Born to entertain
Oldies music fans could very well call Rufus Thomas an all-around entertainer. Aside from being a singer and recording artist, he was also a comedian, a television personality and a disc jockey. It seems that Thomas was a born performer, who came into the world on March 26, 1917. From a sharecropping family in the rural town of Cayce, Mississippi, early on Thomas had sights on entertaining — beginning at the age of six when he acted on their grade school play.
In later years Thomas dropped out of college in order to become a professional entertainer. During the mid-1930s he was a member of all-black comedy revue the Rabbit Foot Minstrels. While pursuing his entertainment career, he still kept his day job at a textile plant which he held for over two decades.
Thomas made his professional singing career during the early 1940s, making his debut at a club on Beale Street located in Memphis, Tennessee. But the highlight of his early career was his position as a disc jockey for the local radio station WDIA, one of the few radio stations owned and run by blacks during that time. He also took hosting chores on Beale Street’s amateur shows where he is credited for the discovery of talents such as Ike Turner and B.B. King. His career would eventually take off further during the 50s and especially 60s music era.
From Sun to Stax
In 1953 Thomas released a single called “Bear Cat,” a bantering answer to Big Mama Thornton’s hit “Hound Dog”. “Bear Cat” became Thomas’ first hit, peaking at #3 on the R&B singles chart that year. It was also the first hit of Sun Records, a Memphis-based label run by white owner Sam Phillips. However, the single’s success was tainted by a copyright infringement suit citing that Philips (who also wrote “Bear Cat”) plagiarized the tune off “Hound Dog.” Phillips lost from the lawsuit and almost rendered his label bankrupt.
In 1963 Thomas moved to the legendary R&B/soul label Stax, which was also based in Memphis. His own daughter Carla also started out at Stax, becoming the only father and daughter to have debuted on the same record label. As for Mr. Thomas, he released his first record on Stax titled “The Dog” which was the first single of his album Walking the Dog. However, it was the album’s title track that gave Thomas his breakthrough hit. “Walking the Dog” went to #4 on the R&B singles chart, and #10 on the Billboard Hot 100. It would later be covered by the Rolling Stones on their debut album.
Although Carla Thomas’ career later outdid her father’s, daddy Thomas still managed to do really good. In fact, he was at the prime of his own singing career considering his age. Over the next twelve years at Stax, Rufus Thomas churned out respectable hits especially on the R&B chart.
In the 1970s funk had become Thomas’ main offering, which translated into hits such as his famous “Do The Funky Chicken” (#5 R&B, #28 pop), “(Do the) Push and Pull”, (#1 R&B, #25 pop), “The Breakdown” (#2 R&B, #31 pop) and “Do the Funky Penguin” (#11 R&B, #44 pop).
Thomas’ recording career was virtually over when Stax folded in the mid-1970s; actually, the label’s closure ended the career of many of its artists. After his peak years, Thomas continued to perform and record for a few lesser-known labels. He even appeared in the 1989 Jim Jarmusch film Mystery Train.
In 2001 Thomas was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. In December of that year, he passed away at a hospital in Memphis. He was 84 years old.