[Spotlight] Magnolia House blooms with Rhonda Thomas
“Rhonda Thomas, it’s your thing, baby!” said legendary soul man Isaac Hayes near the end of a rousing duet of his 1971 hit “Do Your Thing” that he and Thomas performed to a sold-out crowd at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 2005. Shortly before his death in 2008, Hayes and Thomas recorded a great (and too-little-known) studio version, which can’t quite be called a duet, considering how seductively she takes it over in a perfect fusion of soul and jazz.
The track begins with Hayes saying, “Do your thing, Rhonda!” and Thomas purring, “the music makes you move” before bursting into her full thrilling vocal range. In his final recording, the maestro passes the torch to this longtime backup singer and protégé, and for most of the next three and a half minutes, Thomas makes one of her mentor’s signature songs entirely her own. “Work it, baby, work it!” growls Hayes admiringly, and well he should.
On Saturday, Aug. 3, Thomas will do her thing and work it in Greensboro when she brings the vocal prowess that critics have compared to Sarah Vaugh, Phyllis Hyman and Chaka Khan to “a midsummer’s night of soulful sounds and sultry vocals” at the Historic Magnolia House, with all proceeds going to the repair and restoration efforts of the Magnolia House Foundation.
As reported in the May 29 YES! Weekly cover story “Triad Green Book Sites once sheltered black travelers,” the former residence at 442 Gorrell St., built in 1889, became the Magnolia House Hotel in 1950, and was featured in the famous Green Book (full title, “The Negro Motorist Green Book”) which listed safe places for black travelers to stay in an era when trying to book lodgings at a white-owned hotel could get them harassed, imprisoned or killed.
For the next 15 years, the Magnolia House was an important and prestigious stop on the circuit of R&B and soul clubs that ran from Harlem and D.C. to Atlanta, Richmond and Jacksonville. Its guest list included Ray Charles, Jackie Robinson, Ruth Brown, Satchel Page, Ike and Tina Turner, and James Baldwin.
But by the end of the 1960s, it had fallen on hard times, becoming a low-rent boarding house and finally closing in 1979. When Sam Pass bought it in 1995, it was a board-up and graffiti-covered shell of its former glory.
Restoration took time and money, and although Pass re-opened in 2012, it remains an ongoing process. “The house is not renovated, it’s totally restored, and it took a lot of sweat and a lot of stress,” said Pass when I interviewed him in May. But as anyone who’s been there for Wednesday or Thursday night dinner, Sunday brunch or the Sunday night “Juke Joint” performances (or has booked it for a special event) knows, it’s looking good these days, with excellent food and live entertainment in an elegant vintage setting. Which makes it a perfect setting for Rhonda Thomas, whose wide-ranging voice Isaac Hayes compared to “the quality, vocal timbre and vibrato of Denise Williams when she goes high,” and whose musicianship, arrangement, vocals and lyrics he called “a breath of fresh air.” It’s also an unusually intimate setting for a performer who’s played to an audience of 20,000 at Montreux.
Born in New York and residing in Atlanta, Thomas has performed or shared the stage with Luther Vandross, Roberta Flack, The String Cheese Incident, Roy Ayers, Frank McComb, Dwele, Eric Roberson, Avery Sunshine and Sam Moore (of Sam & Dave). Her albums include “Guess Who I Saw Today (with Michael Coppola),” “Breathe New Life,” “Listen,” “Little Drummer Girl” and 2015’s “Vinyl Daze,” which peaked at No. 12 on the Billboard Jazz Charts.
She performs at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. on Aug. 3, and the Magnolia House recommends purchasing and arriving early, due to “limited and very intimate” seating. Tickets available via Eventbrite and online.