Rhythm & blues pioneer Rufus Thomas made his last trip to Memphis' Beale Street yesterday (Dec. 20) with a brass band playing "Just a Closer Walk with Thee" marching in front of his hearse. Thomas
Rhythm & blues pioneer Rufus Thomas made his last trip to Memphis' Beale Street yesterday (Dec. 20) with a brass band playing "Just a Closer Walk with Thee" marching in front of his hearse. Thomas, 84, was best known nationally for novelty hits like "Do the Funky Chicken" and "Walking the Dog."
But in Memphis, where he was still performing until shortly before his death Saturday, he was known as the city's "Ambassador of Beale Street." The famed street, with its many nightspots, is known as the birthplace of the blues. After the funeral, Thomas' body was taken in a motorcade through the Beale Street entertainment district.
Thomas was a glorious holdover from an earlier era of black musical entertainment. Born March 17, 1917, in Cayce, Miss., he went out on the road through the South with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels and other touring units. He went on to become host at the Palace Theatre in Memphis.
Thomas began his recording career in 1950 with singles for the Star Talent label. He soon began to record for Sam Phillips' Memphis Recording Service, which leased his sides to Chess; in 1953, Phillips signed him to his new label, Sun Records. Thomas scored one of Sun's first hits that year with "Bear Cat," an "answer record" to Big Mama Thornton's "Hound Dog." Another memorable Sun release was "Tiger Man," later covered by Elvis Presley.
In 1953, Thomas began a long residency as a disc jockey at WDIA Memphis, the South's first all-black station. In 1960, he helped get another fledgling Memphis label off the ground when he recorded "Cause I Love You," a duet with his daughter Carla, for local Satellite Records. Satellite soon changed its name to Stax and became the home of a long-running series of hit dance tunes by the elder Thomas.
Thomas' first Stax hit, "The Dog," rose to No. 22 on the Billboard R&B chart in 1963 and was followed by a succession of like-minded chart-toppers: "Walking the Dog," "Can Your Monkey Do the Dog," "Do the Funky Chicken," and "(Do the) Push and Pull," which became a No. 1 R&B hit and No. 25 pop entry in 1970. Through the '70s, Thomas taught the country how to dance "the Breakdown," "the Funky Penguin," "the Funky Bird," and "the Double Bump." Many of his songs became more widely known in covers by such rock acts as the Rolling Stones and Aerosmith.
Thomas' studio career continued into the '80s, when he released "That Woman is Poison!" on Alligator Records. Known as "the world's oldest teenager," he took his show on the road -- where he performed in outlandish get-ups ranging from garish neon-colored suits to short-shorts -- until near the end of his life. He was inducted into the Blues Foundation's Blues Hall of Fame earlier this year.
At the funeral, Isaac Hayes said Thomas was an inspiration for the struggling young entertainers at Stax. "All of us wanted to be a Bearcat," he said. With a solo piano for accompaniment, Hayes performed a soulful rendition of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" for the Thomas family.
Thomas is survived by his children, Carla, Vaneese, and Marvell.
-- Chris Morris, L.A. & AP
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