Rufus Thomas is best known as the Memphis soul singer who, along with daughter Carla Thomas, helped the fledgling Stax label rise to fame in the ‘60s and ‘70s. His biggest hits-“Do the Funky Chicken” and “Walking the Dog“–not only became his signature songs, but established Thomas as a consummate entertainer. Not surprisingly, he first honed these skills as a vaudeville performer and emcee for shows down on Beale Street. Thomas also had a long career at WDIA in Memphis, the nation’s first all-Black format radio station, where he spun rhythm and blues records that caught the attention of many a white teenager, including a young Elvis Presley. Since his fellow WDIA deejay was none other than B.B. King, it should come as no surprise that Thomas decided to take a stab at recording. “I just wanted to be on record. I never thought of getting rich. I just wanted to be known, be a recording artist.”
From 1949 to 1956 Thomas recorded 28 sides for various labels, though a number were unissued and have since been lost (all extant recordings have been included in this compilation). His first sessions in Memphis were for the Star Talent label (based in Dallas) and featured several of his own songs, including the bluesy “I’m So Worried,” the somewhat derivative “I’ll Be Good Boy,” and the previously unreleased “Who’s That Chick” and “Double Trouble” (the latter in rather poor sound). These were followed by two sides for Bullet-the rockin’ party song “Beer Bottle Boogie” and another of Thomas’ own compositions, “Gonna Bring My Baby Back,” a swinging jazz number backed by members of Lionel Hampton’s band let by saxophonist Bobby Platter.
The following year Thomas stopped in at Memphis Recording Service–soon to be renamed Sun Studios–and convinced Sam Phillips to record several songs which were released on the Chess label, including “Night Workin’ Blues,” his own cryin’ blues tune “Why Did You Deegee,” the uptempo boogie woogie “Crazy About You Baby” featuring Billy Love on piano, and “No More Dogging Around.” Additional sessions followed in 1952 producing the notable song “Decorate the Counter”–this had originally been recorded by Rosco Gordon, but only Thomas’ version was released by Chess (both versions are included on the CD for comparison). Two additional songs were recorded at the same session but were never released: “Married Woman” included here with two alternate takes; and “I’m Off Of That Stuff” which is a bit stiff, not to mention somewhat truncated.
Thomas’ big break came in 1953 when he recorded “Bear Cat” for the new Sun label. An answer song to Big Mama Thornton’s bluesy “Hound Dog” that had topped the charts a few weeks earlier (also included on the CD), “Bear Cat” was a huge hit, signaling the shift towards rock ‘n’ roll and no doubt making an impression on Elvis Presley, whose cover of “Hound Dog” catapulted both him and Sun Records to fame three years later. Thomas cut several more sides for Sun, including “Tiger Man (King of the Jungle)” complete with Tarzan yells, and the straight-ahead blues song “Save That Money.” His early recording career concluded at Meteor, a short-lived Memphis label, which released “The Easy Living Plan” and “I’m Steady Holdin’ On,” both penned by Rufus Thomas and Joe Bihar.
Rufus Thomas: His R&B Recordings, 1949-1956 is a great tribute to this legendary artist who passed away in 2001. Interestingly, two other compilations including much of the same material have also been released in 2008 by Document Records and Important Artists. However, the Bear Family set is far superior in terms of remastering and production. The wonderfully illustrated 67 page booklet (bound into the package) features a complete 1950s discography and an overview of Thomas’ pre-Stax career by Martin Hawkins, including lengthy discussions about the role of WDIA and Black radio.
The other thing that really sets this CD apart are the bonus features and alternate takes previously mentioned, as well as airchecks from Thomas’s WDAI radio show and a ten minute interview from the Daddy Cool Show. With a total of 29 tracks, this is indeed the definitive compilation of Thomas’s early recordings. Anyone interested in Memphis soul, the roots of rock ‘n’ roll, and the story of Black radio will want to purchase this set–it would also be perfect for classroom use. Rufus Thomas: His R&B Recordings, 1949-1956 is absolutely the best single CD historical reissue that I’ve come across in 2008.
Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss