BIOGRAPHY AND DISCOGRAPHY

 

One of the most improbable and longest lasting stars in rock and in more ways than one the patriarch of Memphis rock ‘n’ roll, Rufus Thomas Jr. was born in Mississippi in 1917, moving to Memphis as a child. Though his primary job for most of his career was tending to boilers in a factory he nevertheless ardently pursued a concurrent career as an entertainer, getting his start in minstrel shows mostly as a comedian, establishing the successful team of Rufus & Bones, seguing into a long stint as the MC at amateur shows at The Palace Theater.

In 1949 WDIA became the first radio station in the South to make the switch to an all-black on-air staff and Thomas began as a dee-jay, a job he’d also hold throughout his music career while simultaneously charting hits himself.

At the start his own musical aspirations were somewhat limited. Admitting he wasn’t much of a singer – though far better than his own appraisal – he knew music gave him more opportunities in other ways and cut his first sides as the 1950’s dawned on the small Star Talent label out of Texas, mainly just to see his name on a record.

A few years later when Sun Records opened its doors in Memphis it was Thomas who scored the company’s first hit with “Bear Cat”, but Sam Phillips seemed to lose interest in Thomas rather quickly and it’d be another seven years before Thomas made an impact on the national scene again, this time when another legendary Memphis label called Stax went into business.

It was here that Thomas became a fixture in the emerging soul and funk provinces of rock, both recording on his own and with daughter Carla who scored Stax’s first smash record on her own with a song she wrote as a sixteen year old called “Gee Whiz”. They were joined on the label by a third Thomas, son Marvell who was a session pianist, and while Carla’s career was filled with hits it was Rufus who carved out a niche that took advantage of all aspects of his theatrical background with a string of novelty themed dance crazes, the biggest being “Walking The Dog” in 1963 and “Do The Push And Pull”, his only #1 hit on the R&B Charts in 1971 when he was a few weeks shy of 54 years old.

His stage routine by then consisted of the latest dance steps while wearing hot pants and high-heeled boots which earned him the nickname The World’s Oldest Teenager as he was one of the more popular regional draws in the South for decades, a true entertainer unashamed to do anything to win over an audience. His success in music meant he finally was able to quit his factory job and he also stopped DJ’ing on WDIA, though he’d return to the air a decade later in the mid-1980’s around the time he started appearing in films, mostly in small cameos. By this time youngest daughter Vaneese was scoring hits as well, meaning the Thomas brood had been charting records over four consecutive decades.

The colorful – often irascible – Thomas was a lively interview subject in his later years and passed away in 2001 at the age of 84. Though a legend in Memphis, inducted in the city’s Music Hall Of Fame and with a street named after him, Thomas rarely gets the widespread credit he deserves for his accomplishments, as most view him as more of a quirky figure than a true artist. He may have only viewed music as a part time job but his versatility, perseverance and charm made him a full time star for much of the first three decades of rock.
 
 
RUFUS THOMAS DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date On Spontaneous Lunacy):

I’LL BE A GOOD BOY
(Star Talent 807; February, 1950)
A solid debut from someone who initially had no intent on being a singer, as Thomas takes a fairly standard theme and structure and fleshes it out with a keen eye for detail in his storytelling allowing his modest vocal charms and the workmanlike band to more than suffice. (5)

I’M SO WORRIED
(Star Talent 807; February, 1950)
The usually jovial Thomas excels here with an atypically somber story which shows good lyrical craftsmanship but the band drops the ball entirely, unsure of their pacing and wandering around aimlessly trying to find it resulting in some grating moments. (4)