July 18, 2002 – "Blow, Archie, Blow" went the lyrics of one of the Virgin Islands' most renowned songs, a trademark of the Archie Thomas Band. While Thomas had a background in alto horn, baritone, bass and saxophone, "it's only the sax I play professionally," he said once in an interview, "but I can teach even what I can't play."
In a life that spanned 83 years, Thomas did a lot of playing and a lot of teaching, and when he died Sunday on St. Croix, he left a lot of folks with fond memories of his music — and many with the skills to carry it on.
Norman Bailey, trumpet player and singer for 30 years with the Archie Thomas Band, said from his stateside vacation on Thursday morning that it had been his dream to become a musician, and Thomas gave him that chance. Bailey recalled that the Tropicana nightclub, on the Frederiksted waterfront where the Saloon Restaurant upstairs of Scotia Bank is now, was "the hot spot" for jamming by Thomas's eight-member band.
The popular group was a combination of Archie's four-piece band and that of his brother Wesley, now deceased. For more than 20 years, Bailey said, the group played at the St. Croix by the Sea Hotel, where Virgin Islanders flocked on weekends for grilled lobster at the restaurant. That gig was one that Lt. Gov. Gerard Luz James II recalled in his statement of condolences Wednesday, too, recalling "the late 1950s and early 1960s when Archie, along with his brother Wesley, played at our favorite night spot, St. Croix by the Sea."
Band members over the years in addition to Bailey and Archie and Wesley Thomas included Pepito, Skippio and Edwin Thomas; and Ralph "Baga" Benjamin, Eric David, Mableton Lawrence, Gustav Peterson, Alex Peterson, Roy Smith and Melbourne Adams on instruments and Luis Martinez and Eric Sackey on vocals.
The group was very versatile, Bailey said, playing salsa, calypso, jazz and merengue and taking special requests from the audience, "Yellow Bird" being a favorite. "If someone came with their loved one and they were upset with each other, by the time we sang them a few ballads, they went home hugging up," Bailey recalled. "We loved to entertain people."
St. Thomas musician James "Tremelle" Gerard, who was the leader of Tremelle and the Jammers then joined his brother's band, Milo and the Kings, said on Thomas's passing, "He was one of the greatest. There is no doubt about it. When he started up that Crucian music, he really broke up the crowd." He laughed recalling a dance on St. Thomas where Milo and the Kings had to retreat because their followers went crazy for the Crucian music.
One gig the band, going by the name The Rhythm Makers, had on St. Thomas was at the Center Theatre on Main Street, where the master of ceremonies was Ron de Lugo.
Thomas recorded more than a hundred singles, most of them in Puerto Rico, but some in Archie's Studio, which shared space with Archie's Music Store on Fisher Street in Frederiksted.
The popular hit "Archie Buck Me Up" was banned for a time in Trinidad, on the grounds that the lyrics contained profanity, Bailey recalled. But "there was no profanity in it," he said. "We were a finalist in the selection for their carnival road march. We were supposed to win the road march. So, through that we were passed over."
Bailey said the band traveled throughout the Caribbean and, in 1965, played for a month in Boston.
Five years ago, on a cruise with a group from Friedensberg Moravian Church in Frederiksted, Bailey said, he was surprised to hear the band aboard play "Archie Buck Me Up." "It's been so long I can't remember the words," he said. "It's been over 15 years ago," he said of the band's last performance.
Thomas stopped playing professionally in the mid-80s — his last gig was at the Crucian Christmas Festival — but he continued to play sax solos at the Moravian church.
He formed Archie's Music Association to teach "boys in trouble who would like to learn to play an instrument." The sounds of their efforts filled the air around his small classroom in what earlier had been his music store. Children would stop by the pink building across from the Seventh-day Adventist Church for a cool "lindy" Popsicle from the attached candy store, or just peer through the large glass window to watch other neighborhood kids at their music lessons.
An article in the Winter 1989/90 issue of VICA News, a publication of the Virgin Islands Council on the Arts, said of Thomas, "He believes in teaching sight reading, even though sometimes it seems like a lost cause" in an era where emulating what one heard on the radio was so much easier. But, as Thomas was quoted as saying, "There are a lot of boys 'trained by Archie' playing the bands today."
Thomas, who was born on St. Croix in 1919, died in Juan F. Luis Hospital on Sunday. In recent years, he had been a resident of the Herbert Grigg Home for the Aged. He is survived by a brother, Delyle Thomas; sons Roy, Ezra, Elvis and Archie Jr.; daughters Lydia Thomas-Parris, Lenore Thomas, Patricia Thomas-Moorehead, Juliette Thomas-Lewis and Ann Edney; son-in-law Wendell Parris Sr.; 23 grandchildren, 24 great-grandchildren, and other relatives and friends.
Visitation will take place on Monday, July 22, from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Thomas/Hyll Memorial Chapel in Estate Peter's Rest. Funeral services will be held on Tuesday, July 23, in Friedensberg Moravian Church; viewing will be from 10 to 11 a.m. with services to follow.
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