With his suave crooning and snappy tempo, Chris Thomas leads his brass band and audiences back to an era when couples danced together and music collaboration was tight. Whether they perform as a duo, quartet, quintet, or a full 18-piece big band, he and the talented collection of brass players have certainly got that swing.
The sound is enough to drive a 91-year-old grandmother out of her wheelchair. That happened recently when Thomas was performing a Sinatra standard at a First Wednesday Art Walk in Hemming Park. Sensing despondence from the woman slumped in the chair; he walked over to talk to her.
“The next thing you know she’s up and dancing and singing with me,” Thomas says. “She’s just a neat, neat lady. Her kids were over the moon.”
What’s also astounding is that the band formed only a year ago, and Thomas has never taken a singing lesson. In fact, he almost became deaf as a child from extensive scar tissue in his ear canals. His hearing was eventually restored after 11 operations and effective therapy from a doctor whom he praises to this day.
Chris Thomas used to come home after school every day and play his parents records: a diverse collection ranging from The Jackson 5 to Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., big band jazz, soul and country.
“Every day after school I would listen to those records, over and over,” Thomas says. “I would put my hand and head up against the speaker. It became my solace. I got the fever.”
Originally from Chicago, Thomas graduated from Orange Park High School. While he had always enjoyed music, he had no sense of direction. So in 1986, he trained to become an Arthur Murray Dance Studio instructor.
“Dancing is my ‘real job,’” Thomas says.
He met Krista, the woman who would become his wife, while dancing and eventually the couple opened four studios of their own across Northeast Florida. Years later, exhausted, they sold them all.
“I took a year off just to sit back and figure out what I really wanted to do,” Thomas says.
He concluded that he still loved dancing, but something was missing. Last June, Thomas started talking seriously with some musicians about forming the Chris Thomas band.
Dancing to cool jazz standards for three decades has certainly rubbed off on Thomas’ vocal style and performance. But his voice reaches full throttle when he’s covering Motown favorites and artists like Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye.
“I’m starting to find more of my own voice,” he says. “It’s really evolving.”
Meanwhile, The Thomas’ have opened a new dance studio, Monarch Ballroom & Dance Studio, on Jacksonville’s Southside.
“It’s nice to have two very strong passions, and I’m able to pursue both,” Thomas says. “I’m a blessed guy.”