One of the most colorful personalities in all of American music, Rufus Thomas was also one of the most multifaceted, playing vital roles as a singer, comedian, deejay, emcee, talent and label launcher, soul and funk pioneer, and creator of numerous dance-oriented novelty songs. Professionally active for more than seven decades, Thomas witnessed nearly a century’s worth of musical, social, and cultural change from the stage, a rare participant whose career spanned from the last strains of minstrelsy to the commercial crest of hip-hop. Dubbed variously the World’s Oldest Teenager, the Crown Prince of Dance, the Funkiest Man Alive, and the Ambassador of Memphis Music, Thomas matched his musical and verbal flamboyance with equally outrageous (and unforgettable) stage attire—one ensemble included hot pants, studded platform boots, and a white cape.
Rufus Thomas Jr., the son of a sharecropper, was born on 26 March 1917 in Cayce, Mississippi, just south of Memphis, where his family moved when he was a year old. By six he had made his public debut hopping around as a frog in a school production, a rather prescient beginning for someone whose recorded legacy ultimately relied on a musical menagerie of dogs, penguins, and chickens. He attended Booker T. Washington High School, where he teamed with history teacher and groundbreaking black deejay Nat D. Williams in a comedy duo as part of the Palace Theater amateur nights that Williams emceed on Beale Street. In 1936 after one semester at Tennessee A&I University, Thomas joined the Rabbit’s Foot Minstrels, a popular touring all-black revue that carnival impresario F. S. Wolcott operated from Port Gibson, Mississippi. The fledgling entertainer tap-danced in a duo billed as Rufus and Johnny. Thomas also worked briefly with the Royal American carnival line from Tampa as part of a black revue, Harlem in Havana. Marriage sent him back to Memphis, where in 1941 he earned twenty-five cents an hour overseeing the bleach department boilers of a textile factory, a day job he held for the next twenty-two years. In the 1940s he assumed the Palace Theater emcee spot, working with new partner Robert Couch as the comedy duo Rufus and Bones and ushering in such rising stars of the Memphis urban blues scene as B. B. King, Bobby Bland, and Johnny Ace. In 1950 Thomas followed Williams to all-black format WDIA radio, the Mother Station of the Negroes, where on such shows as Sepia Swing Club (inherited from King) and Hoot ’n’ Holler he helped set the stage for the emerging sounds of rock and roll by spinning rhythm and blues records for black and white listeners alike.
Thomas’s own brand of rhythm and blues jump-started the fortunes of Memphis’s two most important independent labels, Sun and Stax. Though he had made the 1950 single “I’m So Worried / I’ll Be a Good Boy” on the Star Talent label in Dallas, Thomas’s 1953 single “Bear Cat,” his first record with Sun founder and producer Sam Phillips and an answer song to Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog,” gave the nascent company its first national hit. Unfortunately, the song was so close a parody that it also resulted in Sun’s first copyright infringement lawsuit. Another of Thomas’s songs at Sun, “Tiger Man,” later became a signature tune for Elvis Presley. In 1960 Thomas provided the commercial spark for a second Memphis label, Satellite (soon rechristened Stax), when he and his daughter, Stax’s future Queen of Soul, Carla Thomas, recorded his song “’Cause I Love You,” which became the label’s first regional success. More significantly, the duet caught the attention of New York’s Atlantic Records, which led to a distribution deal through most of the 1960s that established Stax as the South’s premier soul label.
At Stax, Thomas became an unlikely star, a middle-aged veteran of southern carnivals and tent shows whose seasoned, prolific résumé pointed simultaneously to the past and to the future, where the tricks of the vaudeville trade served him well in helping define the black urban templates of soul and then funk in the 1960s and 1970s. In such hits as “The Dog” (1963), “Walking the Dog” (1963), “Can Your Monkey Do the Dog” (1964), “Do the Funky Chicken” (1969), and “Do the Funky Penguin” (1971), Thomas tied the latest dance crazes to tight, syncopated groove-oriented song structures combined with imagery, humor, and repartee that took its cue from a century of African American entertainment, folklore, and oral history. The result was popular music that could be profoundly light on its feet, silly yet a spirited and galvanizing force alongside the music of James Brown and others in the foundation of funk. Thomas’s most-covered song, “Walking the Dog,” was inspired, like a number of his compositions, by a nursery rhyme; he recorded it on a Sunday when, fresh from church, he noticed cars parked in front of the Stax studio. An impromptu session with the MGs followed, yielding the quick classic that the Rolling Stones recorded for their debut album less than a year later. Other highlights from Thomas’s weighty Stax catalog include “Sophisticated Sissy” (1967), “Funky Mississippi” (1968), “The Memphis Train” (1968), “(Do the) Push and Pull, Part 1” (1970), and “The Breakdown (Part 1).”
Thomas stayed with Stax through its demise in the mid-1970s and later recorded for a variety of labels, including Chicago blues bellwether Alligator for the 1990 effort That Woman Is Poison! Thomas remained musically active on stage as well, performing at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta and a year later with Prince for a New Daisy Theater show on Beale Street. Thomas also had memorable cameos in several films, notably the 1989 Jim Jarmusch cult favorite Mystery Train. Thomas died of heart failure in Memphis on 15 December 2001.
A member of the Blues Hall of Fame and a recipient of a Rhythm and Blues Foundation Pioneer Award, he was honored in 1997 with a lifetime achievement award from songwriting organization ASCAP. Porretta Terme, Italy, which hosts the annual Sweet Soul Music Festival, where Thomas played many times, has named a park in his honor, and Memphis has christened a portion of the Beale Street Historic District where the Palace Theater once stood Rufus Thomas Boulevard. In addition to Carla, Thomas’s children include his son, Marvell, a noted Stax keyboardist, arranger, and producer, and his daughter, Vaneese, a New York–based session singer.
- Rob Bowman, Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records (1997)
- Louis Cantor, Wheelin’ on Beale: How WDIA-Memphis Became the Nation’s First All-Black Radio Station and Created the Sound That Changed America (1992)
- Colin Escott with Martin Hawkins, Good Rockin’ Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock ’n’ Roll (1991)
- Steve Greenberg, Do the Funky Somethin’: The Best of Rufus Thomas (1996), liner notes
- Peter Guralnick, Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians (1979)
- Peter Guralnick, Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom (1986)
- Dean Rudland, Rufus Thomas, Funkiest Man Alive: The Stax Funk Sessions, 1967–1975 (2003), liner notes
- Robert Santelli, The Big Book of Blues: A Biographical Encyclopedia (1993)
- Rickey Vincent, Funk: The Music, the People, and the Rhythm of the One (1996)