Rufus Thomas possessed a wide range of talents. He was a singer, a dancer, a comedian and radio DJ, and he was highly accomplished in each of these roles. None of his talents, however, defined his mark, the impact he made on both the world at large and the world around him. You might be tempted to describe Rufus Thomas as a larger-than-life personality, but that would be doing him an injustice. For Rufus Thomas was a life force, as anyone who ever encountered him on stage, screen, or simply on the street would attest. His music – blues and Louis Jordan-influenced jump to start off with, then nothing but pure cosmic (and comic) funk – 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.
He was born in 1917 in Cayce, Mississippi, and grew up in Memphis, where he attended Booker T. Washington High School. There he met the fabled Professor Nat D. Williams, history teacher and entertainer extraordinaire, who schooled him in both comedy routines and academics and, after graduation, brought Rufus in as his sidekick hosting Amateur Night at the Palace Theater on Beale Street. When Nat quit, Rufus became the MC, later following Nat to WDIA, “the Mother Station of the Negroes,” where Nat had become the first black DJ on the first all-black station in the nation in 1949.
Rufus had already completed his show business education by then, traveling all over the South with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels tent show in the years immediately following high school graduation.
He gave up the tent shows to get married, took a job in a local textile plant, and had three musical children, Marvell, Carla, and Vaneese, all of whom would pursue successful professional careers of their own. But he always kept his mind on show business, and when Sam Phillips opened his Memphis Recording Service in 1950, Rufus was one of the first to show up at its door.
His early recordings, released on the Chess label, were not commercially successful, but when Phillips started his own Sun label, it was Rufus Thomas who had the fledging company’s first hit in 1953. “Bear Cat (The Answer to Hound Dog)” was, as the subtitle suggests, an undisguised, flavorful, and witty response to the Big Mama Thornton original, going to Number Three on the r&b charts and putting Sun Records on the map. This in turn led directly to an eighteen-year-old named Elvis Presley finding his way to the Memphis Recording Service to make a record “for his mother.” Phillips recorded Elvis commercially the following year, trying him out early on Rufus’ version of “Tiger Man,” which would years later become a staple of his Vegas act. Elvis’ arrival in any case marked the end of Rufus’ first brief fling with stardom. Sun Records was essentially a one-man operation, and Sam Phillips would from this point on devote his energies to what became known as rock ‘n’ roll.
“Me and Sam Phillips,” remarked Rufus ruefully, “we were tighter than the nuts on the Brooklyn Bridge, but when Elvis and Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash come along, no more blacks did he pick up at all.”
The experience left him embittered – but not for long. He always played Elvis’ records on the air, even if the station looked askance, and when Elvis showed up at the WDIA Goodwill Review in 1956, one of the only whites in a sea of black faces, it was Rufus who introduced him con brio. “I took him onstage by the hand, and when he did that little wiggle that they wouldn’t let him do on television, the crowd just went crazy!” Although he was shut out of the recording studio for the most part during these years, Rufus stayed busy with all his other tasks, not least of which was to play his customary role of Beale Street ambassador and wisecracking man-about-town to soulful perfection.
Then in 1960 a little label that had been operating fitfully for the last couple of years moved to South Memphis, and Rufus sensed an opportunity. Satellite (soon to be renamed Stax) had originally been modeled on Sun and had up till then focused primarily on rockabilly and country. With its move to his neighborhood, though, Rufus felt it might be time for a change. He persuaded Stax owner Jim Stewart to cut a duet on him and his eighteen-year-old daughter Carla, and it was a hit. Just as with Sun, said Rufus, “I was the beginning of Stax. I made the first record that made money for them, me and Carla.”
He went on, of course, to have hits into the ‘60s and ‘70s (“Walking the Dog” and “Do the Funky Chicken,” among others, not to mention such action follow-ups as “Do the Funky Robot,” “Do the Funky Penguin,” and “Do the Push and Pull”, each accompanied by its own striking new steps and costumes). He never strayed far from the blues, though, and he continued to do his radio show and entertain into his eighties, showing off both his dances and his legs in hot-pink outfits and high lace-up boots and proudly (and more and more accurately) proclaiming himself to be The World’s Oldest Teenager.
But you can’t quantify the achievements of someone like Rufus Thomas any more than it’s possible to pinpoint the siren call of Beale Street. Spending any amount of time with Rufus, you were inevitably caught up in his energy field – it was no longer a matter of studying history, you were living history. In Italy, in the 1990s, he became not just the hit but the heart and soul of the Porretta Sweet Soul Music Festival in Emilia Romagna. By the time I arrived in 1995, they had named the park in which the festival was held after him, requiring a special legislative act to override a national prohibition against naming public institutions for living people. Everywhere he went in Porretta and its environs, he was hailed with cries of “Rufalone!” as he sashayed down the street in lordly fashion.
He took it all as his due. He stood in awe of no man (or woman), though he sometimes stood in envy. Elvis Presley, B.B. King, Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson were all simply regarded as his peers, and while he had the capacity to feel sorry for himself, he had the even greater capacity to triumph over adversity, real or imagined. “All my life,” he liked to say, "I wanted to be an entertainer. My models were Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong, and a fellow named Gatemouth Moore who came out of Memphis by way of Topeka. They were all good entertainers, very very versatile, always able to do more than one thing, and they helped, they made a way if they could, for somebody else to make it, too. Well, I believe that was my whole work, helping people. And still is. It's enough room for everybody to be on top. Ain't nothing but room up there. It's a big enough space up there for everybody, so why can't you share it with somebody? You got the chance, now go ahead and share it with somebody else."