Monday, April 9, 2018

Banner Thomas...

I've been blessed quite a bit.

As a photographer, I've had the opportunity to meet and become friends with a wide array of people. And, given the time I spent at Taylor Guitars, it probably would surprise no one that there are a lot of musicians on that list.

I've had the opportunity to meet and hang out with people like Ted Nugent, Otis Williams of The Temptations, the guys in Styx, Eric Johnson; I could go on. Hell, Barenaked Ladies even makes sure I have a shady spot backstage during their outdoor summer shows. These people were all riding high when I met them; legends, some. And all of them wonderful people.

But perhaps the one who impacted me the most, probably because I got to know him better than many of the others, is someone I met long after his "rock star" life was done. His heyday, spanning from the early 1970's to the early 1980's, marked a period in my life where I was diggin' the kind of music his band was playing. As a kid growing up on Long Island, we waited with great anticipation for the southern rock tours to come to either the Nassau Coliseum or the Long Island Arena in Commack. The Charlie Daniels Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Outlaws; man, they all came through and kicked our collective ass with their guitar-searing, don't-give-a-shit-and-get-the-Hell-outta'-my-way attitude.

Molly Hatchet did that, too.

I'd met Banner Thomas briefly in 2014, but got to know him better as I was preparing to interview him for a magazine article I was writing about him. What I found was not what I expected. I sat down with a genuinely quiet, thoughtful guy. His speech was deliberate, and almost Jimmy Stewart-like in its delivery. Banner thought about what he was going to say and then he said it. Period. And, if there were ever wild days of rock n' roll stardom to be lived, he'd certainly done that and left those days in his past.

A full page manufacturer's ad in Guitar Player Magazine? Yeah, Banner was the real deal...

At first, it seemed a little surreal befriending a guy like this. Here was this bona fide rock star, with three platinum albums under his belt, sitting in Tradewinds Tropical Lounge in St. Augustine where he would play bass with this band or that band, depending on what night of the week it was. Between sets he would always walk the room, talking to folks and thanking them for coming out. Some, of course, knew who he was. Most, I think, probably didn't realize it unless someone on stage mentioned it during a set.

This was taken first time I met Banner. "Don't be too impressed" he said. "I just might an asshole"...

This is the photo I took of Banner Thomas to accompany the piece I wrote about him for St. Augustine Social. The article can be found here: The Musical Chair - Banner Thomas

Here I am on stage at Tradewinds, presenting the photograph from the magazine to Walt Kulwicki (left) and Chris McVey (right) of Those Guys. They accepted the photo on behalf of Tradewinds owner Janet Leonard. The photo now hangs in Tradewinds, right next to the stage where Banner's amp used to sit. I still don't know how I got through that presentation without breaking down a little... (photo courtesy of RMP Photography)
I remember Banner being almost overly appreciative of the article I wrote about him. His appreciation was sincere and heartfelt, and he always let me know how much he enjoyed being featured in the magazine. We had done a short interview and photo shoot, and I remember not wanting to screw it up. "Get this one right, Parr" was the only thing running through my head. We talked about a myriad of things, from him being a founding member of Molly Hatchet to touring Europe with The Who and, finally, living a somewhat quiet life in northeastern Florida. He seemed comfortable with where life had led him.

He was always humbled whenever I would mention how much I liked Molly Hatchet as a kid. He particularly liked the story of how, while in Navy boot camp in Orlando, I would run the song "Flirtin' With Disaster" through my head while waiting outside to march to the mess hall at five in the morning. "Well, glad I could be there for you" was a comment he made once about that story, and that's always made me laugh. Never once back in those boot camp days did I ever envision that, 35 years later, I'd sitting in a St. Augustine bar with the guy who wrote it.

Over the next 18 months or so following my interview with him, Banner and I became pretty good friends. I enjoyed hanging out with him. We would talk about anything and everything and sometimes nothing. I think he enjoyed the fact that I was able to get beyond the "Holy shit, it's a rock star" phase that, undoubtedly, was probably awkwardly evident when I'd first met him, and I consider myself fortunate that the friendship he and I had was genuine. Banner had many friends, many much closer than I, but I was proud to be counted among them nonetheless.

Banner, Molly Hatchet founder and guitarist Dave Hlubek, Dewey Via and me at Tradewinds in St. Augustine...

I had the opportunity to sit in with him on stage on occasion. The first time was when he was playing with The Dewey Via Band. We were going to perform "Dreams I'll Never See". It was written by Gregg Allman, but Molly Hatchet had made it their own. But not only was I going to be playing this song with one of the guys who made the song popular, I was going to be playing the song with one of the guys who made the song popular in front of a room that was packed with friends who came out to see how bad the carnage would be, so I was nervous as Hell. Thankfully, it went well. But it was an amazing experience to play that song with one of the guys responsible for putting it into the southern rock mainstream. When we got done, I remember how he just turned around and smiled. He didn't say a word. He approved. I'd passed the test.

Not a very good photo, but one I'll always cherish. Sitting in that night was a true, and humbling, honor...

Banner gave my Strat a quick test drive before our set...
About a year and a half ago, Banner asked me if I'd like to have some lighting equipment that he had bought on a whim at a pawn shop. When I met him to pick it up, I saw that it was some relatively cheap stuff; light stands in a ripped carrying bag. In all honesty, it was stuff I would never use and I told him thanks, but no thanks. He then asked if I knew anyone who could use it. He'd rather I give it to someone else than throw it away. I told him I might know of someone and I put the bag in my car The truth was I knew of no one, but I could tell it was important to him that the stuff find a good home. I guess I was kind of surprised when, on occasion, he would ask me if I was able to find someone to give it to.

"Still looking, Banner, but I'll find the right person."

I've never found anyone to give it to, and doubt I ever will. In fact, I'm pretty sure I've stopped looking. I just can't bring myself to throw that bag away. It's still sitting in my garage.

It got to the point where Tuesday night at Tradewinds was a weekly thing. You just didn't miss Those Guys. I'd usually get there before the first set. It was always a pleasure to sit down with Banner before the gig, and just talk about what had been going on during the previous week. He'd usually be at one of the front table with his laptop open, looking at whatever had piqued his latest interest. He was quick to engage and always had something to say, and I remember that I was always eager to listen.

Hangin' out on "the bench" at Tradewinds...

I had returned from a short cruise to the Bahamas on Palm Sunday (April 9) in 2017. Tradewinds was doing their annual Palm Sunday music extravaganza and I was hoping to get back to St. Augustine from Port Canaveral in time to catch Those Guys performing their set. We made it back to town but, for whatever reason, didn't make it to Tradewinds in time. The band had just finished their set when we were pulling up. I saw Banner loading his gear into his van and slowed the car to say hi. He said he wasn't feeling well and was going home. "Take care of yourself, pal. See you Tuesday". "Stay out of trouble" he replied.

That was the last time I ever spoke to him.

The next day I was walking into a Publix grocery store when I received a text from my friend Rachael asking if I knew what had happened to Banner. Instead of responding back via text, I called her. The news was stunning. I felt tears well up in my eyes. Suddenly I couldn't hear anything; everything was silent, save for the cacophony of every conversation he and I had ever had running through my head all at the same time. Everything stopped.

He wasn't my best friend. But he was a great friend.

And my friend Banner Thomas died on April 10, 2017.

He's missed...

Banner Thomas: 1954-2017

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