Rufus Thomas Biography

26 March 1917, Cayce, Mississippi, USA, d. 15 December 2001, Memphis, Tennessee, USA. A singer, dancer and entertainer, Thomas learned his trade as a member of the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, a vaudeville-inspired touring group. By the late 40s he was performing in several Memphis nightclubs and organizing local talent shows. B.B. King, Bobby Bland and Junior Parker were discovered in this way. When King’s career subsequently blossomed, Thomas replaced him as a disc jockey at the black-owned radio station WDIA and remained there until 1974, fronting the influential shows House Of Happiness and Special Delivery and acting as a mentor to many of the city’s blues, soul and rock musicians.

Thomas began recording in the early 40s, and several releases appeared on Star Talent, Chess Records and Meteor before ‘Bear Cat’ became a Top 3 US R&B hit. An answer to Big Mama Thornton’s ‘Hound Dog’, it was released on Sun Records in 1953. Thomas remained a local celebrity until 1960 when he recorded with his daughter, Carla Thomas. Their duet, ‘Cause I Love You’, was issued on the fledgling Satellite (later Stax Records) label where it became a regional hit. Thomas secured his reputation with a series of infectious singles; ‘Walking The Dog’ (1963) was a US Top 10 entry, while several of his other recordings, notably ‘Jump Back’ and ‘All Night Worker’ (both in 1964), were beloved by aspiring British groups. His later success with novelty numbers - ‘Do The Funky Chicken’ (1970), ‘(Do The) Push And Pull, Part 1’ (1970) and ‘Do The Funky Penguin (Part 1)’ (1971) - has obscured the merits of less brazen recordings. ‘Sophisticated Cissy’ (1967) and ‘Memphis Train’ (1968) are prime 60s R&B.

Thomas stayed with Stax until its 1975 collapse, from where he moved to AVI. His releases there included If There Were No Music and I Ain’t Getting Older, I’m Gettin’ Better. In 1980 Thomas re-recorded several of his older songs for a self-named collection on Gusto. In the 80s he abandoned R&B and recorded some rap with Rappin’ Rufus, on the Ichiban Records label, and tackled blues with That Woman Is Poison, on Alligator Records. Bob Fisher’s Sequel Records released a new album from Thomas in 1996. Blues Thang! proved to be an unexpected treat from a man celebrating his 79th birthday at the time of release. Two years later he received an award from the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame for five decades promoting black music on radio. Thomas continued to record and perform regularly before open-heart surgery curtailed his activities. The ‘crown prince of Memphis soul’ aka ‘the world’s oldest teenager’ died of heart failure in December 2001.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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