Posts Tagged ‘Minstrel Shows’

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

Medicine shows were directly related to minstrel shows and vaudeville, and they provided many early Memphis musicians with employment. In the 1800s, minstrel shows were wildly popular with both races, but they fed the white stereotypes of blacks and became even more mean-spirited as the Civil War approached. The racism of the minstrel shows makes them difficult to stomach today, but the variety acts (called the “olio”), comedy, dance, and music gave many Americans their first exposure to African-American music and culture.

After the Civil War, thousands of emancipated slaves performed with minstrel shows, medicine shows, and circuses, with the newly gained freedom to travel and to make a living playing music. William Henry Lane was a dancer and among the earliest black minstrels to gain notoriety. A performance in Memphis by the Georgia Minstrels in 1896, drew the largest indoor paid audience known to the city— 4000 blacks and 1000 whites— according to the African-American newspaper, the Indianapolis Freeman. Many of the features of minstrelsy carried over into the medicine shows.

youtube: ‪‪minstrel shows

Quackery and entertainment hit the road as medicine shows peddled patent medicines and elixirs of dubious efficacy. Musical performers drew crowds in small rural settings and larger Southern and Midwestern towns. An old actor who had turned to “doctoring” would hawk syrups that were mostly alcohol— or pass off a nickel box of axle grease as a cure for rheumatism. The performers would soften the crowd up for the “doctor”, whose pitch was expected to be just as entertaining. Audiences were often receptive to the chicanery because it was the only entertainment of that caliber they got to experience.

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The Memphis medicine show performers were in the Mississippi delta every summer and many hokum blues numbers were popularized this way. W. C. Handy was the band master of Mahara’s Minstrels. Ida Cox, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, and Butterbeans and Susie got their start with minstrel shows. Louis Jordan, Brownie McGhee and Rufus Thomas worked for a variety troupe, originally founded in 1900 by an African American, Pat Chappelle, called The Rabbit’s Foot Company. Many old time country acts like Roy Acuff, Jimmie Rodgers, Dock Boggs, Fiddling John Carson, and Uncle Dave Macon also entertained blacks and whites alike in traveling medicine shows.

In the early 1900s, medicine shows transitioned into vaudeville and Memphis-oriented performers found work in a more permanent circuit of theaters. An Italian-American businessman on Beale Street, F. A. Barrasso, and his brothers founded the Theatre Owners Booking Association, which specialized in a touring circuit of theaters for black performers throughout the U.S. It began with 31 theaters and had more than 100 at its peak in the 1920s. The reputation that TOBA was a difficult organization to work for caused performers to joke that the acronym stood for “Tough On Black Asses.” This circuit helped disseminate Memphis blues music to theater audiences throughout the nation.

image credits: buckaroo; Country Music Hall of Fame; misanthropoetry; Library of Congress