I’ve been singing and entertaining people for as long as I can remember. The very first time I got paid for singing was in my parent’s living room, when my mom asked me to sing John Lennon’s Working Class Hero at one of her parties. It had the word “fuck in it and I think that’s why it got huge applause. Someone even gave me Rs 100, which was a fortune. I was 15 at the time and it’s possible that was the day I decided to make singing a profession.

My latest album As I Sing is a kind of homage to the “Hanover Duets” by Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass. Mine features 10 jazz standards that I’ve sort of reimagined. It showcases some of the most accomplished guitar players on the American jazz scene.

Sometime last year, as I was going through my earliest recordings from the time I first began singing professionally all the way through to now, I came to the realisation that everything has been a prep for today.

I started performing for a living in 1973 with The Human Bondage, a mega rock-and-roll band who were already leaning towards jazz. I was 17 and had just married the lead guitar player Suresh Shottam, mostly because my parents wouldn’t have let me sing in the band otherwise. They were from a modern but not-so-modern Iyer family.

At the time, record players were scarce and cassettes hadn’t yet been born. Live music was everything and India loved The Human Bondage. We played all the major cities for six-month residencies or longer, to packed audiences who knew our repertoire by heart. It was magic.

But it was also serious business and we worked hard at it, rehearsing for hours every day and listening to as much music as we could lay our hands on. It was India in the 1970s, remember, so there was no easy access to the latest music.


I took in everything from Charlie Parker to the Mahavishnu Orchestra to Miles Davis to Sergio Mendes to Ravel and everything in between. I also began learning dhrupad from Ustad Fariduddin Dagar, who understood that I was a rock-and-roll chick first and foremost who wanted to learn dhrupad to be able to improvise over blues chord changes.

He was fine with it. Many classical Indian musicians back then were purists who wouldn’t brook such nonsense. I invited him to the Blow Up, a disco-club in The Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai where we played three sets every night and he was quite happy to come. It shocked him a bit to see me gyrating on stage so wantonly, but he didn’t judge me badly. He thought I had potential.

One of the things I learned from him was that the show must go on. He told me that it didn’t matter if I was dying of fever or had a terrible cough. If I had to sing, I had to sing. And that the voice could adapt. This is good advice – fine when you’re 17 but not so easy later on.

'The Human Bondage' during a performance in Delhi in 1973.

Chris Breetveld, a fan from New York, hanging around India at the time, recorded us at The Wheels, in Delhi. Fortuitous that he saved it. Forty years later he put it up on the Bandcamp website, where there are also some grainy pictures from the time.

One of the highlights (for me) at the time was a three-concert booking at the Music Academy, Madras, still one of the most prestigious venues to perform at. Although the Music Academy has always been a venue for classical Indian music, they had made an exception for this strange band with such a huge following.

The tickets were quickly overbooked and they expected a stampede, so had to make arrangements to keep people out. I wasn’t fully aware of the pandemonium going on (my grandparents were coming to hear me on stage for the first time and that was making me nervous) and we began the show.

All of sudden in the middle of my heartfelt Killing Me Softly, I saw a huge object land in front of me with a thud. I screamed into the mic. Some guy had climbed up the rafters and lost his footing.

I hear that they made a rule never to allow any other form of music other than classical Carnatic ever again. That was 50 years ago. I wonder if they kept to it.

Rehearsing 'Killing Me Softly' in 2012.

The band Shakti hadn’t been created then, but as of 2024, they just won a Grammy. I remember around 1974, guitar player John McLaughlin was visiting Madras to hang with his Shakti pals, violinist L Shankar and mridangam player Vikku Vinayakram.

Suresh Shottam had made a guitar with scooped out frets that could create the gamakam, the note-bending ornamentation that is synonymous with Carnatic music. Apparently, McLaughlin was on the hunt for something similar.

The two of them met through some musical connections and twanged away together for a while. John was very sweet and when Suresh and I arrived in New York, we went to a party in his great, big loft.

Then, in 1976, I was selected by Jazz India, a wonderful philanthropic organisation that encouraged Indian musicians to experiment with jazz. Niranjan Jhaveri, the boss of it, came to audition me. It was nerve wracking.

He sat alone with a notepad in the centre of the room in Bangalore’s Chin Lung restaurant, while I sang for him. Some original music and some jazz. One of the tunes was Call, a song that Suresh and I had written, which became popular at our gigs. The original version of this is lost forever, but I re-recorded it some years ago in Bangalore.


Jhaveri was satisfied. He arranged for Suresh and me to go to New York via Poland, France and London, meeting musicians, playing here and there. I experienced what it was to leave the protected, adoring and sheltered arms of a devoted public, to negotiate the big, bad world of jazz in New York City as an unknown from India.

I met Frank Tusa (the bass player from the band Lookout Farm) and Badal Roy (Miles Davis’s tabla player) and we formed a band that played experimental music that didn’t last very long.

Around 1977 or 1978, somehow (the details are hazy) I got a gig at a club in Connecticut with John Scofield (the iconic guitar player who wasn’t well known then), Ron McLure (the jazz bassist who played also with Blood, Sweat and Tears), Jeff Williams and others I can’t recall. When we got to the club, we realised to our horror that they expected not jazz but rock and roll. There were people lined up to dance.

Scofield and McLure and the other people in the band were pleasantly surprised to discover that if push came to shove, I could sing a mean rock and roll. If memory serves, one of the tunes we played was Stairway to Heaven.

I met Ryo Kawasaki, a guitar player who was making waves in the New York jazz scene. He first asked me to record my “Indian” vocals on a tune for his album Ring Toss in 1977. This is where I met Joe Farell, the amazing flute player who played on one of our own demo recordings later on, one I believe is totally lost.


Soon after, I started performing regularly with Ryo, writing songs, recording stuff and creating new music. One of the tunes Trinkets and Things was my favourite. It was on an album called Mirror of My Mind, featuring jazz luminaries like saxophonist Michael Brecker and drummer Harvey Mason.

We had recorded so much music in his loft in New York’s Union Square. Most of it was lost in a sprinkler flood, but luckily I had sent some cassettes to my mom in India and she saved them for me.


I reconnected with Ryo in 2015 after some 40 years and sent him digital files from the cassettes. He remastered and remixed them and we released a mini six-track version that year called Trinkets & Things. Here’s a version of the jazz standard Lush Life, which was recorded live.

I spent about 20 years in New York, singing and also not singing. I had to pay the bills and get a real job. Life has a way of interfering with musical plans, at least for me. It’s not that I stopped singing or listening or learning, I just put a pause on performing for a while.

Radha Thomas with Ryo Kawasaki and his band.

When I came back to India in the mid-1990s I knew I needed to sing seriously again. At first it was with guitarist Gerard Machado and his band Network. We did a bunch of gigs and even played at the Jazz Yatra (sadly defunct now) with the Indian trumpet player Frank Dubier.

Then out of the blue, some random Googling led me to a YouTube video of a piano player named Aman Mahajan. I discovered that he lived a few streets away from me in Bangalore. That was one of the loveliest things to ever happen to me.

It led to first the formation of UNK: The Radha Thomas Ensemble, a wonderful band that played together for quite a few years, touring and recording one album, I Only Have Eyes For You in 2012.


But a six-piece band is hard to sustain in India, where the audience for jazz is eclipsed by other forms of music. Also, our French bass player Mishko M’ba lost his visa to stay in India.

Many people ask me about the name UNK. I’m sorry but I can’t tell you what it means. Even the band members don’t have a clue and believe me, they’ve asked. They finally gave up. And over the years many people have assumed all sorts of things, but as they say, if I tell you, I’ll have to kill you.

With Aman Mahajan and UNK.

Sandhya Sanjana is an Indian singer who performed with Alice Coltrane and went on to Europe to continue her career in fusion music. I had met her in the early 1970s in Mumbai. Her deep understanding of Indian classical music was quite intimidating.

So it was a great thrill when she agreed to come to Bangalore in 2016 to record a few of my original tunes along with the exceptional piano player from Assam, Ron Cha. We recorded one of my most popular original tunes Rendu Dosai. It features all kinds of dosas and Indian crowds go wild when I sing it. Sandhya does konnakol while I do some rapping.


During this time, I also did a few gigs with the supremely talented piano player Karan Joseph, who died all too young. His playing and sheer energy on stage was incredible.

On our first outing at Take 5 in Bangalore, we connected so intimately on stage that his mother asked me if I had known him for a long time. I explained to her that the language of music is very personal, next only to romance. And that only the people performing can actually understand it. And like romance, usually when the song is over one forgets all about it. Till the next time.

With the late piano player Karan Joseph at Take 5 in Bangalore.

Aman Mahajan and I formed a musical duo that is now almost 15 years old. We write songs and rearrange songs and polish our growing repertoire.

We have played innumerable gigs all over. In 2020, we recorded Bangalore Blues after we came back from a jazz festival in Romania. Bangalore Blues received really good reviews. We made a video for the title track using the fabulous art of Paul Fernandes.


We were poised to do some touring to promote the album when a weird thing happened.


Suddenly the whole world was left without a local music scene. It was then that I made up a jazz scene for myself, contacting musicians from around the world, who were as happy to play as I was. From Argentina, Brazil, Italy, the Ukraine, Russia, Poland, London and of course New York.

Perhaps we couldn’t meet physically, but we could bloody well collaborate virtually.

Of course, it meant that I had to learn how to create a noise-free environment to record myself, how to edit myself, how to create a scratch track using IrealPro, an app that is programmed with every jazz standard in the world and into which you can input your own music too. I learned all sorts of other technical stuff that was utterly alien to me.

I had to figure out how to light the room up with stuff lying around in my house. Here is a picture of what my home looked like then. Odd ladders and stools and walkers (from when I had torn my anterior cruciate ligament) and crutches tied up with old sari borders (very strong). I learned all about knots as well.

Until Covid I couldn’t even plug my microphone into my amp. During Covid, I actually made 52 videos of jazz tunes.


One of the people I met during Covid was the marvellous teenage guitar prodigy from Chennai, Amithav Gautam. Here’s us doing Honeysuckle Rose.


After Covid, the music scene sort of inched back slowly in Bangalore but most of the popular jazz clubs where we used to perform had shut down permanently. Things are improving but the hunger and thirst for jazz hasn’t.

The experience of singing with another female voice is quite unique. I got the opportunity to do something quite complex but and completely satisfying in a musical sense. In 2022 I met Marie Hagen a singer from Sweden. We had a fleeting few months to try some jazz with two voices; she was leaving the country soon and there wasn’t much time.

While I was still performing with Ryo, in the 1970s I had written lyrics to John Coltrane’s Naima. Here’s Marie and I singing it together, with Aman playing keys. It was a profound experience for me, possibly because I had just come out of major surgery 10 days before.


By now I was itching to do something that’s pure jazz, featuring my vocalese (writing lyrics to classic instrumental solos) along with jazz musicians who are serious about jazz.

I kept going back to Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass. That’s what I really wanted to do. An organic, stripped-down interpretation of some of my favourite jazz standards, to which I had brought a little me.

The idea of incorporating multiple guitar players into my album sprang from my conversations with Susheel Kurien, whose critically acclaimed documentary Finding Carlton delves into the story of jazz guitar player Carlton Kitto in India during the 60s and 70s.

Clare Foster, the great British jazz singer, introduced me to Reg Schwager from Canada. Through Beat Kaestli, a jazz-singing-dog-trainer living in New York (besides jazz, my other passion is rescuing dogs), I met Pete McCann, Paul Meyers and Tom Dempsey. These guitarists have amazing pedigree. Look them up.

The project took about six months.

Recording myself in my home studio was a bit challenging. It had to be done at night, when all was silent and my upstairs neighbours (the ones who love to tap dance with their metal-tipped shoes) had gone to sleep. My sound proofing isn’t the world’s best, but mercifully, technology has overcome all that.

Finally, it was mixed and mastered by Yura Romaniv, a jazz pianist, composer and sound engineer from Lviv, Ukraine. He produced this album through air raid sirens, bombs overhead and shelling. He was sometimes in a bunker.

I had met Yura online during Covid. We have recorded quite a few tunes together and he understands the timbre of my voice. Here’s Yura and me doing a song that I adapted for my grandson Niko, called Learning Left From Right And Wrong.


I asked Scott Yanow, one of the world’s foremost jazz authors and journalists if he would announce the album.

Here’s what he had to say: “Jazz has been an international music ever since recordings became widely available in the early 1920s. Radha Thomas, who was born in India but has also lived for extended periods in New York, serves as proof that world-class jazz artists come from every country where musical creativity is encouraged… Radha Thomas is heard throughout this project at the peak of her creative powers.”

In a way, I can understand what Yanow means. When I listen to myself over the course of 50 years, I hear the changes in my voice. I see the changes in the way I look and I feel the difference in who I am. But musically, I think that the experiences of half a century have led me to this, my most favourite and cherished musical creation of all. I hope you feel the same.

Radha Thomas is a jazz singer, an author, a dog activist and now a grandmother. As I Sing is set to be released on March 15. It is her seventh album.