Thomas Clay Washington was born in Chicago in 1944. He grew up on the South Side of the city on a large housing estate called the Ida B. Wells Project. He learned to play drums and keyboards and went on to study music with James Mack at Crane Junior College. It was the formal side of music that attracted him and he found employment at Brunswick Records in Chicago, as a music arranger.
During the sixties he worked with some of Brunswick’s best-known artists including Jackie Wilson, Gene Chandler and Barbara Acklin. 1970 was a very good year for Washington. He arranged two gold singles, that marked him out as a string and horn arranger who favoured powerful instrumentation and who would establish a real Chicago Soul sound. The first million-seller was Tyrone Davis’ “Turn Back the Hands of Time” on Dakar Records; the second was Gene Chandler’s “Groovy Situation” on Mercury Records, which features an interesting trumpet line in Washington’s arrangement.
Two years later Washington contributed to an even bigger achievement when the Chi-Lites took “Oh Girl” to the top of the charts. Between 1969 and 1998 the Chicago-based quartet released forty-one songs that entered the R&B Singles chart. Eleven made the top ten, two reached number one (“Have You Seen Her” was the second) and Washington arranged many of them.
The end of the seventies saw more chart success for artists that were drawing on Washington’s arranging skills. Highlights of his work in 1977 were the horn and string arrangements for three albums: Deniece Williams’ “Songbird”, Linda Clifford’s “Linda” and Loleatta Holloway’s “Loleatta”. The following year saw him working with The Jacksons on the track “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground) from the platinum-certified album “Destiny” and then with Earth, Wind & Fire on the number one single “September”, from the quintuple-platinum album “The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire, Vol. 1”.
Then in 1979 Washington repeated this success, providing horn and string arrangements for five tracks on Earth, Wind & Fire’s double-platinum album “I Am”, followed by arrangements on Jessy Dixon’s Gospel album “You Bring The Sun Out”, featuring the Phenix Horns. The next decade started with Washington writing horn and string arrangements for four tracks on The Jackson’s “Triumph” album in 1980, which was at the top of the Soul Albums chart for two weeks in November.
Washington has continued to produce a stream of outstanding arrangements year after year, racking up hundreds of credits on single and album releases. He has also worked under a variety of names, the best known of which is Tom Tom 84. He has mainly worked on string and horn arrangements, but he has also featured as a musician (keyboards and percussion), song-writer, producer and conductor. Inspired by James Mack, Tom Washington has brought classical music techniques to his work, demonstrating an ability to write with great clarity and precision. His versatility is amazing.
The rich layering of sound that differentiates the best of Chicago Soul is very much his creation.
Here is a link to an interesting video: