Thomas Dawson arrived in this world with music baked into his soul.
His mother handed him a small electric toy organ when he was a toddler growing up in St. Francisville, La. It was December, and he tapped out “O Come All Ye Faithful” without a single lesson.
“She said, ‘How can you do that?’” he says. “I don’t know. It was something that was instinctive. I knew innately how to do it.”
There was never a question about the scope of his life, says Dawson, a Colorado Springs resident. The length and breadth of it would be rich with music.
Possibly you’ve heard of the boy band Dawson’s been a member of for three decades and counting — the Commodores. Yes, the Grammy Award-winning funk and soul Motown band famous for songs such as the played-at-almost- every-wedding-reception-ever “Brick House,” “Three Times a Lady,” “Nightshift,” “Easy” and “Sweet Love.” The group that brewed R&B singer Lionel Richie until he left in 1982 to go solo.
“Some people choose to do music, and some people are chosen,” said Dawson during a recent lecture at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, where he’s a faculty member in the Visual and Performing Arts Department.
“And when you’re chosen, you have no choice in the matter. What I learned from Quincy Jones about music is your music would never be any more or any less than you are as a person. Music comes from an expression of your being. It’s why two singers can sing the same song and one’s kind of cute and the other blows you away.”
But Dawson’s innate talent doesn’t culminate as keyboardist with the band of men he now calls his family. Ask anybody who knows him and the answer is invariably the same: He’s a musical genius.
“He was born with that,” says one of Dawson’s mentors, Benjamin Wright, who was musical director for Gladys Knight and the Pips and The Temptations, and also has done string arrangements for Michael Jackson, Justin Timberlake and Earth Wind & Fire.
“Thomas has been blessed. He’s using his blessings daily. When God gives you something, you have to be able to give to others and that’s what he does. He’s a giving person. It goes beyond the music.”
Dawson doesn’t see music as purely a vehicle for entertainment, but as a way to connect humanity. You can hear it when he talks about performing, not only as part of the Commodores, but as the entertainment director at Springs Orleans restaurant, where he regularly played piano for the last eight years until the pandemic roared through.
“I miss the interaction of playing for people at restaurants,” he says. “I’m sending vibrations to them and they’re sending them back. It’s a conversation we don’t realize we’re having, but we are. Music is the universal language. At concerts we’re feeling the vibrations of the audience and that creates a certain high that takes hours to come down from. That’s our souls speaking to each other.”
That musical vibration also can heal, he believes. Six years ago, Dawson and his friend Dr. Bambi Nickelberry co-founded the Los Angeles-based Center for Harmonic Health and Healing, where they work together to treat medical conditions through resonant frequencies embedded into Dawson’s original compositions.
“He can’t help but create something amazing and beautiful,” says Nickelberry, who’s medical director of the center and also a family medicine doctor in Inglewood, Calif.
“All he has to do is sit there (at the piano). To say what that is, who knows. But it’s there. It’s powerful.”
His early years
When Dawson gazes back to childhood, it wasn’t funk and soul, but country music that first pierced his heart. There were hours watching “Hee Haw” and listening to Johnny Cash and Charlie Pride as he got ready for school every morning. And forget about toy trucks for Christmas; there was nothing but toy instruments on his wish list.
In fourth grade, he started on drums while his brother played saxophone, until Dawson took one look at the sax and cheekily told his brother he could play it. And he did, straight away, much like the toy organ as a toddler. Same thing happened with the trumpet in fifth grade when he asked to borrow another student’s instrument. By high school he was playing a trifecta: piano, trumpet and bass guitar; he went to Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge, La., on a trumpet scholarship.
“He’s an unbelievably talented and modest person, and his level of talent is almost otherworldly,” effuses another Dawson fan, Perry Sanders Jr., a local attorney and real estate investor who owns the downtown Antlers and Mining Exchange hotels, along with Springs Orleans and The Famous restaurants.
Sanders and Dawson go back more than three decades to Baton Rouge, where the businessman, and also musician, heard Dawson play bass in a band. Sanders owned a recording studio at the time, and was looking for a partner to do jingles. He invited Dawson to the studio, where he impressed with his keyboard skills. Soon enough, they were writing up to five jingles a day.
“He’s my favorite person to do music with,” Sanders says. “He has a knack and a gift for being able to figure out what works, what’s really musical and fits the genre you’re trying to do.”
After moving to the Springs from L.A., Sanders invited Dawson to visit, with the hopes he’d take on the Springs Orleans job. Dawson, who lived in L.A. at the time, wasn’t sure about living in the Springs, but one visit and he fell in love with the city. That was a decade ago.
“There’s a certain healing energy for me here that Colorado has,” he says. “I had to be here for that part of my life to evolve — the music healing part of it. I don’t think it would have happened in L.A. There’s a certain calmness here. You’re so wound up in L.A. I go back to L.A. and go back to driving and go back to superaggressive mode to survive.”
His Commodores days
Dawson had a thing for the Commodores even before he joined their ranks in the post-Richie years. He learned to play their music in high school and attended one of their concerts in college, where he experienced a vision of himself playing keyboards on stage with them — which was odd, as he was mostly playing bass guitar at the time.
After moving to Los Angeles with his new wife in his mid-20s, Dawson was living an unfulfilled life selling Steinway pianos. He knew he had to give music a full-time chance, so he leaped. The universe caught him in a big way. By chance, the Commodores were on the hunt for a new keyboardist and a friend recommended Dawson. He didn’t have the experience of the other auditioning musicians, but what he lacked on paper, he made up for in personality. He didn’t even play for the group during his audition. He got the job based on conversation alone.
“I said if you give me a tape I will learn it, and if you’re in a bind I will already know the show,” says Dawson. “I think it was humility and being humble.”
With his college vision unfolding in reality, Dawson was excited, but nervous. He’d heard the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll stories about the music industry and didn’t want to do anything to dishonor his parents or his own values. Those fears were unfounded. After his first concert with the group, they wound up chatting about their churches and pastors, and he knew he’d found the right fit.
“The Commodores, even when they were starting out, they always had an anti-drug policy implemented in the band,” Dawson says. “I felt right at home. They came to be like older brothers to me. They were a great set of mentors.”
After Dawson had been with the band half a dozen years, they promoted him to musical director, the person who provides music direction and guidance to the group.
“They trusted me with their music early on,” he says. “To have that honor and responsibility, I don’t take that lightly. I’ve learned so much of my musicality from them and listening to their records. I’m the gatekeeper to make sure we’re always honoring the music the way it was created originally.”
Musician, heal thyself
There are two days in a person’s life that are most important, according to Dawson — the day you’re born and the day you find out why you were born.
His why manifested in the form of a 9-year-old boy with glioblastoma, a brain cancer. Through a series of auspicious events, Dawson was led to Regina Murphy, a Las Vegas therapist who treats diseases with tuning forks, like “acupuncture with sound,” he says.
“Everything in the universe is vibrating. It has a resonant frequency,” Dawson says. “If everything has a resonant frequency, every cell in the body has a resonant frequency. Doctors discovered what diseases are susceptible to diseases and pitches. It can destroy a cancer cell if it’s the resonant frequency of the cell.”
Murphy infused Dawson’s music with the frequencies of glioblastoma and gave it to the boy, whose mother had taken him off his medicine because it was making him so sick. She was prepared for him to die. The opposite happened. Some time later, after listening to Dawson’s music, the boy’s cancer was gone. Four years later, it still hasn’t returned.
People told Dawson his music healed the child, but he takes no credit, only saying perhaps the music helped facilitate healing, along with chemotherapy and radiation. But the experience steered him down a new path in life.
“It was confirmation,” he says. “The takeaway was every concert I ever played, every song I produced or wrote, they all paled in comparison to I’m doing something that saved a life. That lined up with my purpose. We all have a small part to play if we accept the responsibility and challenge. As humans, we all have a responsibility for the betterment of humanity.”
When he’s not working in his recording facility on projects by big musical names, such as Beyoncé and Jennifer Lopez, or mixing and doing post-production work on music for film and TV, he composes music for vibroacoustic therapy at the L.A. center he shares with Nickelberry. It’s a sound therapy that passes pure low-frequency sine wave vibrations into the body through a device with embedded speakers. Some of his music can be found online at youtube.com by searching for Thomas Dawson Jr. or Regina Murphy.
“We design for your particular medical problem,” Nickelberry says. “The music genius that Thomas is, he composes the music to go with the frequency and he composes it based on frequencies so everything is harmonic. The music becomes healing. We’ve had great success with it.”
While most of us endure constant thoughts running through our heads, Dawson always hears music. It was something he was afraid to talk about until he learned other musicians had the same inherent ability. He doesn’t know where it comes from. Only that it comes when it comes and his only job is to catch it and allow it to affect people in whatever way it’s meant to.
“It’s something that passes through me. It’s of a spiritual nature. It comes from God,” he says. “I was put here to do this. I’m the delivery man, the postman. My job is to deliver the package, not to change the package or content, but to deliver it the way it’s given.”
Contact the writer: 636-0270