By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
To friends and music business associates, 43-year-old Ty Thomas is a former member of a popular early-'90s alternative pop-rock band from Dallas that called itself The Crossing; a gifted but frustrated musician who dropped out, only to recently return as a songwriter with a larger-than-life dream.
To another generation, however, it has never been his music that set him apart. Rather, it is the fact that he is the youngest son of Alvin Clarence Thomas, a.k.a. Titanic Thompson, a man called by many the greatest gambler-hustler-con man who ever worked a scam.
Throughout his adult life, Thomas has lived with the ongoing legend and folk tales that are the legacy of his famous father. It was his dad who was the model for the character Sky Masterson in Damon Runyon's immortal Guys and Dolls; was investigated for the shooting death of Arnold Rothstein; architect of the infamous fixing of the 1919 World Series; beat the legendary Byron Nelson at golf; shot pool with Nick the Greek; played poker with gangster Al Capone; and won and lost several fortunes before his death in 1974 at age 82.
He was a scratch golfer who routinely explained that the only reason he didn't try the professional tour was because he couldn't afford the cut in pay, a champion skeet shooter and so athletically gifted that he once won a wager by jumping over a pool table without a running start. And no one was better at marking a deck or palming an ace.
Titanic Thompson was, during his heyday in the glamorous and boozy 1920s, '30s and '40s, constant fodder for Walter Winchell's column and the man with a million ways to beat the other guy out of his money. He flourished in a time when the old ploy commonly known as the "proposition" was in vogue. And Titanic was the grandmaster. To wit:
Once, while visiting Michigan, he boasted to fellow gamblers that he could drive a golf ball 500 yards and quickly got plenty of takers. Arriving at the golf course, he turned on the tee box to face a frozen lake and hit away. The ball skidded along the ice until it was finally out of sight--and the pockets of his companions were emptied.
"I saw him do a lot of remarkable things," Ty says, "and have heard many stories that I believe to be true. But, over the years, they seem to get better and more outrageous. It seems like every old gambler or golfer you run into has a story about my dad. And some are pure fiction."
Like the oft-told account of his father earning his nickname when he cowardly escaped the sinking Titanic by putting on a dress and climbing into a lifeboat reserved for women and children. Not true, says Ty. "He got his nickname in a pool hall in Joplin, Missouri. One of the men he was playing asked his name, and somebody said, 'It ought to be Titanic, the way he's sinking everybody.' Dad liked that and took it as his name." Thomas evolved to Thompson when his name was printed incorrectly in news accounts of the 1929 Rothstein trail.
"Even after he was well into his 70s," Ty remembers, "he was always looking for someone to sucker into a bet. By then it was less about the money and more just the sheer excitement of winning. He would go out to this little par-3 golf course near where we lived in Colleyville and play every day. When he'd finally hook up with someone willing to make a friendly bet of $20 or so, Dad, who was naturally left-handed, would play right-handed. He'd let the guy win for a few days, then suggest upping the bet. When his opponent agreed to make it worthwhile, Dad would suggest he'd do the guy a favor and play left-handed. And then beat him like a drum."
As a youngster, Ty recalls his father spending hours perfecting some trick shot that he'd ultimately convince someone to bet he couldn't pull off. "He'd stand in the living room and chip golf balls off the carpet into one of my baby shoes at the other end of the room. He'd do it for hours and hours until at least nine out of 10 shots went into the shoe. Then, when he was satisfied he could do it consistently, he'd go in search of someone willing to bet he couldn't do it."
Though just 15 when his celebrated father died, Ty not only heard many of the colorful tales of Titanic's exploits but saw many of them firsthand. "He took me with him everywhere he went," Thomas remembers. "We'd spend days on the golf course and evenings in pool halls and bowling alleys." And always on the move, lured by wherever the big money players were waiting. "I lost count of all the places we lived," he says. "Dallas, Colleyville, Corpus Christi, San Antonio, Tyler, El Paso, Hobbs and Lovington, New Mexico...Sometimes I'd go to three or four schools a year."
Not all of his education came in the classrooms. "One night in San Antonio we were leaving the bowling alley and as we got to our car this guy wearing a mask jumps up from the backseat with a gun and tells me and my mother to get into the car while he robs my dad." There remains a tone of awe in his voice as Thomas recalls the rest of the story: Titanic simply glared at the robber. "I don't want to have to kill you," the gambler said, not even bothering to pull his own gun, which he always carried, "but if you don't get out of here right now, that's exactly what's going to happen."
Ultimately, the would-be hijacker, intimidated by the man he'd planned to rob, fled into the night.
"The next day," Ty says, "this guy shows up at the house--I met him at the door--and he apologizes to my dad, explaining that he hadn't known who he was and begging him to not hold a grudge. Then he started into this hard-luck story about why he'd tried to rob him. Finally, Dad said he'd heard enough, gave him $20 and sent him on his way."
The Thomas family, Ty admits, was hardly from the Ozzie and Harriet mold. His mother, Jeanette, was her husband's equal at skeet shooting. "We'd go out to the State Fair and leave with armloads of teddy bears because both of them could win at every game on the midway," he recalls. For Ty, the sporting life offered no real appeal. What interested him was music. As a youngster he was listening to the songs of the Beatles, then David Bowie, Elton John and Led Zeppelin. "Because we were constantly moving into a new town and I was enrolling in a new school," he says, "I was really shy. Music became my best friend."
He began to dream of the day he would become a rock and roller. A decade ago, it almost happened. As a guitarist and songwriter for The Crossing, his future looked bright when Dallas promoter Tommy Quon, riding the overnight success of Vanilla Ice (who he was managing at the time), signed the group and put together a recording deal with SBK Records. "Then," Thomas recalls, "everything just sort of fell apart. Our deal was put on hold, and soon the grunge sound took over. Suddenly, nobody wanted our kind of music."
Disappointed in the direction rock and roll had taken, the disillusioned Thomas walked away. For several years he labored in the nightclub and restaurant business in Dallas. Still, he never managed to completely hush that childhood dream. Music, he knew, was as much a part of him as gambling had been to his dad.
"I've always enjoyed writing," he says, "but writing a single song had never been that satisfying. Nor have I ever liked the idea of just gathering up your best songs, recording them and calling it an album. My life's goal has always been to do one in which each song fits with the other and has a place in an overall story."
That album, he says, is now a reality--thanks, in part, to inspiration provided by his late father.
Over the years there have been ongoing rumors that a movie would be made of the colorful life of Titanic Thompson; it was such talk that finally lured Thomas back to music. He would, he decided, begin writing a collection of songs that he hoped might be considered for the soundtrack if a movie was ever shot. In time, however, the idea evolved into something far beyond a possible movie soundtrack. It would mark his return to what he terms a "serious, high-energy brand of rock and roll" and the organization of a band that he'll manage, hoping it will capture the imagination of today's rock-and-roll fans.
The result: a still untitled disc, songs from which will debut at The Door on May 31, featuring a talented young female singer from Booker T. Washington High School and backed by a band called I.Q. Among the medley of songs they'll perform will be one titled "1892." "That's the year my dad was born," Ty explains, "and the song tells the story of his life."
"I'm in love with these songs," says drummer Jody Lecomte, 30, following a recent rehearsal. Adds guitarist Josh Hammit, 25, "I think Ty is brilliant, a real craftsman. What he's come up with is something you would never have expected from the Dallas music scene. This isn't going to be one of those bands where when you hear one of its songs you've heard them all." Also in the band is Wade Cofer, 17, on guitar and keyboards.
"More than a few of my friends think I'm crazy," Thomas admits, "because I've now spent almost two years planning and working toward something that's never been done before."
With help from Newradio Talent and Development, which he started with Hammit, Thomas went in search of something radically different. Following a lengthy search that wound through local college campuses and finally ended four months ago at Booker T. Washington High, Thomas settled on two unknown teen-age singers: Braidy Bingham, 15, and Sheena Sampson, 17. Recently, though, Sampson has been sidelined with throat problems and will miss the band's debut; 17-year-old Charla McCampbell, another find from the talent search, will fill in for her. "She has an amazing sound," Thomas says of Bingham. "Despite her age, you're going to think you're listening to a singer who is in her 20s."
Mike Morton, the Booker T. Washington choir director who helped Thomas organize the auditions, is among those convinced that something musically unique is soon to happen. "When they first came to me with their idea," Morton admits, "I was skeptical. But after getting to know Ty and hearing what he had planned, I was impressed with the professional approach he was taking."
While Thomas is hesitant to talk about the songs he's written ("A song's not good until someone else says it is," he suggests), he does admit that they range from what he calls punk rock with modern touches to hip-hop and even a bit of country and reggae. In every case, he assures, the lyrics are out front.
"They all tell a story," says the brown-eyed Bingham, who has been singing in theatrical productions since 1997. "I think people are really going to relate to them."
Patient and meticulous, Thomas acknowledges that the realization of his dream is still in the future. "We might be there in another six weeks, or it might take another year," he says. "Right now, the focus has been on rehearsals and the upcoming live performance. After that, the serious studio recording will begin." Only when he has a demo tape he's satisfied with will he take his dream to the marketplace.
And so, he readily admits, he's taken a page from his father's book. "In a manner of speaking," he says, "I guess I'm as much a gambler as he was."