Nicky Thomas – Love Of The Common People: Album Review

Deluxe 2022 double-disc reissue of Trojan Records bestseller from Nicky Thomas.

nicky thomas

Release Date:  14th January 2022

Label: Doctor Bird Records

Formats: 2CD

To many, Nicky Thomas is, perhaps, the epitome of that most unfortunate of creatures – the One Hit Wonder.  Known to anyone of a certain age, or to anyone with a fondness for classic reggae, for his 1970 hit single, Love Of The Common People, it seems that he was here one day, then gone the next and, to those of us who, in 1970, had our eyes, ears and attention focused upon the altogether heavier antics of ELP, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and the rest (an attitude that caused me to miss so much great music at the time) that wasn’t (then) a matter of any great importance.

But, like everything, there’s a lot more to the Nicky Thomas story than many of us on this particular island ever took the trouble to investigate.  Born Cecil Nicholas Thomas in Jamaica’s Portland Parish in 1949, he initially worked as a stonemason’s labourer in Kingston before deciding to see how far his musical and compositional talents could take him.  He scored an early Jamaican hit with the seminal Run Mr Nigel Run, a song that earned him the nickname of Mr Nigel in Jamaica, before forming a fruitful collaboration with producer Joel Gibson, aka Joe Gibbs.  With Gibbs, Nicky achieved further Jamaican chart success, this time with titles such as Running Alone, Don’t Touch Me and God Bless The Children.  His single Have A Little Faith was a number one hit in Jamaica and, reportedly, sold in huge quantities in the UK, although the sales were mainly confined to specialist outlets that were not monitored by the bodies responsible for compiling the various versions of the chart.

In early 1970, a raw, undubbed take of Love Of The Common People arrived at the Neasden offices of Trojan Records.  In a bid to enhance the radio-friendliness of the recording, Trojan engaged the services of Johnny Arthley to come with a string arrangement – a treatment he had just applied with great success to Bob & Marcia’s milestone hit Young, Gifted And Black.  And suddenly, Nicky Thomas had an international hit single on his hands…

Love of the Common People had been composed back in 1966 by John Hurley and Ronnie Wilkins (also the writers of Dusty’s classic Son Of A Preacher Man) and the song had already been the subject of a number of covers by the likes of The Everly Brothers, Waylon Jennings, Joe Dolan and even Leonard “Mr Spock” Nimoy.  It was, however, the 1969 soul interpretation of the song by The Winstons that provided the inspiration for Nicky Thomas; the song had never troubled the charts in the UK, but that was to change.

Thomas was browsing in Gibbs’s record shop in downtown Kingston with Peter Tosh when he heard the news that his song had entered the UK charts – he was flabbergasted and was moved to remind Tosh that “Wailers have never done this…”  Trojan Records were quick to act.  Nicky had already recorded a whole stack of material with Gibbs in Kingston and a selection of tracks was chosen, to be compiled as the debut Nick Thomas album.  As was the norm at the time, the album took the title of the hit single and the selected tracks were mainly reggae transcripts of well-known songs – including, in this case, versions of The Beatles’ Let It Be, Pete Seeger’s If I Had A Hammer, Tony Joe White’s Rainy Night In Georgia, Donida/Rapetti’s I Who Have Nothing and others.  The album became, and remains, one of the best-selling albums in the Trojan Records catalogue.

It’s the original Love Of The Common people album that forms the first 13 tracks of Disc 1 to this two-disc set, with just about everything else that Nicky ever recorded with Joe Gibbs spread over the rest of the collection.  As is usual for a reissue package from the Cherry Red Group, meticulous attention has been paid the packaging of the product and the booklet that accompanies the two CDs is packed with great pictures, including photographs of Nicky’s Jamaican singles and reproductions of contemporaneous articles from the UK music press, which all help illustrate the wonderfully informative notes from Tony Rounce, which recount Nicky’s tilt at stardom in as much detail as anyone could possibly want.

As for the music – well that’s very much of its time, but none the worse for that.  The choice of material is, generally, inspired, and Nicky’s reggae adaptations of songs we know, and sometimes even love, work pretty well.  Nicky doesn’t confine himself to reggae, either; he also shows himself to be a pretty effective R&B singer, particularly with his take of Tyrone Davis’s Turn Back The Hands Of Time.  The string arrangements added to a few of the songs by Trojan Records are a bit of a distraction – on opening track God Bless The Children and on the lightweight Mama’s Song in particular – but there’s also loads of delicious reggae to enjoy and I particularly loved the version of Doing The Moonwalk, the chunky take of The Chambers Brothers’ Have A Little Faith, the stomping Don’t Touch Me and Randy Bachman’s Lonely Feelin’.

The classic title track was the closer to side one of the original vinyl album and it still stands up.  I got used to the string embellishments a long time ago, but I’d always wondered what the “naked” version of the song would sound like.  Thanks to this collection, I now know – and it’s a revelation.  The original Jamaican mix of the track is included on Disc 2, and it’s wonderful – the band are allowed to get on with it and the musical flourishes are provided by organ, rather than violins.  And if that isn’t enough, there’s also the vocal-free take by backing band Winston and the Destroyers – probably worth the price of the album on their own!

Indeed, it’s probably in the vast array of alternate takes , Ja mixes and dub versions of the songs that comprise the bulk of the bonus tracks (many of these released in the UK for the first time with this collection) that the real interest lies.  There are no added strings, no “afterthought” backing vocals – just a competent band doing what they do best and producing some highly enjoyable music in the process!

Nicky Thomas relocated to London after Common People struck paydirt, but he was never to repeat his international success.  God Bless The Children and If I Had A Hammer were both released as follow-up efforts but neither achieved any real attention.  He released two more albums of original material – Tell It Like It Is (1972) and Images Of You (1973) and, by the 1980s, Nicky was producing lots of creditable roots reggae. He retained a strong following in Jamaica and amongst the UK’s Caribbean communities, but, his international star faded and the baton was taken forward by others.  He disappeared from the music scene and, reportedly, committed suicide in 1990.  A tragic end to a story that could, and should, have ended on a far happier note.

This reissue of the Love Of The Common People album gives a real taste of what Nicky Thomas was all about; it displays his versatility as an interpreter of songs and provides a clear signpost to the direction in which reggae was headed.  It may not be indispensable, but it’s interesting, and highly, highly enjoyable.

Watch Nicky Thomas perform Love Of The Common People live, on BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test in 1973, here:

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