Versatile soul icon Rufus Thomas, a pioneering radio DJ and a singer/songwriter famed for the R&B standard “Walking The Dog,” has died in Memphis at age 84, his family said Sunday.
Over a 70-year career, which took off in a segregated minstrel show, Thomas was a key player in the rise of rock ‘n’ roll and soul. He recorded for the two greatest record labels to come out of Memphis, Sun and Stax, and performed into his 80s.
Thomas died Saturday at St. Francis Hospital of apparent heart failure, his family said. He had been receiving treatment at the hospital since falling ill in November and had undergone open heart surgery in 1998.
As a performer, he will be best remembered for a string of novelty singles, each one inspired by the prevailing dance craze of the time. “Walking The Dog,” from 1963, marked his first top 10 pop hit and has since been covered by more than 100 artists, including the Rolling Stones and Aerosmith.
In 1969, “Do The Funky Chicken” brought him back to the forefront, and he scored his first No. 1 R&B hit the following year with “Do The Push and Pull.”
By then he was 54, and a consummate stage performer, employing a comic sense of timing and self-deprecating humor honed in his years as a DJ. He often dressed in capes, hot pants, feathers, sequins and even a Funky Penguin suit.
But Thomas’ legacy runs deeper than a succession of million-selling singles. His life and career were inextricably linked with the development of black entertainment in the 20th century.
He was born March 26, 1917 in the rural community of Cayce, Mississippi. As a small boy, he moved with his sharecropping family to Memphis, and performed in tap-dancing productions from the age of 10.
His career took off in 1936 when he joined the Rabbit Foot Minstrel Show, an all-black revue that toured the south, playing for segregated crowds under a tent.
He made his recording debut in 1943 with “I’ll Be A Good Boy.” But fame and fortune did not beckon, and he got a job tending boilers in a textile bleaching mill to supplement earnings from club performances.
DISCARDED FOR ELVIS
A few years later in 1948, he landed a part-time job as a radio DJ at WDIA-AM, the first radio station to target black audiences with black DJs playing black-oriented programming. Among the many white kids to tune into “The Mother Station of the Negroes” was a young Elvis Presley.
Working the afternoon slot after a full shift at the mill, Thomas soon became the station’s most popular DJ, delighting audiences with his fast-paced jive talking.
In 1953, his local celebrity allowed him to cut a track for the fledgling Sun Records label. “Bear Cat, Jr.” was a top five hit, but he lost his gig at Sun when owner Sam Phillips decided that Presley was the white kid who sounded black enough to make him a million dollars.
“When Sam Phillips picked up Elvis Presley, he discarded everybody on the label who was black,” Thomas recounted to Steve Greenberg for a 1997 Billboard magazine article. “I gave him his first hit, and all the while he was looking for a white boy who could do what I could.”
Thomas, nevertheless, became the first black DJ to play Presley’s early Sun recordings on the air.
In 1960, Thomas helped another young label get on its feet. With his teen-aged daughter, Carla, he recorded the hit duet “Cause I Love You” for Stax Records. It helped get Stax a national distribution deal, and the label would go on to become the home of Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes and Albert King. Carla enjoyed further hits, including 1961’s “Gee-Whiz,” 1966’s “B-A-B-Y” and her 1967 duet with Redding, “Tramp.”
Thomas remained a popular draw both in America and internationally, and even kept his WDIA job into 2001. A Memphis street was named after him, and he was honored with a Pioneer Award by the R&B Foundation in 1992.