On Sunday, September 9, Hughie Thomasson of The Outlaws (and later Lynyrd Skynyrd) passed away from an apparent heart attack in his sleep in Brooksville, FL. He was 55.
Thomasson formed the Jacksonville, FL-based Outlaws in the late 60's. By 1975, the most successful version of the band became the first rockers signed to Arista Records. Somewhat mis-marketed as "Southern Rock" in these years, their eponymous debut album contained Thomasson's top 40 single "There Goes Another Love Song," as well as the epic "Green Grass And High Tides" (which since become an FM-rock radio staple). Along with follow-up albums Lady In Waiting (1976) and Hurry Sundown (1977), this consistently well-produced and written trio of records successfully melded melody-laden almost CA-style layered vocal harmonies and grooves with stellar musicianship, played over traditional old-western romantic themes. Thomasson's haunting and unmistakable vocals and innovative Fender Stratocaster playing became the Outlaw's signature sound, though there was plenty more going on including superior vocal work by Henry Paul and contributions from other members.
1978's top 40 charting Bring It Back Alive saw the replacement of Paul with singer/writer/guitarist Freddie Salem, while later that year, their studio offering, the Mutt Lange-produced Playin' To Win, sought commercial success and got louder, but failed to chart. In The Eye Of The Storm, injecting several heavier rockers penned by Salem, came and went without much notice in 1979, but with 1980's Ghost Riders, The Outlaws became bona-fide arena rock superstars. The album reached #25 on Billboard, and the inspired re-working of the venerable Stan Jones tune "Ghost Riders In The Sky" reached #15 on the newly established "Mainstream Rock" chart and #31 on the Billboard Pop chart. An abysmal recording and mix marred 1982's solid if not inspiring Los Hombres Malo, but by then, Arista was forcing cover tunes on the usually self-sustained band in an attempt to create hit singles; it reached a miserable #77 on the album charts.
1986's independently produced Soldiers Of Fortune was notable only for the first brief return of Henry Paul, but included mostly session men. The 1990's saw The Outlaws releasing several independent albums with Thomasson as the lone original member.
In 1996, Thomasson joined Blackfoot's Rickey Medlocke in a re-vitalized version of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Thomasson's tenure with Skynyrd included a decidedly back seat role (which Medlocke would also share) where he was present more for his writing and guitar-playing rather than his singing (though his distinctive vocals can be heard in the background on 1998's Twenty and 2000's Edge Of Forever). Interestingly, while with Skynyrd, Thomasson traded his famous Stratocaster for a beefed up Telecaster. Back seat or not, Thomasson left 2 huge footprints to fill when he left Skynyrd in 2005 to re-form The Outlaws.
The re-vamped Outlaws of 2005 included Thomasson, Henry Paul and original drummers Monte Yoho and David Dix, along with newcomers Chris Anderson and Randy Threet. The very credible unit was building steam with their live shows when unfortunately, Paul again left to pursue his own ventures. A new studio album was just completed at the time of Thomasson's death.
Sadly, Hughie Thomasson (or "Flame," a moniker his flaming red hair and legendary creativity inspired) was the third member of The Outlaws to die young--original bass player Frank O'Keefe and guitarist Billy Jones both died in 1995. Thomasson, through the memories he left for those who had seen him live, and through his recorded legacy, will live on as an original; no one wrote, played, or sang like him. It is likely no one ever will.