Rufus Thomas Jr. (March 27, 1917 – December 15, 2001) was born the youngest of five children to sharecroppers in Cayce, Mississippi, near the Tennessee border. He became one of Memphis music’s most beloved figures and outspoken ambassadors. His career spanned the musical genres of blues, soul, funk, comedy and novelty, reaching from minstrel shows to Beale Street and from Sun Records to Stax— and beyond. He billed himself as “The World’s Oldest Teenager”.

youtube: Memphis

His family moved to Memphis when Rufus was two. He became well known for his tap dancing and participated in school productions from an early age. While attending Booker T. Washington High School, he was mentored by his history teacher, Nat D. Williams, who would become WDIA‘s first black disc jockey. Williams involved Thomas in amateur show performances at the Palace Theater on Beale Street.

Throughout the 1930s, Rufus Thomas performed in the Rabbit Foot Minstrels Show, the Georgia Dixon Traveling Show, and the Royal American Tent Shows. He expanded his routine from tap dancing and comedy to singing the blues when a female singer left one of the troupes. A comedy duo was formed with fellow future-WDIA radio personality, James “Bones” Couch, called Rufus and Bones.

youtube: Jump Back

youtube: Walking the Dog

In 1940, Rufus married his high school sweetheart, Cornelius Lorene Wilson, and remained so for almost 60 years. Thomas took employment at a textile plant, American Finishing Company, where he worked for over twenty years without missing a day. In 1943, he began his lengthy recording career with a Texas label named Star Talent and went on to record with Meteor, Chess, Sun, and was with the Stax Record label from its earliest days until it closed its doors in 1975.

Rufus joined the staff of WDIA radio in 1951, hosting a program called Hoot and Holler. While in this position, he helped promote the careers of B.B. King, Ike Turner, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Roscoe Gordon and Junior Parker. In 1953, Rufus Thomas recorded an answer to Big Mama Thornton‘s hit “Hound Dog” on Sam Phillips‘ Sun Records. “Bear Cat” became the first national hit for Sun, but a copyright-infringement lawsuit from Leiber and Stoller, the writers of “Hound Dog”, nearly bankrupted the small label. Sun Records soon dumped Thomas in order to concentrate on its new direction— Elvis Presley.

1959 saw Rufus Thomas and his daughter, Carla Thomas, become the first stars of the new Stax label with their duet “‘Cause I Love You”. Carla scored a big hit in 1961 with “Gee Whiz”, but Rufus recorded a string of dance-related hits with “Walking The Dog” (1964), “Do The Funky Chicken” (1969), “Push and Pull” (1970) and “The Breakdown” (1971). Rufus was featured in the Wattstax concerts and performed with James Brown’s band and the group, Con Funk Shun.

youtube: The Breakdown

Thomas released a blues album later in his life on the Alligator label and also a live recording. He was featured in the Jim Jarmusch film Mystery Train and the D.A. Pennebaker documentary Only the Strong Survive. His performances at the Italian Poretta Soul Music Festival were so endearing that the amphitheater and park were named after him. He and William Bell headlined performances at the Olympics in 1996. His awards are numerous, among them the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Blues Hall of Fame and the Rhythm and Blues Foundation’s Pioneer Award. The city of Memphis named a street in his honor that crosses Beale Street.

youtube: The Funky Chicken

youtube: Rufus is Back in Town

Despite his indefatigable heart and boundless energy, Rufus Thomas, “The World’s Oldest Teenager” succumbed to heart failure in December of 2001.

Roger Friedman wrote:

“He was a vaudevillian, a jokester, and a gentle kidder who was always heading toward a well worn punch line. His comic bits were older than he was, but it never seemed to matter. Rufus’ gift, in music and comedy, was taking what existed and making it seem brand new. Even though he wore hot pants, and often comically sang off key, make no mistake: Rufus was himself a serious musician. He just made it look so easy.”

youtube: A Full & Funky Life

image credits: Henry Diltz; amazon; Michael Ochs Archives; Wattstax; Maldwin Hamlin

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