Rufus Thomas, Jr. (March 26, 1917 – December 15, 2001) was an American rhythm and blues, funk and soul singer and comedian from Memphis, Tennessee, who recorded on Sun Records in the 1950s and on Stax Records in the 1960s and 1970s. He was the father of soul singer Carla Thomas and keyboard player Marvell Thomas. A third child, Vaneese, a former French teacher, has a recording studio in upstate New York and sings for television commercials.
- 2 Professional singing career
- 3 Death
- 4 Discography
- 5 In popular culture
- 6 See also
- 7 References
- 8 External links
Early life and education
Born a sharecropper's son in the rural community of Cayce, Mississippi, Thomas moved to Memphis with his family when he was two years old. His mother was “a church woman.” Thomas made his artistic debut at the age of six playing a frog in a school theatrical production. Much later in life, he would impersonate all kinds of animals: screeching cats, funky chickens and penguins, and mournful dogs. By age 10, he was a tap dancer, performing in amateur productions at Memphis' Booker T. Washington High School.
Thomas attended one semester at Tennessee A&I University, but due to economic constraints left to pursue a career as a professional entertainer, joining up in 1936 with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, an all-black revue that toured the South. He then worked for 22 years at a textile plant and did not leave that job until about 1963, around the time of his “Dog” hits. He started at WDIA in 1951 (despite biographies placing his start a year earlier). At WDIA, he hosted an afternoon show called Hoot and Holler. WDIA, featuring an African-American format, was known as "the mother station of the Negroes" and became an important source of blues and R&B music for a generation, its audience consisting of white as well as black listeners. Thomas's mentor was Nat D. Williams, a pioneer black deejay at WDIA as well as Thomas's high school history teacher, columnist for black newspapers, and host of an amateur show at Memphis's Palace Theater. For years Thomas himself took hosting duties for the amateur show and, in that capacity, is credited with the discovery of B. B. King.
Professional singing career
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He made his professional singing debut at the Elks Club on Beale Street in Memphis, filling in for another singer at the last minute. He made his first 78 rpm record in 1943 for the Star Talent label in Texas, "I'll Be a Good Boy", backed with "I'm So Worried."
He also became a long-standing on-air personality with WDIA, one of the first radio stations in the US to feature an all-black staff and programming geared toward blacks. His celebrity was such that in 1953 he recorded an "answer record" to Big Mama Thornton's hit, "Hound Dog" called "Bear Cat" released on Sun Records. Although the song was the label's first hit, a copyright-infringement suit ensued and nearly bankrupted Sam Phillips' record label. Later, Rufus was one of the African-American artists released by Sam Phillips as he oriented his label more toward white audiences and signed Elvis Presley.
The prime of Rufus' recording career came in the 1960s and early 1970s, when he was on the roster of Memphis label, Stax, having one of the first hit sides at the historic soul and blues label, "Walking the Dog" (number 5 R&B, number 10 Pop), in 1963. Rufus is thus the first, and still the only, father to debut in the Hot 100's top 10 after his daughter debuted there. Rufus' daughter Carla also reached number 10, with "Gee Whiz (Look At His Eyes)" on 27 March 1961. At Stax, Rufus was often backed by Booker T. and the MG's or the Bar-Kays.
The early 1970s brought him three major hits, including "(Do The) Push and Pull" in 1970, his only number one R&B hit (number 25 Pop). Earlier that year, "Do the Funky Chicken" had reached number 5 R&B and number 28 Pop. A third dance-oriented release in 1971, "The Breakdown" climbed to number 2 R&B and number 31 Pop. He had several more less successful hits until Stax closed its doors in the mid-'70s.
Late in his career, for years, Rufus performed at the Porretta Soul Festival in Porretta Terme, Italy. The outdoor amphitheater in which he performed has been renamed "Rufus Thomas Park." Highlights of his career included calming an unruly crowd at the Wattstax Festival in 1972 and performing with James Brown's band.
He played an important part in the Stax reunion of 1988, and had a small role in the 1989 Jim Jarmusch film, Mystery Train. Thomas released an album of straight-ahead blues, That Woman is Poison!, with Alligator Records in 1990. In 1996, Rufus and William Bell headlined at the Olympics in Atlanta. In 1997, Rufus released an album, Rufus Live!, on Ecko Records.
Thomas was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2001. He was interviewed by the public radio program American Routes (aired in February 2002). His last appearance was in the D.A. Pennebaker-directed documentary Only the Strong Survive (2003), in which he co-starred with his daughter Carla.
He died of heart failure in 2001, at the age of 84, at St. Francis Hospital in Memphis. A street is named in his honor, just off Beale Street in Memphis. He is buried next to his wife at the New Park Cemetery in Memphis.
- 1963 Walking the Dog (Stax 704)
- 1969 May I Have Your Ticket Please (Stax STS-2022) Unreleased
- 1970 Do the Funky Chicken (Stax STS-2028)
- 1970 Doing The Push and Pull at PJ's (Stax STS-2039)
- 1972 Did You Heard Me? (Stax STS-3004)
- 1973 Crown Prince of Dance (Stax STS-30048)
- 1977 If There Were No Music (Avi)
- 1978 It Aint Getting Older (Avi)
- 1988 That Woman Is Poison (Alligator)
- 1962 Can’t Ever Let You Go / It’s Aw’right (Stax 126)
- 1963 The Dog / Did You Ever Love A Woman (Stax 130)
- 1963 Walking The Dog / Fine And Mellow (Stax 140)
- 1963 Walking The Dog / You Said (Stax 140) mkII
- 1964 Can Your Monkey Do The Dog / I Wanna Get Married (Stax 144)
- 1964 Somebody Stole My Dog / I Want To Be Loved (Stax 149)
- 1964 Jump Back / All Night Worker (Stax 157)
- 1965 Little Sally Walker / Baby Walk (Stax 167)
- 1965 Willy Nilly / Sho’gonna Mess Him Up (Stax 173)
- 1965 The World Is Round / Chicken Scratch (Stax 178)
- 1966 Sister’s Got A Boyfriend / Talking ‘Bout True Love (Stax 200)
- 1967 Sophisticated Sissy / Greasy Spoon (Stax 221)
- 1967 Down Ta’ My House / Steady Holding On (Stax 240)
- 1967 The Memphis Train / I Think I Made A Boo Boo (Stax 250)
- 1968 Funky Mississippi / Hard To Get Along With (Stax 0010)
- 1968 Funky Way / I Want To Hold You (Stax 0022)
- 1969 Do The Funky Chicken / Turn Your Damper Down (Stax 0059)
- 1970 The Preacher And The Bear / 60 Minute Man (Stax 0071)
- 1970 (Do The) Push And Pull Part 1 / Part 2 (Stax 0079)
- 1971 The World Is Round / I Love You For Sentimental Reasons (Stax 0090)
- 1971 The Breakdown Part 1 / Part 2 (Stax 0098)
- 1972 Do The Funky Penguin Part 1 / Part 2 (Stax 0112)
- 1972 6-3-8 (That’s The Number To Play) / Love Trap (Stax 0129)
- 1972 Itch And Scratch Part 1 / Part 2 (Stax 0140)
- 1973 Funky Robot Part 1 / Part 2 (Stax 0153)
- 1973 You Don’t Me No More / I’m Still In Love With You (Stax 0177)
- 1973 I’ll Be Your Santa Baby / That Makes Christmas Day (Stax 0187)
- 1973 The Funky Bird / Steal A Little (Stax 0192)
- 1974 Boogie Ain’t Nttin’ Part 1 / Part 2 (Stax 0219)
- 1975 Do The Double Bump Part 1 / Part 2 (Stax 0236)
- 1976 DJump Back ’75 Part 1 / Part 2 (Stax 0254)
In popular culture
- In the movie Kill Bill 2, the character Rufus, played by Samuel L. Jackson, is asked by the character Reverend Harmony whom he has played with. The first answer is "Rufus Thomas."
- In Memphis, Tennessee's Arcade Restaurant, there is a booth "Honoring his years of patronizing The Arcade Restaurant."
- The song 'The Breakdown, Pt 1' sampled on N.W.A song 'Findum, Fuckum, and Flee'.