other predecessor, Marty Balin, out of the band.
Mickey, however, proved more ambitious and tenacious than Marty. After his initial two-album contract expired, Mickey re-signed to the band (although, at one point, he was under consideration to join Journey, should Steve Perry have left). This time, he wielded more influence, participating, however marginally, in the songwriting, and pushing the band into a more commercial direction. Mickey seems to have found little resistance from most of the band members (who, contrary to popular belief, had never completely ignored commercial considerations) and at least one ally in guitarist Craig Chaquico. In 1982, Mickey apparently found another ally when drummer Donny Baldwin, a former Elvin Bishop colleague, joined the band.
Mickey also had plenty of outside activities to keep him busy. In 1981, he released his second solo effort, Alive Alone. Then, on August 8, 1982, he married Sara Kendrick (whose name would subsequently be borrowed for Starship's hit, Sara). When not working with Jefferson Starship, Mickey, along with Donny, would play with a band called Little Gadget and the Soulful Twilight.
By 1984, Jefferson Starship was clearly divided between the commercial direction Mickey favored and the science fiction/psychedelic/social commentary rock of founding member Paul Kantner. Although Paul once described band albums of this period as a “variety show”, encompassing several different styles and viewpoints, the end result was probably satisfactory to neither side. Nuclear Furniture (1984), the final Jefferson Starship album, was in particular a mishmash of watered-down songs in search of a middle ground that could not be located. After the album’s completion, Paul abruptly left the band in protest of its commercial direction; inadvertently, perhaps, he conceded victory to Mickey.
After much legal wrangling, Mickey, along with Grace, Craig, Donny, and bassist Pete Sears, continued as Starship. Unfettered by Paul’s science fiction trappings, the band also found itself bereft of his songwriting talents. Although most of the remaining members were also songwriters, they opted instead to use outside writers for their next album. The result was the band’s first top ten album in six years, Knee Deep in the Hoopla (1985), and two number one hits, “We Built this City” (co-written by Bernie Taupin) and “Sara”. This extraordinary achievement marked the first time that any version of the Airplane or Starship had topped the singles chart - and all it took was 20 years, two name changes, and the loss of all original members.
Starship's winning streak continued through 1987, with the hits “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” (their third number one!) and “It’s Not Over (‘Til It’s Over”), and their second album, No Protection. Perhaps encouraged by this success, Mickey once again nurtured his yearnings to be the sole lead vocalist. Instead of leaving the band to go solo, however, Mickey entrenched himself further into Starship. In her autobiography, Grace says she had no trouble deciphering Mickey’s intentions; on one occasion, she showed up at the studio to sing a duet with him, only to discover that Mickey had already recorded all the parts himself.
Grace went without a fight. Her own health problems and dissatisfaction with the band’s commercial direction were more than enough incentive for her to call it quits in early 1988. Starship now had no members who had ever been part of Jefferson Airplane, and Mickey was seemingly free to chart any course he wanted to for the band. Even so, Mickey later expressed a tinge of regret over Grace’s leaving; he told Billboard Magazine that the caustic title of Starship’s next album, Love Among the Cannibals, was inspired by her 1989 reunion with The Airplane.
Unfortunately, Love Among the Cannibals failed to establish the new band identity that Mickey craved. After relying overmuch on outside writers and studio musicians over the last few years, Mickey attempted to reinvent Starship as a five-piece rock band with Craig, Donny, bassist Brett Bloomfield, and keyboard player Mark Morgan. But when the album appeared in 1989, it met a stiff reaction from both critics and fans. In the era of Guns ‘N’ Roses and Metallica, Starship seemed tame, unoriginal, and - under the leadership of 39-year-old, over-the-hill Mickey. “It’s Not Enough”, Starship’s final hit single, would become an ironic epitaph for the band.
Within a year of the album’s release, both Craig and Donny would depart, leaving Mickey solely in charge of Starship's future. From 1992 onwards, he toured as Starship featuring Mickey Thomas, utilizing different backing musicians, though no further recordings have been forthcoming.
Mickey has, however, remained active on other fronts. In 1998, he guested on Sammy Hagar’s Marching to Mars (including on “Who Has the Right”, co-written by ex-Starship bandmate Craig Chaquico). Around the same time, he sang with ex-Toto singer Bobby Kimball on the latter's “All I Ever Wanted”. Outside of music, Mickey has provided the voice of the title character in the syndicated cartoon, The Adventures of Kanga Roddy, which won an Emmy in 1999.
His new release, Over the Edge (2004) features such great guitarists as Neal Schon, Richie Kotzen and Steve Lukather. It is the perfect background to one of those classic voices that you don’t hear any more in today’s “rock” music.