Obituary: Ray Thomas
Founder member of the Moody Blues, who played the flute solo on the band’s classic hit, ‘Nights in White Satin’
Ray Thomas, the flautist and singer, who has died aged 76, was a founding member of the Moody Blues, which began in 1964 as an R&B band in Birmingham before moving to a more full-bodied orchestral style, with psychedelic elements, which yielded the perennial favourite Nights in White Satin and helped to set the stage for such prog-rock groups as Yes, Genesis and Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
Though never favourites with the critics, the Moody Blues won a huge international following and were one of the few bands of the 1960s that managed to keep going into the new millennium, selling more than 70m albums and scoring an impressive tally of hit albums and singles, with Thomas writing and singing such tracks as the trippy Legend of a Mind and Veteran Cosmic Rocker.
Along with the Rolling Stones and the Kinks, the band were members of a fraternity of veteran British rock bands that continued to tour for more than a quarter of a century, and Thomas featured on all the band’s albums until his retirement in 2002.
Ray Thomas was born at Stourport-on-Severn, England, on December 29, 1941 and began his career in Birmingham as a singer with various groups. Taking up the harmonica, he started a band, El Riot and the Rebels, with the bass guitarist John Lodge. They were subsequently joined by the keyboardist Mike Pinder. In 1963 Thomas and Pinder joined a band called Krew Cats, which played in Hamburg.
Thomas and Pinder then joined forces with the guitarist Denny Laine, the drummer Graeme Edge and the bassist Clint Warwick (real name Albert Eccles), and formed the M&B Five, as Thomas explained to Pete Frame for his book Rock Family Trees: “When we started, we called ourselves the Moody Blues Five, which we abbreviated to the M & B Five when we played M&B (Mitchells & Butlers) pubs. In fact, we went down to the brewery and tried to get them to sponsor us — but they turned our ideas down so we reverted to the Moody Blues.”
They recorded a demo, sent it to London, were immediately hired to take over Manfred Mann’s Monday residency at the Marquee Club and signed to Decca Records, performing their debut single Steal Your Heart Away (on the B-side was Lose Your Money But Don’t Lose Your Mind) on Ready Steady Go in August 1964.
In January 1965 they supported Chuck Berry on a British tour and their cover of the Bessie Banks R&B classic Go Now reached the No 1 spot in the UK Singles Chart. By April the Moody Blues were touring with the Kinks and the Beatles. The band’s fortunes then stalled, reaching their nadir in Newcastle, where an aggrieved audience member went backstage to tell them they were the worst band he had ever seen.
The following year Laine and Warwick were replaced by the singer and guitarist Justin Hayward (recommended by Eric Burdon of the Animals) and John Lodge. After the line-up change, the band switched directions completely after buying a second-hand Mellotron, a keyboard instrument that reproduces orchestral sounds through tapes, for £20. After introducing the device into their live shows, they were asked by Decca to cut a stereo sampler LP with the London Festival Orchestra to show off the label’s new Deramic Stereo sound system.
The brief was to make a pop version of Dvorak’s New World Symphony. What Decca got instead was a lushly orchestrated album of the band’s own material called Days of Future Passed. It reached No 27 in the UK albums chart and a more impressive No 3 in the US Billboard chart.
The critics refused to take the album seriously, Rolling Stone complaining that it was “marred by one of the most startlingly saccharine conceptions of ‘beauty’ and ‘mysticism’ that any rock group has ever affected”.
Sales were not spectacular, and the spin-off single, Nights in White Satin, featuring a memorable flute solo by Thomas, barely scraped into the top 20 on its first release, though it hit a more impressive No 2 on the US Billboard Hot 100 and climbed to No 9 in the British charts on its reissue in 1972. Yet both the album and the single would come to be acknowledged as classics.
In the meantime, the Moody Blues had stolen the show at the 1970 Isle of Wight pop festival and had developed their distinctive new sound in a quartet of massively successful albums: In Search of the Lost Chord (1968); On the Threshold of a Dream (1969); To Our Children’s Children’s Children (1969); and A Question of Balance (1970). Their 1972 album, Seventh Sojourn, reached No 5 in Britain and spent five weeks at No 1 in the US charts.
In 1974, the band went their separate ways and Thomas released two solo albums. But in 1978 they reformed to record Octave, which went platinum and with which they filled multi-thousand-seat arenas on tour. Pinder and Clarke then dropped out (Pinder to be replaced by Patrick Moraz, formerly of Yes), but they continued to enjoy success; in the US, Long Distance Voyager (1981) topped the charts and their 1986 single, Your Wildest Dreams, made it into the Billboard Top 10.
At a time when many men their age were contemplating pensions and grandchildren, the Moody Blues were still squeezing themselves into jeans and hopping on to the stage to perform Nights in White Satin for the umpteenth time, though by the time he decided to retire, Thomas was described by one reviewer as looking “like he would rather be off tending his petunias”.
Ray Thomas’s first marriage, to Gill, which produced a son and two daughters, was dissolved. In 2009 he married his long-term partner Lee Lightle. He died on January 4.