The path to success for every successful musician is paved with negotiation between audience expectations and artist aspirations. Though such dynamics are often written about, the best documents are live recordings. Hearing Sam Cooke seamlessly weave popular fare like "You Send Me" and "Twistin’ the Night Away" with his socially restless covers of "If I Had a Hammer" and "Blowin’ in the Wind" at the Copa, or Louis Prima working an audience with both his ham-fisted charm and rugged vocal prowess, are fascinating studies of artistic give and take.
Carla Thomas’ week of performances at Bohemian Caverns in Washington, DC, in late May 1967, as documented in the newly issued Live at the Bohemian Caverns, appears to follow this tradition. An African-American singer well known for her rhythm & blues and soul hits performing a set of Tin Pan Alley material at a swank club with a lineage of playing host to "distinguished" musicians, such as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and Ramsey Lewis. The notion seems to scream compromise.
However, the caveat and ultimate treat of these performances was that this was Thomas’ vision. Although she came from a rhythm & blues dynasty, being the child of Rufus Thomas and co-performing Stax Records’ inaugural hit, "’Cause I Love You," she had always envisioned performing more mainstream material. Fortunately, her label supported her and even maximized the opportunity by comping the performance for friends, family and industry insiders. With the help of her former schoolmate Donny Hathaway, Thomas organized a versatile group to realize her vision.
In truth, the performance documented here inadvertently demonstrates a similar dynamic between expectations and aspirations. Thomas’ singing demonstrates the overlooked connections between racially divided genres of popular music. She opens in grande dame fashion with a dramatic reading of "You’re Gonna Hear from Me" and a sprite medley of "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah," "A Lovely Way to Spend the Evening," "It’s a Lovely Day Today," and "On a Clear Day." However, she subtly draws the beat out of her material by lining up "Mas Que Nada" (which had recently become a hit in the West, thanks to Sergio Mendes) with her own hits "Gee Whiz" and "B-A-B-Y."
By the time she closes with Hathaway’s poignant "Never Be True," Thomas manages to summarize the scope and impact of African-American music while bringing the audience along for the ride. Though her father, Rufus, provides a humorous and impromptu performance that is also documented here, it is a mere footnote in comparison to Thomas’ superb balancing act.