THE FABULOUS GATEWAY SINGERS
To locate a female singer whose voice had the range and depth to extend over the intricate and imaginative arrangements created by Lou Gottlieb was no simple task.
None of the professional singers on the local scene seemed to meet the demanding qualifications.
So Lou Gottlieb finally turned to a friend from UC Berkeley who he knew to have a fine contralto voice. As one journalist of the time put it, “she had great personal charm along with the vocal range of a pipe organ.”
Engaged in hormone research at the time, and married with a family, Elmerlee Thomas auditioned with the group as a lark cum favor for her pal. She recalled, "I was a lab assistant, and I'd been singing around campus. Lou wanted to know if I'd like to sing some folk songs, just for kicks.”
Her `yes' turned an interesting trio into an extraordinary quartet. She left the group at the end of 1960, and, tragically, passed away as the result of a brain tumour in 1969.
The following biographical notes are excerpted from Elmerlee Thomas' solo album “The Sun's Gonna Shine.”
"I am not a folk singer, like the Leadbellys, Woody Outlines, and Blind Sonny Terrys. I am a singer of folk songs'.'
Elmerlee Thomas is one of that rare breed - and she is a great one.
What comes out of Elmerlee Thomas, the artist, is a rich, resonant contralto voice of incredible beauty, soaring power, and infinite variety. It is subtle and explosive, spiritual and sensual, joyous and thoughtful. It shouts and is delicate, caresses and lashes, soothes and preaches, warms and chills. It can speak softly, but always carries a big kick. It is fluent in five languages. It defines prison-spawned songs of despair and church-charted songs of hope with startling insight. No musical waters are -lien to it - from the most formidable German lieder to the deceptive simplicity of American folk balladry, so unforgettably performed.
Oakland born Elmerlee Thomas went from private, concert-oriented musical study, begun when she was fifteen years old, to the music department of the University of California, in Berkeley. Co-interested in hormone research, she spent nearly as much lab as lieder time. She also discovered American folk music. Its deep emotional honesty appealed to her. Its rich heritage fascinated her. Its growing significance as an art form and the colossal diversity of its repertoire challenged her. Practical encouragement came quickly. She accepted an offer to sing lead voice with a local, just-formed, folk song trio - the Gateway Singers.
Elmerlee Thomas on the cover of her LP "The Sun's Gonna Shine"
The Gateways auditioned at the one spot in the area most likely to hire, and succeed with, a folk song-singing trio - San Francisco's adventurous hungry i, proving grounds for such separate talents as Mort Sahl, Johnny Mathis, Irwin Corey, and Josh White (who was appearing there at the time). Audition successful, the Gateways were promised a spot, at the conclusion of Josh's engagement. "Josh" Elmerlee smiles, telling it, "stayed six months.' When it did open up, the spot turned out to be a pair of Monday nights. Receptive audiences parlayed the two "off night" appearances into two weeks, then two years, plus subsequent fringe benefits like a national tour, on which one stop would be at
Recording executive George Avakian happened into the Hungry I one night, was deeply impressed by Elmerlee, told her he wanted to record her as a soloist (the group had already been snapped up for records) at the first available opportunity.
Elmerlee chose the songs to be included in the album - authentic American folk songs she had been singing since her Berkeley days. Jerry Walter, one of the Gateways, sketched the arrangements - simple, uncluttered complements to the pure authenticity of the songs and Elmerlee's performance of them.
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