Leon Thomas - 1973 – Full Circle
For Leon Thomas, Full Circle represented the end of an era. It was the last album Leon Thomas released on Flying Dutchman Productions, and marked the end of his “classic period.” It had started four years earlier in 1969, when Leon Thomas released his debut album Spirits Known and Unknown. Since then, Leon Thomas’ star had been in the ascendancy.
By 1967, Leon Thomas had met saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. This was a perfect match for Leon. Here were two groundbreaking musicians. In Pharoah Sanders’ hands, the saxophone was transformed. He’d been a member of John Coltrane’s band, until his death in 1967. After that, he formed his own band. Comprising Leon, pianist Lonnie Liston Smith and Pharoah, this was a band of musical pioneers recorded Pharoah Sanders 1969 album Karma, which was released on Impulse. It featured The Creator Has A Master Plan, which showcased Leon’s unique vocal style. A compelling, spiritual track where Leon yodels and scats his way through the track, it was truly groundbreaking. One man who realized Leon Thomas’ potential was Bob Thiele, founder of Flying Dutchman Records.
A1 Sweet Little Angel 4:59
A2 Just In Time To See The Sun 2:58
A3 It’s My Life I’m Fighting For 10:10
A4 Never Let Me Go 2:58
A5 I Wanna Be Where You Are 4:22
B1 Got To Be There 4:27
B2 Balance Of Life (Peace Of Mind) 7:02
B3 You Are The Sunshine Of My Life 5:47
B4 What Are We Gonna Do? 5:56
Review by Derek Anderson
Despite his career having stalled, Leon Thomas got to work on his fourth album, which would become Full Circle. For Full Circle, nine tracks were chosen. Leon Thomas only wroteWhat Are Gonna Do? and with Neil Creque cowrote Balance Of Life (Peace Of Mind). Neil Creque also wrote It’s My Life I’m Fighting For. These tracks were augmented by some familiar songs.
This included Never Let Me Go, which came from the pen of a pioneer of rock ’n’ roll, Joe Scott. There were also covers of B.B. King and Jules Bihari’s Sweet Little Angel; Arthur Ross and Leon Ware’s I Wanna Be Where You Are; Stevie Wonder’s You Are The Sunshine Of My Life and a cover of Elliot Willensky’s Got To Be There. A cover of Santana’s Just In Time To See The Sun was a fitting addition.
Carlos Santana, Greg Rolle and Michael Shrieve had penned Just In Time To See The Sun for their 1972 album Caravanserai. By then, Carlos Santana had ‘discovered’ Leon Thomas, and wanted him to join Santana. Leon added vocals on their 1973 album Welcome. He would then join their touring band. So the inclusion of Just In Time To See The Sun seemed fitting. Just like the rest of the tracks on Full Circle, they had been carefully chosen.They had to be. Leon Thomas’ last two albums had flopped. So Leon and Bob Thiele must have considered carefully what tracks should feature on Full Circle.
An artist who wasn’t selling albums was a liability to a record company. It didn’t matter how innovative their music is. What counted was the bottom line. Bob Thiele couldn’t continue to release albums that didn’t sell. With reality hitting home, Bob Thiele decided to target the soul market. With this in mind, Leon Thomas entered the studio.
Again, Bob Thiele would produce the album. However, he had brought onboard a new arranger and conductor. Glen Osser replaced Pee Wee Ellis. He still featured on Full Circle, albeit in a much reduced capacity, playing tenor saxophone on Never Let Me Go and soprano saxophone on Just In Time To See The Sun. Pee Wee Ellis’ replacement Glen Osser, played piano, electric piano. This wasn’t the end of the changes.The rhythm section featured drummers Bernard “Pretty” Purdie and Herbie Lovelle; bassist Richard Davis; and guitarists Joe Beck and Lloyd Davis. Jimmy Owens played trumpet and flugelhorn; Richard Landrum played bata and percussion; and Sonny Morgan played berimbau and percussion. The final piece of the jigsaw was Leon Thomas, who added vocals and maracas. Once Full Circle was complete, the album was scheduled for release in 1973.
On the release of Full Circle in 1973, critics welcomed the move towards a much more commercial sound. Leon Thomas had set out to record an album that appealed to soul fans. He had succeeded. Full Circle was his most commercial offering. Some of his fans, thought that Leon Thomas had ‘sold out.’ It wasn’t a ‘sell out.’ Instead, it more a case of reality biting. He couldn’t continue to release albums that weren’t selling. The fans that cried ‘sell out,’ were wrong though. Occasionally, Full Circle offered Leon Thomas the opportunity to innovate. The best example was on Stevie Wonder’s You Are The Sunshine Of My Life. Mostly though, Full Circle was a soul album where Leon Thomas tried to attract a wider audience. That was the theory.
A cover of B.B. King’s Sweet Little Angel opens Full Circle. Strings sweep as a hypnotic standup bass, drums and flourishes of piano combine with a chiming guitar. Stylistically it pays homage to B.B. King. Then when the strings drop out, Leon’s vocal enters. It’s slow, bluesy, needy and full of sass. Just In Time To See The Sun must have come as a shock to those who had bought Leon Thomas’ previous albums. It’s a funky, Latin-tinged cover of a Santana song. Literally, the song bursts into life, propelled along by the rhythm section, guitars and percussion. Leon delivers an impassioned plea, before a trumpet and flugelhorn are unleashed.
A Fender Rhodes opens It’s My Life I’m Fighting For. It’s a ten minute epic, where a funky rhythm section join percussion and the Fender Rhodes. Quickly, Leon is combining power and emotion.
By the time Leon covered Joe Scott’s Never Let Me Go, it was almost a standard. A lone rasping tenor saxophone is panned left before lush strings, stabs of piano and an understated rhythm section combine. By then, Leon’s band have recreated the sound of a mid-fifties’ hop. When Leon’s vocal enters, he tenderly, croons his way though the lyrics. Meanwhile, a piano plays, a horn rasps and the rhythm section create the heartbeat. Adding the finishing touch to this beautiful ballad are the lushest of strings.
Arthur Ross and Leon Ware penned I Wanna Be Where You Are. It’s interpreted by Leon. Accompanying him are swathes of slow strings, a lone horn and the rhythm section. It’s augmented by percussion, before Leon delivers another tender heartfelt vocal. His vocal is tinged with regret, before becoming needy, hopeful and powerful. Then when it drops out a trumpet solo takes charge. Just below, Richard Davis’ bass underpins the arrangement.
Rather than reinvent Got To Be There, Leon stays true to the original. Slow, wistful string, a chiming guitar and thoughtful rhythm section combine before harmonies sing “Got To Be There.” They’re reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s version. A myriad of percussion opens Balance Of Life (Peace Of Mind). For just over forty seconds they’re scene setters. Then some of the percussion exits stage left. This frees up space for the rhythm section and Leon’s slow, deliberate and powerful vocal. When Leon yodels, he again cuts this short.
Anyone covering Stevie Wonder’s You Are The Sunshine Of My Life is in a no-win situation. It’s regard as the definitive version. All covers of the are compared against the original. So Leon tries to reinvent the songs. He slows the song down and vintage arranger Glenn Osser drenches the arrangement in the lushest of strings. The rhythm section play subtly, while Leon delivers a heartfelt vocal. By then, this paean is taking on new life and meaning. Later, a wistful horn and chiming guitar join percussion and strings replace Leon’s vocal. When he returns, the reinvention of You Are The Sunshine Of My Life is complete. It becomes a beautiful jazz-tinged, soulful ballad.
What Are We Gonna Do? closes Full Circle. A piano plays, and with occasional flamboyant flourishes setting the scene for Leon’s impassioned plea. With just the piano for company, he delivers a soul-searching, emotive vocal. Then when Leon’s vocal drops out, the piano adds occasional dramatic flourishes. When Leon returns, the same passion, sincerity and belief is present. This impassioned plea seems a fitting way to end Leon’s time at Flying Dutchman Productions.
Leon Thomas’ time at Flying Dutchman Productions ended on a high. Full Circle became his most successful album. That’s despite only reaching fifty-four in the US R&B charts. Bob Thiele, the veteran music man had been vindicated.That proved to be the case. Full Circle, which was recently released by BGP, an imprint of Ace Records, was the most successful album of Leon Thomas’ career. Together, Leon and Bob Thiele had cultivated a very accessible album. Mostly, it featured Leon Thomas singing soul. However, there were occasional diversions via blues and jazz. Meanwhile, Leon’s band seamlessly shifted between blues, funk, jazz, Latin and soul. This crack band of New York session players ensured that Leon’s final album for Flying Dutchman Productions was a memorable one.
By then, Carlos Santana had ‘discovered’ Leon Thomas, and wanted him to join Santana. Leon added vocals on their 1973 album Welcome, and then joined their touring band. So there was no followup to Full Circle.
When Leon Thomas returned from a one year tour with Santana, his career stalled. There were rumours of drug usage. Leon Thomas then became a stranger to recording studios. He never recorded another album until Piece Of Cake in 1980. However, by then, his best days were behind him.