Seasoned Vocal-group Celebrates 20 Years of Classic Sounds
When he started his band, Winston-Salem singer Michael Thomas didn’t know that he was sort of starting a second family; one that spent hours and hours of practice time, performance time, travel time and down time together.
It’s true that the most difficult part about being a musician, the rarest and hardest-to-cultivate skill set, is probably the musical talent and the drive to practice and to improve. Some of that is about having a natural gift and some of it is about a temperament suited to long hours working on technique. Scales, chord progressions, rudiments and warm-ups can be kind of boring. After all of that, there are other extra-musical skills that can make the difference when it comes to making a career in music.
Thomas is the founder and manager of Envision, a Winston-Salem based group that does everything from weddings to summer street festivals to corporate events. Thomas and Envision have been making music —- a wide ranging mix of beach music, Motown, oldies, soul, funk, rhythm and blues, pop and even a little bit of country — for 20 years. The group is venturing into writing originals as well, with a debut EP, Soul Reloaded, set for release this week. Envision plays the Summer on Liberty concert series in Winston-Salem on Aug. 12.
Keeping any band together for two decades is a feat and the fact that Envision is a large ensemble — with 12 members when the group expands to its full size. Together they showcase vocal harmonies, horns and a hefty rhythm section, which makes hitting the 20-year mark even more remarkable. When people talk about the genius of Duke Ellington, in addition to his piano-playing, orchestration, composing and entertainment skills, the subject of Ellington’s remarkable ability to keep a large band — his orchestra — together, well-rehearsed and ready to tour the world or record, that was part of what made Ellington the giant that he was.
Thomas can appreciate the organizational and interpersonal talents that Ellington must have had, because Envision is made up of band members that have day jobs and families. The 54 year old started Envision in 1997 after having been the singer in several bands over the years. Envision was different because it was an ensemble that nodded back to older vocal groups of the ‘60s and ‘70s and back to some of the music that first made Thomas want to take to the stage. Rather making a band where he could be the frontman, Thomas assembled a group of vocalists to make a frontline of singers, with choreographed moves, a matching look and a general esprit decor that wasn’t exactly something associated with the ‘90s. This was a band modeled on acts like the Temptations, the Four Tops and the Pointer Sisters.
“When I started in 1997 — back then my perspective was so limited, more so than it is now — it was something that I thought the market was crying for,” Thomas said of the demand for retro classic-soul vocal groups. “There was something yearning and burning in me to do a frontline vocal group with a backing band.”
He sang as a youngster in church, but one of Thomas’s first real performances, the one that kindled that yearning and burning, was at a high school talent contest.
“We performed an O’Jays classic,” Thomas said. “We were patterning ourselves after what we loved.”
He attended both Carver and East Forsyth High Schools. Styles changed in the ‘80s, disco was, for a time, a thing of the past, Motown and vocal-group soul were a thing of the past, but not totally a nostalgia craze yet.
But Thomas wasn’t necessarily in lock step with everyone, trading musical styles of the past for the latest models.
“I just wasn’t ready to let [the vocal group sound] go,” he said. “I wanted to continue that.”
Thomas soaked up the classic vocal group sounds by listening to old recordings and watching shows like Soul Train. Even over the years when he wasn’t making music, he felt like it was a core aspect of his life.
“It was through radio and listening to the record player,” Thomas said. “ I was just glued to my transistor radio. Music has always been a part of me. I haven’t always been a part of expressing it, but I was always taking it in.”
The difference between listening to a vocal group and listening to a featured lead singer is a little like the difference between watching a great basketball team and watching a tennis star play a match. You can witness great performances in both cases, but one involves more interaction, maybe more finesse and more seamless blending than the other.
Before forming Envision, Thomas said the groups he was in were devoted to solo singing, with maybe a few situations that featured paired vocal harmonies.
“All of the bands that I worked with featured one, maybe two singers, but we never really focused on harmonies,” Thomas said.
Thomas was interested in starting a group with “great chemistry.” The decision to feature group vocals meant that gigs would be a little less lucrative, with more people dividing up the same guarantee. It also meant that rehearsals and gigs would be harder to schedule, with more people to corral. Along with Thomas, the vocalists in Envision — Sylvania Wilder, Michelle Scales, Iris Daye and Charlene Legette — make a silky smooth blend. But there’s also plenty of soulful punch, fervor and power that the individuals can dial up when they’re the featured singer in a given song.
You might think that the repertoire of a band that features group vocals would be limited, but Envision manages to stretch pretty far and wide to work all kinds of material into their set. It’s a classic wedding-band strategy, maybe — be ready to play just about whatever anybody is likely to want to hear. They don’t play metal and they don’t play hip-hop, but that leaves a lot of options. A typical set might include tunes made famous by Bonnie Raitt, Chicago, George Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic, Bob Marley, KC and the Sunshine Band, Shania Twain, the B-52s, Earth Wind and Fire, and Bob Seger. They might even dust off a version of “Rocky Top,” depending on the crowd.
New material, written by keyboardist Victor Crenshaw Sr., gives the band a chance to take some of the tricks they’ve learned from studying the greats of popular music and apply them to their own compositions.
“This project has taught us a lot,” Thomas said. “There’s something different about putting your opinion on an original; it feels different, but in some ways, it feels like what we’ve been doing all along.”
Most bands get enough of each other’s company by rehearsing, recording and performing, but Thomas said the many members of Envision are planning a non-musical getaway, a cruise in the fall, that will just be a vacation, with no practice and no gigs.
“These people that have become our family,” Thomas said. “When I tell you that we have a very family feel to our unit, it is real, and I guess that’s proof of it.”
Envision play the Summer On Liberty music series, at the intersection of 6th and Liberty streets in downtown Winston-Salem, Saturday, Aug 12, 7 p.m.
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.