Thomas, Rufus 1917–
Rufus Thomas 1917–
With hits like “Walking the Dog,” “Do the Funky Chicken,” and “Do the Funky Penguin,” Rufus Thomas often gets dismissed as a singer who has had little to offer beyond novelty dance tunes. Those who have gone deeper into the Thomas catalog and the history of American rhythm and blues know better. As Hugh Gregory, the author of Soul Music A-Z, put it, “The name Rufus Thomas has been synonymous with the term ‘soul music,’” and Billboard’s Steve Greenberg goes a few steps further declaring that Thomas’s life story, “encapsulates the history of African-American entertainment in this century.” Both are correct. As a minstrel performer, as a disc jockey on Memphis’s historic WDIA radio where he is still heard every Saturday morning after nearly 50 years, and as a recording and touring artist, Thomas is a true pioneer.
Born the son of a sharecropper on March 26, 1917 in Cayce, Mississippi, Rufus moved with his family to Memphis when he was a young boy. Before he was ten years old, Thomas was already a veteran of the city’s amateur shows where he would sing and tap-dance. Following high school Thomas began a full-time show business career and learned the art of being an entertainer by traveling through the South with the Rabbit Foot Minstrel Show. “It was truly an experience,” Thomas told the author of Goin Back to Memphis, James Dickerson. “They had high-stepping dancers, comics, singers; they had it all. That was during the days of separation, where the whites were on one side and the blacks were on the other. Man, we had some of the greatest shows ever.”
With a young family to support in Memphis, Thomas left the road to earn a living tending boilers at a textile bleaching mill. A perpetual performer however, he found time in the evenings and on weekends to host the amateur night competitions at the Palace and Handy theaters where performers such as B.B. King, Bobby “Blue” Bland, and Johnny Ace made their initial appearances. In 1943 Thomas recorded his first record, “I’ll Be A Good Boy,” for the Texas-based Star Talent label, but it failed to do well. “It sold five copies, and I bought four of them,” he confessed to Steve Greenberg of Billboard.
In 1948 an experiment by the two white owners of radio station WDIA altered Thomas’s life as well as just about everyone else’s in the 50,000-watt listening area. The
At a Glance…
Born March 26, 1917 in Cayce, Mississippi, Chil dren include Caria, Marvetl, and Vanesse.
Career: Began performing with the Rabbit Foot Minstrel Show, 1936; recorded his first record, “I’ll Be A Good Boy,” for the Texas-based Star Talent label, 1943; began working as a DJ at WDIA radio in Memphis, 1952; recorded “Bear Cat,” the first hit for Sun Records, 1953; recorded “Cause I love You” with daughter Carla for new Satellite (later Stax) record label, 1960; recorded top 10 hit “Walking the Dog” 1963; recorded “Do the Funky Chicken,” 1970; appeared at Wattstax festival, 1972; recorded “Do the funky Penguin” 1972; appeared in film Mystery Train 1989; Rufus Thomas Park dedicated in Poretta Torme, Italy, 1990.
Addresses: Home —1595 Joanne St, Memphis, TN 38111; Bosmess-WDIA-AM 1070, 112 Union Ave., Memphis, TN 38103.
station was failing financially so the owners decided they had nothing to lose by going after the rapidly increasing black audience by playing black-oriented music using an all-black on-air staff. The first on-air personality and program director was teacher and community leader Nat D. Williams, who had been Thomas’s high school history teacher.
Soon, Thomas was behind the microphone every day at 3p.m. after an eight-hour shift at the textile mill, but he would still open every show with the shout, “I’m loose as a goose and full of juice/I got the goose, so what’s the use?” Thomas would then spend the next hour playing a batch of R&B hits blended with his distinctive raspy-voiced jive and would become one of the station’s most popular personalities. “I grew up listening to Rufus Thomas on WDIA,” musician Issac Hayes reminisced to Gerry Hershey, author of Nowhere to Run “He was pretty adventurous; he’d play stuff that wasn’t well known; he’d break records locally. He had a show in the late afternoon, for an hour or two after school.”
In 1953, having become a local celebrity, Thomas joined up with Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Records and recorded “Bear Cat,” an answer song to Big Mama Thornton’s popular tune, “Hound Dog.” The song became Sun Records’s first hit but soon had to be pulled because its similarity to “Hound Dog” was so profound the publishers of that tune began a lawsuit. Still, having had a hit, Thomas presumed he had found a home at Sun and would continue to record there. However, Phillips dropped Thomas from the label, as well as the rest of the black artists then recording for Sun, after Phillips signed a young white man named Elvis Presley, whom Phillips felt would be more profitable. “Sam Phillips was looking for a white boy to sound black,” Thomas recalled to Greenberg. “When Sam Phillips picked up Elvis, he discarded everybody on the label who was black. Even before Elvis became real popular, he dropped us all. I gave him his first hit, and all the while he was looking for a white boy who could do what I could.”
In 1959 a new record label began in Memphis formed by Jim Stewart, a banker and country fiddler, and his sister Estelle Axton, a bookkeeper and former teacher. With the name Satellite Records, they had a few unsuccessful recording sessions and had just moved their operation into an empty movie theater when Rufus Thomas showed up. Thomas had written a song called “Cause I Love You,” which he thought would be a good duet with his seventeen-year-old daughter, Carla. The song was the first track recorded in the new studio and became a local hit. This raised the interest of Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records who went to Memphis to sign a distribution deal with the new label. Though “Cause I Love You” failed to hit big nationally, the next song released by the label, “Gee Whiz” by daughter Carla Thomas was a huge success and Wexler returned to Memphis to sign another deal.
In the Memphis of 1960, although blacks and whites mixed freely and enthusiastically in the recording studios and offices of Satellite Records, outside the atmosphere was strikingly different. When Wexler, a white man, proposed dinner with the Thomas’ but learned there were no restaurants that would take an integrated party, label owner Stewart, also white, suggested room service in Wexler’s Peabody Hotel room. Wexler begrudgingly accepted the idea and was further disappointed to learn that Stewart thought it would be safer to enter the hotel through the back. “I didn’t think there would be any trouble,” Wexler wrote in his autobiography, Rhythm and the Blues, “but it was his town, not mine, and we followed his lead. Walking around back to the freight elevator, down the garbage alley, Rufus mumbled, “Nothing changes, down in the alley with the garbage. Same ol’, same ol’ shit.’” Later that night Wexler awoke to the sound of the Memphis Police Department’s vice squad pounding on his door in an attempt to harass him for having black people in his room.
Following a threatened legal action by a California record company named Satellite, Stewart and Axton combined the first two letters of their last names and christened their label Stax. With a raw and more soulful feel than their Detroit counterpart, Motown Records, Stax would boast a stable of artists throughout the 1960s that would include Thomas and daughter Carla, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, William Bell, the Mar-Keys, and the house band, Booker T. and the MGs. Although not as commercially successful as Motown, Stax still released a string of hits including a top 10 hit for Rufus Thomas in 1963 called “Walking the Dog.”
The tune was a follow up to a smaller hit for Thomas called simply, “The Dog,” and it preceded two other “Dog” tracks Thomas would record, “Can Your Monkey Do The Dog” and “Somebody Stole My Dog.” But it was 1963’s “Walking the Dog” that put Thomas in the national spotlight for the first time. “It was a nursery rhyme,” Thomas confessed to Dickerson. “We used to do it in the neighborhood—”Mary Mack dressed in black….’” The song was a hit with kids who were doing a dance called “the Dog” but also had a big enough groove that it appealed to more serious-minded listeners, including the Rolling Stones who recorded the song the following year for their American debut album. Since then the song has been covered more than 100 times and has become a live staple for the Stones, Aerosmith, and countless bar bands.
As the decade continued the climate at Stax began to change as more people were brought in and the funky little studio began to function more as a business than a music-making machine. Some of the early Stax artists, like Thomas, began to resent the money being spent on the new acts and the increased responsibilities given to new songwriters and producers like Isaac Hayes and David Porter, who began as a writing team for Sam and Dave and others. “People like David Porter had one helluvan ego,” Thomas declared to writer Peter Guralnick who penned Sweet Soul Music “I told David: “You around here bragging all the time. Everytime I turn around, I hear you bragging what a helluva songwriter you are.’ I said, “Until you write a hit song for Rufus Thomas, you ain’t shit.’ And he never did.”
For his part, David Porter seemingly regretted the inability to get a hit for Thomas. “We were doing records on everybody else and it appeared that Rufus wanted something on him,” Porter’s quoted as saying in the liner notes The Complete Stax/volt Singles 1959-1968 “We tried but we really couldn’t groove it. No one could hit Rufus’s grooves better than Rufus as far as writing stuff for him.” Porter did co-write Thomas’s “Sister’s Got A Boyfriend” in 1966 with Hayes and Booker T. Jones, but the song failed to chart and the following year’s “Sophisticated Sissy” made only the R&B charts, peaking at number 43.
In 1970 Thomas returned to the pop charts with “Do the Funky Chicken,” a novelty dance tune in the vein of “Walking the Dog,” that was nevertheless an important moment during the infancy of 1970s funk. As Rickey Vincent, the author of the book Funk! maintains, “Do the Funky Chicken” made Thomas the elder statesman of the proto-funk trend. “Sporting a hilarious knee-wobbling “funky chicken’ dance, and a wild and loose dialogue about smearing chicken gravy on yourself,” Vincent wrote, “Rufus Thomas helped to define funki-ness as the seventies began. The “funky chicken’ was as significant as it was stupid. Hitting the Top 40 charts (at Number 28), it made being funky just a little more acceptable.” In 1971 Thomas hit the charts again with “Do the Push & Pull” and “Breakdown” but the two songs failed to achieve the same level of popularity.
The 1970s were troubled times for the Stax label although they still had great artists like Rufus and Carla, the Staple Singers, Johnny Taylor and their biggest selling artist, Isaac Hayes. The death of Otis Redding in 1967 and the departure of acts like Booker T. and the MGs, combined with financial mismanagment sent the company in a tailspin that was too difficult to recover from in the competitive music business. In 1975 the label closed down for good and Thomas and others had to look for a new home for their music. With a number of hits under his belt and his love of performing, Thomas was able to hit the road and perform all over the country as well as doing occasional recordings. Additionally, he could still be heard hosting his program on WDIA, albeit only once a week.
In 1989 Thomas had a cameo role in Jim Jarmusch’s acclaimed independent film, Mystery Train, and continued his steady touring schedule. Around the same time, Graziano Uliani convinced the town fathers of Poretta Torme, Italy to dedicate Rufus Thomas Park where the annual Sweet Soul Music Festival is held in July. When time permits Thomas also heads for the recording studio. “The Memphis music legend possesses a richer-than-molasses low voice that’s now frayed around the edges,” DownBeat’s Frank-John Hadley said about 1997’s Blues Thang!, adding that Thomas, “taps a bottomless well of accumulated wisdom and endearing playfulness.”
Years of doing the funky chicken can slow down even the world’s oldest living teenager and in 1998, at the age of 81, Thomas underwent triple-bypass heart surgery after suffering from chest pains. But it was not long before Thomas returned home to recuperate in order to perform again. “His surgeon said his heart is as strong as anybody else his age, or any other age for that matter,” Thomas’s son, Marvell, told Jet. The news seems to guarantee that, “if you don’t know how to do it, [he’ll] show you how to walk the dog.”
Walking The Dog, Stax, 1964.
Do The Funky Chicken, Stax, 1970.
Doing The Push & Pull Live at PJ’s, Stax, 1971.
Did You Hear Me, Stax, 1973.
Crown Prince of Dance, Stax, 1974.
Blues in the Basement, Stax, 1975.
If There Were No Music, AVI, 1977.
I Ain’t Getting Older, I’m Gettiri Better, AVI, 1977.
Rufus Thomas, Gusto, 1980.
Jump Back, Edsel, 1984.
Rappin Rufus, Ichiban, 1986.
That Woman is Poison, Alligator, 1988.
Timeless Funk, Ichiban, 1992.
Can’t Get Away From This Dog, Stax, 1992.
Crown Prince of Dance, Stax, 1995.
The Best of Rufus Thomas: Do the Funky Something, WEA/Atlantic/Rhino, 1996.
Blues Thangl, Sequel, 1997.
Rufus Live!, Ecko, 1998.
Memories, MCA, 1998.
Dickerson, James, Goin’ Back To Memphis: A Century of Blues, Rock V Roll, and Glorious Soul, Schirmer Books, 1996.
Gregory, Hugh, Soul Music A-Z, Da Capo Press, 1995.
Guralnick, Peter, Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom, Harper & Row, 1986.
Hirshey, Gerry, Nowhere To Run: The Story of Soul Music, Da Capo Press, 1994.
Nager, Larry, Memphis Beat: The Lives and Times of America’s Musical Crossroads, St. Martin’s Press, 1998.
Vincent, Rickey, Funk: The Music, the People, and the Rhythm of the One, St. Martin’s Press, 1996.
Wexler, Jerry with David Ritz, Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music, Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.
Billboard, March 29, 1997, p. 4
DownBeat, June 1996, p. 54; January 1997, p. 57.
Jet, August 10, 1998, p. 37.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from liner notes from The Complete Stax/Volt Singles 1959-1968 by Rob Bowman.
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