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Still walkin' the dog and doin' the funky chicken

At the age of 79, Rufus Thomas has a menagerie of funky movements to his name. Geoff Brown looks at the Crown Prince of Dance's life as a dog
On 26 March, the city fathers cordoned off several blocks in Memphis to hold a street party for Rufus Thomas. The "Crown Prince of Dance" (after his 1973 album) was 79. Much like a journey around Memphis itself, a stroll through Thomas's life is a history lesson in contemporary American music.

His first hit, "Bear Cat" in 1953, was a boisterous answer to Willie Mae Thornton's rock 'n' roll classic, "Hound Dog", and gave Sun Records its first hit.

"Sam Phillips was responsible for that. On the record, they had Rufus Hound Dog Thomas," says Thomas. Dogs have loomed large in his oeuvre since, but not with Sun Records. Shortly after "Bear Cat", a number three R&B hit, Elvis Presley walked into Phillips's life.

"I was good enough to launch Sun Records, but when Elvis, [Johnny] Cash, Jerry Lee [Lewis] and Carl Perkins became part of Sun, Phillips discarded all of his black artists. I was nothin'," says Thomas.

He returned to being a DJ on WDIA, the Memphis station then known as "the Mother Station of the Negroes". "I used to say, 'I'm young, I'm loose, I'm full of juice, I've got the goose, so what's the use, we're feeling gay but we ain't got a dollar, Rufus is here, let's 'hoot 'n' holler'." He's still popular on the Memphis airwaves with a top-rated four-hour Saturday show on the station.

He continued to record for smaller labels until in 1959. "A fella by the name of Robert Talley [a blues pianist friend] came to my house and told me a new record company was starting up. We walked in off the street; anybody, if you felt you had talent, could come in off the street. But I'd been in the business for so long I was an established personality."

Rufus and his teenage daughter, Carla, recorded his song, "Cause I Love You", "and that was the beginning of Stax". Very soon the owner, Jim Stewart, a former bank employee and sometime country fiddle player, found himself at the head of a booming southern soul label. "He related to our music right off but after he got established in the business, well, if Jim Stewart didn't like it, you'd put it out - it was going to be a hit record."

Carla's 1961 hit, "Gee Whizz", andRufus's "The Dog" and "Walkin' the Dog" in 1963 had the cash rolling into Stax and enticed the New York independent, Atlantic, to distribute their records nationally. These hits also began to lure future talents like Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, the songwriters David Porter, Isaac Hayes and Eddie Floyd to the label. "I was at work at the American Finishing Company, a textile mill, and I wrote "Walkin' the Dog" there. "The Dog" I wrote in a nightclub. I saw a girl doing that dance and it came right out that night 'cos she was doin' that dance. Ooh, was she doin' it. Her name was Samella. She stood right before the band and really turned it on."

It seems like he's been teaching us new dances ever since in an inimitably gruff, conversational singing style, most famously on "Do the Funky Chicken". "I wrote that in a club in Covington, Tennessee. The dance was so hot I said, 'I got to have me a song', and I don't know how it came about but we had a groove going."

Most of us, were we to start imitating fowl, would be carted off, but Thomas already had assembled a kennel full of canine dance imagery ("Somebody Stole My Dog" and "Can Your Monkey Do the Dog") and, Noah like, would increase the menagerie ("Do the Funky Penguin", "The Funky Bird") and expand the terpsichorean canon ("Do the Push and Pull" - "I wrote it on some brown-paper sacks in the toilet" - "The Breakdown", "The Funky Robot").

His comfort with dance began in 1936 and involves yet another animal; it also brings us to his new album, Blues Thang, which includes the anecdotal song, "The Last Clean Shirt". After the rudimentary education available to blacks in the Twenties and Thirties, Rufus joined a vaudeville troupe called The Rabbit's Foot Minstrel Show. "There was a comedian on the show. He got sick and I wanted to do comedy so I did his show and that song was in it. But I was a tap dancer. I did the soft-shoe, the wing, some flips and splits. Then tap faded and I started to sing. I think I've been able to keep up with the times."

n 'Blues Thang' is out on Sequel. Rufus Thomas plays The Rhythmic, London N1, 22, 23 April; Irish Centre, Leeds, 24 April; The Cellar, Newcastle, 25, 26 April; University of East Anglia, Norwich, 28 April; Leadmill, Sheffield, 29 April; Town Hall, Cheltenham, 30 April