“I’m young and loose and full of juice. I got the goose, so what’s the use?” That’s how Rufus Thomas often greeted his radio audience when he was a disc jockey for WDIA-AM in Memphis in the 1950s and ’60s. And indeed, until his death on Saturday at age 84, Thomas was one of the most animated and charismatic artists of the rhythm & blues pantheon.
For every soul icon like Sam Cooke, Otis Redding or Prince, there are valuable singers who never quite claim a national spotlight. At first, Thomas, the self-deemed “world’s oldest teenager,” appears to be one of those background figures — his only top-10 pop hit was the 1963 novelty “Walking the Dog.” But he was crucial in furthering the sound of Southern soul, ultimately brokering its introduction to a global audience (the Rolling Stones recorded “Walking the Dog” on their American debut in 1964). And as an artist, Thomas’ effervescent showmanship was never forgotten.
Thomas was born March 26, 1917, in Cayce, Mississippi, to a sharecropping family. He always looked younger than his years, which enabled him to enjoy hits and acclaim when he was well into his 50s, a time when many artists settle for the repetitive grind of the oldies circuit.
His family moved to Memphis, where Thomas was quick to find his show business legs. As a youth he earned pocket change by tap dancing in the streets (formalizing such skills in 1936 by joining the Rabbit Foot Minstrel Show). While in high school, he met history teacher Nat D. Williams, who also organized local variety shows. Thomas was invited to participate, and he soon was taking time off from his day job — tending factory boilers — to perform on the Memphis talent show circuit.
“Back then,” Thomas recalled in the PBS documentary “The Mississippi: River of Song,” “Beale Street was a black man’s haven — I couldn’t say heaven, but close. People were coming from far and near, from the river to the railroad, from Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, coming to Beale Street. If you had a whole lot of troubles and things were bothering you, come to Beale Street and all your problems were gone.”
It was as the emcee and organizer of his own Beale Street talent show that Thomas had perhaps his largest impact on the Memphis music scene. While his larger-than-life flair pulled in the audiences, the musicians he was hawking were themselves set to become stars. A young B.B. King and Bobby “Blue” Bland both appeared before Thomas’ curtain, and prior to forming the Kings of Rhythm, Ike Turner cut his teeth at several of these talent shows.
Thomas savored his local fame, and with typical hubris dubbed himself “the Beale Street ambassador.” The largely African-American thoroughfare became his kingdom. “If you were black for one night on Beale Street, you would never want to be white again,” he would say. Memphis later rewarded his tireless championing of the city by naming a street after him. And he was so associated with the city that Jim Jarmusch felt him necessary for a cameo in the Memphis-set 1989 film “Mystery Train.”
In 1948, Thomas translated his local celebrity and effusiveness into a job as a DJ at radio station WDIA, known as the “Mother Station of the Negroes.” While African-American musicians from around the South flocked to Memphis, Thomas was one of the few black men to hold such an influential post and, more importantly, with his mile-a-minute patter and ear for a hit, hold the attention of young white listeners — one of whom was Elvis Presley.
“A black man on the radio had always been taboo,” Thomas once told the Associated Press. “When advertisers heard that black voice [selling] their products, most of them pulled their ads.”
Back then, it wasn’t unusual for DJs to make their own records. When Big Mama Thornton made local radios reverberate with 1953′s “Hound Dog,” Thomas headed across town, strolled into the little-known Sun Records and cut the clever answer disc “Bear Cat.”
The record went to #3 on the R&B chart. It became Sun’s first national hit, reestablishing the label’s clout after short-lived success of Jackie Brenston’s 1951 “Rocket 88.”
Thomas only recorded one other record for Sun’s owner, Sam Phillips. He later claimed he felt slighted when Elvis Presley became the label’s priority artist, even though as a DJ Thomas put Presley on WDIA’s playlist. “I gave [Phillips] his first hit,” the singer told Billboard in 1997, “and all the while he was looking for a white boy who could do what I could.” By the early ’60s, Thomas signed with Stax Records, another fledgling outfit in Memphis.
That deal initiated a long line of classic sides, including 1959′s “Cause I Love You,” a duet recorded with his daughter Carla Thomas. With stars like Otis Redding and Sam & Dave, Stax went on to become renowned as the home of gritty Southern soul, but Thomas’ greatest successes on the label were rollicking songs based on the latest dance crazes.
All sizzling guitar strut and killer horn lines, “Walking the Dog” went to #10 in 1963, with Thomas’ deep holler lacing nonsense lines such as “See the elephant jump the fence/ He jumped so high he touched the sky/ Didn’t come down till the Fourth of July.” A zest for life and some sly Memphis wit defined the performance. In England, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards snapped it up and put it on the first Stones disc.
Thomas had to wait until 1970 before denting the charts again, this time with “Do the Funky Chicken,” a slab of funk frivolity. The hot-wired groove was infectious, and in live performance, Thomas would lead his audiences with footwork both deft and crazed.
Clearly a man unacquainted with shame, he later recorded “Do the Funky Penguin,” which inspired a rather outlandish stage outfit. He fared better with the R&B #1 “(Do the) Push and Pull,” a salacious bit of syncopation that left no doubt about the title’s reference point.
He also sired something of a soul dynasty. Daughter Carla later became a star in her own right and is best remembered for her 1967 duets with Redding on “Tramp” and “Knock on Wood.” His other daughter, Vaneese Thomas, scored two top-20 hits in 1987 with “Let’s Talk It Over” and “(I Wanna Get) Close to You.”
Thomas underwent open-heart surgery in 1998, but his schedule barely slowed down. Earlier this year, he was still spinning records for WDIA, boasting that he was the longest-running DJ in the history of radio. In May, he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. Farther afield, the Italian city of Porretta celebrated his appearance at their soul festival by naming a park in his honor.
Like those who celebrated him, the singer never doubted his impact. “If it wasn’t for Rufus,” he squawked on one recently recorded song, “we wouldn’t have no soul.”
For more information on Rufus Thomas, go to Ecko Records (at www.eckorecords.com).