There were many singing pianists in the R&B field: Nellie Lutcher, Mabel Scott, Maggie Hathaway, and Betty Hall Jones to name a few. Two of them extensively used vocal gimmicks along with their singing and playing: Rose Murphy and Frantic Fay Thomas. Like her contemporary, Rose Murphy (who used noises and phrases like "chee chee", for which she was famous), "Frantic" Fay Thomas used odd vocalizations (such as her "gargling" sound). She only made three records (in 1949), but I like them.
I really shouldn't have to ask that question; unfortunately I must. I won't keep you in suspense: I have no idea. With two small exceptions, which we'll get to, nothing was ever written about Fay herself.
It didn't help my research that there was a somewhat famous pitcher named Fay Thomas (nicknamed "Scow"). He'd been with the New York Giants in 1927, went to the St. Louis Browns, and ended up with a few teams in the Pacific Coast League. Long after he'd retired, and up through the 1950s, he was written about more often than Frantic Fay. There was also a hotel manager named Fay Thomas, who was all over the place in the 40s and 50s, especially at the Hotel Book-Cadillac in Detroit (he, too, was written about more often than Frantic Fay).
But I couldn't let those minor annoyances stop me, could I? Never! I was able to ignore those two, but it's a common name, both male and female. On top of that, not a single blurb ever gave any definitive biographical information about Fay.
This is the best I can do for her origins: after a lot of digging, I'm convinced that Fay Thomas came from the upper Midwest, probably Detroit (at least, once her career had started). Some ads claimed that she was direct from New York, others from California (where she seems to have been based in the late 1940s). However, those were ads, not bios.
Here's why I believe that Fay was from Detroit: her first documented appearances were at small venues there; the photo that she used for years (starting in 1944) was taken by a Detroit photographer; and her managers were based in Detroit.
Here's the first of the actual personal items about Fay, from the April 22, 1954 California Eagle: "Frantic Fay Elizabeth Thomas when she chooses takes over the Turban Room's eight-eight with her feet warming blues." While, as I've remarked in the past, it's impossible for these columnists to write actual English sentences, we now know her middle name is "Elizabeth". (However, knowing that, I was still unable to definitively trace her.)
Since, from 1959 on, all her appearances seem to once again be in the Midwest, I'm assuming that, by the end of the 1950s, she'd moved back to Detroit. Interestingly, there was a Fay Thomas who died in Detroit on July 6, 1978 at age 56. She'd been born in Memphis, Tennessee on September 14, 1922 and held a Social Security card issued in Michigan. Her parents were Elijah Crawford and Lady White, all of whose children (including "Fannie") were born in Memphis, Tennessee before the family moved to Detroit sometime after 1935. On March 12, 1940, Fannie Crawford married George Thomas in Cleveland; the two were living there a month later, when the 1940 census was taken. Fannie listed no occupation (but, as you'll soon see, her first documented appearance was still six months in the future). She originally set up her Social Security account as "Fay E. Crawford", and later amended it to "Fay E. Thomas". Does the "E" stand for "Elizabeth"? Even if it does, is she the right Fay Elizabeth Thomas? I wish I knew for sure, but my gut feeling is that, yes, this is Frantic Fay Thomas.
Gut feeling or not, I soldier on.
BUT WAIT; VALIDATION! A month after I first posted this article, I was finally able to get hold of the March 1950 edition of Ebony magazine, which had a half-page article about Fay. In it, she said she was born in Memphis and her real name was Fannie Crawford. Her father was a cook in Detroit (as was her brother, Bayless Crawford). She'd been performing since 1940; her first job was at Detroit's Four Horsemen Club, where she'd been discovered by Earl Carroll, whom (she claimed) was the one who first called her "Frantic Fay" (although that moniker didn't seem to be used until her 1949 recordings). The article closed with this:
"Frantic Fay's" future as a recording star and the decisions as to what type of songs she'll wax depend mainly on Exclusive Records and its astute Negro boss, ex-song writer Leon Renee [sic; and I don't know why they'd refer to him as an "ex-song writer"].
"Fay has great possibilities as a natural singer," figures Renee [sic]. "She has a style that's different and distinguishable from all others. We're out now to prove that she can do as well on standard tunes as she can with those bird noises of hers."
You'll see, soon enough, why I feel that the article had been researched many months before it was printed.
Leaving behind the question of who she was, here's what she did.
The first mention of Fay Thomas is in the October 14, 1940 Detroit Free Press. The blurb was talking about the show at Verne's Cafe, which seemed to be a cross between vaudeville and burlesque. The relevant sentence is "Ann Starr peels politely in dance routines and Fay Thomas sings." Verne's shows changed often, and Fay only seems to have been there for a week. Verne's (owned by Verne Giles, Dealer In Smiles) billed itself as "Detroit's Celebrity Center" and had had, earlier in the year, such stellar talent as Captain Spiller & His Trained Seal.
All is quiet again until the summer of 1944, when "Pianist, Vocalist" Fay Thomas, "The Girl Who Plays By Ear" and "The Queen Of Blues, Boogie, Barrelhouse" was currently appearing at Harry's Show Bar in Detroit. Her managers placed an ad with that text in Billboard's 1944 Yearbook, which was printed around September of that year. It also said that she'd been featured in Earl Carroll's Vanities of 1944. The Vanities had opened at Detroit's Wilson Theater on April 8 and had a jive theme, utilizing the orchestras of John Kirby and Cee Davidson (a local band). It played for at least a month, but Fay was never specifically named in any of the show's write-ups (so much for "featured").
That Billboard 1944 Yearbook also had a small paragraph on Fay, written by her management company:
This talented sepia pianist has a natural gift for music. She never attempts to read a score, but can play any piece by ear. Her style is individual, with a jive touch. She is at her very best in an interpretation of the deep blues. Miss Thomas sings to her own accompaniment. She was featured with Earl Carroll's Vanities in the spring of 1944 and played eight months at Harry's Show Bar, Detroit. Managed by Delbridge & Gorrell.
[Del Delbridge and Ray Gorrell ran an orchestra in Detroit, as well as a talent agency. They also managed the Counts & The Countess and the Ebonaires.]
Of course, the phrase "she never attempts to read a score" translates as "Fay can't read music". Although Harry's Show Bar was called a "leading cocktail lounge in the heart of the city's night life district on Woodward Avenue" (in the February 10, 1945 Billboard), there never seems to have been a single ad for it in Detroit newspapers. There were many show bars in Detroit in 1944; the big ones were Mickey's Show Bar, the State Show Bar, and the Saks Show Bar. (The most famous one, the Flame Show Bar, wouldn't open until 1949.)
Late March 1945 found Fay at McCarthy's, in Milwaukee. From there, it was back to the Show Bar in Detroit (presumably Harry's, although it could have been one of the others), then a return to McCarthy's in June.
On June 27, 1945, Fay journeyed to the wilds of New York to appear at Trainor's in Troy (near Albany). The ad said she was a "Pianist And Singer Direct From New York" (even though I've never found any New York City appearances she might have made).
Nothing more is heard from Fay until she opened at the Carlton (Reno, Nevada) on March 7, 1946. The ad described her as the "Bombshell Of Mirth And Music" and "The Hottest Piano In The West".
But it was not to be a peaceful engagement. On May 16, 1946, while performing at the Carlton, Fay found herself in the middle of a firestorm. In the crowd was a pharmacy student from Iowa, Vaughn Spratt. Spratt had, according to Fay, sat down on her piano stool and "kept giving me grief and trouble and stuff". Actually, he said that a black woman shouldn't be playing for a white audience. She called over the bartender and the owner. They scuffled with him, dragged him out into the back alley, and, in the ensuing fighting, Spratt suffered a skull fracture and died. Fay didn't see any of this happen; she heard the scuffling, but just played louder to drown it out for the patrons. Both men were arrested for voluntary manslaughter, but were ultimately acquitted, although the trial dragged on until early 1947.
On May 22, still in Reno, Fay appeared on a 15-minute radio show on KOH. She was there again on May 23, 29, and 30, as well as June 6, 13, and 20. These seven shows are the only radio appearances I could find for her. (It's possible that she landed the shows because she was now a local "personality" due to the trial.) After this, with the trial still on (and Fay considered a material witness), she was allowed to leave the state, although where she went in the next few months remains a mystery.
The Cleveland Call And Post had a "Musical Notes" column by Rudy "Rudy Tootie" Brown, detailing the activities of members of the local musicians union. His January 4, 1947 column mentioned that the Ohio State National Guard had had a ball at the Central Armory on December 28. The acts he named were: "Rudy Tootie and his twelve with pianist Fay Thomas, [and] Meade Lux Lewis." I'm not sure why she was with him on this occasion; she was never mentioned in any other Rudy Brown column, nor, for that matter, ever mentioned again as appearing in Cleveland.
There's nothing further about her in 1947, but on March 30, 1948, Fay opened at the Saddle & Sirloin in Bakersfield, California. She was called "The Musical Maniac" and was supposedly "Direct from Harlem's leading night spot - New York". Again, I've never found any appearances for her in New York City. She was there for a week, having replaced Martha Davis and being replaced by the Ali Baba Trio.
"Tonight Only", read the January 4, 1949 ad for the Ranch House (Santa Maria, California), "Fay Thomas, The Be-Bop Girl, who makes a piano talk, Direct From Hollywood". As with New York, I can't find any appearances for her in Hollywood. (Actually, there were few documented appearances in Los Angeles, period.)
And then Fay got to record: her label of choice was Leon Rene's Exclusive Records in Los Angeles. Leon, sometimes with brother Otis (owner of Excelsior Records), was the writer of "When The Swallows Come Back To Capistrano", "Someone's Rocking My Dreamboat", "I'm Lost", "Gloria", "I Sold My Heart To The Junkman", and "Rockin' Robin" (although that one was in the future).
With Fay on piano and vocals, Red Callender on bass, and Lee Young on drums, she recorded four songs in May 1949: "I'm In Town", "Waga-Waga", "I Don't Want Your Money, Honey", and "Lover Man". Note that the nonsense song "Waga-Waga" is sometimes referred to as "Monkey Song". (The nearly incomprehensible lyrics do seem to mention a monkey.)
The June 4 Cash Box, talking about a late May distributors' party that showcased 25 pre-release records, said that "Ops seemed to respond especially well to Exclusive's Frantic Fay Thomas on Harvey O. Brooks' 'I Don't Want Your Money, Honey.'" (Brooks was the writer of the song.) This is the first known use of "Frantic" attached to her name.
Released to the general public in June, the first Exclusive release by "Frantic" Fay Thomas was "I Don't Want Your Money, Honey", backed with the wonderful "Waga-Waga". Note that the title was written "I Don't Want Your Money, Honey" everywhere (including Exclusive ads) except on the record label itself (which left out the comma),
Behind the times, the July 2, 1949 Billboard announced that "Exclusive Records has signed 'Frantic' Fay Thomas, 88-ing thrush, to a term recording pact." (It didn't mention what the term was, but as we'll see, it would have been meaningless in any event.) Note that many sites date her first two records from 1946; they weren't.
"I Don't Want Your Money, Honey" was Cash Box's Race Disk O' The Week on July 2, 1949. They advised you to "... listen to this gal skim thru the 88's and gurgle, chuckle, giggle and sing, and make more sounds than you've heard in a month of Sundays."
Billboard also liked it, reviewing it in their July 2 issue. "I Don't Want Your Money, Honey" received an 85: "New thrush-88er packs a dynamite live style with something of Rose Murphy and Nellie Lutcher and plenty of her own. Her piano work is of pro caliber, too." "Waga-Waga" got a 72: "Fay sells hard, but this nonsense jumper doesn't have the moxie of flip material." [Actually, I'm scared when Billboard and Cash Box agree on something. Is the world going to end?]
"I Don't Want Your Money, Honey" was a big hit in many local markets, but not nationally. It was on Cash Box's Hot In Harlem chart for five weeks, rising to #5; on the Chicago charts for 11 weeks, making #1; and the Los Angeles charts for 11 weeks, too, climbing to #3. There were some smaller cities also, but those were generally only reported for a single week: Atlanta (#8), Cleveland (#1), Richmond (#8), Atlantic City (#8), Indianapolis (#10), and Washington, D.C. (#6).
The New York Daily News (August 21, 1949) compared her to Rose Murphy and Nellie Lutcher:
The startling appearance, a few years ago, of Nellie Lutcher, rhythm singer and pianist on records immediately brought several more of the same to the fore, the most considerable of these being Rose Murphy. Now, a lady identified as Frantic Fay Thomas makes her debut on a new Exclusive record, singing two numbers, "Waga-Waga" and "I Don't Want Your Money, Honey." "Waga-Waga" doesn't mean anything; it just happens to be the nearest approximation to a particular sound she makes when she sings. Rose Murphy sings "chi-chi"; Frantic Fay sings "waga-waga".
The Detroit Free Press (August 27, 1949) had this: "'Frantic' Fay Thomas, songstress and boogie-woogie pianist, parodies every freak singing style from Rose Murphy's on up for her waxing of 'Waga-Waga' (Exclusive 109X)." Note that "freak" in this context means "unusual", nothing else. It's interesting that no one at the paper remembered that Fay had started locally.
Fay's second Exclusive record, "Lover Man" (the 1941 oldie), coupled with "I'm In Town" (both from her first session), was released in September 1949, and reviewed in the September 24 Cash Box:
Fresh wax by the Frantic one, chirp Fay Thomas, and the refrain of "Lover Man" & "I'm In Town" headed music operators' way. [Operators were the juke box owners.] The vocal antics of Fay on both sides of this platter make the disk a potential coin winner. Top deck is the standard dressed up a bit by Fay's chirping. The flip keeps rolling in up-tempo mood, with the lass tickling the ivories and wailing the lyrics in fair vocal manner. Fay's many fans should go for the duo.
Cash Box may have liked it, but it never made any charts.
Fay had a second session for Exclusive, probably held in November 1949. This time, while Lee Young was still on drums, Leonard Bibb was the bassist. The four songs were: "Thinking Of You", "I Lost My Sugar In Salt Lake City" (another Leon Rene composition), "I Only Want You", and "Fay's Boogie" (an instrumental).
Later that month, Exclusive issued "Thinking Of You", coupled with "I Lost My Sugar In Salt Lake City". Although not reviewed, the latter song was on the Los Angeles charts for two weeks in December (at #9 and #10).
But all was not well with Exclusive; the company declared bankruptcy by the middle of December 1949. It was due, said Rene, to mounting production costs. (I've also read that RCA's introduction of 45RPM records signaled doom for their 78RPM pressing plant.) The company had unissued recordings by Fay, as well as Herb Jeffries, Joe Liggins, Buddy Baker, Jack McVea, Mabel Scott, and the Basin Street Boys.
For reasons we'll probably never know, Fay never recorded again.
You'd think that, with three records in a short period (with two of them local hits), she'd be appearing all over the place. In fact, other than the next couple of paragraphs (and the above-mentioned January 1949 gig at the Ranch House), there's not a trace of her in all of 1949, 1950, and 1951.
In May 1950, Fay appeared at the Club Royale in San Diego and was held over. In July, she was at Astor's in Universal City.
On July 16, 1950 (probably while she was at Astor's) she was one of the acts at the Watts [Los Angeles] "Cavalcade Of Health", sponsored by the County Chest X-Ray Drive (an attempt to prevent tuberculosis). Others performing were Herb Jeffries, Martha Davis, and Pee-Wee Crayton.
Fay herself isn't heard from in all of 1951, but here's an interesting item from the July 21, 1951 Daily Times-News of Burlington, North Carolina:
If audience reaction could have determined the winner last night, "Miss Hickory," Miss Shirley Jean Smith, undoubtedly would have been named "Miss North Carolina." She and a toy monkey perched on her shoulder pantomimed a record by "Frantic" Fay Thomas of "Waga-Waga", and there was a thunderous applause from the audience. There wasn't a muscle in her body that wasn't used in her imitation of Carman [sic] Miranda. [She was dressed like Carmen Miranda while singing the Fay Thomas song.]
The August 18, 1951 Billboard reported that Franklin Kort of Swing Time Records (formerly Downbeat) was looking for female singers to supplement the Fay Thomas and Mabel Scott masters he'd purchased from the now-defunct Exclusive. Kort had been a representative for Exclusive Record Distributors in May 1948. He subsequently (1949) became Exclusive's general manager (Western Division) and head of national sales.
Around February 1952, Swing Time reissued two of the Exclusive masters: "I Don't Want Your Money, Honey" and "I Lost My Sugar In Salt Lake City". They weren't reviewed and quickly vanished.
Here's a blurb from J.T. Gipson's column in the June 12, 1952 California Eagle. If true, it's strange, unexplained, and unsettling: "Leon Rene, the music exec, once said about 'Frantic' Fay Thomas, the Swing Star: 'A day away from Fay is like a month in the country!'" I suppose it could mean that she was so "frantic" that you needed to unwind after being around her, but it certainly isn't clear from that quote (which was probably invented by a press agent anyway).
And here's a "personal" story about Fay in the June 26, 1952 California Eagle (although, again, pure press agent invention):
A fella was taking our gal pal (shapely "Frantic" Fay Thomas), the pianist, home one morning and said: "You have wonderful potentialities." "Hush, you fool!" Fay said, "the cab driver will hear you!"
Actually, there was so little written about Fay that, for a change, I can't begrudge them this junk.
On September 9, 1952 she (characterized as "Reno's Favorite") was at the opening of O'Brien's Corner in Reno, Nevada
Oh, look: another press agent bit of nonsense, from the November 13, 1952 California Eagle. (It's so mind-numbingly stupid, I promise it's the last one.)
During a backstage interview, a columnist playfully asked pianist "Frantic Fay" Thomas if she wore "falsies" . . . "No, See!" she said, and showed him right then and there in front of all those 20/20 vision characters!! The cub reporter ran screaming into Bill Watkins' Rubaiyat Room, muttering to himself: "Mother never told me there would be 'daze' like these."
On March 13, 1953, Fay was the attraction at the gala opening of the Surf Club in Santa Cruz, California. She was, the ad said, "Direct From Hollywood - Famous Television, Screen, and Recording Artist." Other than "television", "screen", and "direct from Hollywood", it's fairly accurate.
By December 1953, Fay was at the Turban Room (a bar on Central Avenue in Los Angeles) for the holiday season; she was still there the following April. In May and June 1954, she was at Los Angeles' Downbeat, where, on Monday, May 24, they held a jam session, which also featured Little Esther.
And now, here's the other personal information item I promised you. It was in the July 8, 1954 California Eagle:
Frantic Fay Thomas the femme [Erroll] Garner is expecting a little pianist. Proud poppa to be is Lonnie I. Riggs, the "frantic Frenchman" (Fay's groom of 4 months) . . . The coming event may put the shackles on the performer's scheduled Korean jaunt with Jackie Gleason.
So now we know that she'd married Lonnie I. Riggs around February 1954, although there was nothing in the press about it then, nor are there any records for "Fay Riggs" or "Fannie Riggs". (I have no idea when she and husband George Thomas divorced.) In addition, there are no 1954-5 California births listed for a child named "Riggs" with a mother whose maiden name was either "Thomas" or "Crawford". (Actually, the only "Riggs" born in Los Angeles in those two years saw the light of day in January 1954; too early to be Fay's) There was never anything else in the press about Fay and Lonnie. Did Fay give birth? Did she stay married to Lonnie? These, and other interesting questions, will not be answered anytime soon. (No, wait; I just lied. Lonnie Riggs died in Los Angeles in 1973; by that time, Fay had long since relocated to Detroit. Doesn't look good for the marriage.)
However, the fact that there's not a single recorded appearance in all of 1955 and the first half of 1956 may mean that she was at home with a new-born. (However, there are so many huge gaps in her appearances that it's futile to speculate on them.) What I can tell you is that there's no hard evidence that Fay ever appeared in California again.
Said the July 31, 1956 Pittsburgh Courier: "Over in [the] Northwest section of Miami, Frantic Faye [sic] Thomas, the girl who plays like Erroll Garner and sings like Billie Holiday (no kidding) holds sway at the Celebrity Lounge in the Carver Hotel and with Dave Bondu as bartender and host, the room is getting more play than it has gotten since its opening two years ago." This is the last time I can find her billed as "Frantic Fay".
And then, Fay disappears for three years. We don't hear of her again until July 1959, when she ("California's finest") was appearing in Detroit. The July 14 Detroit Free Press said: "Fay Thomas, from California, is featured at the Clover Club piano bar." I guess they forgot that she'd spent her formative years in Detroit.
The May 4, 1961 California Eagle had this baffling blurb: "VELDA WRIGHT - She donned her full length mink and headed back to Fairbanks, Alaska where she reopened at her husband's night club. She has sent out word to locate Frantic Fay and Dorothy Devington." However, there never seems to have been anyone named "Dorothy Devington". (I suppose they could have meant pianist/vocalist Dorothy Donegan, but she was all over the place in 1961 and shouldn't have been too difficult to find. Then again, this is press agent nonsense, so it could mean anything or, more likely, nothing.)
Fay had no documented appearances from July 1959 until late June 1965, when she was at Danny's Jubilee Lounge in Cincinnati's Drake Motel. She was still there on September 4.
The last mention of Fay Thomas comes from the July 27, 1974 Detroit Free Press, when she was playing at Pinkey's Boulevard Club: "Fay Thomas holds court at a small spinet piano just inside the door and most nights a crowd gathers around her as she plays and sings hits of Gershwin and hardly ever moves away from the keyboard. Fay doesn't read music and can't remember a time when she didn't play piano." (It's possible that she had been the "warbling piano player" mentioned in an April 16, 1972 write-up of Pinkey's in the Detroit Free Press.)
Frantic Fay Thomas died, in Detroit, on July 5, 1978. I'm actually getting tired of saying "there was no obituary".
Long after she was forgotten by the general public, a couple of Fay's songs found their way into movies. "I'm In Town" was used in "Men Of Honor" (2000), "Lonely Hearts" (2006), and "Trumbo" (2015). "I Only Want You" (one of her unreleased Exclusive tracks) was heard in "Lovelife" (1997) and "Second Skin" (2000).
I like Fay Thomas's music; I wish she'd made more recordings (and I really wish she weren't so difficult to research). There were relatively few documented appearances and sometimes huge amounts of time elapsed between them. (This is really strange because she never seemed to have gotten a negative review.) She must have been working somewhere, else how could she support herself? Frantic Fay Thomas: a true enigma.
EXCLUSIVE (all as "Frantic" Fay Thomas)
109x I Don't Want Your Money Honey / Waga-Waga - 6/49
126x I'm In Town / Lover Man - 9/49
145x Thinking Of You / I Lost My Sugar In Salt Lake City - 11/49
Fay's Boogie (instrumental)
I Only Want You
SWING TIME (Exclusive masters)
275 I Don't Want Your Money Honey / I Lost My Sugar In Salt Lake City - ca. 2/52