Born Rufus C. Thomas, Jr., 26 March 1917, Cayce, Mississippi
For many years Rufus Thomas was a central figure on the Memphis music scene, as singer, songwriter, dancer, dynamic stage performer and, above all, radio personality. He recorded for the two most important independent labels in Memphis, Sun (for less than a year) and Stax (for fifteen years) and had his greatest success with novelty dance hits.
Born a sharecropper's son in the rural community of Cayce, Mississippi, Rufus moved to Memphis with his family when he was two years old. He started his artistic career in minstrelsy and vaudeville, working as a tapdancer and comedian before he took up singing. Though he was a born entertainer, he kept his dayjob at a textile plant until 1963, when he started having his "Dog" hits. From 1951 onwards, he also worked as a deejay at WDIA, an influential Memphis station (still in existence), which billed itself as "America's Only 50,000-Watt Negro Radio Station". Its impact went far beyond the large Black audience ; allegedly Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis all tuned in regularly.
Thomas made his debut as a recording artist in late 1949, with "I'll Be A Good Boy"/"I'm So Worried" (Star Talent 807), followed in 1950 by "Beer Bottle Boogie" (Bullet 327), which was credited to "Mr. Swing with Bobby Plater's orchestra". The next year Rufus made his first recordings for Sam Phillips, who leased three singles to Chess in 1951-52, after which Phillips started his own label, Sun Records. Thomas was signed to Sun in March 1953. As a star DJ at WDIA, he was in a good position to predict which records would become hits. When Big Mama Thornton's "Hound Dog" hit the market in the first week of March 1953, Thomas immediately saw its potential. Within days he was in the Sun studio recording an answer record, "Bear Cat" (Sun 181), which came out before March was over. Billboard was impressed and wrote "This is the fastest answer yet!" (April 4 issue). Four weeks later, "Bear Cat" sat comfortably at # 3 on the R&B charts, giving Sun its first hit. The writer's credit on the label went to Sam Phillips, though he probably wasn't the real author of the new lyrics. The melody was exactly the same as on "Hound Dog". Don Robey at Peacock Records (the label that had released the Thornton version) wasted no time charging Phillips with copyright infringement. Sam didn't have a leg to stand on when the case came to trial in July, and he was forced to surrender two cents a song to Lion Music (Robey's publishing company) along with court costs.
A follow-up Sun release, "Tiger Man", didn't sell too well and Thomas was not asked to record for Sun again. For years thereafter, Thomas continued working at WDIA and the textile factory, while performing on the side. Between 1953 and 1960 he had only one record release, on Meteor (1956). When the new Satellite label opened its doors in 1960, Thomas was one of the first to lend his support. With his 17-year old daughter Carla, he recorded the duet "'Cause I Love You". The disc caught the attention of Jerry Wexler, who acquired the national distribution rights for Atlantic. This turned out to be a smart move, as Satellite scored two Top 10 pop hits in 1961, "Gee Whiz" by Carla Thomas and "Last Night" by the Mar-Keys. That same year the label's name was changed to Stax.
After cutting more duets with Carla, Rufus started recording for Stax as a solo artist in August 1962. His second single for the label, "The Dog", returned him to the charts (# 22 R&B, # 87 pop) for the first time in ten years. But it was the follow-up, "Walking the Dog" (# 5 R&B, # 10 pop, 1963), that finally made him a star, at the age of 46. After 22 years, he quit his day job, although he maintained his shows at WDIA until changing times forced him out. Inevitably, more "Dog" numbers followed ("Can Your Monkey Do the Dog", "Somebody Stole My Dog") and Rufus continued having hits on Stax until the label folded in 1975. "Do the Push And Pull, Part 1" was a # 1 R&B hit in 1970 (also his second biggest pop hit, # 25), and "Do the Funky Chicken" (# 5) and "The Breakdown, Part 1" (# 2) were also R&B smashes. All these hits were primarily dance numbers, on which he was usually backed by Booker T and the MG's or the Bar-Kays. He toured throughout the United States, as well as making several trips to England and the European Continent.
Thomas kept on recording until the mid-1980s, but after Stax he scored only one minor R&B hit in 1976, "If There Was No Music" (# 92), on the Artists of America label. Known as "The world's oldest teenager", he continued to perform and was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame shortly before his death (of heart failure) in 2001, at the age of 84. A street in Memphis is named in his honour (Rufus Thomas Boulevard). He was a true ambassador of Memphis music.
Obituary : http://www.theguardian.com/news/2001/dec/21/guardianobituaries1
Discography : http://www.soulfulkindamusic.net/rthomas.htm
Acknowledgements : Colin Escott & Martin Hawkins, Hank Davis, Lee Cotten.
Dik, January 2015
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