Memphis’ own Rufus Thomas once said: “I was a tap dancer, and I used to do some scat singing. If it came under the heading of show business, I did it.” True words from a man who performed for over 75 years as an entertainer.
Thomas possessed a wide range of talents including being a singer, dancer, comedian and radio DJ. He was one of rock & roll’s more likable founding figures and could always be depended upon for some good, silly, and/or outrageous fun with his soul dance tunes.
One of the few rock or soul stars to reach commercial and artistic peak in middle age, Thomas although born in March 1917 in Cayce, Mississippi, was raised in Memphis, where he left a mark.
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He attended Booker T. Washington High School where he met fabled Professor Nat D. Williams, history teacher and entertainer extraordinaire, who schooled him in both comedy routines and academics and, after graduation, brought Rufus in as his sidekick hosting Amateur Night at the Palace Theater on Beale Street, which helped showcase the emerging skills of such influential figures as B.B. King, Bobby Bland, Junior Parker, Ike Turner and Roscoe Gordon.
When Williams moved on to other things, Thomas became the MC, later rejoining Williams at WDIA, “the Mother Station of the Negroes,” where Williams had become the first black DJ on the first all-black station in the nation in 1949.
Just as Thomas was mentored, he also was a crucial mentor to many important Memphis blues, rock, and soul musicians. After high school, Thomas had travelled all over the South with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels tent show picking crucial antics, which was to serve him well in the entertainment business.
When Sam Phillips opened his Memphis Recording Service in 1950, Rufus was one of the first to show up at its door but his recordings released on the Chess label, were not commercially successful. However, when Phillips started his own Sun label, it was Thomas who had the fledgling company’s first hit in 1953. “Bear Cat (The Answer to Hound Dog)” was the witty response to the Big Mama Thornton original, going to Number Three on the R&B charts and giving Sun Records a national hit.
The success, however, spelled doom for Thomas as an eighteen-year-old Elvis Presley made his way to the Memphis Recording Service to make a record. Phillips switched focus from Thomas to Presley.
However, in 1960 when a little label moved to South Memphis, Thomas sensed an opportunity. He persuaded Stax owner Jim Stewart to cut a duet on him and his eighteen-year-old daughter Carla, it was a hit. Just as with Sun, said Rufus, “I was the beginning of Stax. I made the first record that made money for them, me and Carla.”
Thomas went on to have hits into the ‘60s and ‘70s (“Walking the Dog” and “Do the Funky Chicken,” among follow-ups such as “Do the Funky Robot,” “Do the Funky Penguin,” and “Do the Push and Pull”, each accompanied by its own striking new steps and costumes).
Thomas never strayed far from the blues; he continued to do his radio show and entertained into his eighties, showing off both his dances and legs in hot-pink outfits and high lace-up boots.
He was the host of the Blues Music Awards and in 2001 was inducted into the Blues Hall Of Fame.
“In Italy, in the 1990s, he became not just the hit but the heart and soul of the Porretta Sweet Soul Music Festival in Emilia Romagna so much so that the park in which the festival was held was named after him, requiring a special legislative act to override a national prohibition against naming public institutions for living people.”
Thomas, who was already a professional entertainer in the mid-’30s passed away on December 15, 2001, having performed for over 75 years.