From Marvin Gaye to the Commodores, Checo Tohomaso has performed with some of the biggest names in Motown — but the British Columbia-based soul singer is known for more than just musical chops. He’s equally notable for his infectious positivity, remarkable stories and signature ear-to-ear grin.
Tohomaso is also a familiar face in Whatcom County. Despite residing across the border, he’s a fixture at Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. gathering, which takes place this year on Monday, Jan. 15. Bellinghamsters might also recognize him from his performances at venues in north Whatcom County, local churches and last year’s Juneteenth event at Maritime Heritage Park.
Over the course of his decades-long career, Tohomaso has built a loyal following in the North Sound and beyond. Still, he attributes his success to more than talent alone. Humility, respect and — above all — love are key components of his philosophy for soul music and life in general.
A life led through music
Tohomaso first landed in Vancouver to play Expo ’86, and he’s called B.C. home ever since. His roots, however, are more far-reaching: He was born in Florida, raised in Hawaii and Japan, and has strong ties to New Orleans.
On the day he stopped by the Cascadia Daily News offices, Tohomaso brought a folder bursting with memorabilia from every era of his life. He’s kept everything from set lists to tour snapshots and — perhaps most unexpectedly— a signed photo of Barack Obama. (Checo’s old band, Nova, played Obama’s junior prom in Hawaii.)
Tohomaso was still playing with Nova when he received an important call. Marvin Gaye had an upcoming show in Maui, Hawaii, and needed musicians to join him. Tohomaso jumped at the opportunity, and soon enough, the young musician found himself joining Gaye’s legendary 1980 European tour as a keyboardist, percussionist and background vocalist.
From there, Tohomaso toured as a member of Green Machine, the backing band for Motown greats such as the Commodores and Lionel Ritchie. Music has taken him across the world and coast to coast in North America (though he notes that, for some reason, he’s still never made it to Arkansas).
Tohmaso has dabbled in acting and shared the stage with names like Celine Dion, New Kids on the Block, Reba McEntire and even Maya Angelou. He currently serves as the director of two B.C.-based choirs, the VOC Sweet Soul Choir in Vancouver and the Victoria Sweet Soul Choir in Victoria.
Bellingham’s MLK Day event
About a decade ago, Tohomaso found his way to Bellingham for the Community Food Co-op’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day gathering. (The Bellingham Unitarian Church now hosts the event, but the Co-op is still a financial sponsor.)
At the time the event was an open mic format, but as Tohomaso noted, “It was a bit weird: Martin Luther King was a Baptist minister, but they didn’t have anybody doing soul.”
Tohomaso took it upon himself to sing some a cappella soul music — and, unsurprisingly, the crowd went wild. “We were all floored by him,” said Karl Meyer, the Co-op’s outreach coordinator.
Meyer asked him to perform again the following year, which led to Tohomaso taking on a leading role in the event’s program. Since his involvement, the evening has transformed from an open mic night into a “sandwich” of presentations and participatory musical performances led by Tohomaso himself.
“I can’t say enough about Checo, his loving nature, and how he has an infectious sort of energy that draws you in,” said Meyer, who has organized the event since its inception. “He gets that music is such a soul thing, that it gets into our hearts and our bodies and makes us feel connected to each other.”
Mentoring the next generation
The MLK Day gathering draws a diverse, intergenerational crowd — but it’s the youngest audience members that inspire Tohomaso to come back year after year.
“I was a kid when [Martin Luther King Jr.] was killed. He gave his life so that we could have more freedom to do the things we’re doing, even through music and stuff,” Tohomaso said. “So that’s why [I come back]: to let the young people know to be connected, to keep the dream alive. Don’t forget.”
For Tohomaso, “keeping the dream alive” means handing over the reins to the next generation. He’s enthusiastic about his belief in younger minds, and he does his part by mentoring a brand new crop of soul musicians.
“A lot of artists don’t sing with no passion, no heart, no soul,” Tohomaso said. “But we don’t do disrespectful. We never say anything derogatory about ladies or moms. We honor. The most powerful thing is love; it’s so easy to sing so many kinds of songs about love.”
The 24th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Event will take place at Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship (1207 Ellsworth St.) at 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 15. The event is emceed by Teejay Morris, and keynote speakers include artist Ed Bereal and Vernon Damani Johnson, co-founder of the Whatcom Human Rights Task Force. There is no cost to attend, and all are welcome.