Thomas Cain

Thomas Cain Alabama native Thomas Glenn Cain (1946- ) is a keyboard virtuoso, composer, and vocalist who achieved fame in the flourishing music scene of Nashville, Tennessee, in the 1970s. There, Cain and fellow Alabama singer-songwriter Arthur Alexander formed a 20-year songwriting and publishing relationship; Cain also had a long career in the music publishing industry. Like many north Alabama musicians, Cain melded a style that included the various styles of music he heard on the radio. For Cain, the music that glued these different styles together was southern blues and the lyrics of country singers. He cites as his main influences as a keyboard player jazz pianists McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, and Dave Brubeck.

Cain was born in Athens, Limestone County, on November 8, 1946, to Lankford and Francis Fairrer Cain. He began playing piano and trumpet at an early age and learned to play keyboards by practicing on his grandmother’s pump organ. Cain’s father was a church deacon and song-leader of responsorial congregational hymns. He also was immersed in the rich musical environment of Nashville radio 100 miles to the north, hearing the strains of country, gospel, soul, and rhythm and blues (R&B). While attending segregated Trinity High School in Athens, he studied with music teachers Andrew Dodson and Wynette Harris. Harris, a pianist and singer, was a noted and prominent music teacher and accompanist in the Athens African American community.

In the fall of 1965, Cain entered Alabama A&M University, one of the state’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCU), located outside Huntsville, Madison County. He majored in music and also played in local bands around the Huntsville area, notably with Fred Wesley, who soon would be a member of R&B performer James Brown’s band. At Wesley’s urging, Cain transferred to Tennessee State University, also an HBCU, because of the greater opportunities available for music at that institution. There, he studied classical music theory with Thomas J. (T.J.) Anderson and assisted, as a music copyist, Anderson in reconstructing ragtime composer Scott Joplin’s forgotten 1915 opera Treemonisha, the score of which Anderson had rediscovered in Harlem in 1968 and later orchestrated in Atlanta in 1972. During his years at Tennessee State (1967-1969), Cain joined a soul review as a backup keyboard player with singer Arthur Conley, performing in Montreal, Canada. Cain graduated with a bachelor’s degree in music education in 1969.

After graduation, Cain was attracted to Nashville’s thriving publishing and recording scene, where in the 1970s opportunities were increasing for R&B crossover artists who created the “black country” subgenre. As a pianist, singer-songwriter, and publisher, Cain was in demand for his ability to blend white country and African American gospel, jazz, and other musical styles, and he worked with important figures in a number of genres. In 1970, Cain met fellow Alabamian Arthur Alexander, with whom he began a long and successful collaborative songwriting relationship, co-writing “You Got Me Knockin’,” “They’ll Do It Every Time,” and “Mr. John.” Cain later joined Alexander for the 1972 recording sessions for the album Arthur Alexander, also produced by bassist Tommy Cogbill who was a mainstay at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals. By 1971, he was working as a songwriter on Nashville’s Music Row at Combine Music Publishing alongside Muscle Shoals native Donnie Fritts and songwriter Dennis Linde, composer of Elvis Presley’s hit “Burning Love.” Linde also produced a single co-written with Cain titled “Draggin’ It Out” for the RCA label in 1975. Soon after, Cain formed his own publishing companies, Sweet Baby Music and Candy Cane Music.

In 1984, Cain was hired by Broadcast Music International (BMI), a music licensing organization, and became its senior director for the Writer/Publisher Relations division in the 1990s. Even as his music business career expanded in Nashville, Cain remained in demand as a keyboardist and band leader at Nashville’s Exit/In nightclub, performing with or opening shows for George Benson, Ray Charles, Donnie Hathaway, Ramsey Lewis, and Bill Withers in the late 1970s and early 1980s. His career as a songwriter and producer expanded in the 1980s working with gospel artists the Mighty Clouds of Joy and Albertina Walker. Throughout his long career, Cain provided songs for B. J. Thomas, Diamond Rio, Delbert McClinton, Ronnie Milsap, Kenny Rogers, and others.

In 2000, Cain released his first compact disc, The Art of Healing, which features songs that blend R&B, jazz, gospel, and country. In 2004, Cain composed original theme and musical score for Waiting in the Wings: African Americans in Country Music, an award-winning Country Music Television documentary that featured such black country artists as Charley Pride and Ocie Lee (O. C.) Smith. In 2006, Cain also appeared as a singer and dancer for the public broadcasting television special Johnny Mathis: Wonderful, Wonderful, a concert film documentary. Cain has written numerous commercial advertising jingles for several Fortune 500 companies. During his time at BMI, Cain also fronted the Thomas Cain Band (an ensemble he has maintained since the mid-1980s), playing piano and organ and singing.

Cain received the BMI HAL (Heroes and Legends) Cornerstone Award in 2008. The following year, he performed at Lincoln Center in New York City for the National Endowment for the Art’s Jazz Masters Live series. Also in 2009, he was honored as part of the 105 Voices of History HBCU celebration at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. In 2012, Cain retired from his 29-year stint at BMI/Nashville and joined the music faculty at Tennessee State University to teach music publishing. Cain continues in his long career as a songwriter, musician, and music publisher helping to manage songs as the intellectual property of creative artists in Nashville. He remains an active performer and studio musician in addition to his publishing work.

Additional Resources 

Younger, Richard. Get A Shot of Rhythm and Blues: The Arthur Alexander Story. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2000

Share this Article