“I’m the only one of its kind,” Rufus Thomas asserts with justifiable pride. The 54-year-old entertainer represents 40 years of Memphis Soul. Millions of young people around the world have danced to his hit records, including “Walkin’ The Dog”, “Do the Funky Chicken”, and the “Push and Pull.” He’s been a singer, comic, tap dancer, songwriter, talent show director, master of ceremonies, and disc jockey and he’s the father of vocalist Carla Thomas, who also records for Stax Records.
During the early Sixties Rufus and his teenage daughter walked to the new record company that had just been started in an old movie theater in their neighborhood. Their recording of “Cause I Love You” was the first of many, many hits for Stax and it began a new era in the Memphis Sound.
Rufus has seen many changes in the life of an entertainer during his lengthy career as a performer. His most recent tour took him to England, Germany, and France on a giant jetliner. He appeared in large concert halls and stayed at some of Europe’s best hotels. When Rufus was touring Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia with the Rabbit Foot minstrel show in the early Thirties, he performed in a tent and stayed in private homes for 50 cents a night. When someone asked Rufus if each room had a color television, Rufus replied, “Color television? There wasn’t even radio in those days!” “It was like a fair,” Rufus recalls. “I was just doing tap dancing around the time, with maybe a bit of singing on the side. It was hard. I was working on stage before there were microphones. You really had to have some kind of voice.”
During the Forties, Rufus kept busy in the Memphis area both as a solo performer and as part of a dance team. His first record was released in 1941 under somewhat primitive conditions; “They’d put this big heavy needle down, and when you’d be singing you could see the needle cuttin’ into that acetate, just diggin’ those grooves right around there.” Rufus can’t recall the title of the first song he cut, although the folks at home sure seemed to like it. Success as a recording artist was still at least ten years away for Rufus.
But the creation of dance steps, which would eventually lead to his greatest recognition, began during these years. “Whatever was is,” says Rufus, explaining how something one generation thinks is new can actually be based on something old. “I’d see somebody doing a dance step and I’d try to do it. Sometimes I couldn’t, but in trying, I’d discover something new. Pretty soon I’d be working on a whole new thing.”
In the late Forties, Rufus ran talent shows in Memphis. “They called it amateur, but Memphis amateurs are the world’s professionals. Everybody that came on the show was given a dollar and out of those shows, which lasted over many years, have come so many talented people, such as B.B. King, Bobby Bland, and later on Isaac Hayes and Junior Parker. They all came by me first, so you know I gotta feel proud when I see them making it today.”
Rufus achieved his first recorded success in the early Fifties. Sam Phillips had started Sun Records and was signing some of the local Memphis talent, including B.B. King, Johnny Ace, and Rufus. “Bearcat”, Rufus’s first release on Sun, sold a respectable hundred thousand copies and got the new label off to a good start. Ten years later, Rufus and Carla would do the same for the brand-new Stax Records.
When B.B. King, whom Rufus had helped during the amateur show days, left his radio show, Rufus took over his time slot. Rufus has been with WDIA in Memphis ever since. The station has granted him several leaves during the years so Rufus could go on the road to promote his own hit records.
But before “The Dog” came along, Rufus paid more dues. He’d work eight hours a day in a textile factory, run to the radio station for his daily show and on weekends he’d play the local clubs. Finally in 1965, Rufus started the world dancing to “The Dog,” “Walkin’ the Dog,” and “Can Your Monkey Do the Dog?” All the years as a dancer, singer, and comic were combined in his thoroughly enjoyable records. In 1969 he had a huge success with “Doin’ the Funky Chicken.”
“The Memphis Sound is just pure, unadulterated soul. I’m really happy about being part of this foundation that is now being exposed to the world. Most Memphis musicians don’t even read music. It’s all deep bottom, all from feelings deep inside. You’ve gotta feel it.” Wherever he goes, Rufus Thomas continues to be a walking representative of 40 years of Memphis soul.
Rufus Thomas died December 15, 2001