Paul Thorn brings gospel-infused rock to Petaluma’s Mystic Theatre
Of the nearly 8 billion people on the planet, there’s only one who has sung onstage with the Blind Boys of Alabama, opened for Sting and lasted six rounds with boxing champion Roberto Duran.
His name is Paul Thorn.
After a three-year boxing career, he’s now become a formidable singer, songwriter and bandleader, entertaining his audiences with clever lyrics and jokes between songs.
He even turned his 1988 Atlantic City fight with Duran, in which Thorn landed some powerful punches, into a memorable tune.
That song, “Hammer & Nail,” has the lyric: “I asked him why he had to knock me out, and he summed it up real well. He said, ‘I’d rather be a hammer than a nail.’”
The fight was stopped when Thorn’s lip was bleeding so profusely he was taken to the hospital. Duran was in the same ambulance because Thorn had landed a punch that badly cut Duran.
Thorn fought three more times after the Duran bout and won them all; then he hung up his gloves for good.
Thorn, 57, grew up in Tupelo, Mississippi, Elvis Presley’s hometown, and the King’s influence resonates in Thorn’s songs.
But so does African American gospel, as Thorn often attended Black churches and sang with gospel bands.
Growing up, he didn’t attend secular performances and wasn’t allowed to listen to rock ’n’ roll.
He had two rock albums — one by Huey Lewis, the other from Elton John — which he had to hide in the closet.
“The first concert I ever went to, I was opening for Sting,” Thorn said in a phone interview.
“But it really wasn’t much of a scare for me, because I grew up singing for people my whole life. So I was accidentally prepared for it — it just looked like a bigger congregation.”
This was in 1999 — Thorn was “star-struck” but said “it didn’t make me nervous to the point where I couldn’t do what I do. I was glad to be there.”
Three years ago, Thorn released a well-received gospel cover album, “Don’t Let the Devil Ride,” a collection that harked back to his church roots, with guest appearances by gospel legends such as The Blind Boys.
His latest collection, “Never Too Late to Call,” came out last August; it’s his first album of original songs since 2014’s “Too Blessed to be Stressed.”
“It sounds more like me than anything I’ve ever done,” he said. “I feel like it’s the best project I ever did. I’m proud of it.”
The title is a tribute to his sister, who recently died. She was the person Thorn could call after his shows ended, no matter how late the hour.
The songs on “Never Too Late” were written before the pandemic, but Thorn waited until he could play live shows again to release the album.
He began touring in August and has been mostly on the road since.
Gratitude informs the new album, on the Perpetual Obscurity label, which opens with a song called “Two Tears of Joy.”
He sings: “I don’t have everything, but what do I really need? I’ve been such a lucky boy. I’m crying two tears of joy.”
There’s a sardonic side to Thorn’s songs, such as “Breaking Up for Good Again,” a duet with his wife, Heather, with the line: “We both try to move on, but we don’t stay gone too long.”
Thorn said he was writing the song and singing it in the living room when “I heard my wife singing through the wall, harmonizing with me. And it really sounded good.”
Heather is not a professional singer, he said, but she grew up singing in church. Her voice is the perfect counterpoint to Thorn’s.
The plaintive “Breaking Up” continues: “It’s over but it never ends. We both want out, then we both want in. We’re just breaking up for good again.”
There are times, Thorn said, “when you need a break from each other because too much of anything is not good. But love brings you back, if you really love each other.”
Being on the road for long tours has taken its toll, said Thorn, who before the pandemic was performing up to 150 shows a year.
“Anything,” he said, “anything that’s worth something, I’ve learned, comes with a heavy price.”
When asked if his wife and teenage daughter accompany him, he said they come to shows occasionally, but touring “is not a vacation, man. This ain’t no picnic. It’s not for the faint of heart.”
Thorn has been through a lot during the past year and a half, including a rough bout with COVID-19 that left him bedridden for more than a week.
Most transformative, he stopped drinking.
“I’m not proud to say it, but my drinking accelerated,” he said. “Drinking started out as a little tiny snowball, then it started rolling down a hill, and the snowball got so big that if I didn’t quit, I think my life could have been in jeopardy.”
His drinking took a toll on his career.
“It’s hard to be productive when you’re waking up every morning with a hangover,” he said. “But the good thing is, during that time, I did write some pretty revealing songs about myself. And now, boy, I sleep better at night.”
“Never Too Late” was recorded in Memphis at Sam Phillips Recording Studio, a room that reverberates with the echoes of legends.
“All these great singers like Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison and all those cats, they recorded in there so there’s a quality to the sound that you really can’t get anywhere else,” Thorn said.
“It’s almost spooky, but in a good way, because you sense their spirits are still in there.”
Thorn’s father, Wayne, now in his early 80s, recently retired as a Pentecostal preacher.
In his late teens, the younger Thorn couldn’t abide by the strictures of Christianity, but he appreciated the way his father connected with his congregation.
“He was an entertainer,” Thorn recalled. “He made everybody in the crowd feel like we will have a conversation. It was all-inclusive.”
When the service was over, “he would go out in the foyer and shake everybody’s hand as they left and tell them he was glad to see them.”
As a performer, Thorn said, his mission is “to make people smile, to make them cry, to make them feel like there’s hope for the future, that their lives can get better.”
At Petaluma’s Mystic Theatre before the pandemic, Thorn covered the O’Jays’ song “Love Train,” coming down into the audience with a mobile mic to hug people as he sang.
After the concert, he met his fans at the merchandise table and plans to do the same after Friday’s show.
“If they want to come shake my hand, hug my neck, take a picture, I’ll be there till the last one leaves.”