Our beloved, David Louis "Redtop" Thomas, husband and father, transitioned to ancestorhood on Thursday night, September 16, 2021, at 10:40P EST in his Holyoke, Massachusetts home. A vocalist, composer, and private music teacher, he lived in the Western Massachusetts area for over 15 years and finally succumbed to bone cancer and its complications at the well-lived age of 80.
Born on July 4, 1941 in Washington,D.C., “Top,” as he was known to his life-long friends, was loved by many. Overcoming a rough childhood start in Baltimore, MD, and later in Chicago and the Boston area, his free-spirit personality was forged. Early on not knowing who his parents were, he found himself on Wabash Avenue, on the south side of Chicago, where he was raised by an “Aunt” Sadie, a kind-hearted, church zealot, and “Uncle” Jack, a railroad worker. Being in church from Sunday through Sunday, morning, noon, and night, as he described it, did not suit this little boy who was more content “playing in the alleys with rats and those bad boys,” as Aunt Sadie called them. One morning, while sweeping the porch, he decided to run away. At points, in and out of the foster care system in Illinois with well-intentioned white families, this began a pattern of running away (he called it “being free”) in both Illinois and later, Massachusetts, that continued into his adolescence.
After running away more than a few times, and learning how to survive on the streets, in cars, and doorways, he was labeled “incorrigible” by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’s court system, and told to choose between being raised by his natural mother, Elizabeth Thomas, a young domestic worker (born in St. Louis, Missouri) and living with other boys in Massachusetts’ first public reform school, the Lyman School for Boys in Westborough. He never came to know his father, and when he came face-to-face with his mother, he thought, “Well, she looks like me,” but he felt no connection. He chose the Lyman School. It was there that he spent his adolescent years and acquired a love of sports, especially boxing, baseball, and basketball.
Top never rekindled any relationship with his mother. Instead, he was raised into manhood by a tight circle of other teens and adults in Boston’s South End, who took him under their wing and eventually taught him how to laugh at himself and enjoy the value of friendship. An avid reader, he was frustrated by teachers who “couldn’t control the students” in the high school where he wanted to learn, and dropped out before the 10th grade. He was apprenticed in the printing trade in Boston by an older Jewish man who recognized his intelligence and leadership skills, and soon was trusted to manage the shop at the age of 18. Similarly, later in New York City’s “Garment District,” he was taught how to run a piece work garment shop on his own, the only male in a room full of women hard at work on whistling Singer sewing machines.
Throughout, the golden thread of music was woven into his work life experiences. And it soon became clear that he had a talent and an affinity for that craft as well. While he also played a fair amount of playground ball on the streets of Boston in the late 50s and early 60s, leading him to a brief stint of semi-pro basketball in Greece, it was music that ultimately became his life. Top’s music “bug” for performing encouraged him to become a tenor vocalist in several groups during the time when young folks would doo wop on every corner. In younger years, as a Mandrell Singer, on tour under the management of the William Morris Talent Agency, with Fred Griffeth, Rodney Young, and Charles Austin, he opened for and performed in the same venues with many artists in “The Village” of New York City and across the country--Jr. Walker, Bob Dylan, José Feliciano, Little Richard, Richie Havens, Joni Mitchell, The Mamas & The Papas, Richard Pryor, Stan Kenton, and Bobby Rydell, to name a few. Simultaneously, as a protégé of big band leader and composer, Preston Sandiford, one of Quincy Jones’ mentors, Top also became an accomplished composer and arranger.
He was a professional cab driver for many years in Boston and New York (and later in Western Massachusetts) in order to make ends meet, where he developed his “gift for gab”. In later years, he spent his time composing an extensive catalog of ballads and instrumentals and taking on select private students with whom he freely shared his knowledge of music and life. With Dale Thomas, affectionately known as “Anika” to her friends, Top spent 31 years in not perfect, but relatively sweet, loving, playful and supportive matrimony, where they raised a son, Malcolm Thomas, who now works in New York City’s fashion industry. He is survived by his wife, Anika, son, Malcolm, and first son, Reginald Moore. And finally, finally, he is free...