In the 1960s Thomas joined the Birmingham Youth Choir then began singing with various Birmingham blues and soul groups including The Saints and Sinners and The Ramblers. Taking up the harmonica he started a band, El Riot and the Rebels, with bass guitarist John Lodge. After a couple of years their friend Mike Pinder joined as keyboardist. El Riot and the Rebels once opened for The Beatles in Tenbury Wells; Thomas and Pinder were later in a band called Krew Cats, formed in 1963, who played in Hamburg and other places in northern Germany.Thomas and Pinder then recruited guitarist Denny Laine, drummer Graeme Edge, and bassist Clint Warwick to form a new, blues-based band, The Moody Blues. Signed to Decca Records, their first album, The Magnificent Moodies, yielded a No. 1 UK hit (No. 10 in the US) with “Go Now”. Thomas sang lead vocals on George and Ira Gershwin’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So” from the musical Porgy and Bess.
When Warwick left the band (followed by Laine a few months later) he was briefly replaced by Rod Clark. Thomas then suggested his and Pinder’s old bandmate John Lodge as a permanent replacement and also recruited Justin Hayward to replace Laine. Hayward had actually given his demo tape to Eric Burden and the Animals, and Burden passed the tape on to the Moodies, as he had already hired a guitarist. With this line-up the band released seven successful albums between 1967 and 1972 and became known for their pioneering orchestral sound.
Although they initially tried to continue singing R&B covers and novelty tunes, they were confronted over this by an audience member, and with their finances deteriorating they made a conscious decision to focus only on their own original material.
Following the lead of Pinder, Hayward, and Lodge, Thomas also started writing songs. The first he contributed to the group’s repertoire were “Another Morning” and “Twilight Time” on the album Days of Future Passed. His flute had featured on three songs on the debut album—”Something You Got”, “I’ve Got a Dream”, and “Let Me Go”—as well as the single “From the Bottom of My Heart”, but it would become an integral part of the band’s music, even as Pinder started to use the Mellotron keyboard. Thomas has stated that a number of his compositions on the band’s earlier albums were made in a studio broom closet, with Thomas writing songs on a glockenspiel. Hayward has spoken of Thomas’s learning transcendental meditation in 1967, along with other members of the group.
Thomas and Pinder both acted as the band’s onstage emcees, as heard on the live album Caught Live + 5 and seen in the Live at the Isle of Wight Festival DVD. Thomas started to become a more prolific writer for the group, penning songs such as “Legend of a Mind”—an ode to LSD guru and friend of the band, Timothy Leary, and a popular live favorite—and “Dr. Livingstone, I Presume” for In Search of the Lost Chord, “Dear Diary” and “Lazy Day” for On the Threshold of a Dream as well as co-writing “Are You Sitting Comfortably?” with Hayward.
The Moody Blues formed their own record label Threshold Records, distributed by Decca in the UK and London in the US, and their first album on the Threshold imprint was To Our Children’s Children’s Children, a concept album about eternal life. Thomas wrote and sang “Floating” and “Eternity Road”.
When the band began to realize that their method of heavy overdubbing in the studio made most of the songs very difficult to reproduce in concert, they decided to use a more stripped-down sound on their next album A Question of Balance, to be able to play as many songs live as possible. It was their second UK No. 1 album. Thomas wrote and sang “And the Tide Rushes In”, reportedly written after having a fight with his wife, and was credited with co-writing the album’s final track “The Balance” with Edge, while Pinder recited the story.
The Moodies went back to their symphonic sound and heavy overdubbing with Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, their third UK No. 1 album, and Thomas wrote and sang “Our Guessing Game” and “Nice to Be Here”, also singing a co-lead vocal with Pinder, Hayward and Lodge on Edge’s “After You Came”. All five members wrote “Procession”.
The final album of the ‘core seven’ was Seventh Sojourn, their first album to reach No. 1 in the USA. By this time, Pinder had replaced his mellotron with the chamberlin, which produced orchestral sounds more realistically and easily than the mellotron. Thomas wrote and sang “For My Lady”.
Thomas released the albums From Mighty Oaks (1975) and Hopes Wishes and Dreams (1976) after the band temporarily broke up in 1974. During this period he earned his nickname ‘The Flute’. Within the band he was also known as ‘Tomo’ (pronounced tOm-O). The band reformed in 1977 for Octave, which was released in 1978. Thomas provided the songs “Under Moonshine” and “I’m Your Man”, and the group continued to release albums throughout the 1980s, with Thomas’s “Veteran Cosmic Rocker” and “Painted Smile” being featured on the album Long Distance Voyager. The former song has often been regarded as a theme song for the band itself as a whole and for Thomas in particular, and it again features his use of the harmonica. After contributing “Sorry” and “I Am” (both on the 1983 album The Present), Thomas temporarily stopped writing new songs for the band, for reasons unknown. He took featured lead vocal on Graeme Edge‘s song “Going Nowhere” (on The Present).
During the group’s synth-pop era, Thomas’s role in the recording studio began increasingly to diminish, partially due to the band’s synth-pop music being unsuitable for his flute and partially because he was also unwell during this period, meaning that his involvement in recording sessions was further limited. Despite contributing backing vocals on The Other Side of Life and Sur la Mer, he took no lead vocal role and it is unclear how much, if any, instrumentation he recorded for these two albums; but in any case, none of his instrumentation or vocals ended up on Sur la Mer. Although he is included in the childhood photos depicted on the album’s inner sleeve and is given an overall ‘group credit’, significantly (unlike the others) he is then not given an actual performing band credit at all. Patrick Moraz, who had replaced Pinder as the band’s keyboardist, objected to Thomas’s exclusion from the album and pushed for the band to return to the deeper sound that they had achieved with Pinder. It is possible that during the sessions for The Other Side of Life Thomas contributed tambourine, harmonica or saxophone, but it is unknown how many, if any, instrumental contributions of his ended up on the released version of the album, and at this point he was largely relegated to the role of a backup singer.
On The Moody Blues’ 1991 release Keys of the Kingdom, Thomas played a substantial role in the studio for the first time since 1983, writing “Celtic Sonant” and co-writing “Never Blame the Rainbows for the Rain” with Justin Hayward. He contributed his first ambient flute piece in eight years; however, his health declined and his last album with the group was Strange Times to which he contributed his final compositions for the group. He also provided a co-lead vocal with Hayward and Lodge on their song “Sooner or Later (Walking On Air)”.
Thomas permanently retired at the end of 2002. In a 2014 interview with Pollstar.com, drummer Graeme Edge stated that Thomas had retired due to illness. The Moody Blues – consisting only of Hayward, Lodge and Edge (Edge being the only remaining original member) plus four long-serving touring band members, including Gordon Marshall on percussion and Norda Mullen who took over Thomas’ flute parts – have released one studio album, December, since his departure from the band.
In July 2009 it became known that Thomas had written at least two of his songs– “Adam and I” and “My Little Lovely”– for his son and his grandson Robert, respectively. It was also revealed that he had married again, to his longtime girlfriend Lee Lightle, in a ceremony at the Church of the Holy Cross in Mwnt, Wales, on 9 July 2009.
Thomas released his two solo albums, remastered, in a boxset on 24 September 2010. The set includes, with the two albums, a remastered quad version of “From Mighty Oaks”, a new song “The Trouble With Memories”, a previously unseen promo video of “High Above My Head” and an interview conducted by fellow Moody Blues founder Mike Pinder. The boxset was released through Esoteric Recordings/Cherry Red Records.
In October 2014, Thomas posted this statement on his website:”After the tragic death of Alvin Stardust and the brave response to Prostate Awareness by his widow, Julie, in following up on what Alvin had intended to say about the disease, I have decided to help in some small way. I was diagnosed in September 2013 with prostate cancer. My cancer was in-operable but I have a fantastic doctor who immediately started me on a new treatment that has had 90% success rate. The cancer is being held in remission but I’ll be receiving this treatment for the rest of my life. I have four close friends who have all endured some kind of surgery or treatment for this cancer and all are doing well. While I don’t like to talk publicly about my health problems, after Alvin’s death, I decided it was time I spoke out. A cancer diagnosis can shake your world and your family’s but if caught in time it can be cured or held in remission. I urge all males to get tested NOW. Don’t put it off by thinking it won’t happen to me. It needs to be caught early. It’s only a blood test – a few minutes out your day to save yourself from this disease. Love and God Bless, Ray.”
Thomas died on 4 January 2018 of prostate cancer, at his home in Surrey, at the age of 76.
Although he most commonly played flute, Thomas was a multi-instrumentalist, who also played piccolo, oboe, harmonica, saxophone, and, on the album In Search of the Lost Chord, the French horn. He frequently played tambourine and also shook maracas during the group’s R&B phase. The 1972 video for “I’m Just a Singer (In a Rock and Roll Band)” features Thomas playing the baritone saxophone, although Mike Pinder says on his website that this was just for effect in the video and that Thomas did not play saxophone on the recording.