Thomas was born in Eden, Mississippi on October 14, 1926. While working in the fields, he began listening to blues on the radio. As a self-taught guitarist, he learned to play songs from older blues guitarists Elmore Davis and Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup. He then worked as a gravedigger in Washington County.
Thomas became known after appearing in films made by the Center for Southern Folklore in the 1970s. He appeared in the films Delta Blues Singer: James “Sonny Ford” Thomas, Give My Poor Heart Ease: Mississippi Delta Bluesmen, and Mississippi Delta Blues. In the 1970s, Eddie Cusic performed with Thomas at regular engagements. Together they recorded “Once I Had a Car”, which is included on the compilation album Mississippi Delta & South Tennessee Blues (1977). In the 1980s, Thomas recorded internationally.
While working as gravedigger, he was also a folk artist, making sculptures from unfired clay, which he dug out of the banks of the Yazoo River. His most famous sculpted images were skulls (often featuring actual human teeth), which mirrored his job as a gravedigger and his often stated philosophy that “we all end up in the clay”. In 1985, his work was featured in the prestigious Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., where he was introduced to Nancy Reagan, then the First Lady. Thomas’s skulls are on display in the Delta Blues Museum, in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and the Highway 61 Blues Museum, in Leland, Mississippi. Thomas played at numerous blues festivals and private parties throughout the area, including the Mississippi Delta Blues and Heritage Festival in Greenville.
In later performances, Thomas was accompanied by the Swiss harmonica player Walter Liniger. Thomas was recorded by several small record labels and is probably best known for his album Gateway to the Delta, recorded by Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi.
Thomas died at the age of 66 in Greenville, Mississippi, from emphysema and a stroke on June 26, 1993. He is buried in Leland and memorialized by a headstone placed in 1996 by the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund and paid for by John Fogerty. His epitaph consists of lyrics from one of his songs. His son, Pat Thomas, continues to play and perform his father’s songs.
Thomas was honored with a marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail in Leland, Mississippi