All at Ace were deeply saddened today to hear that upper echelon Memphis musician Marvell Thomas has died at the age of 75. Marvell’s work as a musician has long been a feature of the catalogues of almost every label in the Ace family. He’s probably on more of our Stax-derived releases than almost any other musician who ever set foot in the label’s McLemore Avenue studios, given that he was there almost from the day Stax opened for business until the day that bankruptcy forced its closure fifteen years later.
Marvell came to Stax when it was still called Satellite. He played piano on the majority of the company’s earliest sessions, including the one that produced Satellite’s first proper local hit single – his father Rufus and sister Carla’s duet ‘Cause I Love You’. He previously had designs on becoming a doctor, but that changed the minute he set foot in a recording studio.
Marvell was the first choice keyboard player at Stax throughout the company’s early years, playing on such classics as Carla’s ‘Gee Whiz’ and William Bell’s ‘You Don’t Miss Your Water’. He was also a member of the Triumphs, who inaugurated Stax’ Volt subsidiary with their lone single for the company, ‘Burnt Biscuits’. Two years of military service between 1965 and 1967 sidelined Marvell’s professional musical career, although he inevitably organised and led a band while in service.
When he returned from his patriotic chores, Marvel came straight back into the Stax fold. As the ‘blue’ era turned over into the ‘yellow’ one he became even more active as a musician and arranger than he had been before his call-up. In the late 60s and early 70s, he worked on Stax albums and singles by the Mad Lads, Kim Weston, the Newcomers, Eric Mercury, Big Ben Atkins, the Soul Children, Rufus, Carla and perhaps most famously of all, the sessions for Isaac Hayes’ groundbreaking ‘Hot Buttered Soul’ album.
During this period Marvell also put in time at Royal Studios under the supervision of Willie Mitchell, where he participated in sessions on, among others, Denise La Salle and Poppa Willie’s own band. He was also a frequent visitor to Muscle Shoals and to FAME, augmenting the studio’s famous Swampers behind the likes of Clarence Carter, Wilson Pickett and – again, very memorably – Etta James on the “Tell Mama” sessions. There was always call for his services, and Marvell’s participation always counted for something.
Marvell worked with Stax until the company crumbled in 1975, and continued working with former Stax acts such as Sam & Dave, the Soul Children and Shirley Brown at their new recording homes, as he did with Denise La Salle. As the 20th Century gave way to the 21st Marvell was still busy, playing on album sessions for the likes of Irma Thomas and his little sister Vaneese. To the end of his days, was never a time in Marvell’s life when he was not as busy as it suited him to be.
I met Marvell on several occasions – in both Memphis and at the spiritual home for the soul music of that city, the Porretta Soul Festival in Italy, where he had appeared many times as a member of the house band and frequently as his father ‘Rufulone’s bandleader. A kinder soul you could not ever wish to meet, incredibly modest about his considerable musical accomplishments and never too busy to exchange a pleasantry or two. The last time I saw Marvell he was walking out of Porretta’s Rufus Thomas Park following a sound check, and I was walking in. My focus was elsewhere and I didn’t notice him initially, even though we had previously spoken just a few hours earlier He tapped me on the shoulder as I was about to walk past him, unaware that he was there, and jokingly asked if he’d upset me in some way. As if anyone would deliberately ignore such a nice man…
A few years ago, Marvell was interviewed by the Memphis Downtowner. His personality comes through in every one of the answers to the questions put before him. Should you wish to know more about the man behind the music, it’s worth clicking on this link…
Ace’s condolences are extended to Marvell’s immediate family and, of course, to his sisters Carla and Vaneese. The heart of Memphis music will beat considerably more weakly for his passing.
photo credit: Vaneese, Carla and Marvell Thomas at Rufus Thomas Park. (photo courtesy of Luciano Marchi/ Graziano UIiani)