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RUFUS THOMAS

TRIBUTE

(last update: Jan. 4th, 2002)

Caricature provided by Cherrie Holden, High Stacks Records

From Associated Press. MEMPHIS, Tenn. (December 15, 2001 2:25 p.m. EST) - Musician Rufus Thomas, who helped Sun Records get its start with his "Bear Cat" and later gave a boost to the Stax Label with the "Funky Chicken," died Saturday. He was 84.

Thomas' son, Marvell Thomas, said his father died in St. Francis Hospital. He had been hospitalized since Thanksgiving for a short illness.

"This is the end of an era, and the world will miss him dearly," Thomas said.

Rufus Thomas was best known for novelty dance recordings like "Walking the Dog," "Do the Funky Chicken" and "Push and Pull."

He began tap dancing on the streets of Memphis for tips and performed in amateur shows in high school.

In the 1940s, Thomas ran his own Beale Street amateur show that attracted B.B. King, Bobby "Blue" Bland and many other performers who went on to become famous.

In his declining years, Thomas took on the title of "Beale Street ambassador" and liked to refer to himself as the world's oldest teenager.

In 1998, he underwent open-heart surgery at a Memphis hospital.

Thomas was born in Cayce, Miss., in 1917 and grew up in Memphis. In high school, he met Nat D. Williams, a history teacher who organized annual variety shows.

In the late 1940s, Williams became one of the first black radio personalities in the South.

"Then, a black man on the radio had always been taboo," Thomas once told The Associated Press. "When they heard that black voice advertising their products, most of the advertisers pulled their ads."

In 1953, Thomas recorded "Bear Cat," an answer to Big Mama Thornton's "Hound Dog," and it became Sun Record's first hit.

That was before Elvis Presley arrived on the scene to become Sun's undisputed star. Thomas complained in later years that Sun's black artists were pushed aside after Presley became a hit.

In the 1960s, Thomas became one of the founding performers for Stax Records, which created what came to be known as "the Memphis sound," with performers like Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding and Sam and Dave.

 

William Bell, Don Bryant, Anne Peebles & Rufus
William Bell, Don Bryant, Ann Peebles and Rufus. Atlanta Olympic games, 1997.
(courtesy Paul Brown) 

 

Rufus' statue, Memphis (courtesy Cherrie Holden)
Rufus' statue in Memphis (courtesy Cherrie Holden) 

 

December 19, 2001
Rufus Thomas Dies at 84, Patriarch of Memphis Soul
By JON PARELES, NY TIMES

Rufus Thomas, the jovial patriarch of Memphis soul, who billed himself as the "world's oldest teenager,"died on Saturday at 84.
He died at St. Francis Hospital in Memphis after a short illness, said Marcy Vaughn Perkins, his niece.

As a singer, songwriter, talent scout, disc jockey and father of musical children, Mr. Thomas was a force in Memphis rhythm and blues as early as 1949, when he became a disc jockey on WDIA. Two important Memphis labels, Sun and Stax, were jump-started by profits from Mr. Thomas's singles. And in the 1960's he became a pop hitmaker by celebrating novelty dance crazes, with "Walking the Dog" and "Do the Funky Chicken." A duet with his teenage daughter Carla started her own soul-music career in 1960.

Mr. Thomas had had a long apprenticeship in vaudeville. And for five decades, he maintained his blues show on the pioneering black station WDIA, announcing, "I'm young and loose and full of juice/I got the goose so what's the use?"

Mr. Thomas, a sharecropper's son, was born in Casey, Miss., in 1917. The family moved to Memphis, and as a high-school student in the 1930's, Mr. Thomas tap danced in the streets for tips. His history teacher, Nat D. Williams, was also an emcee at the Palace Theater on Beale Street in Memphis, and he made Mr. Thomas his partner in comedy routines. After graduating from high school, Mr. Thomas toured the South as a dancer, singer and comedian with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels until he married in 1940 and settled in Memphis.

He formed his own comedy duo, Rufus and Bones (with Robert Couch), and took over as the master of ceremonies at the Palace Theater, presenting an amateur show where the contest winners included B. B. King. "Beale Street was the black man's haven," Mr. Thomas once said. "They'd come into town and forget all their worries and woes."

Mr. Thomas started his recording career in the 1950's. "Bear Cat," which he wrote and sang as an answer to Big Mama Thornton's "Hound Dog," became the first hit on Sun Records. After Sun discovered Elvis Presley and began concentrating on white rockabilly singers, Mr. Thomas was dropped from Sun and went on to record for other local labels. Yet he became the first to play Presley songs on WDIA, refusing to segregate his playlists.

Mr. Thomas's renown in Memphis didn't pay the bills. He also had a day job operating boilers at a textile-bleaching plant, where, he said, the noise sometimes suggested rhythms for songs and lyrics.

Another fledgling Memphis label, Satellite, recorded "Cause I Love You," a duet by the 43-year-old Mr. Thomas and his 17-year-old daughter, Carla, in 1960; Mr. Thomas's son, Marvell, played keyboards in the studio band. Mr. Thomas is survived by them and another daughter, Vaneese, as well as by one grandchild.

As Satellite became Stax Records in 1961, the Thomases were among the label's first mainstays, recording separately and as a duo. Carla Thomas's "Gee Whiz" reached the pop Top 10. Mr. Thomas had a rhythm-and-blues hit in 1962 with "The Dog," a song he originally improvised - complete with barking - on the bandstand. Its sequel, "Walking the Dog," became a Top 10 pop hit in 1963, soon to be remade on the debut album of the Rolling Stones. He released follow-ups in 1964: "Can Your Monkey Do the Dog" and "Somebody Stole My Dog."

Mr. Thomas continued making dance songs, including "Jump Back" in 1964, while he became a mentor to younger Stax stars, giving advice on stage moves to singers like Otis Redding. And in 1970, he had new dance hits with "Do the Funky Chicken" and "Do the Push and Pull." Follow-ups like "Do the Funky Penguin" and "Do the Funky Robot" were less successful. But in the 1972 concert that became the documentary "Wattstax," Mr. Thomas led thousands in funky-chicken moves.

Although his streak of hits was over, Mr. Thomas continued to perform and record, getting laughs with a wardrobe of hot pants, boots and capes, all in wild colors. After Stax went bankrupt in 1975, Mr. Thomas made albums for labels like Alligator, Sequel and High Stacks between tours and his weekly Saturday radio show on WDIA. Mr. Thomas also had a screen presence,
appearing in Jim Jarmusch's 1989 "Mystery Train" and Robert Altman's 1999 "Cookie's Fortune."

The city of Memphis considered Mr. Thomas its ambassador of soul. For his 80th birthday in 1997, the city of Memphis renamed Hernando Street as Rufus Thomas Boulevard at the intersection of Beale Street where the Palace Theater once stood. The city also gave him an honorary reserved downtown parking space, which he often used. Mr. Thomas received the Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation in 1992, and a lifetime achievement award from Ascap in 1997.

The documentary filmmakers Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker recently completed a film about rhythm and blues that features Mr. Thomas, "Only the Strong Survive." "You knew he was an old person," Mr. Pennebaker said, "but he acted like a 16-year-old. He was always full of funny takes on things, and he always gave the impression that he was a goofball. But when he talked about the music, you realized he knew a lot."

@ Luther Ingram benefit
At the Luther Ingram benefit show, July 1999 (courtesy Kevin Kiley)

 

I just returned from Rufus's celebration of life. What a wonderful tribute to a great human being. The place was FULL but I found a seat on the first floor and the choir was great, but I could not see very well so I went upstairs. I sat down and looked and there was Rufus... I suddenly felt very sad again and people proceeded to close up his coffin. From where I was sitting I could see Marvell and Carla. I also saw BB King. The service started and I gotta tell you that I am so glad I went. I laughed and cried. Truely a wonderful experience. I know it was broadcasted on WDIA and I hope someone was able to record it. It really hit me when Isaac Hayes did what I would call a Rufus Rap (thanking him) and going into Merry Little Christmas (I was in tears). Rob Bowman spoke and had some wonderful and inspiring words about Rufus).

The Governor of Tennessee spoke as well as the County Mayor and the Mayor of Memphis. The county Mayor spoke of a time when he ran into Rufus and Rufus told him "somebody is parking in my space"(Rufus had his own parking space with a sign on it with his name) Mayor Rout said he would call the City Mayor Herenton to have it towed away. Then City of Memphis Mayor Herenton said a few words. He said he used to have lunch with Rufus at a local cafe and said " You know that Rufus had an ego and he came to me and said you know you the mayor" Mayor Herenton said "yes I know" and Rufus said "I need a parking space" and then he mentioned that he needed a Street named Rufus Thomas. Mayor Herenton then said that if Rufus had been around longer he was sure he would be trying to get the city of Memphis to change its name and Rufus don't be trying to change any names up there. There was a lot of laughter. WDIA radio ask everyone in the funeral parade to tune in to the station so all the cars could be playing Rufus's music through downtown and Beale Street to his gravesite. What a huge line of cars and number of police blocking the streets so the procession could pass. I could only go a couple of blocks but I had the windows down blasting WDIA playing "Breakdown". What a great feeling hearing all these cars with Rufus's music playing.

Joe Pusateri

Rufus' funerals (courtesy Joe Pusateri)

Rufus' private parking place (photo by Ren´┐Ż Wu)

 

Friends, fans pay respects to Rufus Thomas
'Heaven's youngest teenager'
By Bill Ellis

www.gomemphis.com
 

As jokes were shared about his imagined entrance into the afterlife, Memphis R&B titan Rufus Thomas put smiles on people's faces one last time. "Look at me, man, ain't I clean," went one quip, borrowed from Thomas's arsenal of one-liners by fellow black radio pioneer Novella Smith-Arnold, who also noted, "The world's oldest teenager is now heaven's youngest."

Some 2,500 people turned out Thursday at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church to pay the beloved entertainer - who died Saturday at age 84 - a final bow. Among those in attendance at the funeral were Thomas's onetime Stax confreres Isaac Hayes, Steve Cropper, Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, as well as Little Milton, Bobby Rush, Calvin Newborn, Teenie Hodges, Cordell Jackson and many others from the Memphis music community.

How poetic that blues legend B. B. King - whose career was ushered in decades ago by Thomas at his famed talent nights on Beale Street - was among the honorary pallbearers to usher his mentor out.
The ceremony, which lasted more than two hours and was broadcast live on WDIA-AM 1070, featured musical performances from O'Landa Draper's Associates, Kirk Whalum, Rev. Dwight 'Gatemouth' Moore and, in a moving reading of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, Isaac Hayes.
Numerous reflections paid tribute to a life and career that not only bore witness to but also helped shape the totality of Memphis music in the 20th Century.
"You had so many titles, so many titles," said Hayes. Indeed, from his tap-dancing vaudeville origins to his hosting of historic talent revues to his seminal broadcasts as a WDIA disc jockey to his milestone hits for Sun and Stax Records, Thomas - who was born in 1917 - left a wide and varied path.
"He did it all; he saw it all," said Rob Bowman, author of Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story of Stax. "Rufus was born a couple of months before the first jazz record was ever recorded. He was born three years before the first blues record, seven years before the first country record and light years before rock, rhythm and blues, soul and funk were even thought of . He was part of it all."
Thomas also acted in several films, including a memorable cameo in Jim Jarmusch's cult classic Mystery Train, the Robert Altman film Cookie's Fortune and A Family Thing.
Others who celebrated facets of Thomas's life included Gov. Don Sundquist, city Mayor Willie Herenton, county Mayor Jim Rout and Recording Academy president Michael Greene, plus radio personalities Stan Bell and J. Michael Davis, who co-hosted a WDIA blues program for years with Thomas.
Said veteran disc jockey Robert 'Honeyboy' Thomas on one lesson he gleaned from Rufus Thomas: "Your listeners may love your sweet voice, but they like the music much better."
And it's Thomas's music that will be remembered above all. Among his endearing hits: Bear Cat, Walking the Dog, Do the Funky Chicken, The Memphis Train, The Breakdown and (Do the) Push and Pull, a long line of entertaining, dance-driven classics that furthered R&B into the realms of soul and funk.
Paul Shaffer, musical director of the Late Show with David Letterman, sent a videotaped testimonial.
"His music will live forever," he said. "His melodies, his riffs, his grooves are really like Beethoven. They're simple, they're direct, they hit hard, and they'll never be forgotten."
Shaffer also talked of Thomas's musical role in the Civil Rights movement. "Rufus Thomas's music changed the world," he said.
He was "an ambassador of unity," Sundquist agreed. "He taught us not to see the world in black or white but in shades of blues."

At the pre-funeral visitation, Pat Kerr Tigrett addressed another achievement by Thomas: his flamboyant sense of fashion, in which colorful shorts and capes became the height of funkiness. "He was the original icon of styling," she said. "Before Elvis, before any of them." Accolades poured in, even from Italy and the town of Porretta Terme, where an annual Sweet Soul Music Festival is held - one that Thomas played more than a half-dozen times - and where Thomas is honored with his own namesake park. "His impact and legacy for Porretta people was so deep that we have one Rufus Thomas Park, one Memphis Train Bar (the train station pub) and a Caffetteria Zio Rufus (a garden bar titled Uncle Rufus)," festival organizer Graziano Uliani said by E-mail. "Rufus was really unique, and his sound so strong that the Italian superstar Zucchero mentioned him in two hits, Funky Gallo and Per Colpa di Chi, and many Italian R&B bands now have in their repertoire not only Knock On Wood or Soul Man but Walking the Dog, Do the Funky Chicken or The Memphis Train." A remembrance by Porretta friends and fans is planned today at Caffe Italia in front of Rufus Thomas Park.
After the funeral, a motorcade took Thomas on a final journey down Beale Street enroute to New Park Cemetery, where he was interred next to wife C. Lorene Thomas.

- Bill Ellis - December 21, 2001

 


Rufus Thomas and Mabel John (courtesy Pierre Daguerre)

 

Rufus Thomas was born on March 26, 1917 in Cayce, Mississippi, not far from Memphis. He grew up in Memphis and has lived there all his life. He is married and has three children, Marvel, Vanesse, and Carla, all of whom are musically gifted. Thomas began his showbiz career as a tap-dancer with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels. That Vaudeville experience still influences his performances today. He has the uncanny ability to make any crowd his audience and to leave them all laughing. Thomas worked for a time as the emcee of amateur night at the Palace Theater on famous Beale Street in Memphis. He had begged his way on stage there as a youngster in order to compete for the $1.00 prize given to the winner. He became a fixture at the Palace and worked his way up to hosting the show himself. This is where he met his lifelong friends, BB King and Bobby Bland. Mr. Rufus still frequents Beale Street and his shiny red Mazda can be seen parked on the street named in his honor, Rufus Thomas Blvd., which intersects with Beale St., in his own special parking space designated by the City of Memphis in 1998.

Rufus Thomas (Stax promo photo)
The oldest teenager in the world... (Stax Records)

 

NICKNAME: The Dog, The Funky Chicken
FAVORITE FOOD: Macaroni and Cheese
FAVORITE MOVIE: Watts Six
FIRST JOB: Overnights - Shoveling Coal
GREATEST ACHIEVEMENT: Being married to my wife for 57 years
WHAT MAKES A GREAT MATE?: A woman who does for herself as well as her man!
FASHION TREND THAT YOU HELD ON TO THE LONGEST: The "Zootsuit" (Ha!)
PHILOSOPHY ON LIFE: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
LIFELONG DREAM: To be on all national talkshows.

Carla & Rufus Thomas
The funky penguin (with daughter Carla)

 

At a recent celebration of Rufus Thomas's 80th birthday at one of Memphis's downtown theaters, fans expected the blues and soul stylist -- whose cache of hits includes "Walkin' the Dog" and "Do the Funky Chicken" -- to show signs of slowing down. But then, as locals in this city already know, Thomas often fails to live up to expectations. He usually exceeds them.

Instead of a sleepy tribute, the event crackled with electricity -- much of it generated by the guest of honor himself, who arrived early, stayed late, and spent hours flitting between the stage (where he led his band like a man possessed) and the theater floor. Afterward, as weary guests slithered into the night, he took great care to thank everyone who'd bothered to come.

Youngsters were impressed, but for Thomas, it was just another day in the life of this self-proclaimed "world's oldest teenager."

He admits, however, the years are finally mellowing him. "I have a stretch of a few months where, man, I'm way up there. But then, I'll have to take a few days to come back down," he says. "You may say I'm like a rubber band. I always snap back. On that, you can count on."

Thomas joins Leon Russell and former Band drummer Levon Helm this Saturday at the second Framingham Blues Festival. Last year, the event drew nearly a thousand fans, despite heavy rain.

One of roots-music's seasoned vets, Thomas boasts a career that reaches back to his teens, when the Saturday-night fare of his hometown's blues joints lured him from gospel -- he first performed as a tap dancer with the traveling Rabbit Foot Minstrels tent show, then as the leader of small combos, working jukes and gin mills throughout the Memphis and Helena, Arkansas area.

In 1951, another facet of his career -- that of radio DJ -- came into play after he assumed B.B. King's duties on WDIA's Sepia Swing Hour (King left to tour). Thomas still works the airwaves on the same station every Saturday.

"I've seen a whole lot of things happen since," he says. "You've had Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, Dinah Washington. I could sit here till tomorrow and tell you about them. They all made me want to be a part of this music forever. To me, it's the greatest music in the world."

His 1953 single, "Bear Cat," recorded at Sun Studios after Thomas hooked up with Sam Phillips, was a sleeper hit. Eight years later, when Stax Records opened, Thomas and his daughter Carla were among the first local artists to record there.

In the interim, Thomas had watched while black R&B became white rock and roll. Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis adopted its sound, without, as Thomas points out, "giving black R&B the due it deserved.

"It was this, `If it's white, it's right' thing," he says disdainfully. "Back then, when a white boy grabbed the music, it took off. But in its own form, it didn't do much. Pat Boone singing Little Richard's `Tutti Frutti' . . . he made a hit out of that. Why? Because of that white is right thing. We've got to tell them different now."

Thomas set out to do that on-air. Meanwhile, he and his daughter Carla would chart a string of hits for Stax through the '60s -- "Gee Whiz," "B-A-B-Y," and "Dog" largest among them. By 1970, the Thomases seemed destined for musical immortality as "Funky Chicken," "Do the Push and Pull," "The World Is Round," and a recycled version of "Chicken" (revamped as "Do the Funky Penguin") all hit pay dirt.

But bankruptcy at Stax derailed their careers; Carla never recorded again, and Rufus took to hustling contracts with whatever indie would have him. Over the next 20 years, he recorded for several labels. But he never matched his greatest glories at Stax.

But he's close today. Blues Thang! (recently out on the Memphis-based Sequel label) offers 13 tracks of blues, soul, and R&B grooves. The greasy rhythms of the three combine with familiar backbeats and variously timed tempos to create as interesting a project as you're likely to hear this year.

"It was fun all the way to do that," Thomas says. "We just got it set up, and then it was off to the races."

So is this the secret to long life and happiness? "Hell, yeah," Thomas says. "You gotta have fun in life. Music to me is fun. You see me, and you'll see how much fun I have with it. More, I'll bet, than anybody else you ever have!"

Rufus at the Apollo 
Apollo Theatre, 1964 

 

Few of rock & roll's founding figures are as likable as Rufus Thomas. From the 1940s onward, he has personified Memphis music; his small but witty cameo role in Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train, a film which satirizes and enshrines the city's role in popular culture, was entirely appropriate. As a recording artist, he wasn't a major innovator, but he could always be depended upon for some good, silly, and/or outrageous fun with his soul dance tunes. He was one of the few rock or soul stars to reach his commercial and artistic peak in middle age, and was a crucial mentor to many important Memphis blues, rock, and soul musicians.

Thomas was already a professional entertainer in the mid-'30s, when he was a comedian with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels. He recorded music as early as 1941, but really made his mark on the Memphis music scene as a deejay on WDIA, one of the few Black-owned stations of the era. He also ran talent shows on Memphis' famous Beale Street that helped showcase the emerging skills of such influential figures as B.B. King, Bobby Bland, Junior Parker, Ike Turner, and Roscoe Gordon.

Thomas had his first success as a recording artist in 1953 with "Bear Cat," a funny answer record to Big Mama Thornton's "Hound Dog." It made number three on the R&B charts, giving Sun Records its first national hit, though some of the sweetness went out of the triumph after Sun owner Sam Phillips lost a lawsuit for plagiarizing the original Jerry Leiber/Mike Stoller tune. ...

Rufus at WattStax
WattStax, 1972 

 

Rufus Thomas was born March 26, 1917 in Cayce, Mississippi. Soon to be 81 years of age, Thomas shows no signs of slowing down. He hosted two gigs on Beale Street on New Year's Eve; played Nashville, New Jersey, Mississippi, Missouri, Illinois, and Louisiana. He held three concerts at the 1997 Olympics in Atlanta Georgia; headlined several festivals; hosted a reunion of STAX artists; was treated to a star-packed birthday tribute at the Orpheum Theater in Memphis as well as three other full-blown house-rockin' birthday parties. He received three lifetime achievement awards (one from Wings of Change, one from The Beale Street Merchants Association and the first ever bestowed by ASCAP) and received the W.C.Handy Howlin' Wolf Award at the Chicago Blues Festival for "Outstanding Blues Performance". Thomas flew to Porretta, Italy and wowed the crowd at the annual Soul Festival held in his honor in a park named for him. He signed with a new record label; helped raise funds for multiple charitable organizations; was honored by the city of Memphis who presented him with a street named for him which crosses the famous Beale Street (where Thomas spent most of his career). Rufus continued to host his weekly radio show...even linking via phone when gigging on the road. He did all this and more as he continued to perform throughout the country. That was last year.

Rufus Thomas (courtesy Graziano Uliani)
Poretta Soul Festival (courtesy Graziano Uliani) 

 

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