First published 16 July 2020
Rufus Thomas was born in Mississippi in 1917 but his family moved to Memphis around 1920. As a teenager still at school, Rufus was helping out one of his teachers, who was a DJ at a local radio station, as a master of ceremonies for talent shows that were organised at the Palace Theatre on Beale Street in Memphis.
He made his first record in 1950 and, the following year, cut some tracks at Sun Studios in Memphis, while signed to Chess Records in Chicago. At the same time he starting working at the WDIA radio station as a DJ. He finally had a hit in 1953 with “Bear Cat”, which he recorded at Sun Studios with Sam Phillips. The single went to number 3 on the Billboard R&B chart and was the label’s first national success. Unfortunately the song was a response to Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog” and had copied the tune, so it wasn’t a surprise when Sun Records were sued for copyright infringement and virtually bankrupted.
Rufus moved on! He joined Satellite Records in 1960, along with his daughter Carla, and they recorded “Cause I Love You” together. Carla had written the song three years before, at the age of 15. The backing musicians included Rufus’ son Marvell on keyboards, plus Lewie Steinberg and Booker T Jones, two founder members of the MGs. The success of this single helped Stax (Satellite’s new name) get a production and distribution deal with Atlantic Records.
In 1961 Carla had a hit of her own with “Gee Whizz (Look at His Eyes)” and then Rufus, in 1963, did even better when “Walking the Dog” reached number 10 on the Billboard Pop Chart. The Rolling Stones obviously liked Rufus’ style and included their version of the song on their first album in 1964.
Rufus produced a series of novelty dance tracks over the next few years, with the two most successful both issued in 1970, “Do the Funky Chicken” and “Do the Push and Pull”. His dance moves were impressive for a fifty-three year old! Even after the demise of Stax, Rufus continued to record and tour and DJ on the radio, doing what he loved, entertaining people, until his death in 2001.
Following her breakthrough hit in 1961, Carla released over a dozen singles that charted on the Billboard R&B listing between 1961 and 1967. The most successful was “B-A-B-Y” in 1966, which reached number three on the R&B chart and number fourteen on the Pop chart.
Perhaps the most memorable of her songs are those that she sang with Otis Redding. Two singles were taken from the album “King & Queen”, released in 1967: “Tramp” and “Knock On Wood”, which reached number 2 and number 8 respectively on the Billboard R&B chart.
Carla toured occasionally during the 1980s but became involved in other projects, most notably the Artists in Schools programme in Memphis that aimed to develop children’s interest in art, music and other performing arts.
In 1993, she was awarded a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation.