Stax Records cornerstone and one of R&B’s most memorable iconoclasts, Rufus Thomas, died of heart failure on December 15th in Memphis at age eighty-four. Thomas, who found fame as a radio DJ as well as a songwriter and recording artist, had been in ill health since November.
Born on March 26, 1917 in Mississippi, Thomas’ family relocated to Memphis when he was a child, where he began his entertainment career as a ten-year-old dancer. Thomas got his professional start in the Thirties with the Rabbit Foot Minstrel Show and he made his first stab at a recording career in 1943. Recording didn’t immediately take with Thomas, and he began working at WDIA, an AM radio station, in the late-Forties, where he became one of the most popular DJs in the South, despite having to work a second job in a mill to make ends meet. “Rufus was creating a better community and he worked hard,” says Deanie Parker, a former Stax artist, who is now leading the development of the new Stax Museum of American Soul Music. “He was a very serious person, a very intelligent person, aside from his being a performer on stage. The man came along at a time when things were difficult for African-American performers, where many were working three or four jobs.”
Ten years after his first stab at recording, Thomas recorded the single, “Bear Cat, Jr.,” an answer to Big Mama Thornton’s hit, “Hound Dog” and the first hit for Sam Phillips’ then-fledgling Sun Records. With the rise of Elvis Presley, who was weaned on the black music Thomas spun as a DJ, Thomas found himself without a role at Sun. But Thomas chose to bend rather than break and as a DJ, he found himself spinning Presley’s platters.
In 1960, Thomas had begun to work with Stax Records, where he would become a pillar for the legendary label. That year he and his daughter, Carla Thomas, recorded “Cause I Love You,” which helped launch the young soul label. A year later, Carla’s “Gee Whiz” became a Top Ten single and positioned Stax to become one of the most successful R&B labels in music history, and home to the likes of Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Isaac Hayes and others.
As for Thomas, he recorded “Walking the Dog” in 1963. The novelty hit was the first of a series of dance craze singles and spent ten weeks in the Top Forty, climbing as high as Number Ten. Thomas also cracked the Top Forty in 1970 with “Do the Funky Chicken” and in 1971 with “(Do the) Push and Pull, Part I” and “The Breakdown, Part I.” The songs weren’t ordinary singles, as part of their appeal hinged upon Thomas’ dynamic presentation.
“People are saying that Rufus’ death is the end of an era, and clearly it is,” Parker says. “He was a star. I don’t think anyone will be able to replace him as a novelty rhythm and blues singer and performing artist. That was his niche. Of course, there’s the other side of Rufus that not everybody was privilege to. That was Rufus the husband, Rufus the father and Rufus the humanitarian. To the Memphis community, he has made a number of contributions. He was very supportive of the Civil Rights movement. He has been one of the greatest international ambassadors that this city has ever had. The positive things that you like people to know and remember about your city, those are the kind of messages Rufus communicated worldwide for us. He was a shining example of the kind of discipline that performing artists who wish to be successful will do well to study and emulate. And now we don’t have that anymore. There are others, but there is no other Rufus Thomas.”
A memorial service for Rufus Thomas will be held on Thursday in Memphis. A parade will be held on Beale Street and Isaac Hayes will perform a song in tribute.