Thursday, May 23, 2013

DJ Rufus Thomas

Rufus Thomas is remembered primarily as a soul singer, with a big catalog on Stax record loaded with hot funk 45s. His biggest hits "Do the Funky Chicken" and 'Walking the Dog" are still known today. He's also remembered as a bit of a comedian which if you knew the rest of the story would make perfect sense. Rufus Thomas was a Memphis area DJ before he ever had a hit. Here's a clip of him clowning a bit on the air for a commercial. It's classic material.

Thomas attended one semester at Tennessee A&I University, but like many students today he couldn't afford to continue his studies. So in 1936 he bailed to join the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, a variety troupe that toured as a tent show from the 1930s until around 1950. He also worked at a textile mill and he kept that job until about 1963... when he started having real hit records.

But the year we care about is 1951 because that is when he started his program on WDIA-AM. He had an afternoon show called "Hoot and Holler" from 9:30 to 11:00 PM. He played rhythm & blues and even some actual blues. His delivery was fast based and he talked jive, that early rhyming slang that was popularized by a handful of R&B DJs that we now call rapping.  He did another 3 hours program later on with Nat D. Williams. The first hour was his own solo R&B show, the second hour was a co-hosted show called "Cool Train" he did with Nat D. Williams on Saturdays. In the third hour they revisited his old vaudeville material and did comedy. In the 1970s WDIA changed hands and Thomas crossed the street to WLOK-AM.

Rufus has started his recording career in 1949 but hadn't hit anything big yet. His first hit was in 1953 when he recorded “Bear Cat” for Sun Records. It was a parody of Big Mama Thornton’s bluesy “Hound Dog.” It the parody was unclear the full title was (The Answer to Hound Dog.) the problem is that the music was a note for note cover of Hound Dog. Yes there were lawyers involved.

In 1986 he was invited back to WDIA to host a blues revue celebrating the stations 38th anniversary. It was 97.1 on the FM side this time. He died in 2001, at the age of 84. His adopted hometown of Memphis named a street after him, just off of Beale where he used to play and where thousands listed to his program.