The Thomas Group | Interview | “Penny Arcade”

Uncategorized April 2, 2024

The Thomas Group | Interview | “Penny Arcade”

The Thomas Group was a band that emerged in the 1960s, known for its unique blend of pop, rock, and folk music.

They gained some recognition with their singles, such as ‘Penny Arcade,’ which showcased their melodic sensibilities and catchy hooks. Despite not achieving mainstream success, their music has endured over the years. The band’s legacy lives on through their recordings. ‘Hollywoodland 1966-1969’ is a compilation album released in 2017 by Hanky Panky Records. The album showcases the band’s recordings from the mid to late 1960s, offering a comprehensive look at their musical output during that time period.

The Missing Links at Wheaton Youth Center

“What developed was a whole new sound for this group”

Where and when did you grow up? Was music a big part of your family life? Did the local music scene influence you or inspire you to play music?

Stephen Gaines: Born in Bronx, New York, in 1947. Moved to New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and then Maryland from the time I was 13 to 21. This is where I decided I wasn’t good-looking enough to get the girls, so it was time to play music in a band! So, the influence was a general liking of rock music, but mostly a way to get the girls! There was no real music talent in my family. I was the oldest child and the first to think about being in a band. It was the early 60s, and R&B and good old rock ‘n’ roll were the sounds of the day. So, I convinced my best friend to teach me guitar. He was a local town hero lead guitarist/vocalist and had the girls! So, he agreed, and it wasn’t long before I was good enough to play rhythm guitar in his group. I practiced hour after hour and seemed to have a pretty good capability. So, I was off and running! Fast forward 2 years, and I’m a rhythm guitarist in a local rock band getting band jobs on weekends, and the girl thing was improving!

When did you begin playing music? What was your first instrument? Who were your major influences?

So, I started when I was 14 and learned to be a rhythm guitarist. My major influence on rhythm guitar was not to screw up the band! As time went on and I became a much better guitarist, I began playing lead guitar. At that time, it was Chuck Berry and B.B. King that I was drawn to for style. As time went on and I became more skilled at lead, my influences became broader-scoped, like Eric Clapton and various lead guitarists that were popular at the time.

What bands were you a member of prior to the formation of The Thomas Group?

Fast forward another year, and I have developed fairly well on guitar. Now, I’m in a popular local band called L.D. & the Classics, performing at serious gigs. These were the days of tuxedos and cummerbunds for band jobs. If you didn’t play ‘Louie Louie’ and ‘What I Say’ at least 3 times a night, you weren’t liked!

Another year passes, and I’m in a new band, The Missing Links, with the original friend who taught me guitar. We’re hot, with great music and vocals! We started getting good bookings at universities and fraternity parties.

This success led to very good gigs at local night spots in Georgetown (Washington D.C.). We had definitely put ourselves on the map. Word got out, and we were talking to clubs in New York City. The talk turned into opening act gigs with well-known artists of the time (for example, Little Anthony & the Imperials, Jay & the Americans, the Young Rascals, and many more).

Eventually, it happened, and we were asked to record some originals my friend had written. So, now I’m in the studio, learning the ropes of production and recording technique — great fun! We kicked it around for 2 years but could not get a contract. We kept gigging, but no contract.

Can you elaborate the formation of The Thomas Group?

When I turned 19, my parents decided to move to California, and I went with them. The good news is I found a girl before I moved. We stayed close to each other and married 2 years later. We have been together for 59 years!

So, now I’m in California, and I need a band to join. I’m walking down the Sunset Strip during the evening, checking out the local music scene, and I come across the Free Press, a local hip newspaper. I start looking for ads about bands needing players, and I find one. It’s a long story, with too much detail for this bio, but I end up in a band called The Thomas Group. The drummer is the son of the big entertainer of that time, Danny Thomas. These guys had a recording contract with Dunhill Records, the hottest label at that time—Three Dog Night, Steppenwolf, Mamas & Papas, The Grass Roots, etc. I had hit the jackpot, or so I thought!

I brought a whole new influence of capability to this band. I developed my guitar style from the New York/Washington D.C. rock & blues music scene!

The Thomas Group was founded in a pop groove that was more of a light rock teenage sound. But it seemed that the group was excited about the new direction and accepted me with open arms and growing friendships.

What a trip; I was 2-3 years older than the guys in the group and engaged to be married! This brought an interesting social pressure to my band members and their fairly longtime relationships—oh well! Not too long after, they all got hitched!

When and where did The Thomas Group perform some of their first gigs?

Besides playing at a local club a few times, we were primarily a recording band during my time as a member. Before I joined, the band had gone on some tours around the country and also appeared on some big TV shows like Ed Sullivan and the Danny Thomas Hour.

The big moment for the group in terms of gigs was when we had the opportunity to be the opening act for a concert featuring the Turtles and the Animals at the Santa Monica Civic Center! Ah, fame—short and sweet!

How did you decide to use the name “The Thomas Group”?

The name was already decided before I joined. The group was obviously named after the big family name Thomas—a worldwide recognized entertainment family!

What influenced the band’s sound?

The original sound was formed before I arrived, kind of bubble gum teen stuff—not my style. The good news is the leader of the group, Greg Gilford, was loaded with talent—a writer, vocalist, and accomplished musician (keyboard) of the group, hands down!

What developed was a whole new sound for this group. Greg busted out and started writing some excellent rock/blues songs. I believe my style gave him the freedom to imagine and create a very cool new sound for the group. ‘Capricorn Colors’ is the result of this new sound for The Thomas Group.

In the meantime, the group was going through management and label changes due to growing frustration that Greg was experiencing. This led to the eventual breakup of the group. Until today, I am good friends with several members and stay in touch. You never know—maybe we will hit the road!

How did you get signed to Dunhill?

That was already arranged before I joined. They were already signed and searching for a lead guitarist because the present one had been seriously injured in an airplane crash.

You released four singles. Where did you record them? What kind of equipment did you use, and who was the producer? How many hours did you spend in the studio?

The original releases on Dunhill were done before I joined the group. It was the bubble gum sound with some touch of a Mama’s and Poppa’s feel, and a particularly good song while on Dunhill called ‘Someone’.

The Capricorn sound was recorded at an 8-track studio in the San Fernando Valley outside of Los Angeles. We recorded all the songs and did the mixdown in 14 hours in one long day and night session. Gregg and I produced it.

Please share your recollections of the sessions. What were the influences and inspirations for the songs recorded?

One thing that stands out in my memory is the chance to record with the famous “Wrecking Crew,” a session band made up of Hal Blaine, Larry Knechtel, and Joe Osborne at that time. These guys were the best studio musicians money could buy!

The other session was the 14-hour one that gave birth to Capricorn Colors. I had spent many hours in studios in New York and Washington DC before coming to California, but nothing ever compared with the Capricorn session in terms of time and output—WOW!

Were you inspired by psychoactive substances like LSD at the time?

No, nothing like that. I smoked weed occasionally, but that was the extent of it for me.

Why did you change your name to Morning Sun?

I think Greg would remember better than me, but maybe it was to start fresh after switching to a new label (VMC).

You released another single for VMC. Tell us about it.

We covered a Harry Nilsson song (‘Together’), which I thought turned out really well. At that time, I was starting to disconnect from the group, so I don’t remember many details, sorry.

What happened after the band disbanded? Were you still in touch with other members? Is any member still involved with music?

I’m still friends with David Goldsmith, the bass player, and especially close to Greg Gilford. The project for Hanky Panky brought us back together and gave us a wonderful chance to share old memories.

I still play music off and on, although mostly off now that I’m 76 years old. But I’m still a long-haired rocker with some good business success. It’s been quite a journey!

Would you like to talk about the wonderful Hanky Panky Records compilation of your recordings? What can you say about ‘Hollywoodland 1966-1969’?

I love the formal separation of old to new. The packaging is cool, and I feel a lot of pride in it. My grandkids and friends are blown away by the fact that they can go on YouTube and see Grandpa!!

Looking back, what was the highlight of your time in the band? Which songs are you most proud of? Where and when was your most memorable gig?

The highlight was the ability to work with Greg and explore his incredible talent to switch the sound from bubble gum to excellent and creative hard rock stuff in a 14-hour balls-out session!! I am most proud of ‘Women of Seven Sins’ because I successfully created a lead break that I feel a lot of pride in. The best gig was at the Santa Monica Civic with the Turtles and Animals.

Stephen Gaines

What currently occupies your life?

Playing with the grandkids and enjoying life in general. I am financially successful and able to relax and listen to the old music! Been married for 54 years to the love of my life and take pride each day in the two boys my wife and I brought into this world, and in the incredible families they have created.

It’s been an incredible journey—all of it. I’ll cherish these memories in heaven someday!

Klemen Breznikar

Headline photo: The Thomas Group

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