“His music … brought a great deal of joy to the world, but his personality brought even more, conveying a message of grit, determination, indomitability, above all a bottomless appreciation for the human comedy that left little room for the drab or the dreary in his presence.” — Peter Guralnick
As Dr. King once famously said, longevity has its place. And when it comes to a career in music, longevity is something that’s widely sought after but all to seldom experienced. We often celebrate the singular achievement of the one-hit-wonders but there are some artists who have had the opposite experience. Rufus Thomas was one of those artists, with a career that spanned 75 years.
Thomas was Memphis, through and through. He was born there in 1917 and at the age of six, he was already performing in a school theatrical production. He played a frog. By the time he reached his teens, Thomas was touring around the South as part of a troupe called the Rabbit’s Foot Minstrels, performing as a comedian and tap dancer. When he came home to Memphis he would emcee vaudeville and talent shows at the Palace Theater on Beale Street. The talent show winners included the likes of B.B. King, Bobby Bland, and Johnny Ace.
At the age of 23, Thomas married Cornelia Lorene Wilson in a ceremony officiated by the Reverend C.L. Franklin, father of Aretha Franklin. He didn’t rely on income from his show business pursuits and took a day job at a textile bleaching plant. It was a job that Thomas worked for 20 years. He never stopped performing, however, and by the time he was in his 20s, Thomas was writing and singing his own songs. After making his professional singing debut at the Beale Street Elks Club, Thomas became a regular at the Memphis clubs including Currie’s Club Tropicana.
Thomas was 33 years old when he signed his first record deal with the tiny Dallas-based Star Talent label. There he recorded his first 78 r.p.m. single, “I’ll Be a Good Boy” b/w “I’m So Worried.” Although Thomas claimed to not be looking to get rich with the single he had to have been disappointed by the decidedly lackluster sales. “The record sold five copies and I bought four of them,” he once told the Dallas Observer. The record did succeed in garnering a positive review from the influential Billboard Magazine though. Thomas also recorded with Bobby Plater’s Orchestra for Bullet Records in Nashville but he was billed as “Mr. Swing” on those records and it was only years later that they were credited to Thomas.
The next stop for Thomas as a singer was at Sam Phillip’s Sun Studios where he recorded several sides for Chess Records. When none of them managed to find success, Thomas took his ebullient personality to radio station WDIA where he became a DJ. His afternoon radio show was called Hoot and Holler and his presentation of blues and R&B appealed to both black and white listeners. The radio career brought Thomas the kind of fame that he had failed to achieve as a singer but the audience that he built at WDIA allowed him to take another crack at music. In 1953, at the urging of Phillips, Thomas recorded “Bear Cat” as an answer record to Big Mama Thornton’s hit “Hound Dog.” The record reached #3 on the R&B chart making it Sun Records’ first national hit. Don Robey, the publisher of “Hound Dog,” didn’t like the record a bit and launched a copyright infringement suit that almost put Sun out of business before Elvis even showed up there.
But Phillips was famously looking for a white singer who could sound like a black singer and after he signed Presley he began releasing his black artists, including Thomas. His next single was for Meteor Records in 1956 but “I’m Steady Holdin’ On” failed to chart despite the playing of Lewie Steinberg who went on to be a co-founder of Booker T & the MGs.
By 1960, Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton had started the Satellite Records label and it was there that Thomas first recorded with daughter Carla. “Cause I Love You” was successful enough regionally to allow Stewart to sign a distribution deal with Atlantic Records, a deal that proved lucrative for both parties until it was a near-disaster for one. But that’s a story for another time. In 1963, Thomas had a hit for Stax (as it had been by then renamed) called “The Dog” but it was the follow-up that would prove to be Thomas’ greatest success. “Walking the Dog,” a song written by Thomas, was released the same year and rose to the Top 10 on both the R&B and pop charts. The song was covered by the Rolling Stones a few months later on their debut album and over the years it has seen covers by Aerosmith, John Cale, Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames, the Kingsmen, the Sonics, Jackie Shane, and Ratt.
The success of “Walking the Dog” finally gave Thomas the chance to give up the job at the textile plant and focus on his music career. He continued the canine theme on Stax singles like “Can Your Monkey Do the Dog,” and “Somebody Stole My Dog” but perhaps his greatest contribution was as a mentor to the young artists that Stax was signing. There was a dry spell during which Thomas didn’t have much in the way of hits but the spell was broken in 1970 with his recording of “Do the Funky Chicken” which hit the Top 10 on the R&B chart and reached #28 on the pop chart. Al Bell, President of Stax at the time, produced the record along with Tom Nixon, and the Bar-Kays served as the backing band. Thomas would keep working with Bell and Nixon and that same year the team collaborated for Thomas’ first and only trip to the top of the R&B chart with “Do the Push and Pull.” A year later, “The Breakdown” was another hit for Thomas, making it to the #2 spot on the R&B chart and #31 pop.
After a few more minor hits for Thomas, who appeared at the legendary Wattstax concert, Stax went under in 1976. Thomas kept on touring the world. He called himself “the world’s oldest teenager” and “the funkiest man alive” and was known for energetic dances moves that were unexpected from a man in his 50s and for his flamboyant stage clothes. Thomas continued to be a presence on radio and television he also appeared in several movies including Mystery Train, Cookie’s Fortune, and the D.A. Pennebaker documentary Only the Strong Survive. He also continued his recording career, releasing music on labels like Alligator and Ecko.
In 1992, Thomas received a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, When he reached the age of 80 in 1997, the City of Memphis renamed a street near the old Palace Theater Rufus Thomas Boulevard. That same year, Thomas received a lifetime achievement award from ASCAP and four years later he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. In 2000, Thomas’ wife Lorene passed away and he followed her a year later. They are buried next to each other in Memphis.