Thursday, December 19, 2013

Kid Thomas -- Why He Sings the Blues

An obscure early blues and rock 'n' roll performer heavily influenced by Little Richard, Kid Thomas (a.k.a. Tommy Lewis/Louis) was born Louis Thomas Watts on June 20, 1934 in Sturgis, Mississippi.  The family moved to Chicago when Thomas was 7 and as a teen he took harmonica lessons from Little Willie Smith, a minor bluesman in the city.  By the late 1940s and early 1950s Thomas was playing harmonica at various blues clubs in Chicago sharing the stage with the likes of Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, and Elmore James.  Signed by the local King-Federal label in 1955, the harmonica playing blues singer cut two singles ("Wolf Pack" and "The Spell"), both flops.  In 1956, after a stint in Wichita, Kansas, Thomas broadened his musical horizons and moved into rock 'n' roll affecting a processed pompadour in the style of Little Richard.  In Los Angeles in early 1959, Thomas cut two singles for Modern Records for which he is best known today -- "You are an Angel" and the aptly titled "Rockin' this Joint Tonight."  The label quickly folded and the record was never promoted.  Five years passed before Thomas, renamed Tommy Louis and the Rhythm Rockers, recorded two singles for Muriel -- "The Hurt Is On" and "Wail, Baby, Wail!"  Again, the records failed.  Throughout the mid- to late-1960s Kid Thomas performed at private parties and in clubs like the Cozy Lounge in South East L.A.  One night at the Cozy Lounge, the owner of Cenco Records saw Thomas perform and brought him in the studio to record his last singles -- "(You are an) Angel" and the instrumental, "Willowbrook."  Like Modern Records, however, Cenco Records tanked.

Kid Thomas, the poor man's Little Richard, was operating a moderately successful lawn care service in Beverly Hills when what was left of his life forever changed.  On September 3, 1969, Lou T. Watts (Kid Thomas), 35, was driving his van in the 300 block of South Doheny Drive in Beverly Hills, whe he accidentally struck a child riding a bicycle.  Ethan Friedman, 10, died of his injuries later that afternoon.  The boy's father, Eugene K. Friedman, pressed police and requested the district attorney to file manslaughter charges.  Although Thomas possessed five driver's licenses (four obtained by fraudulent means), police were only able to revoke his license.  In the absence of witnesses to the accident, the district attorney refused to prosecute citing insufficient evidence.  Friedman hired a private investigator to tail the bluesman.  On March 2, 1970, police (acting on an "anonymous" tip) arrested Thomas for driving on a revoked license.  Friedman was present in court when Thomas came up on charges, but the case was postponed until April 13.  That day, Eugene Friedman waited in the parking lot of the public library across the street from City Hall for the arrival of the man he blamed for the death of his only child.  Immediately upon his arrival, Kid Thomas was confronted by the distraught father.  The men spoke briefly and then Friedman pulled a 9mm automatic pistol from a briefcase and fired point-blank into the bluesman.  Thomas ran across the street toward the rear entrance of the police station with Friedman in pursuit still squeezing off rounds.  Thomas fell to the curb, but a stray shot struck Beverly Hills Police Sgt. John Carden in the leg as he was standing at the rear door of the station.  Friedman dropped his gun and was arrested without incident.

Lou T. Watts, nominally well-known in certain musical circles as Kid Thomas, was pronounced dead at 9:20 A.M. at UCLA Medical Center.  At his first-degree murder trial in August 1970, Friedman faced the death penalty and a charge of assault with a deadly weapon in the shooting of Officer Carden.  The grieving father testified that he believed his son was standing next to him when he confronted Thomas to plead with him to stop driving.  When Thomas assumed what Friedman interpreted as a menacing position the father shot him to protect his son.  Following two days of deliberation, a jury found Friedman guilty of the reduced charge of voluntary manslaughter, but acquitted him on the assault with a deadly weapon charge.  Superior Court Judge Adolph Alexander subsequently placed Friedman on three years probation and ordered him to obtain psychiatric treatment, get a job, and not to use weapons or drugs.  "I do not condone violence in any form," added the judge, "but if it was in my power to reduce the charge to a misdemeanor I would do it."

Recommended Reading

Koda, Cub.  "Kid Thomas."  www.allmusic.com

Simmonds, Jeremy.  The Encyclopedia of Dead Rock Stars:  Heroin Handguns, and Ham Sandwiches.  Rev. ed.  Chicago, Ill.:  Chicago Review, 2008.

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