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Thomas Llyfnwy Thomas 
by Elfed and Barbara Thomas
(Updated by Charles A. Hooey)

Why is it that the many lovers of vocal music living in Wales know so little of the astonishing career of one our native sons in the glittering, star-studded show-biz world of the United States of America? Should we not know something of a fellow Celt who, at the age of 25, had the temerity to turn down not only a seven-year contract with the Metropolitan Opera House, but also numerous contracts with major Hollywood film companies? He pursued instead the precarious and challenging career of a radio and concert artist, and how right he was proved to be. For almost 25 years his voice was heard each day on radio by millions of American and Canadian listeners, while at the same time he averaged sixty solo concert recitals plus numerous guest appearances each year. His repertoire was amazingly varied, including lieder, operatic arias, ballads, spirituals and songs from the shows, not forgetting Welsh folk songs, at least one of which he included in every recital.

At a time when talented singers of all nationalities flocked to America, and singers of the calibre of Lawrence Tibbett, Nelson Eddy, Jussi Bjoerling and Richard Tauber were at their peak, he not only made a career, but competed successfully with the stars, sharing the same stage, commanding the same fees, and singing to capacity audiences all over the North American continent. Not bad for the Welsh-speaking son of a Maesteg collier! Yet we in Britain hardly knew of his existence. Those were the days, of course, before the wonder of satellites, the magic of TV and the sophisticated transatlantic communications that we now know take for granted.

The artist we are talking about is Thomas Llyfnwy Thomas, known to his friends as Llyfanwy [pronounced Ch-luv-nooey; the ‘Ch’ as in ‘Bach’], but to an admiring public as Thomas L. Thomas. We hope in this article to fill in some of the background of his remarkable career. Unfortunately much of this information must necessarily be second hand, but there is still more than enough to paint a fascinating picture, and to give a real insight into his life, and the pitfalls of making a career in show business, where tenacity, drive and business acumen were just as necessary for success as talent and musicianship. To appreciate his professionalism and the high level of his artistry one has only to listen to his records, regrettably few in number as they are. His recordings of Welsh folk songs and Scottish songs are fairly well known in this country, but it is a pity that more recordings were not made of his wide-ranging repertoire. However, there are a few live recordings available, which give some idea of his versatility and the quality of his voice and interpretation.

Thomas Llyfnwy Thomas was born at 1 Court Street, Maesteg, Wales on February 23, 1911. His parents were Josiah and May Thomas. He was given the middle name of “Llyfnwy,” after a noted bard who was a friend of his father’s and this was the name he was always known by in his family. Although Josiah earned his living as a miner, his real love was music, and he was an outstanding flautist. He won the National Eisteddfod three times, became a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music, and had played the flute with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Llyfnwy, his older brother David Elwyn, and his younger sister Gwyneth, were brought up in a very musical home and encouraged to make the most of their hereditary talent, for their mother also sang and played the piano. The family were staunch members of Canaan Welsh Independent Chapel, Maesteg and Llyfnwy took part from a very early age in many cantatas and other musical entertainments there. He also took the role of Sir Joseph Porter in a school production of HMS Pinafore, which later toured the surrounding area.

In 1923, when Llyfnwy was 12 years old, his parents decided to emigrate to Scranton, Pennsylvania. Good jobs were available for experienced miners and Josiah Thomas was only one of many Welshmen who decided to take the opportunity of a better future for their families. As things turned out, Josiah remained a miner for a very short time, as he turned professional almost immediately, and became a flautist with the Pennsylvania Orchestra. He never looked back, and later on, when Lily Pons visited Pennsylvania, she always asked for Josiah Thomas to play the flute for her coloratura solos.

When they first came to America Llyfnwy [or ‘Thomas’ as he increasingly became known] and his brother Elwyn were so homesick that they made a pact always to speak to each other in Welsh, and they kept this up throughout their lives, with the result that they always remained fluent in their native tongue. This was helped by the fact there was a strong Welsh community in Scranton at that time, and Welsh was very much the language of the chapel and of the hearth and home. Family life was very close-knit, and the children continued their musical education under the direction of their father, who taught them all to sing and play the piano, while Gwyneth also learned the flute. In later life Thomas admitted that he had gained his musical training by ‘education and absorption,’ and he always acknowledged the debt he owed to his father’s early training and example. “Just being around Dad was an education,” he said. Although music was his main interest, Thomas did not originally intend making it his full-time career and he went through Technical School and qualified as an Engineering draughtsman. By the time he was twenty-two he was an assistant executive with an engineering firm but continued to study singing, and performed in many local musical events, developing a very promising baritone voice.

During this period Nelson Eddy came to Scranton and heard Thomas sing. He was impressed with his potential but told him he must go to New York if he wanted to make a career as a singer. About a year later Thomas won through to the final of the Atwater Kent Competition, an important nationwide radio contest, and, in company with other finalists, he had the honour of being invited to the White House and to be publicly congratulated by President Hoover. Fifty thousand hopefuls had originally entered the competition, and when it came time to choose the winner Llyfnwy was placed second overall by the panel that included Maria Jeritza, Rosa Ponselle, Tito Schipa and Lawrence Tibbett.

This was in 1932 and confirmed for him his decision to make singing his career. He then had another piece of good fortune. Oscar Seagle, a leading singing teacher and a pupil of Jean de Rezske, offered two scholarships to study singing with him in New York. The extraordinary thing was that, of these two scholarships, Llynwy captured one, and his brother Emlyn carried off the other! This meant that the two brothers were able to seek their fortunes in New York, and give each other moral and financial support, which proved very useful as time went by.

Once the scholarship had run out, Thomas found singing lessons in New York were expensive, and so was accommodation. He desperately needed to get engagements in order to pay his way. By this time he had acquired a manager, Vladimir Domansky, and, through his efforts he was able to secure quite an interesting variety of work in minor operatic productions, oratorios and church functions. Although he was gathering valuable experience, these engagements were not always very lucrative. As time passed, he began to wonder, as so many had before him, whether he should admit defeat and go back to Scranton and his steady job. His real ambition was to get into radio, but in spite of over ninety auditions he was unable to land a regular contract. Producers were always impressed with his voice, but he was unknown, and no one would take the risk of employing him. Fortunately about this time his brother got a regular job singing at the Central Presbyterian Church, New York (under the name David Elwyn, to avoid confusion) and this was a great help to their joint finances as well as to morale!

There seemed to be no sign of a breakthrough for Thomas, however. But in 1937, just as was on the point of giving up, he was invited to compete in the Metropolitan Opera’s Auditions of the Air to discover promising young singers, the prize being a seven-year contract with the Met. This became the turning point of his career. From the original eight hundred selected entrants, he was adjudged the most promising young male singer, and his rendering of “Eri tu” from A Masked Ball and the Drinking Song from Hamlet captivated the judges. At age of twenty-five he had achieved the supreme target and dream of every American singer. He was the youngest to win it, and the first Welshman. With a cheque of $1,000 in his pocket, plus the offer of a contract with the Met, all of his troubles seemed to be over.

His operatic debut at the Metropolitan Opera House took place two months after winning the competition. It was as Silvio in Pagliacci on 15 May 1937 with Ruby Mercer (Nedda), Sydney Rayner (Canio), Robert Weede (Tonio), Lodovico Oliviero (Beppe), with Gennaro Papi, conductor. It was a gala night for him, as the whole community of Scranton decided to support their local boy made good. No fewer than 1,200 Scrantonians, led by the Mayor, travelled to New York on two specially chartered trains and ten buses, and they gave him a tremendous ovation. His performance was well received by the critics, offers of work poured in, and he was at last in the position to pick and choose.

His next engagement in front of a Scranton audience was his homecoming concert at the Masonic Hall in Scranton, where he received a rapturous welcome, but this could not take place until the autumn, as immediately after his triumph at the Met, he was whisked off to Hollywood, this time to star as soloist in the radio programme ‘Showboat,’ the show in which he had previously been glad to deputize for a friend in the chorus. It is difficult for us to realize nowadays just how much appeal these radio shows of the thirties and forties possessed, attracting a regular following on a par with TV soaps of today. All these programmes, of course, were sponsored by various commercial products, and the Showboat programme was advertised as being ‘Delightful, Wonderful, Instructive, Moral!” The price of admission is your loyalty to Maxwell House Coffee. While appearing on this programme Thomas spent six months in Hollywood, where the show was being transmitted and had his eyes well and truly opened to the realities of show business. In an article in the Scranton Tribune he gave a caustic description of the way the stars ‘pretend to avoid the autograph pests,’ and he also described how hundreds of young artists who had experienced some success in other parts of the States were signed up by managements which then kept them under contract but gave them no work to do, ‘wriggling out of apparently ironclad agreements like eels.’ He was developing a very realistic view of the traps awaiting a young artist striving to start his career and was learning how to deal with the pressures that were on him, now that winning the Met had brought him into the limelight and made him a sought-after property. 

To start with, he was advised that he should definitely change his name. Opinions were unanimous on this - double names might be all right in Wales but the American public would never accept a singer with a name like Thomas L. Thomas. Thomas was adamant. He had a good Welsh name, three good Welsh names, in fact, and he was determined to keep them. As he said to one interviewer, “My mother named me and my father approved, what’s wrong with that? “ The only concession he would make was that they could use his middle name ‘Llyfnwy,’ if they wished, but this suggestion was not received with enthusiasm, and even he had to admit it was rather a mouthful for a non-Welsh speaker. As he told another reporter, “You can’t pronounce it. You have to woof it.” He was quite determined to be known by the name Thomas L. Thomas, and once he was established, public opinion changed completely; his name was described as ‘a press agent’s dream’ once he had proved it could attract capacity audiences!

The time had come for him to make more fundamental decisions, particularly about the direction his career was going to take. Not only did he have the offer of a seven-year contract with the Met as part of his prize, but he was also very much in demand for film and radio work, now he had won the competition. It is not surprising in view of his Hollywood experiences that he turned down offers to appear in films, but astonishingly, after a single performance, he also rejected the Met contract and opted for a less secure but more flexible career in radio and on the concert platform; one reason that must have influenced him was undoubtedly that he realised the strain constant opera put on all but the most robust voices. A singer’s career can be very unpredictable and Thomas was a very level-headed young man who realised he had to look after his instrument and preserve it as long as possible. Robert MacGimsey, a friend of his and a composer, whose spirituals Thomas invariably included in his recitals, put the matter very succinctly in a private letter many years later, “You could have let the folks down at the Met sing your guts out of you if you had wanted to, but you were smart enough to turn down their offer.”

The other reason he made clear in a newspaper interview ten years later, in which he explained his apparently outrageous decision. “I wasn’t ready for the Metropolitan... no very young and inexperienced vocalist should ever be permitted to appear there. You see, I actually had more respect for the Met than it had for itself.” He believed deeply that young singers should have the opportunity of learning their craft in small opera houses before they aspired to the leading opera houses of the world, and he believed that the government should subsidise such a scheme. As this did not happen, he tried very hard himself to do something practical about it, and in 1940, when he was at the peak of his career; he launched the ‘American Opera League.’ This was an organization founded to encourage the use of the English language in operatic productions, so that the audience could understand the plot, and also to give employment, experience and practical training to the hundreds of young singers struggling to make a start in their careers. This was a very carefully planned project, and very dear to Thomas’s heart. He was prepared to fund it by financial support from his own pocket, coupled with contributions from established artists. Unfortunately, this far-sighted scheme for training the musical minor leaguers for the majors only lasted a brief period since he was unable to attract sufficient regular financial support from other sources to keep it going. As a project it was too far ahead of its time, and it still seems extraordinary that it was left to a young man of twenty-nine to have the vision to plan a scheme for the training of future performers, while the musical establishment failed to give the necessary backing to bring it into being.

This ability to look ahead was characteristic of Thomas. On the night he won the Met competition there was a big party with crowds of people, congratulations and lavish celebrations, but this was too much for him, even then. He left it all behind and went out for a walk on his own, wise enough to realise that it was not the end but the beginning. It was because of this clear-sightedness that he was able to sustain a successful career for over thirty years in a sphere where reputations are notoriously short-lived.

His subsequent career proved his decision in turning down the contract with the Metropolitan Opera was the right one, as for the next twenty-five years or so he was in constant demand, broadcasting on two radio shows a week, and undertaking concert engagements all over America for the rest of the time. Radio programmes he took part in included Manhattan Merry Go Round, The Album of Familiar Music, Chicago Theatre of the Air, Make Mine Music, Palmolive Hour, and, for many years, The Voice of Firestone with which programme he became very much identified. In fact he appeared on it so often singing the signature tune If I Could Tell You that he became known as the Voice of Firestone itself.

For years Thomas’s routine meant recording one radio programme in New York on a Sunday night, flying to Detroit on Monday, broadcasting with the Detroit Philharmonic on Tuesday, then off again on Wednesday to fit in concert appearances all over America and Canada for the rest of the week until Sunday came round again. He averaged over 60 concerts a year for many years, while at the same time he was performing in two broadcast shows a week, apart from special guest appearances. His repertory was phenomenal, and every selection, whether it was a folk-song or an operatic aria, was prepared with the same dedication and the same high artistic standard. He told one reporter, “People think we don’t do much work for our radio appearances. One three-minute song takes many hours of practice and work. On my Detroit programmes I’m on for seven minutes. For that seven minutes, I travel 1,250 miles.” He travelled approximately 28,000 miles every six months in the 1940s, and on his tour of Canada in 1948 he travelled 10,000 miles by air, train, boat and dog sled!

It was treadmill, but a profitable one. According to a report in The Sunday News in 1947, Thomas was earning $1,500 for each concert, and the same for singing two songs on a radio show, not to mention $2,000 for every additional guest appearance. At the peak of his career he was the highest paid concert artist in America and, in spite of his high expenses in travelling, accommodation, fees for his manager and accompanist, taxes, etc he was able to enjoy a very different life-style from the days when he had first come to New York to seek his fortune as a singer. His parents were the first to be remembered, and he bought his father a silver flute, which he always prized very highly. Also, in addition to his studio in New York, Thomas bought himself a 140-acre farm in New Jersey, with a manager to look after the day-to-day farming. There he grew crops, raised cattle and also indulged in his passion for breeding Arabian horses for, like all his family, he had always been a devoted horseman. He always claimed that “the best thing for the inside of a man is the outside of a horse” and he loved to sing on horseback. He could never afford to spend as much time at the farm as he would have liked, but it was a place where he could relax after the tension of a busy tour, and it was also a refuge for his friends and family. His manager, Vladimir Domansky, his brother David Elwyn, sister Gwyneth and his parents were all frequent visitors there.

A heart-warming feature of Thomas’s success was that, although Elwyn was also pursuing a career as a baritone, there was never any unfriendly rivalry between them. In fact, they were always ready to help each other out, which was easy, since their voices were so similar in quality that their father admitted he could not distinguish between them on the air! Elwyn also had a very successful career, and sang in many Hollywood musicals, where his voice was often dubbed in place of the stars’. His career, however, was badly interrupted by the war, as after five years in the Artillery he was left temporarily deaf. Fortunately he recovered and resumed his career, which was an exciting one in its own right, but he was far less known in Wales than his brother. Later on, he did a good deal of straight acting in films and stage shows on Broadway and had the distinction of holding the record for appearing in 2,148 consecutive performances of My Fair Lady, without missing a single performance. It speaks volumes for the bond between the two brothers that they remained good friends, always kept up their youthful pact to speak Welsh to each other, and continued to be each other’s most valued critic throughout their careers. This was perhaps only to be expected in a family where three out of five were professional musicians, and the other two keen amateurs. As Thomas said, “Mother and Gwyneth play and sing for pleasure, but for Father, Elwyn and me, our pleasure is our work.”

A series of fascinating concerts which brought him much kudos was a revival of Walter Damrosch’s Cyrano de Bergerac at Carnegie Hall. The first was on 20 February 1941. It had not been mounted since its Met World Premiere on 27 February 1913, when Amato, Alda and Riccardo Martin sang the main roles. Now it was Thomas’s turn, as a late replacement for Ezio Pinza, to sing Cyrano to the Roxanne of Agnes Davis and the Christian of Chares Kullmann, under the composer’s direction. The evening was a great success and elicited the critics’ superlatives. In an undated letter Damrosch wrote to the baritone:

My dear Mr. Thomas:
Our ‘Cyrano’ performances are over, and I gladly take this opportunity to congratulate you and thank you for the very great share which you had in its success. You took over an important and difficult part only four weeks before the performance. You mastered it completely. With your exquisite voice which you owe to your Welsh ancestors, and with your great artistry, you had already achieved a commanding position on the concert stage - but in your portrayal of ‘Cyrano’ you have developed so fine a perception of the requirements of opera, that that career is also open to you if ever you choose to undertake it.  

Very cordially yours
Walter Damrosch

It was on 31 October 1941 that he really felt he had arrived, after a recital in the Town Hall in New York. Walter Damrosch was at the piano and the baritone reminded the audience of his success a few months earlier by giving two excerpts from Cyrano. Noel Straus, writing in the New York Times the next day had some insightful comments to make:

Thomas L. Thomas, young baritone from Scranton, Pa, who gave his first New York recital last night in Town Hall, not only possessed a well-schooled voice but used it with intelligence, taste and sensibility in a program which, in addition to songs in German, French, Welsh and English, also contained operatic selections. Among the latter were two of Walter Damrosch’s Cyrano, given with the composer at the piano.

Mr Thomas’s innate musical feeling, sympathetic approach and keen understanding of stylistic requirements made him equally at home in each of the varied fields of his art under consideration. His voice was fresh and resonant, though more exceptional in its rich, sympathetic quality, than in volume. It was skilfully produced in general, but tended to lose breath support when softly used in the upper register. There was a leaning toward over-employment of falsetto in top tones. Nevertheless, the vocalism was quite above the average, the shortcomings mentioned being of minor import.

With like success Mr Thomas envisaged the characteristic qualities of the French numbers by Duparc and Franck on his list, and disclosed his flair for the dramatic in the arioso “De l’art, splendeur immortelle” from Diaz’s Benvenuto Cellini as well in the two effective numbers from Mr Damrosch’s Cyrano, namely the brilliant ‘Ballad of the Duel’ and the poetic ‘Apostrophe to Paris’. There was a big ovation for Mr Damrosch and much enthusiasm throughout the evening for Mr Thomas, who elsewhere was accompanied by Paul Meyer.

War had now broken out, and Thomas volunteered for the Army but was rejected because of his poor sight. Perhaps this is the place to mention that throughout his life he suffered from progressively worsening vision. He never mentioned it or made capital of it in any way, but much of his music had to be greatly magnified for him to be able to read it, and towards the end of his career he was virtually blind. This did not prevent him from mastering an extensive repertoire and presenting it with an ebullient and charming stage presence, so that no one could have suspected his handicap. As he could not join the Army, Thomas devoted himself to entertaining the Forces and also in raising funds for Victory Bonds and for those rendered homeless in Britain. He was amazingly successful in this, and on one bond selling campaign he raised more than a million dollars. He appeared with many famous stars in the process of fund raising, including Carole Lombard, Herbert Marshall and Joan Fontaine, with whom he appeared in Toronto, the programme being broadcast coast to coast.

As a follow-up to that successful Town Hall concert of 1941, he returned on 28 October 1943. Though there was some success, the critic of the New York Times had some reservations:

Thomas L. Thomas, baritone, who gave his first local recital two years ago, returned to Town Hall last night in a varied program of German, French, Welsh and English offerings. From the standpoint of sheer vocalism the gifted young artist was not without his faults at this latest appearance, but his singing rated far above the average because of its unfailing musicality and sensitiveness.

Mr Thomas’s work was its best in essentially lyric selections, where breadth and power were not demanded, such as Mozart’s ‘An Chloe’ and ‘Komm, liebe Zither,’ which opened the list, or Schubert’s ‘Liebesbotschaft,’ Wolf’s ‘Nachtzauber’ and Fauré’s ‘Autonne,’ the last-named exhibiting his artistic virtues in an especially favourable light.

The Mozart songs were given with admirable grace and refinement, the Wolf item mentioned was ardent and yet held within the bounds of proper restraint, and the melancholy content of the Fauré deftly projected. Within the rather limited dynamic bounds imposed by lyrics of this kind, the tone employed was sympathetic, and pleasing, if wanting in sharpness of focus and tending towards throatiness.

But Mr Thomas resorted to forcing when he attempted to cope with the more dramatic type of music on his schedule, like the aria, “C’est ici le berceau’ from Paladilhe’s Patrie and the Serenade from Berlioz’ Damnation of Faust. Here the voice sounded tight, and wanting in the needed brilliance. Nor could the nobility of line be maintained in “It is Enough” from Elijah, though it was carefully colored and phrased.

Regardless of any shortcomings however, Mr Thomas’s work impressed through its interpretative insight, inner warmth and fine sense of style…
After the war his career was soon under way again. His reputation was growing and there is no doubt that in his chosen field of radio and concert work he was having great success, both commercial and artistic. He seemed to have found the perfect formula, for by singing popular ballads on the air he was becoming known to a wider audience who would then come to hear him in person and be introduced to a more varied and classical repertoire.

There is no doubt that a big factor in his success was the stable relationship he enjoyed with his manager and accompanist, two people absolutely vital in any singer’s career. Vladimir Domansky stayed with him for nearly twenty years as Manager, and his accompanist, Jacob Hanneman, joined him in 1942, and was with him for fifteen years. Hanneman was an accomplished musician in his own right, and it was he who accompanied Thomas in his recording of Scottish and Welsh songs, went with him on his visit to the U.K. in 1955 and accompanied him on his Australian tour in 1957.

Thomas also appeared with well-known orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the NBC Symphony Orchestra, and featured in concerts where the other artists in the series included people like Yehudi Menuhin, Isaac Stern and Artur Rubinstein. He also appeared with Jeanette Macdonald in a programme of Music under the Stars. Quite an achievement for a singer with no full-time formal college training! Still, after all, he did have the inestimable advantage of just being Welsh, and of being brought up in a Welsh community where singing and music were the rule rather than the exception. As he himself said, “With a Welshman it is never a question of when did you start singing, but rather, when are you ever going to stop?”

He was now at the peak of his career. In ten years he had appeared in 500 concerts coast to coast, and was heard in over 1,000 radio performances. By this time his repertoire extended to hundreds of songs of an amazingly wide variety, including German Lieder, eighteenth century Italian and French songs, operatic arias, traditional English airs, Scottish, Welsh and Irish folk-songs, Negro spirituals and innumerable popular ballads and songs from the shows. A typical recital programme might well include the following - a group of Italian songs by composers such as Pergolesi, Alessandro Scarlatti and Rossini, French songs by Reynaldo Hahn and Berlioz, some operatic excerpts, Traditional Welsh airs; English songs by modern composers such as Dunhill, and, invariably a selection of the witty and rhythmic spirituals specially written for him by his friend Robert MacGimsey.  

His success on the concert platform was clearly due just as much to his warmth, humour and ability to handle an audience as it was to voice and musicianship. He knew exactly how to make the audience feel he was on their side, and reviewer after reviewer mentions his relaxed and humorous style. One reviewer even mentioned that those who only came along as escorts found themselves enjoying the show, while another said, “He employs a range of facial expressions any character actor would gladly settle for, and a smile any matinee idol would gladly swap.” Thomas himself said in one interview, “Ever stop to think how a concert singer with no scenery, no cast, no props, has to keep a whole audience entertained all by himself? The job of a concert singer is a constant challenge - how long can he keep it up before the first yawn?” There wasn’t much yawning in Thomas’s recitals, but only he knew how hard he had to work to keep at the top of his profession. “The most important date in my life is tomorrow night - a singer is only as good as his last performance, “he said, and it was because of this attitude that he so popular, sometimes booked for repeat performances two or three times in that same season. His preparation for his concerts was always meticulous and when he was on tour he often practised his songs to tapes of the accompaniments, “much easier than carting a 175 lb piano around” but quite an innovation in those days.

In one newspaper interview Thomas gave some insight into his personal view of the craft of the professional singer that is worth noting. “A singer is just an ordinary guy who instead of studying carpentry has studied music...Many can sing equally well or better than I, “ he continued modestly, “but they have difficulty in marketing their wares...Kids must decide what their idea of success is - artistic or commercial. Few reach both.” He seemed to be one of the few who did, and yet at the same time managed to remain free of both illusions and conceit. What stands out is the fact that in every age the problems of making a career as a performer remain the same. Thomas went on to say that the really difficult part was going the round of agents, and coping with the constant rebuffs. The young singer must strive not to lose heart, and if he is a true musician, the joy experienced in preparing the music will help to compensate for any disappointments, says Thomas. When asked what he did now he had reached the peak, he only laughed and said, “If you ever reach the peak it wasn’t set high enough,” a remark that sums up the reason for his success very succinctly.  

At last, in 1955, Thomas had an opportunity to return to Wales for the first time since he paid a short visit as a boy of 16. He appeared in the Maesteg Town Hall before a crowded audience including numerous neighbours, relatives and friends. His parents accompanied him on this visit, and his father, Josiah, then seventy-three years old, performed a flute solo. Thomas gave a recital of Italian, English and Welsh songs, with a selection of spirituals by his old friend, Robert MacGimsey, accompanied by Jacob Hanneman. During the evening the Maesteg Grammar School Choir also appeared, singing a selection of Welsh and English songs.

In 1956 Thomas visited the UK again. This time he gave two recitals in Wigmore Hall, and one in Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, all of which were accompanied by Gerald Moore at the piano. He sang groups of seventeenth century Italian and French songs, English songs and ballads, gipsy songs by Dvorak and de Falla, spirituals and, of course, Welsh folk songs, presenting a very varied programme that was enthusiastically received and encored. Unfortunately no professional recording of these concerts was made, but an amateur tape of the first of the recitals was once in the possession of the family.

It is unfortunate that Thomas did not record more of his concert repertoire. Apart from various types of live performances, only seven professional recordings were made, some of them when he was past his prime. It was on this visit home in 1956 that the discs of Welsh and Scottish folk songs were recorded; they are all that most people have heard of his voice. During this visit Thomas also broadcast from Cardiff with the BBC Welsh Orchestra, and gave a recital from the Grand Pavilion, Porthcawl, arranged by his uncle, Mr. Stanley Thomas, a deacon and conductor of a choir in the town.

His next trip to the UK was in 1958, but before this he ventured much further a-field, undertaking a sixteen-week tour of Australia in the year 1957. This was not a wholly enjoyable experience, as, although Thomas found the audiences appreciative and the Welsh community particularly warm and welcoming, the accommodation, travelling arrangements and concerts halls were often primitive and uncomfortable, putting him under considerable physical strain. The unthinkable happened - he caught a cold, and for the first time in his career had to cancel a performance! Although he recovered, and was able to finish the tour, this did not leave him with the happiest memories of Australia.

In 1958 he made a flying visit to Wales to take part in the opening programme of Welsh commercial television, and then, in March of that year he took part in the London Welsh Association’s St. David’s Day Festival in the Albert Hall. This time, however, he did not leave the States, as his performance of three Welsh folk songs was transmitted by two way transatlantic telephone link from the St. David’s Society of New York.

In June 1958 Thomas again visited the UK in person, appearing in the Central Hall, Westminster, where he took part in the London Welsh Association’s Songs of the Homeland concert, and on this occasion he was made a Life Member of the London Welsh Association. In July of the same year he also appeared as guest artist at the closing concert of the Llangollen International Eisteddfod.

Back home, he was still appearing on The Voice of Firestone that had now changed over from radio to television, but the whole scene of light entertainment was changing Programmes came and went, and in 1959, after thirty-one years on radio and television The Voice of Firestone was axed, a victim of the ratings war. There was a storm of protest from critics and other admirers of this programme of semi-classical music but ABC would no longer give it a slot at prime viewing time, and Firestone would not be content with anything else. Thomas was concerned not only with the fate of his programme but with the general downward trend of musical standards in America. In an interview in 1971 he said, “There is still great talent, great potential and glorious voices among today’s kids. But lamentably there are no standards for them to listen to on radio or TV today.” The significance of this comment to the effect of commercial interests controlling the entertainment media should not be lost.

By the late sixties, Thomas had trimmed his gruelling concert schedule. He had married his charming wife, Celia, and left New York to settle in Scottsdale, Phoenix, Arizona. There had been a quite enough wearing years of travel, and now he wanted to enjoy the climate and the occasional ride into the desert. “Nothing relaxes me more than a gentle ride on a lazy horse,” he said, showing that his favourite hobby had not lost its appeal. At this stage in his life he was happy with a gentle schedule of five to seven concerts a month, combined with some tutoring of local voice pupils. He was now concentrating on informal lecture-recitals in Dining Clubs and similar institutions, which involved presenting a selection of songs linked together by anecdotes and humorous stories, a form of entertainment at which he was expert. It was also during this period that he made several recordings of hymns and sacred songs in conjunction with his local church.

Looking back at his past career, Thomas felt he could have made no other choice, and gave his father full credit for his early training, both in musicianship and self-discipline. “A voice isn’t all in the neck, you know. A singer needs to be a poet, needs healthy control and phrasing, head and heart, discipline and training.” Talking of the benefits of a singing career he said, “There’s no profit-sharing, no group insurance, no paid vacations, no hospitalisation, and no Christmas bonuses in this business - but there are fringe benefits none the less, and they include the fact that no one tells you to quit your job when you reach age 65; you can keep on doing what you’ve always wanted most to do - sing.” Among these “fringe benefits” was something he referred to as his “tax-free bonus” - the hundreds of fan letters he received from admirers, even when he was out of the limelight for years. In 1978 the Canadian broadcaster Clyde Gilmour, featured him in his regular record programme, Gilmour’s Album and Thomas was deluged with fan letters and birthday cards congratulating him on his sixty-seventh birthday. All spoke of the pleasure he had given them over the years, and many mentioned listening to him as The Voice of Firestone, a programme that had been off the air for twenty years by then!

Thomas had another heart-warming experience in 1978 as he was invited back to Wales to be received into the Gorsedd of Bards (an association whose members consist of poets, writers, musicians, artists, and individuals who have made a distinguished contribution to the Welsh nation, language and culture). The Eisteddfod was in Cardiff that year, so he and his wife, Celia, were able to stay with relatives in Measteg, and visit numerous others in the area. The ceremony took place in the Magnolia Gardens of Butte Park in the city centre, and many of the family were present to see their famous relative receive the greatest honour his native land could bestow for any cultural contribution to Wales. It was richly deserved; Thomas had done so much both for music and for Wales, having been a first class ambassador in parts of America and Australia where few people had heard of his native land. It was sad that by this time his vision had become so impaired that he needed the help of another bard to guide him through the ceremony, but this did not make it any the less moving an experience for him. He also fully appreciated the ceremony on Exiles’ Day when he and Celia were among the Cymru ar Wasgar on the platform to be welcomed home. His Welsh was still fluent, and his American-born wife was amazed to hear his animated conversations with friends and members of the family, remarking that anyone would think he had spent 55 years in Wales and 12 in the States, instead of the other way round!

This was to be his last visit to Wales, but in 1982, when the new Welsh TV channel, S4C, was launched, he was shown in a television interview filmed at his home in Arizona. He expressed his best wishes for the future of the new channel, sang Nos Galan, and was finally shown riding off into the desert on horseback.

This was the last time he was seen in Wales, as he died on 17 April 1983 at his home in Scottsdale, Arizona, at the age of 73. He left behind memories of a life dedicated to music, and to his other great love, his homeland of Wales. It was ironic that his death came just a month before his hometown, Maesteg, had planned to honour him in a presentation evening at the Maesteg Town Hall. In accordance with the wishes of the family, the presentation took place, and his cousin, Gwyn Bowen, accepted the posthumously-presented plaque.

In accordance with his wishes, Thomas’s ashes were interred in his parents’ grave in Scranton. There rest the mortal remains of a son of Wales who, although he spent most of his life away from his native country never forgot his birthright, and all his life was a fine ambassador for Wales. His immortality rests in his music, and it is fortunate that some records do exist to enable us to appreciate his dedicated artistry. He also left a vast amount of sheet music, concert programmes, newspaper reviews, and other papers, and his widow, Celia, knowing where his heart lay, has kindly given them on extended loan to the Welsh Music Information Centre, University College, Cardiff, where they may be consulted by students or members of the pubic. All these memorabilia have returned to the land he loved, and so in spirit, we believe, has he.

Thomas L. Thomas possessed that rare charm which conjures up in the minds of his listeners, the age of gallantry and romance. The “soul” in his voice places him in the category of great singers both past and present, and leaves an indelible impression.  

Thanks are due to D. Vivian Thomas in Porthcawl, Wales, who provided the basic account by TLT’s cousin Elfed and his wife Barbara, both now deceased. It first appeared in the Welsh Music Journal. Thanks also to Bill Russell in Springfield, Virginia who obtained the date of TLT’s death via a Scottsdale, Arizona website, to Tom Logan in Toronto, Canada for supplying his memories.

This article appeared in the June 2008 issue (Volume 53. No. 2) of The Record Collector. The Editor, Mr. Larry Lustig, acknowledged the assistance of John Bolig, David Lennick, Michael H. Gray and Malcolm Walker in developing the discography, also Mike Panico, Manager of the Sony/BMG archive, Paul Best, Chief Archivist at Wigmore Hall for confirming the dates of the Thomas concerts there. 

Thomas L Thomas discography



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