Thirty-five years ago the first modern computer was released to the public while the first CD player was sold in Japan. In Florida, the Epcot Center was opened while the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated in Washington, DC. Prince William was born. John Belushi died. Olivia Newton-John was getting "Physical," Joan Jett was proclaiming her "love for Rock 'N' Roll," and Michael Jackson was ruling the airwaves with his "Thriller" becoming the best-selling album of all time. At the movies we were introduced to the feats of Rambo in "First Blood," mesmerized by the adventures of "E.T. The Extraterrestrial," and held captive by "The Wrath of Kahn" in Star Trek II. Barney Clark became the recipient of the first artificial heart implant and John W. Hinckley was found not guilty because of insanity in the shooting of President Ronald Reagan. And, in a moment just as groundbreaking and history-making as any of these, Tom Ware and Lacey Thomas began performing together.
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Tom Ware began his musical journey while growing up in Colorado when his mother insisted he take piano lessons. "I didn't want to," Tom says. "There were other things more interesting to a seven year old boy." He stuck with it until, at age ten, he put aside the piano for the guitar. His reason, "The guitar looked cooler." Influenced by groups such as the Beach Boys and the Beatles, Tom was also writing songs. "I can't remember ever not making up songs," he says. "In fact, the reason I became so interested in playing was to accompany myself on my original tunes."
Tom was fourteen when the family moved to Fort Smith. Though he obviously had musical talent having already mastered several instruments, he chose not to join the school band. At age sixteen, while his peers spent their Friday evenings on a cold football field, Tom was at home learning to play in a number of different styles like Rock 'N' Roll, Country, and even Bluegrass. "My friends were into Led Zeppelin," he says, smiling. "I was into the Earl Scruggs review."
His first band, formed in 1971, was called "Reefer," slang for a marijuana cigarette. Surprisingly, they were hired to play several school dances, even hanging their posters on the school walls. They were also hired to play a political rally for David Pryor who went on to become State Senator, Governor, and U.S. Congressman, a gig that when Tom talks about it now, he can't help but smile and shrug. "I don't know if they just didn't get it or what," he says.
After high school, he enrolled at Westark, where he earned a degree in electronics. Having also mastered both the mandolin and the ukulele, he was performing with Mountain Wind, an acoustic band. In 1979, he opened Eternal Boogie Studios, one of the first fully-equipped recording studios in Fort Smith.
In 1980, Tom began working with well-known local band, Bajer, a straight ahead Rock 'N' Roll band. Not only did it bring about a new job for Tom, but it also led to a major milestone in his life. Something even Tom didn't see coming.
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The youngest of six kids, Lacey Thomas's first memories of music include listening to her Granny playing by ear. "She was so good," Lacey says, "and my dad was a great dancer, a great jitter bugger. No one could touch Dad on the dance floor." She also remembers the music her siblings exposed her to, sitting in the back of her brother's car with groups like Grand Funk Railroad blasting from the speakers. "Of course," she says, "my idols were Linda Ronstadt and Steve Perry. You can't find much better than them."
Though she had sang some, mostly at church or with the school choir, she never really took an interest in singing by herself until she decided to compete in a local "Gong Show" to be held at the Fort Smith Civic Center. She was only fifteen. It was while searching for musicians to back her in the competition that she was introduced to Alan Sebastion, AKA Seboe, of the local rock band Jasper. The band agreed to appear with her as she performed the Rolling Stones classic, "Tumbling Dice." "I didn't win," says Lacey. "But I didn't get gonged. That was a big deal."
Impressed with her performance, she was invited to join the band. Excited, the young girl went to her dad with the offer. "He didn't say no," Lacey says, "he said 'hell no!' I was heartbroken." Later, when her dad came home after getting a haircut, he came with a surprise for his daughter. "I was still in my room crying," she recalls. "Dad came in and told me I had been raised right, I knew what was expected of me, and I could join the band. It turned out his barber was the father of the band's sound man." Even so, the privilege didn't come without conditions. Band or not, she was to be home by 10:30 on weeknights, 12:30 on weekends. They were conditions she was happy to abide by.
She'd worked with Jasper for about three years, when she was given the opportunity to audition for another band. The audition was to be held at Eternal Boogie Studios on Towson Avenue. The band was called Bajer. She had no clue what the future held in store.
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"We'd lost our female singer due to a divorce," Tom says. "We had dates booked and needed someone to replace her." Tom knew of Lacey through her older siblings, Buddy and Susan. He'd also seen her perform with Jasper. He sent word that they were interested in having her try out for the position. Though shy and nervous, Lacey agreed to audition for the group in October of 1981. Of course she was hired. The gig proved beneficial for them both with Tom, who'd mostly focused on acoustic music, learning tricks of the electric guitar while giving Lacey the chance to stretch more as a vocalist. The chemistry between the two was instant, not just as musicians, but as friends.
At the time, joining Bajer had been a no-brainer for the young musicians. It was an established band with real paying gigs lined up. Their next project wasn't so sure. With the chemistry between Tom and Lacey so strong the pair decided to venture on their own and front Tommy Lift and the Tailgates. "That was our attempt to play some blues and roots music," Tom says.
Though not as well-known as other bands on the local scene, it did lead to the pair being recruited by Bill White and Friends, the house band at the Faux Pas. Tom joined first, with Lacey taking a day job. It was later, after the band's manager Doc Parker bought the Jockey Club and moved the band downtown that Lacey was brought back into the fold. They played there for a while, working on more Country oriented material.
In 1986, they became the house band at Country Land in Springdale. Now going by the name Razorback, they were playing six nights a week, most till 4:00 in the morning. They drove back and forth every day, first in a van with a trailer, later buying their first bus. It was during this time that one member was offered some name recognition in the local newspaper.
"Razorback was working at Country Land when I was approached by a reporter from the Southwest Times Record about a possible article to be written about me," says Lacey. During the interview, Lacey mentioned she had quit the school choir in the tenth grade to concentrate more on singing with a band. Excited, she waited for the article to come out. "It was titled, 'All I Ever Wanted to Do,' " she says. "It covered the entire front page of the Lifestyles section. I started reading and was shocked to find a story about a girl who had dropped out of school in the tenth grade. My mother was livid. I told her not to worry, that they would print a retraction." And they did, buried in the back of the paper two weeks later was a very small two line retraction titled, "School Completed."
It was at Country Land that they learned to be what a country band is supposed to be. Opening for name acts such as Exile, Highway 101, and Tanya Tucker proved to be a learning experience in itself, always watching, learning how the big dogs play. Though mostly playing Top 40 Country hits, they managed to slip a few of their original tunes into the set as well. It was hard work, work they didn't mind doing. "We were playing six nights a week," Tom says. "We were getting tight, learning how to play with one another."
It wasn't long before the band found themselves recording demos in Nashville. "Our manager had connections in the music business," says Tom. "He hooked us up with Peter Sullivan." As a staff producer at Decca Records in England, Sullivan had produced hits for several recording artists. With Tom already holding an interest in the production side of the music, Sullivan became a quick influence, teaching him the art of the studio. "I had the pleasure of co-producing some pieces with him later," Tom says, as though he still can't believe it. "He actually listened to my suggestions. That's when I became really interested in the way things should sound."
In 1988, they met with Scotty Turner who had recent discovered some old unrecorded songs written by Buddy Holly. Razorback recorded two of them, "Am I Ever Going to Find It" and "September Heart," with the blessing of Buddy's widow Maria Elena. The group appeared on several talk shows in support of the recordings including Entertainment Tonight. "Maria gave me a pair of earrings for my birthday," says Lacey. "I still have them."
After shopping the Sullivan produced demos around and playing a showcase for industry bigwigs at Opryland Hotel, which also featured another up and comer Billy Ray Cyrus, the group was signed by Mercury Records. The first thing the "higher ups" did was squash the Buddy Holly project. They didn't want anything to do with it. They recorded an album that was never released and six singles that were with a song co-penned by Tom and Lacey coming first, "Where Were You (When I Was Blue). They even filmed a video in support of the song produced by John Ware. It was their first release with Mercury, their first video, and their first song on the charts hitting the top 50.
Razorback went on to be sponsored by Miller Genuine Draft. Through Miller, they were hooked up with Marlboro Music. With them they were able to travel overseas playing music in several different countries for large audiences. "They treated us like superstars," Lacey says. For one gig, before a U.S. military audience, they were asked to learn Lee Greenwood's "God Bless The USA." Though it seemed a bit cliché, they agreed. "We saw grown men cry that day," says Lacey. "I'd never seen such a reaction to a song."
One of the highlights of their time with the group is when they appeared on Ralph Emery's TV show, "Nashville Now." "I mentioned local bar, Old Town Grain and Feed, on national TV," Tom says, smiling. "From that point on, the owner bought me a beer every time I went in."
With one song having hit the charts, they were given several opportunities to do more, even recording the music for a nationally broadcast commercial for Miller beer, making Lacey the first female performer to ever sing on a beer commercial. "Later, I was asked to perform on a commercial for Domino's Pizza," she says. "I went to New York to record that. That was really cool."
After touring Europe, Asia, and other points worldwide for Mercury Records and recording several complete albums for the label, none of which saw the light of day, they began to feel like outcasts on their own turf. The executives behind signing the group left the company about six months into the deal, all fired when Harold Shedd took over. It was under Shedd's reign that they released "Sleep On It," another minor hit for the group, even going number one in Milwaukee for a number of months. Still, the new regime didn't show much interest in them other than changing their name. Feeling Razorback was too regional, they became Grayghost, alienating what little following they had already built leading to their being dropped from the label.
"The man that signed us left the label," Lacey explains. "The new regime decided they would rather back the Kentucky Headhunters. Of course, we all know what happened with them." They continued playing dates, one in particular in Milwaukee while "Sleep On It" was still riding high. "We opened and closed with the song," says Lacey. "And played it once in the middle," Tom adds. They tried booking some dates in China, but by then Lacey had married and was pregnant. It was time to focus on other things.
Without label backing, Tom began to steer the band in more of a rock direction. They tried to get signed as a rock band, pitching several demos around the Los Angeles music scene. They had the opportunities to make a video and to record an album, though nothing came of it either. After playing local gigs for a while, the band just kind of drifted apart. "We still get together now and again," Tom says. "I'm not sure we ever really officially broke up."
It was in 1994 that Tom met a truly amazing woman named Libby. "They used to have the Blues Cruise," Tom says. "They would take one of the bands performing at the Blues Fest, set them up on the riverboat leaving out of Van Buren at the time, then sell tickets. Thirty bucks for a meal, music, and a cruise on the Arkansas River." A friend who owned a boat decided they could save money by inviting a number of folks onto his craft, then float along beside the riverboat enjoying the music for free. Tom almost didn't go, changing his mind at the last minute. Racing to the dock, he arrived late having to jump onto the boat as it was leaving. Libby was one of the other guests. Married in 1997, they've been together ever since.
Sometime after their kids were born, Lacey's first husband, Eric Schaffer, passed away. It was a year later she met Derek Thomas. "We were playing at Old Town when Grant Pierson and I decided to walk down to the Rib Room during our break," Lacey says. "As we went inside, I made a remark about there being no good men around. Grant pointed toward a guy sitting across the room and said, 'There's one.' " He introduced them. The pair became fast friends, began dating, and were married in 1998, forming a family consisting of the two of them and their kids, Parker Thomas, Phoebe Schaffer, and Max Schaffer.
Throughout the years, Tom and Lacey have remained friends, best friends, becoming local legends in the process. Tom still works full-time at music, you can find him behind the sound board at various local productions. He also serves as production manager for AAC Live. He still writes and has just released his latest solo album, "Sticks & Stones." Lacey works in the Fort Smith education system as a Special Ed. Paraprofessional at Euper Lane Elementary. Both can be found playing local gigs together such as MovieLounge and R. Landry's, often joined by Tom's son, Anthony, a fine musician in his own right. But maybe their most gratifying gig came just a short time ago when Lacey and her family decided to find a church home.
After trying several places, they found themselves visiting Midland Heights with Pastor Dan Williams. "There were only twenty people there," says Lacey. "But somehow, I knew that was where we belonged." Not long after Lacey and family began there, Tom and his family started too. With the two serving as praise leaders the membership of the small church has grown from just twenty to well over one-hundred, and is still growing. "I have played some of the biggest stages in the world," she says, "but seeing the reaction of the people in this small church is by far the most gratifying of any experience I've had. We praise God at our church. The spirit there is so strong, you can't help but feel it."
"I have a family now," Lacey says. "I don't want to go back on the road. I'm very happy right where I am."
"Over time, I've learned to keep 'music,' and the 'music business' separated. The 'business' is my job, the 'music,' I do because I love it," Tom says. "I feel that I've had a successful career in music. I've gone everywhere I wanted to, done everything I've dreamed. Sure, I could have been famous, but then, I might not have had the opportunity to enjoy it the way I have."
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Thirty-five years is a long time, it doesn't matter what you're doing. It's longer than most marriages last. It's long enough to complete a full transformation from being a you, young and vibrant, to a you who is tired, old, and grey. To say most musical partnerships don't last 35 years would be an understatement. But then again, there are always exceptions to the rule, those few that can stand the test of time not just as musical compadres, but as true best friends. Celebrating their 35th year as a musical powerhouse together, Tom Ware and Lacey Thomas can now take their place on that legendary list.