The son of a preacher man, the nephew of a pimp and a former boxer turned singer/songwriter who fought Roberto Duran on national TV. Sounds like three different characters in a novel, but those are all the same guy, and he’s real.
That man is Paul Thorn, who has combined his knack for weaving a tale with an ability to deliver it on stage, as he’ll do Friday, April 17, in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., as part of the F.M. Kirby Center’s Live From The Chandelier Lobby series.
In advance of his Northeastern Pa. performance, we chatted with Thorn about his colorful background, his time in the boxing ring and the upcoming release of his mom and dad’s album.
With your latest album “Too Blessed To Be Stressed,” did you make a conscious effort to write an album of positive songs? Did you put that framework in place before you started writing for the album?
What sparked the concept for the album was a statement an older black lady told me, Sister Johnson. When I greeted her at church and asked her how she was, she always said, “I’m too blessed to be stressed.” That one phrase caused the album to come to life. I wanted to record songs with a positive message in them.
You’ve said you wrote these songs to make people feel good. Do you get the impression that you succeeded? What type of reaction have you gotten from listeners?
I think I have succeeded. I’ve had a lot of people say that they were feeling bad, they put the record on, and it gave them an optimistic look for their day. The fans understood what I tried to do.
At the risk of getting a little psychoanalytical, did you also want to write these songs to make yourself feel good?
Absolutely! I have never met a person yet that wasn’t insecure and afraid of what the future holds. I’m one of those people. I’m filled with self-doubt sometimes, yes, absolutely.
How has your songwriting approach and/or style changed over the years?
I’m older and the subject matter in my songs has changed. When I first started out I was writing mostly relationship songs. I still will do that from time to time, but as I’ve gotten older I write about the human condition.
Tell me a little but about your upbringing as the son of a preacher and how being exposed to that world influenced you as a musician and a songwriter?
My upbringing was everything because I started singing in the church when I was 3 years old. The church is where I learned everything I have. Elvis was from my hometown too. He had the same experiences growing up in the church.
When he got banned after the Ed Sullivan show for shaking his hips, people didn’t realize he got that from church. It’s a spiritual dance.
Do you consider your music to be particularly “Southern” in nature? If so, what are some of the attributes that make you feel that way?
I guess it’s “Southern,” I grew up in the south; I’ve been a world traveler, but the way I talk and spin a story is once again coming from that church experience. I got a lot from what I do by watching my dad and other preachers preach. They were storytellers when they were ministering and they know how to spin words. My uncle was a pimp and he had a good way of talking and speaking, I got a lot from him as well. My father and my uncle were a big influence in teaching me how to talk and how to present myself to the world.
Who were some of your early musical influences?
My mom and dad. They have been singing together since they were 14. My mom plays accordion and my dad plays guitar. They really are my biggest influence. When I was growing up we weren’t allowed to listen to rock and roll and go to concerts. I have my own record label, and I’ve never put out anyone’s record except for mine, until now. I’m fixing to put out their record in the very near future.
How did you get interested in boxing?
My uncle who was a pimp was also a boxer at one time, I idolized him. I thought he dressed real cool; I hadn’t been around anyone like him. I wanted to box like he did. I wanted to be like him at first, but as I worked at it I actually became a pretty good boxer. I took boxing as far as I could. I fought Roberto Duran on national TV in 1988. I take a lot of pride in that. For me, there is no comparison between music and boxing though. Music is what I was meant to do.
Why did you get out of boxing?
After I lost to Duran I had three fights left. I won all of them. After that my uncle and I talked and realized that I had taken my boxing career as far as I could. I figured out that I wasn’t good enough to be a champion so it was time to do something else.
What was your mindset as you were getting into the ring with Roberto Duran?
I wanted to win! I was prepared and tried hard. I was in the best shape of my life. But, I was also trying to control my fear of going on national TV against one of the greatest fighters that ever lived. I was definitely nervous.
How would you describe your live show to someone who hasn’t come to see you yet?
Even though my music is nothing like Dean Martin’s music, I have a similar approach where I sing songs and in between songs I talk to the crowd. I like to talk to the crowd like Dean Martin did when he had a variety show. That was an influence on me. I was amazed at how he would stand there with a drink in his hand and he would make the viewers feel like he was talking to them. Sort of old-school type.
What are your three favorite albums?
I don’t really know which are my most favorite albums, but I like Elton John’s Greatest Hits, you know, the one where he’s in his white suit in front of the piano. I also like “Highway to Hell” by AC/DC and the first Boston album. It’s funny; a lot of the music I like isn’t like anything I do.
What are the three best concerts you’ve seen?
My favorite concert was Clarence Carter, who sang the hit song “Strokin’.” He was a blind guy from Muscle Shoals and I was really turned out by that. Someone I toured with who I thought was great was Jeff Beck. He was amazing. It’s hard to entertain a crowd when you’re just a musician and don’t sing. I wasn’t there, but I really like Elvis Presley’s 1968 comeback special. It’s on YouTube and amazing.
What are you listening to currently?
Lately I’ve been listening to Andrew Gold. He was a great singer/songwriter who started out in Linda Ronstadt’s band. His ability to write melodies and lyrics really took me to school. His songs are great.
Are you a big music fan, someone who is always seeking out new things? Or do you tend to stick with your old standbys and favorites?
Every once in a while I’ll hear something I like that’s new, but honestly I like older music more than I do new music. I have memories attached to older music.
I do like Alabama Shakes and their song “Hold On.” When I heard that I said that’s a great song. There are things I like out there, but you have to wade through so much crap these days to get to something authentic and good.
Tell us about any projects you have in the works. Recordings, special shows, collaborations, etc.
I’m writing songs for my own next record, but my next project is going to be releasing this record of my mom and dad. Anyone that appreciates old- school gospel music from a different time will like this. It’s not slick or overproduced, just one man, one woman and an accordion and guitar. People will appreciate it for what is.