No tags :(

Share it

CHESS 1466; JULY 1951



The general perception when it comes to rock ‘n’ roll stars is that the climb to the top is relatively short for most of them.

Maybe that’s not always true but considering that most casual fans don’t become aware of an artist until they’ve broken through to a wider audience it’s usually only in retrospect that we can see the long journey that many had to endure before reaching stardom.

In the case of Rufus Thomas while it’s true that he hadn’t been at this too long – recording that is – and his initial breakthrough wasn’t too far off, just two years from now, he wouldn’t really establish himself as a consistent hitmaker for another decade after that and so during this period his career was measured by a series of fits and starts rather than notable advances.


I Work Hard Every Night
Say this for Rufus Thomas Jr., he was a go-getter if nothing else.

On stage as a member of the Rabbit Foot Minstrels since the late 1930’s as a comedian and all-around showman he’d parlayed that into a disc jockey position on WDIA in Memphis and numerous side gigs as the emcee of stage shows around town.

Records were merely an extension of that. Maybe you could say they were vanity projects – just to see his name on a record – but they were also a way to improve his fortunes going forward. If nothing else creating a bigger name for himself thanks to his own records might make him more valuable to his radio station or the local theaters.

So when Sam Phillips opened a recording studio in the city it didn’t take long for Thomas to show up at his door with a handful of songs to record. Surely Phillips knew the name, if not the face, from Rufus’s many musical activities around town and with a handful of earlier records to his credit – not to mention the radio gig – he was at least comfortable in a studio environment. So Phillips cut a bunch of songs with him in the spring of 1951 and sent them to Chess Records in Chicago, which was now his main outlet for recordings after scoring a big hit with Rocket 88 a few months earlier.

Apparently Night Workin’ Blues was seen as the most commercial song Thomas laid down at the time but it’d be downright shocking if either Sam Phillips or Leonard Chess had any illusions that it was comparable to the hit that was topping the national charts that came from similar circumstances.


When I Come Home Every Morning
They say write what you know and Rufus Thomas knew what it was like to work around the clock.

His primary job for years was tending to the boilers at a textile plant starting at 6:30 in the morning after which he’d race to the radio station for his afternoon show and then he’d often be working at night at one of the theaters around Memphis until almost 4 AM, so it’s not hard to see where he got the idea for the song.

Just as singers tend to write what they know, record label owners also fall back on what they know best which usually was… well, let’s be honest here… “theft”, as Chess brazenly steals Thomas’s songwriting credits for Night Workin’ Blues and hands them over to Marty Witzel, one of Leonard’s closest friends who had introduced him to his wife years earlier.

Years later Leonard’s son Marshall, who worked extensively at the family company, said of his father “He was no angel, but he wasn’t a thief”. Rufus Thomas would beg to differ as this song was his signature number on stage for the past few years.

Whether it was worth stealing is a more dubious question. It’s a mid-paced lament about the difficulties of holding down an overnight position and the effect it has on a man’s homelife, the bulk of which is pretty well reasoned all things considered.

Thomas injects a few sections to change the tempo where he resorts to a melodic shout to get his point across and he handles these transitions well enough… he always sounds fully in control of the song if nothing else… but while the larger picture he paints is accurate, the song doesn’t sparkle with any memorable details.

The musical backdrop is simple with two intertwined undulating riffs, one by the horns which is the primary focus and another offsetting that played by the guitar. There’s a piano working its way in and out of the arrangement but nothing about it stands out. It all fits well enough, but is completely nondescript except for the staccato horn lead-in to the solo which is fairly nice and also sheds a little more light on that guitar riff which is essentially what Billy Butler would use on Bill Doggett’s Honky Tonk in 1956… not that it’s anything original here either, just a simple pattern that any aspiring guitarist has learned to pick out on their own without hearing either song.

The problem I guess is that like a lot of stories that use real life issues as their inspiration, the ability to translate that topic to a plausible but fictitious plot is harder than it seems and Thomas stumbles both in making it resonate for the problems themselves, but also doesn’t take the onus off that by giving us colorful characters or situations. His first line doesn’t flow well, repeating two of the words before he even takes a breath and as a result it’s just a little clunky.

Credit Thomas for the performance itself, he’s in good voice here and has a very comfortable delivery, but in the end it’s a slightly better idea than it is a record.


Just Like The Man Gives It To Me
Though this was yet another attempt for Rufus Thomas to make a second… or was it third… career for himself as a recording artist, ultimately the record itself gets lost in the shuffle because of who else was involved with it.

Leonard Chess was running a successful record company at this point but hardly a stable one yet. We’ve seen other companies – Miracle Records comes instantly mind – where they managed to score a chart topper and less than two years later were out of business, so Chess Records’ long term future was still in limbo.

Through the connection they had recently made with the other big name figure in this, Sam Phillips, they had a direct line on Memphis’s vibrant music scene before any one else tapped into that region fully, but Phillips was also scrambling trying to ensure that he got his foot in the door along with proper credit for his work and some money to keep his operation going and maybe give him the means to expand in the future.

Yet for both of those men to accomplish their goals they needed artists like Rufus Thomas since neither Chess nor Phillips (nor Marty Witzel for that matter) could write a song, let alone play or sing one, and yet it was Thomas who seemed to be the afterthought in their dealings.

He may have gotten a record on the market to be played on jukeboxes or over the air – at least at his own radio station – and if nothing else it could be used as a promotional tool for his live appearances, but he didn’t even get writing credit for Night Workin’ Blues and he’d go months before Chess decided to finally release the follow-up to this which he’d been sitting on since summer began.

No, this obviously wasn’t the record that was going to make Thomas a star, but it’s still a sorry state of affairs when the artist making the records takes a back seat to those who stand to profit off them, both at the time and in the history books long after they’re all dead and buried.


(Visit the Artist page of Rufus Thomas for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)