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Rufus Thomas, Jr. (March 26, 1917 – December 15, 2001) was a 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.
Early life and education
Thomas attended one semester at Tennessee A&I University, but due to
economic conditions 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 twenty-two
years at a textile plant and didn't 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.
He also became an 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. He became one of the station's most popular DJs.
His celebrity was such that in 1953 he recorded an "answer record" to Big Mama Thornton's hit, "Hound Dog" called "Bear Cat" and 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 the likes of Elvis Presley in the place of the dismissed musicians.
Nevertheless, Rufus remembered spinning Elvis discs on WDIA. Management at the station forbade the deejays from playing Elvis during the years from 1953 to 1956. "They said blacks wouldn't listen to Elvis. I tried to play him, I tried to tell them. No one can speak for a whole group." At a major WDIA benefit in 1956 Rufus appeared, dressed as Chief Rocking Horse, and led Elvis onto stage in front of an all-black audience, arguing that introductions should be held until the end of the show, lest wild applause ensue. After Elvis did his pelvic gyration that evening, the inevitable frenzy of the kids in the audience did in fact drown out the emcees, proving Rufus right. "After that night," recalled Rufus, "we were allowed to play Elvis."
The prime of Rufus's recording career came in the 1960s and early 1970s, when he was on the Stax roster, having one of the first hit sides at that historic label ("Walking the Dog", 1963). At Stax, he recorded songs when he had something to record, as tunes came up, never collecting songs to be done in blocks. Songs were usually recorded in one or two takes, live. No one ever had a good idea which sides would make hits at Stax, the artists had no control over what got released, and little of what went on was plotted out or scripted in any way.
Rufus was often backed by Booker T. and the MG's or the Bar-Kays, and his bands included many of the era's finest musicians. Rufus once said
I'll tell you a story, not many people know this one. It was the same club where I later wrote 'Do the Funky Chicken,' in Covington, Tennessee. I had two guitar players, I can’t remember the second one’s name at the time, but the first one was a young guy, playin' just terrible, loud, out of tune, all over the place. After a while, I said, "Send him home, I can't use a guitar player who plays like that." That dude was Jimi Hendrix.
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 re-named "Rufus Thomas Park." In 1996 Rufus and William Bell headlined at the Olympics in Atlanta. In September 1997, he performed at the Framingham (Massachusetts) Blues Festival and included an updated version of "Walking the Dog".
A baseball devotee, Rufus was a fan of the Atlanta Braves. He claimed
never to be able to turn down ice cream--and favored vanilla drenched in
maraschino cherry juice. His beverages of choice, rather than roadhouse
specialties, were sweetened iced tea and fruit-flavored sodas. Until
late in his life, he remained an avid listener of music, respecting
artists as diverse as Prince, Preston Shannon, and
Denise Lasalle. Highlights of his career included calming an unruly crowd at the
early 'seventies Wattstax Festival, and performing with James Brown's
Thomas once toured in California with blues singer Blues Boy Willie of Memphis, Texas.
He played an important part in the Stax reunion in 1988, and had a small role in the 1989 Jim Jarmusch film Mystery Train, (Screamin' Jay Hawkins was also in the film, as a motel night clerk, and Joe Strummer also appeared in it). Rufus released an album of straight-ahead blues, That Woman is Poison!, with Alligator Records in 1990. In 1997, Rufus released an album, "Rufus Live!," with Ecko Records. The "Rufus Live!" album includes such classic songs as "Walking The Dog," "Big Fine Hunk of Woman," "Do The Funky Chicken." The "Rufus Live!" includes Rufus's version of the Merle Haggard song, "Today I Started Loving You Again."
Thomas was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2001. He was interviewed by the public radio program American Routes in February, 2002. His last appearance was in the D.A. Pennebaker-directed documentary Only the Strong Survive (2003) in which he co-stars with daughter Carla.
Source: Wikipedia (The Free Encyclopedia)