Live at the Bohemian Caverns

by: Carla Thomas

Carla Thomas' recordings for Stax Records had more of a pop sheen than most of the other artists on the label's roster, and her sides often featured involved orchestration and a distinct, almost Motown feel. She single-handedly put the label on the map with her "Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes)" hit in 1961, which broke into the charts when she was only 18 years old. Although Thomas could hold her own on the soul front (she made a duets album with Otis Redding, after all), she always felt more at home using a jazz-inflected approach, and with Live at the Bohemian Caverns, Stax gave her the opportunity to try her hand at a set of pop and jazz standards. Recorded on May 25, 1967 on the second night of a five-night engagement at Washington's famed Bohemian Caverns, Thomas took the stage in front of a crackerjack band (Herschel McGuinnis, Maxwell Hawkins, Billy Harp) led by pianist (and her most sympathetic record producer) Donny Hathaway, and proceeded to deliver a stunning set, mixing in her own hits like "Gee Whiz" with artful covers like a version of Leroy Hutson's "Never Be True," and a cleverly executed medley that mixed Johnny Mercer's "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah," the Spaniels' "A Lovely Way to Spend an Evening" (Thomas probably used the Spaniels' version as a guide rather than Frank Sinatra's more famous 1944 rendition of the song), Doris Day's "It's a Lovely Day Today," and Johnny Mathis' "On a Clear Day (You Can See Forever)" into an impressive mini-show. By all accounts, the evening was a huge success, topped off by Thomas' father, Rufus Thomas, being coaxed to the stage for a short set that mixed his standard joke routines with loose and jazzy versions of Billie Holiday's "Fine and Mellow," Gatemouth Moore's "Did You Ever Love a Woman" and his own signature novelty hit "The Dog." Stax was all set to issue the evening's show as an LP, even assigning it a catalog number, but for some reason never fully explained, the album remained in the vaults. This CD version contains the whole evening, and makes one wonder what Stax was thinking at the time. True, this isn't the Carla Thomas that the public knew, and her career as a soul singer was in full flight at the time -- Stax has just issued her single with Otis Redding, "Tramp," which would climb to number two on the R&B charts and just miss entering the Top 20 on the pop list in 1967 -- so perhaps the label felt the live album was too big a departure to risk releasing. At any rate, here it is in its entirety, Rufus and all. ~ Steve Leggett

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