Rufus Thomas - Biography
By Nick Castro
Remembered both for songs like "Walking the Dog" and "Do the Funky Chicken" as well as for being the father of famed soul singer, Carla Thomas, and soul session keyboardist, Marvell Thomas, Rufus Thomas managed to forge a path for himself as a pioneer of soul and a personality to be reckoned with. Self proclaimed as The World's Oldest Teenager, Thomas always manage to weave in his superb sense of humor to everything he did. His many recordings for the Stax record label are now legendary and original copies have become highly collectable. In his home town of Memphis, Thomas is often referred to as The Other King.
Born in Mississippi in 1917, Thomas moved with his family to Memphis at a very early age. Thomas grew up regularly attending church with his mother, and it was here that he gained his first experiences performing. Before he turned 20, Thomas was working the vaudeville circuit with a troupe called The Rabbit Foot Minstrels. Thomas' role was not only as a singer, but as a tap dancer as well. Soon he would work in a comedy duo, called Rufus and Bones, as well. These early experiences helped to form the style of entertainment that he would later become famous for. Thomas would bring the old world aesthetic, of the well rounded performer, to the world of popular music. Although many of his antics in the 60's were seen as novel, they were in fact rooted in these early experiences as a traveling performer.
In the 40's, Thomas got a job working for a textile company, where he would stay for the next 20 years. Thomas also got a chance to record a record called "I'll be Good", for a small label in Texas called Star Talent. This would be his first recording as a solo singer and he would soon become well known on the Memphis club scene.
In 1951. Thomas got a job at WDIA radio in Memphis, as a disc jockey for a popular afternoon program called Hoot and Holler. His over-the-top personality gained him much success in this format, and as a host of a regular talent contest held at the Palace Theatre in Memphis. Legend has it that Thomas discovered B.B. King, Little Junior Parker and Bobby Bland while they were competing in the events. Through his work with the radio station, Thomas got to know Sam Phillips and was soon cutting records for Sun Records, including his first, "Bear Cat", which was a take on a Big mama Thornton song that was so close to the original that it garnered a lawsuit which Sun had to spend a lot of money to defend. Through his work with Sun, as well as his radio show, Thomas began to cultivate a crossover platform that was appealing to white audiences and black ones alike. Thomas was also one of the first DJs at the station who was trying to play white artists like Elvis Presley.
It was at the end of the 50's though that Thomas would begin the most successful period of his career. He, and his daughter Carla, became big hits for the Stax record label when they recorded the song "Cause I Love You", as Rufus & Carla, for the Atco subsidiary of Stax, as well as the Satellite label. Thomas then followed up with song, "I Didn't Believe", issued again on Atco but this time billed as Rufus & Friend. Thomas' first solo song for the label was "Can't Ever Let You Go", which was issued on Stax proper. It was his song, "Walking the Dog", that prove to be his first big hit for the label without his daughter, who was a star on her own by then. The Rolling Stones covered "Walking the Dog" and that helped to secure Thomas' popularity abroad as well. Stax quickly capitalized in the success of the song and released the album Walking The Dog (1964 - Stax). This album has become a classic of southern soul and features other well known Thomas originals like "The Dog", "Cause I Love You" and "It's Aw'rite". He enjoyed a string of mildly successful songs, often linked to his recurring dog theme or to original dances he would create to accompany the music, such as "Can Your Monkey Do the Dog", "Somebody Stole My Dog" and "Do the Funky Chicken".
Thomas had an unissued album called May I Have Your Ticket Please (1969 - Stax), which the label put on hold to instead release Do the Funky Chicken (1969 - Stax). Released long after his debut effort it was conceived at a time of changing musical tastes and landscapes, and Thomas had turned up the camp on this album, which featured a psychedelic colored chicken on the cover, and a two part version of "Old Mcdonald Had a Farm". Thomas was famous for imitating animal sounds by now and this album was no exception. Other than some silly moments though, this is a solid record and Thomas still had respect from the r&b buying public who helped to make the title track a big success on the pop charts.
While on the wave of his latest success, Thomas released the album Did You Hear Me? (1971 - Stax), which featured his next hit, "(Do the) Push and Pull". This album also marks a shift from the Bark Kays and Booker T & The MGs sound he was using before, to working with Isaac Hayes' backing band instead. The results are heavier, laid back and with tinges of country. Many fans of Thomas find this period to suit his style of singing much better to his previous work.
In 1972, Thomas appeared at the legendary Wattstax music festival in Los Angeles, along with other soul music luminaries such as The Staple Singers, Isaac Hayes, Johnnie Taylor, Richard Pryor and Albert King. The following year Thomas appeared in the film about the festival and on the album of the same name. Thomas had managed to carve a niche for himself well into the 70's and his stage shows were legendarily known for a consistent energy and flamboyance.
Thomas would make appearances in Stax reunions and films throughout the 80's and 90's. He died from heart failure in 2001. His name is instantly recognized by soul music fans as far as Japan, Italy and England.