Paul Thorn still swings a mean punch, sings a sweet song


Although Paul Thorn hung up his boxing gloves years ago to become a musical artist, he said if he gets a bad review from Tahoe Onstage, he has no problem with fighting again.

“You tell (your reporter) that he better review my show good because even though my chin is gone, I’ve still got a punch,” Thorn said by telephone from his home in Tupelo, Miss. “It ain’t nothing for me to knock a reporter out. I don’t need my legs. I don’t have to cut the ring off because he’s going to be standing right there.”

Paul Thorn went toe to toe with Roberto Duran.
Paul Thorn went toe to toe with Roberto Duran.

Unlike many former boxers, Thorn does not suffer from dementia. Instead, he is loquacious and, during the interview, exhibited signs of facetiousness delivered as quick verbal jabs.

Except for a nagging shoulder injury, Thorn left boxing with his health. Many fighters tend to stay in the game too long.

“The reason they can’t let it go — I’m not trying to be a poet here — but they can’t let it go because that’s all they know,” Thorn said. “They have nothing else. I was fortunate and blessed because I have a talent for singing.”

Now instead of hitting people, with the occasional exception of a music critic, Thorn  writes hit songs, many of which have been covered by other artists. While Thorn is mostly considered a blues singer-songwriter, country singers such as Ronnie Milsap and Toby Keith have used his songs because they are written as stories. One of Thorn’s tunes is about the biggest fight of his boxing career when he went toe to toe with Roberto “Hands Of Stone” Duran.

Taking it to the limit

We let Thorn tell the story:

“I was in the fight. I landed punches, but he was the better man. After I lost to Duran I had three more fights against lesser opposition and I won them all, but at the end of the day I figured out that I was good but I wasn’t great, and there’s a difference. And to stay in a sport like boxing when you don’t have the world champion’s skill you are just going to wind up getting hurt.

“So if people say I quit boxing, I disagree with that. I took boxing as absolutely as far as I could take it. There’s a difference. Some people don’t take it as far as they can take it, and I did, and I am proud of that. Boxing is a memory that taught me so much. It taught me about discipline and when to hang on and when to let go. I admire anybody who can become a world champion. That’s an amazing compliment.

Pimpin’ ain’t playin’

Pimps and Preachers
Thorn paints his album covers. “Pimps and Preachers” was his top seller.

Of his 10 albums, Thorn’s 2010 album “Pimps and Preachers” was the most successful. Thorn was raised attending the Pentecostal Church. His father was a preacher and his uncle is a former pimp.

“A pimp is a person who convinces a woman that if they sell her body and bring him the money that they will build and empire together and they will always be together,” Thorn said.

“But the truth is, that’s a lie. A pimp is a user. They exploit people who are down and out. It’s a page in his past that he’s ashamed of. I’ve seen women come up to him and give him $500 and he’d throw her on the ground and say ‘I said $1,000.’ I’ve seen all that stuff.”

Thorn’s observations of his father and uncle undoubtedly gain wisdom and hone his songwriting.

“There is good in everything,” he said. “One thing that I learned from being around a pimp is that sometimes what a woman tells you ain’t true. A lot of men get dazzled. When a woman is really attractive, men get dazzled by that and they become victims and they get exploited by these women. Women flip it around and it’s like the woman becomes the pimp. My uncle always told me to quit focusing on her body and your desire to be with her sexually. Throw that away. And when you throw that away, it’s an even playing field.”

Thorn’s uncle, himself a former fighter, convinced him to retire from boxing.

“A lot of people live off the money of the fighter they work for,” Thorn said. “I was lucky my uncle managed me and he cared about me.”

Music means money: Perpetual Obscurity

Thorn explained how he channeled his athletic tenacity into a musical career.

“Our first record came out on A&M Records in 1997 but as it was coming out A&M was bought out by a larger company and all the new acts who had not really popped were dropped,” he said. “So I got dropped and never got any push. So me and my business partner, slash manager, slash songwriting partner, we decided to start our own record label As a joke, we called it Perpetual Obscurity Records.

“We decided we would make our own CDs, print then up and get in the van and start touring, and that’s what we did. And we built our fan base. We didn’t get a million fans a night. We’d get 10 or 15 a night by doing these shows. After the show, I don’t just leave. I go out and sign CDs and shake people’s hands and thank them for coming. I make friends. After all these years, it’s accumulated. It’s turned into a real independent business that’s doing quite well.”

Elvin Bishop
Elvin Bishop won three Blues Music Awards this year, including Best Song and Best Album for “Can’t Even Do Wrong Right.” Thorn drew the cover artwork.

Thorn’s annual West Coast tours typically include shows at Rancho Nacasio, a Marin County venue operated by Angela Strehli, the legendary blues singer from Texas. Elvin Bishop, who lives in the neighborhood, usually sits in with Thorn, who drew the album cover artwork for Bishop’s “Can’t Even Do Wrong Right,” the Blue Music Award’s Best Album of 2015.

“He’s a wonderful man and a great living icon and the timing was perfect, man, because I got to be a small part of the whole thing,” Thorn said.

“He asked me to draw a picture and he used it so that’s a real thrill for me. I got the idea from an old Leroy and Skillet album. I drew a picture of a woman holding a baseball bat getting ready to beat her husband and his pants is around his knees and he’s smoking a joint because he’s in the room with a naked woman who is laying in the bed. Elvin liked it. It’s good for a laugh and he used it.”

Thorn shares ‘Old School’ music wisdom

“My favorite song from Elvin’s album is ‘Old School.’ I did one covers album of all my 10 albums, “What the Hell is Going On,” which is an Elvin Bishop song. If I was going to do any more covers, that would be a strong candidate.”

In “Old School” Bishop sings that he doesn’t have any tattoos. Neither does Thorn.

“If I ever got a tattoo it would be my kids names because a woman may or may not stay in your life forever but your children will always be your children,” he said. “I would never have a woman’s name on my arm because she might leave me in the dust and I’d have to have her name shaped into a unicorn.”

On today’s pop music:

Music that is revered by millions has been dumbed down. A lot of the music I hear that’s really popular, they ain’t saying anything. It has no message. It’s idiotic.

“I have a song on my new record, ‘Mediocrity is King.’ It’s loosely based upon shows like ‘American Idol.’ It goes, “In this crazy world where we all abide, a wise man walks and a foolish man rides. Manufactured stars on a TV stage, Johnny Cash couldn’t get arrested today.’ And then the chorus says, “Everything’s changed. I don’t know who to blame, but I do know one thing, mediocrity is king.”

On playing at Cargo, downtown Reno’s non-gaming venue:
“I bet the drinks ain’t free at that place,” he said. “The casinos give you free drinks but it ain’t out of the kindness of their hearts.

“What they try to do, they make sure they put ATM machines around every corner and they bring around these voluptuous waitresses and give you drinks and you are at the slot machine and all of a sudden you’re a little buzzed and you’ve won $6. And they get you drunk and you go to the ATM and you take the money that you have to pay your light bill and guess what happens when you go back to the slot machine, nine times out of 10? You go home drunk and broke. Have a nice day.”
On people who attend his shows:
“We appreciate every person that gets off work, gets a babysitter, buys a ticket to come see us play. Boy, that means the world to us. A lot of people don’t get that. They think that when they go onstage they are doing the crowd a favor. Well they’re not.

“The people out in the crowd are doing the artist a favor because they are giving you a piece of their life and a piece of their money and a piece of their time and that’s how you survive.”

On his fight with Roberto Duran:
“Physically, I was ready to fight Duran but mentally he was a lot more mature than me. This was a guy who was a four-time world champion. When I fought him I was 13-2 and he had had more than 100 fights. I gave it my best but he had so many tricks and so many things that was above and beyond what I was capable of. At the end of the sixth round I sat on my stool and the doctor came over and stopped because I was really cut bad. I had a cut over my eye and my lip was split.

On his uncle’s boxing career:
“He trained at the Men’s Main Street Gym in Los Angeles and he sparred with champions Danny “Little Red” Lopez and Bobby Chacon. (My uncle) was my trainer. He said Lopez was incredibly easy to hit. He said, ‘I could hit Lopez with my eyes closed. We sparred three rounds and the first two rounds I was making him look like an amateur,’ he said, ‘but in the third round he threw a right hand and he literally broke my collar bone.’ Lopez was (like) the featherweight Thomas Hearns. He could really bang but he had no skills, no rhythm.”

Related story: No fisticuffs after Thorn’s knockout performance. LINK

Related story: Cargo just getting started LINK

Related video: Elvin Bishop and Billy Boy Arnold talk about Chicago’s blues heyday: LINK

Related story: Elvin Bishop does right at Lake Tahoe LINK







ABOUT Tim Parsons

Tim Parsons
Tim Parsons is the editor of Tahoe Onstage who first moved to Lake Tahoe in 1992. Before starting Tahoe Onstage in 2013, he worked for 29 years at newspapers, including the Tahoe Daily Tribune, Eureka Times-Standard and Contra Costa Times. He was the recipient of the 2011 Keeping the Blues Alive award for Journalism.


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