Carla Thoams

Carla Thomas

Carla Thomas ushered in an era… The era of Stax Records.

It altered music history. The first artists to cut a record at the now famous 926 E. McLemore studio which would become Stax records were Carla and her father Rufus with “Cause I Love You.” The song agrew to be a regional hit selling more than 30,000 records and offering then Satellite records its first hit song. More importantly, it convinced STAX co-founder Jim Stewart to produce only rhythm and blues music and turned the ear of Atlantic Records founder Jerry Wexler to Memphis. Soon after, a first right of refusal distribution deal was created between Atlantic and Satellite. In the agreement there was a clause that Satellite would continue to record Carla but her releases would wear the brand of Atlantic subsidiary Atco Records.

Stax-Volt: The Complete Series (1959-1968)
Cause I Love You
Carla and Rufus Thomas
Stax-Volt: The Complete Series (1959-1968)
© API, Bill Carrier, API Photographers, Inc.

A hop, skip and a jump from Beale Street

Carla trained her entire life for a career in entertainment. She grew up just a few blocks from Beale Street where Rufus was the emcee at the Palace Theatre for what became the world’s most famous blues talent showcase. Carla often accompanied her father at the Palace and developed her musical styling as she heard a range of blues from Bobby Bland to B.B. King.

At the age of 10, Carla joined WDIA Radio’s Teen Town Singers even though 14 was the age requirement. At one time, Isaac Hayes and Anita Louis (Soul Children) were also part of the rotating musical unit, but Carla stayed with the group until her senior year in high school.

Carla Thomas standing in a gold sequined dress.
© API, Bill Carrier, API Photographers, Inc.
Gee Whiz

At the age of 16 she wrote the song that propelled her into the international spotlight, “Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes).” It became her signature song reaching Top 10 on the pop chart, Top 5 on the R&B chart, and gained her a performance on American Bandstand.

© API, Bill Carrier, API Photographers, Inc.

Chart Toppers

Another chart topper followed in 1966 with “B-A-B-Y”. Carla’s songs hit the national charts more than 20 times with singles like “Let Me Be Good to You,” “I Like What You're Doing to Me,” “I’ve Got No Time to Lose,” “A Love of My Own,” and the Sam Cooke answer song, “I'll Bring It on Home to You.” In 1967 she recorded the LP King & Queen with Otis Redding. The album of duets featured soul favorites like “Tell It Like It Is” and “Bring it on Home,” but the stand out single was their witty playfulness on Lowell Fulson’s “Tramp.”

In between recording and performing, she found time to gain her undergraduate degree from Tennessee State University. Carla then continued studies at Howard University with classmates Roberta Flack, Donnie Hathaway, and Harold Wheeler. Carla Thomas was a star at the historic, label-sponsored WATTSTAX concert in Los Angeles, California. Carla embraced the 100,000 plus audience with “Pick Up the Pieces,” “Gee Whiz,” and the soul-stirring “I Have A God Who Loves.” In 1967 she embarked on the now famous European tour of the Stax/Volt Revue which featured many of the label’s stars including Otis Redding, William Bell and Booker T. & the MGs.

Carla Thomas has been featured in a number of reissues, most notably a 1994 compilation of her greatest hits and a 2002 live recording from a Memphis performance. However 2007 brought the release of Live at the Bohemian Caverns, recorded in 1967 at the famed Washington, D.C. jazz hotspot, featuring an all-star band led by Donny Hathaway. The Bohemian Caverns performance was Carla’s brainchild to demonstrate that her vocal dexterity could not be confined to Soul music. It reveals Carla’s affection for pop and jazz as she deftly worked out standards made famous by the likes of Irving Berlin, Johnny Mathis, Billie Holliday, Doris Day and Frank Sinatra.

Carla Thomas standing in a gold sequined dress.
© API, Bill Carrier, API Photographers, Inc.

Recognized & Idolized

Although Carla rarely performed after the 1990’s, her legacy has been recognized in numerous ways. In 1993, she was honored for her career by the Rhythm & Blues Foundation’s Pioneer Awards along with heavyweights James Brown, Wilson Pickett and Solomon Burke. She was also featured in the 2003 documentary, “Only the Strong Will Survive” that was shown at the Cannes Film Festival and showcased various Stax recording artists. Carla’s songs have reached younger ears through artists ranging from Wu Tang Clan and Salt-N-Peppa to Joss Stone and Fontella Bass. In the year of her induction, she performed alongside siblings Marvell and Vaneese for the 40th anniversary celebration of the Memphis Chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

Carla Thomas has an undeniable role in the Memphis music story but she also made an indelible mark on music history.

Carla relaxing poolside.
© API, Bill Carrier, API Photographers, Inc.

What Others are Saying

  1. Carla still wows us today listening to her croon her songs especially “Gee Whiz!” and “B-A-B-Y.” STAX and the Memphis Sound influenced me more than words during my formative years growing up in east Memphis.

    Anna Pechak
  2. Ms. Carla Thomas was and always will be my first girl friend. Gee Whiz to this day still brings tears to my eyes. All of her songs are very special to me because of the way she express what love is all about. Thank you Ms. Thomas for over 50 years of teaching me how to love and respect the love of a girl and a woman.

    Randolph A. DuBose
  3. Carla, in 40Th anniversary in MSG New York in 1988, in the song Walking The Dog Of RUFUS THOMAS (his father, rest in peace) are the excellent Background Vocals, (Tamara Champlin, Charlotte Crossley, Lynn Scottt and Another…who is this Another?. She also sing in background vocals with Young Rascal,,,,

    Tnank yo very much
    luis. Barcelona . Spain

  4. A voice undeniably excellent and distinctive. It’s an honor to have learned the history behind the voice. Thank You

    Winnie Matthews
  5. My brother-in-law introduced me to “Gee Whiz” by Carla Thomas and I love it and just want to say thank you to Carla for it❣️❣️ I love it!!!

    Mercedes Hennessy
  6. I love reading the articles about Rufus, Carla and Marvell Thomas. As a native of Memphis and a Memphis musician, as well, I had the opportunity to know them. Thank you for keeping Memphis music alive. I also enjoyed the article on The Bar-Kays.

    Dwayne dickey

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