After 32 years of working in a steel mill, at a time of life when most people are kicking back and taking it easy, “Little Al” Thomas was diving headfirst into a new career — singing the blues.
In his 60s, he and the Crazy House Band performed on the East Coast from Maine to Key West’s Margaritaville resort.
He was 69 when Cannonball Records released his first album, “South Side Story.”
He and the Crazy House Band wound up getting booked to play the Lucerne Blues Festival in Switzerland, which led to another CD, “In the House” on CrossCut Records.
At 86, he was inducted into the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame.
Mr. Thomas, 89, died Wednesday at his home in the Prairie Shores Apartments on the South Side of complications of old age, according to his wife Edwina.
They met about 26 years ago when he was singing at Lee’s Unleaded Blues, 7401 S. South Chicago Ave.
“I thought he was the greatest blues singer that I’d ever heard,” said his wife, who’s from New Orleans. “I thought he was a fellow Southerner. I was impressed that someone born in Chicago and raised in Chicago had that sound. Oh, my God, he was little, and he had this giant voice.”
He was a showman, according to Justin O’Brien, who wrote about him in 2011 for Living Blues Magazine. When Mr. Thomas sang “Somebody Done Changed that Lock on My Door,” he would take out his keys and jangle them.
“And on Chuck Willis’ ‘Feel So Good,’ which opens, ‘I got a letter, came to me by mail,’ he flourishes an envelope from inside his jacket,” O’Brien wrote for the magazine.
He was born Albert Thomas in Cook County Hospital to parents from Lutcher, Louisiana.
“My mother and grandmother had records they had brought from the South in 1926. And I used to climb up on a box and wind the old Victrola and listen to the records,” he told O’Brien. “They had Mama Rainey and another woman called Black Patti, and they had some old spirituals. I don’t know who was playin,’ but it had a groove, you know. And my grandmother, she would bang on the piano.”
His wife said he’d sing while walking to Medill grade school.
He’d listen to the blues being played on Maxwell Street. A few blocks away, he was immersed in gospel at the family church, Zion Hill Baptist, where the legendary Mahalia Jackson sometimes performed, according to Living Blues.
“Al had just this sort of combination of real grit and elegance when he sang,” said John Edelmann, his guitarist with the Crazy House Band, which also featured Tom “Mot” Dutko and Ed Galchick.
Mr. Thomas told O’Brien that, in the 1940s, he liked seeing Tampa Red and Big Maceo Merriweather play Club Zanzibar at 13th and Ashland and hearing Otis Rush at the 708 club at 708 E. 47th St.
When he wasn’t working at U.S. Steel, he began singing in the 1960s on Maxwell Street and at clubs around Chicago. His wife said he opened for Bobby “Blue” Bland and performed on the same bills with Lefty Dizz.
He often played the Spitz Diner & Lounge at 7149 S. South Chicago Ave. and the Leather Lounge at 69th Street and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.
In 2010, “Not My Warden” was released on the Blues Boulevard label, featuring Little Al Thomas and the Deep Down Fools, including Edelmann, Galchick, Marty Binder and Rob Waters.
He and the band played the Telluride Blues & Brews Festival that year.
He also performed at the Chicago Blues Festival and Buddy Guy’s Legends.
Mr. Thomas loved old Westerns, especially the ones with celluloid cowboy Randolph Scott, a reliably rugged star of the genre from the 1930s to the 1960s. He watched them so much that he could even spot Scott’s favorite mount, Stardust.
He and his wife enjoyed going to the French Quarter Festival each year. Inspired by her New Orleans roots, he liked to make red beans and rice, gumbo and jambalaya.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by nieces Linda Thomas, Phyllis Leshoure and Beverly Egonmwan, nephew Gregory and many great-nieces and great-nephews.
Visitation will be at 9 a.m. Feb. 29 followed by a 10 a.m. service at Gatling’s Chapel, 10133 S. Halsted St., with burial at Lincoln Cemetery at 123rd Street and Kedzie Avenue.