Others may ultimately be reckoned as more important figures in Memphis music (W.C. Handy, Sam Phillips, Elvis Presley -- it'd be a very short list), but perhaps no single person has been as central to the history of the city's musical legacy as Rufus Thomas. Entertainer, ambassador, raconteur, patriarch, and artist, Rufus Thomas died Saturday, December 15th, of heart failure at the age of 84. With him goes Memphis' last great link to its pre-rock-and-roll past.
Thomas is unique in the annals of local (which is to say international) music as the only man to play a primary role in Memphis' three great mid-century triumphs. In the early 1950s at radio station WDIA, that seminal broadcast outlet then known as "The Mother Station Of the Negroes," Thomas became one of the city's most recognizable personalities. In 1953, he recorded the first national hit for Sam Phillips' fledgling Sun label with "Bear Cat," an answer to Big Mama Thornton's "Hound Dog" that hit number five on the R&B charts. A few years later he duplicated that feat by helping the blast-off of another new local label, Satellite (rechristened Stax soon thereafter), by giving it its first national hit, "'Cause I Love You," a sassy and saucy duet with his then-17-year-old daughter Carla.
Thomas had his greatest commercial success with Stax in the late 1960s and early 1970s, breaking onto the pop charts with novelty and dance hits such as "Walking the Dog" and "Do the Funky Chicken" while also recording a host of lesser known but perhaps even stronger sides, such as "Jump Back" and "The Memphis Train." But Thomas' career pre-dated Memphis' radio and recording boom. During the 1940s Thomas toured with the legendary Rabbit Foot Minstrels and hosted talent shows on Beale Street that fostered much of the city's young talent.
In later years, Thomas grew to be the city's most beloved icon. At two of his most recent local public appearances, at the Premier Player Awards this spring with his children Carla and Marvell and later at the W.C. Handy Awards with Ruth Brown, Thomas received standing ovations simply by stepping onto the stage. At those moments, the city seemed to collectively sense that it was witnessing the final hours of a giant and offered a tribute before it was too late.
But Thomas' jovial image -- the "World's Oldest Teenager," perpetually in short pants -- could sometimes conceal a more serious manner, a biting honesty that, along with his quick wit and easy charm, made him such a grand and trustworthy ambassador for the city. This side of Thomas could be seen most recently on the PBS Sun Records documentary Good Rockin' Tonight, where he steals the show with interview segments that are funny and pointed and passionate. It makes for a fitting valediction.
The city lost one of its greatest citizens this week. He will be missed. But he is still there, in a way, via the recording medium which he did so much to electrify.