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The Voice

Home is where her heart and soul are

Rainy days at Swarthmore set Vaneese Thomas ’74, H’14 dreaming of home.

“My classmates kidded me for inhaling big and saying, ‘Oh, it smells like Memphis,’” she laughs. “Memphis has good dirt and it imparted something musical to me.”

Daughter of iconic entertainer Rufus Thomas and sister of the music legends Carla and Marvell Thomas, she lived and breathed Memphis’s rich cultural swirl of song. On her sixth studio album, The Long Journey Home, she pays tribute to her soul, gospel, blues, jazz, R&B, pop, and country roots, by way of Swarthmore.

“Growing up, I knew I had a voice, but I was shy. In college, I used to hide behind a screen in the original Tarble and play and sing quietly,” she says. “When I finished, I realized two things: I wasn’t hiding very well and my songs seemed to move people.”

A key founder of Swarthmore’s undergraduate and alumni gospel choirs and a still-fluent French major, Thomas felt an instant kinship to how the College’s values of social justice echoed those of her family.

“My mother, Lorene, was a civil-rights activist and took me everywhere she went, so if she was at a sit-in or on a picket line, I was there with her,” she says. “My activism is as important to me as my music.” 

Inspired by the rich memories of a lifetime, including friends and collaborators like Carolyn Mitchell ’74, Thomas is proud of the person she has become and the acclaimed career she’s built as a solo artist, backing singer, and songwriter/producer.

So she takes another breath to savor her journey home, musically and otherwise.

“I’m grateful to Swarthmore and to Memphis,” she says, “for the music I’ve made and will make, the people I’ve met and will meet, and the experiences I’ve had and will have.”

A Musical Life

Some of the favorite songs Vaneese Thomas ’74, H’14 has sung and written

“My Tribute”

When I received my honorary degree, I was very proud of my speech. I wrote it all myself and it really spoke to who I was—that was important for me to impart to the students. I remember hearing an interview with Shonda Rhimes, who said that she had been deathly afraid to get in front of an audience. She had written a speech on the way to get her honorary degree at Dartmouth, and it didn’t speak about who she was at all, so on the way there, she opened her laptop and deleted that speech and wrote something that was really personal.

That’s what I felt about my speech: It was really me and I think the young graduates got it. So “My Tribute” was a part of that, not just because of the gospel choir but because of my faith. I’ve worked hard, of course, but everything I’ve done in my life is done through the grace of God, so that’s what singing “My Tribute” was about.

 

“Let’s Talk It Over”

“Let’s Talk It Over” is special. I had two writing partners in the late ’80s: Ernie Poccia and the gentleman who was to become my husband, Wayne Warnecke. Wayne is a recording engineer; we own our own studio. In those days, he was working at Minot Sound Studio in White Plains, N.Y., as an assistant engineer, and the owner was kind enough to let us work there at night. We called it “Predawn Productions” because we’d go in at midnight, work all night, and come out as the sun would just be rising. We did a lot of our demos that way. That’s how we wrote “Let’s Talk It Over,” which became our first nationally released hit.

 

“(I Wanna Get) Close to You”

“(I Wanna Get) Close to You” was the second single from my 1987 debut album, Vaneese Thomas. In the beginning of my solo career, I was singing jingles. I did them for many, many years and had a girlfriend who called it “the velvet glove.” That’s because once you get in, it’s hard to get out, because you’re making a good living without having to go out on the road. So after this album, I neglected my solo career because I was focusing on jingles and doing very well. Of course, I’ve come back to my solo career now, and this album was the launching of it.

 

“Talk Me Down”

 

“Fortune”

“Talk Me Down” was written by Mary Unobsky. We’re friends and she’s also from Memphis, and I loved it so much. It’s such sultry R&B and the message is so beautifully crafted. “Talk Me Down” and “Fortune,” written by Cynthia Biggs from Philadelphia, were right up my alley—they were sort of smooth, Philadelphia-style R&B and that’s where I was at the time. I wound up writing more songs in that vein and putting out my next album, A Woman’s Love.

 

“Dear John”

I want to also talk about how important Carolyn Mitchell ’74 has been, not only in my personal life but also in my professional life. We met when we were students and she invited me to sing harmonies with her. She and I and the late James Batton ’72 did a series of concerts together every semester until we graduated, and I think they were very healing during a time on campus when there was a lot of racial issues and unrest.

Carolyn went on to work in corporate America—she’s still there—but she never gave up writing songs. She’s a brilliant songwriter, a true songcrafter, and she and I have been collaborating on songs for the past 30 years. One of those on that same album with “Talk Me Down” and “Fortune” is “Dear John.” And she has a song on Blues for My Father and one that we wrote together for my new album, The Long Journey Home.

 

“When My Baby Gets Home”

Carolyn and my husband and I wrote a song called “When My Baby Gets Home,” for Blues for My Father, which I love. It’s uptempo, electric-guitar-oriented blues.

 

“Sweet Talk Me”

Carolyn and I also wrote “Sweet Talk Me” for The Long Journey Home, which is a little more Southern-oriented soul. Did you know there are several blues charts? One is called Soul Blues, which, of course, I seem to fall into because of my upbringing. That’s the current one Carolyn and I have out. It’s being played everywhere and it’s such a good feeling. It’s pretty amazing that we’re still doing this thing we love so much together all these years later. She’s written for Regina Belle and lots of other famous people. We owe a debt of gratitude to Swarthmore for letting us work it out there!

 

“Peace and Good Will”

I wrote “Peace and Good Will” and released it last Christmas. These days, like everyone, I’m feeling so pained by what’s going on in our world, here and abroad, and I wanted to write something that would reflect my desire for unity. So hopefully “Peace and Good Will” will come back every Christmas season and remind people of our need to embrace one another. 

 

“When My Back’s Against the Wall”

In one of the few Billboard reviews I ever got, they called “When My Back’s Against the Wall” “a gospel gem,” and I’m proud of that. That record came out in 1998 and it’s still being ordered on Amazon today. I think classic music that appeals to people’s hearts never goes away, never dies. And so I’m really proud of “When My Back’s Against the Wall.”

 

“Blue Ridge Blues”

“Blue Ridge Blues” was inspired by a trip to Asheville, N.C. It’s so beautiful there: You’re just surrounded by the mountains and it’s a warm, loving atmosphere and very musical. This was my first stab at writing Americana. That’s what blues is, but I grew up listening to all kinds of music, country music especially. My mother was very fond of country music, so we always had some going on around the house, and I think it shows in “Blue Ridge Blues” that my pop, country, and blues roots came together to talk about the pain of a relationship and the beauty of the land.

 

“I Had a Talk With My Man Last Night”

That whole album, Soul Sister Vol. One, is my love letter to the women of soul. Women’s music shaped me, and I wanted to show that and give back and let them know how they influenced me growing up.