Rufus Thomas honored with blues marker

Rufus Thomas

From The Mississippi Link Newswire

JACKSON – On Monday, Oct. 1, Rufus Thomas was the latest artist honored with a marker on Mississippi Blues Trail. The marker unveiling was scheduled for 1 p.m. at 30 Lee Creek Road in Byhalia, Miss.

This was the 163rd marker on the trail.

Rufus Thomas

A recording artist, disc jockey, comedian and ambassador for Memphis music, Rufus Thomas (1917 – 2001) was born in Cayce, Miss.. As a young man Thomas toured with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, and later worked in Memphis as an emcee at Beale Street’s Palace Theater and as an influential and long serving deejay on WDIA. Known as the “world’s oldest teenager,” Thomas recorded blues for Chess and Sun, and his many soul hits for Stax included “Walking the Dog.”

Rufus Thomas embodied the spirit of Memphis music perhaps more than any other artist, and from the early 1940s until his death on December 15, 2001, occupied many important roles in the local scene. Thomas was born in Cayce on March 26, 1917, and his family moved to Memphis when he was just an infant. After graduation from Booker T. Washington High School in 1936, Thomas went out on the road with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels of Port Gibson, Miss., initially working as a tap dancer and later as a singer. He later became the host -together with partner Robert “Bones” Couch – of the popular amateur contest at Beale Street’s Palace Theater, where the most notable winner in the 1940s was a then-unknown B. B. King.

Thomas, who counted Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller and Gatemouth Moore as his most important musical influences, made his first recording for the Star Talent label around Christmas 1949, followed by singles for Bullet and Chess. In 1953, he scored the first hit for Sam Phillips’ new Sun label with “Bear Cat,” an answer song to Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog.” Thomas remained a prominent force in Memphis music via his popular “Hoot ‘n’ Holler” program at WDIA; his high school history teacher, Nat D. Williams, hired him as a deejay at the station in 1950.

A second and more successful stage of Thomas’ recording career as a soul singer began in 1960, when he recorded “‘Cause I Love You,” a duet with his teenaged daughter Carla, for the new Satellite label. A regional hit, it prompted a production and distribution deal with powerful Atlantic Records. Satellite soon changed its name to Stax, and over the next 15 years Thomas scored multiple hits for the label, including “The Dog,” “Walking the Dog,” “Do The Funky Chicken,” “Jump Back,” “The Breakdown,” and the No. 1 R&B hit “(Do The) Push and Pull,” recorded when the perennially young Thomas was 53. His later recordings included albums for Alligator, A.V.I. and Ecko, and singles for Ichiban (“Rappin’ Rufus”), Erwin, Hi and Artists of America.

In addition to his radio and recording career, Thomas provided for his family by working full-time at the American Finishing Company textile firm from the early 1940s until 1963. In the mid-1970s, he left WDIA, but returned to the station in 1986, hosting the popular “All Blues Show” with Jay Michael Davis.

Thomas, who gave a memorable performance in the 1973 concert film Wattstax, returned to the big screen for Jim Jarmusch’s 1989 Mystery Train and D. A. Pennebaker’s soul documentary, Only the Strong Survive, which also featured Carla Thomas. Honors bestowed on him include induction in the Blues Hall of Fame (2001), the naming of a Memphis street in his honor and the creation of Rufus Thomas Park in Poretta, Italy, the site of a popular annual soul festival.

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