Posted April, 2012
During my first interview with guitar great, Andy Timmons, back in the fall of 2010, he mentioned a husband/wife team that had a band. Her name was Maylee Thomas and, to hear him tell it, she had an awesome sound that he thought I’d really like. He mentioned that her husband, George Fuller, was the guitarist in the band and had just opened up a great, high-end guitar boutique called The Guitar Sanctuary. This venture is on top of George’s very successful construction company and other ventures.
How does he do it?!
In the proceeding months, I managed to check out the store and also hear the band a few times. Andy was right (not that I would ever doubt him). When I first heard Maylee and the band perform, I was blown away by her incredible voice, range and stage presence. Think Janis Joplin, Bonnie Bramlett, Whitney Houston, Bette Midler (and I’m sure that, if I had the time, I could name a few others) all wrapped up into one tiny but explosive individual. The band was tight and intuitive – not just very well rehearsed but intuitive.
As I researched Maylee and George since that fall day a year and a half ago, I learned that, not only were they good friends with Andy and had worked with him countless times, they were also tight with the great, iconic sax player for Bruce Springsteen, the late Clarence “Big Man” Clemons.
I have six of Maylee’s CD’s and each and every one of them brings on musical, audio phonic bliss. Being the methodical geek that I am, when I first got them, I listened to them in chronological order – which is a problem. Why? Well, as you’ll read later in this piece, the very first album, Rhythm of the Blues, has not only the guitar prowess of Andy Timmons but the signature sax sound of Clemons on the sax throughout the CD and even the Edwin Hawkins Choir on a couple of tracks.
That’s not to say that the rest of the musicians are slouches. Space doesn’t permit me to drill down into all of the musicians just on the first album but check out just a small handful of ‘em: Jamie Oldaker (Bob Seger, Eric Clapton, Ace Frehley) and Dan Wojciechowski (Peter Frampton) on drums, Chuck Rainey (Steely Dan, Aretha Franklin, Quincy Jones) on bass, and Dave Grissom (John Mellencamp, Allman Brothers, Dixie Chicks) on guitar.
How am I supposed to get through a single CD – let alone my stack of six Maylee Thomas CDs – if I’m continually slappin’ the repeat button? Hmmmm?
A line up like these greats show the high level of excellence that Maylee and George strive for in their CDs. Their stage band is also very, very good local musicians in their own right. Every time I’ve seen them perform, they seem to raise the bar of excellence higher and higher. To catch the Maylee Thomas Band live at any venue, any size will insure that you are in for a very real treat.
After too long of time, I finally approached Maylee and George about interviewing them. We met up at one of their businesses and I was immediately taken by their warmth and graciousness. Both exude a love of life and a humble confidence (no, that’s not a contradiction in terms) in all that they do.
After some introductory small talk, I started off by asking the two of them how they met and got together. Their response to my question led to stories that show their true heart for people. George led off.
“Maylee and I met in the fall of 1990. I was playing in a band in the West End – I was playing at Bahama Bob’s and she was playing at another club down the street. My band mates came to me on a break and said, ‘Man, you’ve got to check out this girl down the road. She’s a tremendous singer and performer!’ I went down there and saw her and I set a goal that night that I was going to get in that band because I was disgusted with my present band.
“As fate would have it, literally that next Monday, she called the studio that I co-owned at the time with Jimmy Wallace – Sound Southwest – asking Jimmy – who she knew – if he could refer any guitar players because they were looking for a new guitar player. So that’s how we met.”
Maylee injected, “Isn’t that bizarre? I mean, that’s kind of a “God thing”. It would have to be.”
George continued by explaining, “I’m trying to give you the Reader’s Digest version because the reality was I was so fed up with the band. I’m a business guy – left and right brained and a lot of the musicians that I was dealing with at the time didn’t have that. If the gig was at 9 o’clock, they would show up at 9:15 – maybe sober, maybe not.”
George eventually wound up in Maylee’s band and, to hear him tell it, “For the last 20 years we’ve been playing music together, writing music together. We ended up developing a relationship during the early years of the band and at some point got married.
“It’s been a great journey ever since. Our journey has been in a secular band. It’s been in the recording studio. It’s been in worship bands and leading worship. It’s just been all over the place. In ’92 we decided to begin the Love Life Foundation. I forget what the occasion was but there was a fundraiser that needed to happen and people were racing around trying to figure out how we organize that fundraiser. We decided, ‘Let’s use our music and talent and put together a benefit concert. We did that and that worked out well. Over a period of time we decided that we would formalize that endeavor and formed Love Life Foundation and started that whole journey as well.
“Here we are today with four kids, a guitar store, a construction business, Love Life Foundation, and two bands. We have a ‘secular’ band and a ‘worship’ band. We have a trio kind of thing and periodically we do a duet. But one thing that comes out in everything that we do – and it’s evidenced in every CD we’ve ever put out and is evidenced in every show that we play whether it’s the secular band or, obviously, the worship band – the common thread that we have in everything – in all of our music – is our beliefs and our faith.
“If you watch Maylee and the band on a Friday night in a bar filled with many inebriated people, Maylee will start ‘preaching’. I think she sometimes gets confused and thinks we’re in church” and then, more seriously, adds, “She never hides her faith and it’s always a real strong component in everything we do – or, what she does specifically”.
If you listen to Maylee’s music, you will immediately sense her deep faith in God. Talking with her in person is not different.
“I was blessed very early on to sit under the ministry of Kenneth Hagin, Sr. so I saw the real thing and I saw a lot of ‘carbon copies’. When we first got together, George had never been to a ‘spirit-filled’ church. He had grown up quasi-Catholic. I had been around that, as well, but my dad was Jewish so you can imagine the dynamic in my family. They thought I had totally gone off the deep end. The ‘Jesus’ thing was bad enough but, then, the ‘spirit-filled’ stuff was like, ‘She’s gotten into some bad drugs!’
“When George and I first started dating (and going to church together), he’s like, ‘they’re putting their hands up and this is for real, huh?’”
George interjects some humor at this point.
“I thought everyone was raising their hands because they had a question and I didn’t have a question so I kept my hands down. Then I realized that no one ever got asked a question so I figured out that it was something else. I finally got ticked off because Maylee would always raise her hand and I’d be like, ‘’Scuse me! She’s got a question! Would you let her ask it?!’ Then that embarrassed her and I learned that that was not what she was doing.”
Still in the vein of sharing her religious background, Maylee shared a very personal story about the pain of going through a divorce while being a relatively high profile person within certain religious environments. Keep in mind as you read her story that, in those church circles, divorce was verboten – especially divorce among those in the ministry. The story revealed her unique perspective on faith, life, love and living as well as her ability to relate on a personal level with the pain that people go through in their relationships and daily lives.
“I went to Southwestern Assemblies of God University (Waxahachie, Texas), and traveled with a group called Maranatha all over the country and abroad. I met a guy and fell in love. He was an evangelist from Rhema (Bible Training Center in Oklahoma) and, unfortunately, the downfall for him was that he was married before. His wife was killed in a car accident that they were in and she was pregnant at the time. It was a real hard thing for him.
“We were together for seven years and travelled all over. We were evangelists for years and also pastored a church in Florida and were associate pastors at a big church out in California. I kind of knew that this couldn’t be the ultimate in a marriage because it was almost like we were living two separate lives. He was up at 5 a.m. every single morning, down in his office studying. I felt so lonely and disconnected but I had made this vow – where I grew up, if you get married it’s for good! I knew that going in. I made this vow to God and I just didn’t have it in me to ask for a divorce. I just couldn’t. I was just going to keep this thing going.
“In God’s wonderful way, I didn’t have to because he asked me for it. Basically, what he said was, ‘I don’t love you in the way I should. I’ve never gotten over my first wife and I need to let you go and let you have a life where you can be loved in the way you deserve to be loved.’
“That’s the nicest thing you can say to someone in that situation. Of course, I was still devastated and I still thought that he would miss me and come around and all of that but he never did. He never remarried. He’s still teaching, travelling and doing all of that but he never got remarried so it wasn’t ‘another woman’ kind of thing . . . although it was. I believe that the love of his life was his first wife.”
Without being asked, Maylee went on to share her opinion as to why her first husband married her to begin with.
“He felt pressured because he would go to churches and all the single women would be hitting on him and he felt that he couldn’t accomplish what he wanted to do being in that arena single. He struggled with it. He told me that. Of course, I didn’t think anything of it because I believed what he was saying when said, ‘I want you go be my wife’.
“Ultimately, the greatest thing that happened was that he let me go. Had that not happened, obviously, I wouldn’t have found my soul mate.”
Injecting what I by then learned as George’s tremendous sense of humor, he asks Maylee, “You are referring to me, right?” and then turns to me while remarkably dead-pan and said, “We had a dog that she loved. I just wanted to be clear.”
Maylee concluded the subject of her first husband by saying, “The other thing was we knew each other three months and got married. Part of it, for me, was that I was ready to get on with my life – ready to get out of school. Of course, when everybody found out that I was dating this guy, to them it was like the ultimate for a woman – a girl – at a Bible college to hook up with a minister, go on the road and be an evangelist. I had everybody’s blessing.”
Maylee segues from sharing about the pain of a failed marriage to her gospel music background: “The Assemblies of God in California – there were a lot of black churches so I spent a lot of time in a lot of black churches where I was literally the only white girl there. So that’s where I really cut my teeth in that kind of music. You can definitely hear it in the music we’ve incorporated.
“I came here in the 80’s and decided that I was just going to be real. I felt like, at that point – when I got out of that relationship – I had to be real to myself. I felt that I was doing a disservice to God. For a while, I kind of ran from the church, thinking, ‘Oh, I can’t be in church because they’re going to try to make me something that I’m not.’ The reality is, God created us the way we are and to be 100% who we are for Him and that’s what we’ve done.
“I still get people who say, ‘Why are you wasting your talent in a bar? Why aren’t you doing it in the church?’ I’ll say, ‘People are people whether they’re in the bar or in the church. I’m not wasting it if I’m singing to people who are hungry.’
Obviously, Maylee and George come in contact with lots of hungry people at their gigs.
“George will tell you that people have come up countless times afterwards – a lot of times they’re pretty emotional – and they’ll say, ‘I just want you to know that I was really moved tonight when you started singing. I really appreciated it’. And then some people come up and say, ‘I don’t know what it was but you made me cry.’ That’s the spirit of God. So, it’s really been a great ministry and I feel very blessed that we’re able to do it the way that we are. Of course, there are some clubs that we play in and once we give the message, they don’t ask us to come back. But, for the most part, they do.”
This crowd reaction dovetails with the band’s “mission statement”, if you will, that George shared.
“Every song we write and virtually every song that Maylee sings – and there’s many songs that she won’t sing – if there’s a mission statement it would be that all music we play has a good message – a pure message. At the same time, we don’t say that we’re going to go out and play bars and spread the Word of God in our playing otherwise we’re not doing it. We don’t have that restriction either. That just happens to be something that comes natural and is part of our thread that we’re woven with. It’s not a contrived or forced thing. It happens as it happens.”
Before Maylee’s total immersion into the soulful sounds of black gospel music, she was exposed to other great music. She shared those influences in response to my question of past and current influences.
“My very first record I ever bought was Tapestry by Carole King. Of course, at that time there was James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt and those kinds of people and then Janis Joplin, Tina Turner and that genre. Even, in the 80’s, Pat Benatar and some of these big, gigantic voices of the secular field. On the Christian side, I was more into the black gospel kind of stuff – Shirley Caesar, the Winans. The Edwin Hawkins Choir is on our first record. They sang background on two of the songs that we wrote.
“Right now? The cool thing about right now is, for me, is that there’s definitely two completely different styles of music that are hitting the radio waves hard. To me, one of them is all created in the studio and is all technology and I’m just not a big fan of that. I guess that’s because I grew up when you where, if you were a musician, you really play. I’m okay with some tone mistakes and some hissing. I like that! I’m a very passionate, emotional kind of singer and I love that. I don’t like it when they clean everything up to the point that it’s just sterile. I think that our group of people is coming back to that from some of the musicians out there.”
George’s response to the same question was also interesting.
“My musical influences have always been guitar players – a lot of guitar heroes – Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Gary Moore. On the other side, I’ve always been a huge songwriter fan. People that influenced me were Billy Falcon, who a lot of people don’t know by name but had some hits in the mid-nineties – written a lot for Bon Jovi and many, many other people. I’m a huge Bruce Springsteen fan just from the whole songwriting aspect and as live performers. And, then when I came to Texas, I was actually influenced mostly by local talent. Jimmy Wallace, Andy Timmons – Andy continues to be my greatest influence – I don’t know about ‘influence’ but he inspires me the most.
“Then, on a current level, I would still have to say Andy. Anything that has melody and strong in songwriting – I’m not a guitar gymnastic guy. I’m not a fan of the Yngwie Malmsteen’s or anything like that. I’m more of about melody, soul and passion.”
Maylee added, “You were talking about Bruce – that was the other thing that we were so blessed with having a relationship with Clarence Clemons for so many years. That opened me up. See, the only ‘Bruce’ I was familiar with was all the hits they used to play on the radio and they weren’t even my favorite songs of his. George would go, ‘Aren’t you a Bruce Springsteen fan?” and I’m like, ‘Ah, well, he’s okay’. But once I heard him in concert, I was blown away.”
I asked Maylee and George how their relationship with Clarence Clemons started. George shared the surprisingly funny story.
“We were playing at a club – we were at Take 5 in Dallas and in walks an entourage of people. It Clarence Clemons, Kelsey Grammer, Alan Thicke, Dave Anderson (“McGyver”), Leonardo DiCaprio – they all walked in. They were travelling at the time with the 1980 gold medal hockey team doing this charity thing. There was a celebrity team playing on ice against the gold medal hockey team and it was all for charity. So they came walking in. Of course, I’m a fan of a lot of them. I love Kelsey Grammer and Frasier – big fan. But my attention was immediately to the large black man. That’s the Big Man – Clarence Clemons.
“So, we took a break and I immediately went over to Clarence and said, ‘You don’t happen to have your sax with you, do you?’ He said, ‘Ah, man, I wish I did! You guys rock!’ I said, ‘Where is it?’ and he said, ‘It’s at the hotel.’ I said, ‘I got a car right out back. We could go get it.’ He said, ‘Let’s go!’
“He got in my car and we drove one-way streets the wrong way and down sidewalks to get him to the hotel. We go up, get his sax. I don’t know this guy from Adam. I’m just a fan. We’re coming down the elevator in the hotel that happened to be hosting the national cheerleading competition. Clarence loved life and loved as many in life as he could. I almost didn’t get him out of the hotel. Girls started paying attention to him and he was like, ‘Maybe I should stay?’ and I’m like, ‘NO!’
“I got him back in the car. We go back. We made it there and back within the 30 minute break. Kelsey Grammer got up and played piano, Alan played guitar and sang, and Clarence blew sax. That was a fantastic night playing the last set together.
“Maylee knows me and knows that I’m not going to let that opportunity go. At the time I had the studio with Jimmy Wallace and we were working on our first record. It’s two in the morning and I don’t want to push my luck but I said to Clarence, ‘ Man, it’s a long shot but is there any way I can talk you into coming into the studio with us? We’re doing this record and it would be so awesome if you could play on it” He asked, ‘Where’s the studio?’ and I said, ‘Oh, it’s ten minutes from here’ – it was really 40. He’s like, ‘Yeah, let’s go!’
“So, we get in the car and I’m freakin’ out, thinkin’ ‘How do I make 40 minutes seem like 10 minutes?’ It’s 2:30 in the morning by the time we leave. We get him into the studio and we played until dawn. He played the solos on I’ve Got You and Beyond My Wildest Dreams – they were all just first takes. Incredible. Just incredible.
“So, then, I take him back to the hotel and he’s going to be on a plane in hours. He’s been up the whole night. I’m thinking, ‘I don’t want to let this go!’ and so I’m talking to him and he’s telling me about his birthday. He was turning 50 in two weeks. He made the comment – I’m sure that he was just being polite – ‘Too bad you don’t live out there. If you can make it, you ought to come to my birthday.’
“Well, I latched on to that and two weeks later I fly out there. I go to his house. I didn’t have his phone number or anything. I can’t confirm that I’m really invited but I do my research and find where he lives and I show up! He had said, ‘When you come you can stay with me!’ I had my bag and I show up at his door, ringing the doorbell. Someone answers and they said, ‘Who are you?’ Clarence jumped up and hugged me. He was very gracious. He told everybody about the recording session. He remembered every detail. He welcomed me in and insisted that I stay there. We laughed about that story for many years afterwards.”
Maylee added, “From that point on, George, Clarence and I became very, very close friends. We saw him through a lot – a lot. He (Clemons) told me later, ‘I never had anybody make me laugh as much as Geo has! I would cry I would be laughing so hard.’
I asked George and Maylee how they met Andy Timmons.
“Maylee met Andy playing in some clubs when she was with Robert Lee Kobb. The real strong friendship between the three of us came later when I met him and befriended him. At the time he was living in Denton and had an unreliable car – Druzilla was its name – and Druzilla ran part of the time and didn’t run most of the time. I would drive up to Denton, picking up Andy and bringing him into town and we’d go cruising around. We had a lot of time to become friends.
“Andy played in the band for 2 – 2 ½ years maybe. Here’s been involved with virtually every record we’ve ever recorded from all the way back from Rhythm of the Blues to now. He’s obviously a tremendous talent. He’s a tremendous individual and a tremendous person. Very genuine. He is exactly what he projects himself to be. That’s just him. He’s wonderful, passionate, caring and giving. To me, he’s truly the most talented guitar player I’ve ever seen, heard or listen to. He has all of that technical proficiency but he also has that unequalled sense of melody and passion that comes through in his playing.”
Then, with the humor that I quickly grew to love and appreciate during our visit, George adds, “I think he’s stolen some of his licks from me over the years. He and I talk about it often. I’ll single out one note from one of his records and say, ‘That note sounds pret-ty familiar!’ and he’s like, ‘Man! You caught that? The thirteenth bar on the seventh song?’
As we finished our mutual, verbal love fest for Andy, Maylee shared how George and Andy connect on a comedic level. However, in telling me this, she let it slip that Andy and George are both actually super-hero crime-fighters with well ventilated, official super-hero costumes and real super-hero motorcycle and side-car. I saw photographic evidence so I know this to be true.
I’m sure I’m going to hear about this later.
Blown away by the current Maylee Thomas Band catalog, I asked what the plans were as far as a new CD in the near future. George indicated that “We’ve written new songs and we’re getting ready to record. We’re going to start recording them as soon as possible.”
As for what’s on the radar for the next year and the next five years, George shared that it was to “Finish this record and get it recorded will be the immediate goal. Over the next five years? Wherever God takes us. I mean, really. I don’t mean to sound hokey but that’s it. We’re going to continue to write, play, lead worship and see where that takes us. We recently did a song for the Rick Santorum campaign. You can hear it on YouTube. It’s called A Better Day. We were contacted by someone at the Republican National Committee about using the song for him. So, maybe we’ll go down that road. Just wherever God takes us.”
Then, again, with a smirk and a twinkle in his eye that warns me that I’m about to laugh yet again, he shares what their lofty goal as a band is.
“We’re going to hire Bruce Springsteen to play with us in our band. The G Street Band with special guest, Bruce Springsteen! That’s our lofty goal!”