Memphis, Tennessee, will always stand out as a city important for popular American music. Here W.C. Handy was a work here, later music history was written by quite a few local musicians who excelled in blues, rock’n’roll, soul and funk. One of them was singer/songwriter and master entertainer Rufus Thomas (1917-2001) who now with this book receives a personal and musical biography long overdue.
He became one of Memphis’ most prominent citizens (besides Elvis, B.B. King or Isaac Hayes) and successfully incorporated several musical styles and skills over the decades. Thomas began as a tap dancer on Memphis’ Beale street when still a kid, then became a member of minstrel shows, started out as a comedian, blues writer and singer, MC, radio DJ and finally became something like the city’s unofficial ambassador. In 1997, the City Mayor renamed a part of Hernando Street into “Rufus Thomas Boulevard.”
While most blues or soul musicians are remembered for producing hit records in basically one particular decade, Rufus Thomas stayed in the public mind for several years, as his songs hit the US charts from the 1950s until the 1980s. His name will be forever connected to two local record labels of some importance, Sun Records (where in 1953 he recorded the hit single “Bear Cat,”) and Stax Records (formerly Satellite Records).
Thomas would easily experience and incorporate important impulses from different musical modes he listened to during his various professions over the years into his own style. So pop, blues, gospel, minstrel routines, stage antics, African-American humor, dance routines of several decades went into his stage shows. Still in the late 1970s and 1980s he would not just perform his lyrics holding a microphone and stand there, but would deliver nonstop dance routines, and for example, perform his “Do the Funky Chicken,” “Do the Push and Pull” or move and wiggle to his big 1963 chart success “Walking the Dog,” to name a few of his hits. And if the dance routines did not make you remember his shows, his stage outfit, flashy, loud, and highly extravagant, would.
The title at hand reconstructs the busy and unusual career of Thomas, and recreates several decades of pop music, Africa-American performance art and show business realities. And also emphasize his important role as entertainer and proud member of the Black community, his love for the city of Memphis and the admiration he received all of his life for being the person he was. Not to mention the influence he had on his successful daughter Carla Thomas, the “Memphis Queen” or “Queen of Memphis Soul,” who had hits such as “Gee Whiz,” “Let Me Be Good to You,” and “B-A-B-Y.”
Matthew Ruddick, London-based music writer, interviewed hundreds of Thomas’ colleagues, close friends, label operators, club owners, arrangers, and showbiz people from all over the places, mostly from Memphis though, to explain the man’s influence on blues, pop, rhythm’n’blues soul and funk. A high workload and successful career permitted to just a few. In his case, a good ear and a sensibility for a dance beat, humor, African-American sensibility and a bright stage presence may have been the key, apart from being a very well-liked and generous person and an expert musician and music net worker. Besides, Rufus and his daughter Carla most of the time functioned as some soul/blues/funk “family business,” as both had their individual careers, but each provided important input (and promotion) to the other party.
And his knowledge, his experience and expertise in the music trade were much appreciated by younger musicians, particularly as Stax Records, where Thomas for some time also functioned as some kind of connecting link/personality, whose advice and humor always were appreciated. In his case – an older gentleman musician “lecturing” to some young adult musicians – it was never a clash of generations, it seems. Rather it was experienced as “free advice” by an old pro. Then, in 1975 he cut his last 7” for the label. And naturally later went on to record for other companies. By that time, however, Stax had already folded more or less, due to problems with distributors, declining sales, bounced check payments to writers and musicians, and cases of fraud.
If you want to know about the city’s hangouts, i.e. those hot in the 1950s until the 1980s, the best clubs, bars, DJs, record shops and famous recording studios and house bands: it is all on those pages, hundreds of recording sessions, anecdotes, the strange genesis of many song lyrics, arrangements, songwriting credits, sound engineering, and so forth. The list of arrangers, musicians, singers, concert and club managers, songwriters mentioned and interviewed is long. And this is not simply mere name dropping, here is a seemingly endless vault of information on the Memphis sound and Stax in particular.
The two most enlightening sections would probably be “King and Queen. Stax in Europe, 1967” basically about the Stax-Volt Revue, and “I Ain’t Getting Older. The Post-Stax Years 1976-1988,” chapters eight and eleven, respectively.
This is a solid book on the music of Memphis and the incredible musician and entertainer Thomas. It comes with a foreword by renowned Canadian Grammy Award-winning music writer and professor of ethnomusicology Rob Bowman. Rufus Thomas was inducted into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, unfortunately not yet into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Anyway, now there are some 300 pages of good reasons why the “Funkiest Man Alive,” a track from his 1973 Stax LP, should be inducted there too.
Review by Dr. A. Ebert © 2023
Matthew Ruddick. Funkiest Man Alive: Rufus Thomas and Memphis Soul (American Made Music Series). University Press of Mississippi, 2023, 320 p.