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
Friday 19 April 1996
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
To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthdaybooks
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Scottish independence: Ireland since 1919 is a lesson for Scotland in what a Yes vote means
- 2 British tourists 'murdered' in Thailand: Pair's bloodied bodies found naked on Koh Tao beach
- 3 Lego breaks out of the toy box and heads for the gallery
- 4 Vogue under fire for 'Big Booty' article
- 5 Julian Assange and Edward Snowden join piracy mogul Kim Dotcom’s political campaign in New Zealand
Fifty Shades of Grey movie: New picture of Anastasia Steele unveiled
Lego breaks out of the toy box and heads for the gallery
Cilla, ITV - TV review: No wonder Cilla's chuffed with this story of her life – even the Beatles take a back seat
Doctor Who, Listen, review: Possibly Steven Moffat's most terrifying episode
Tyler, The Creator says having new U2 album automatically downloaded on his iPhone was 'like waking up with herpes'
Daniele Watts: Django Unchained actress detained by Los Angeles police after being mistaken for a prostitute
The political class is doing what Hitler couldn’t – destroying Britain
Scottish independence: Nationalist leader Jim Sillars threatens pro-union companies with 'day of reckoning' after independence
Scottish independence: Yes campaign feels the heat as Alex Salmond's NHS claims come under furious attack
£23m Birmingham cycle scheme is attacked by Tory councillor for not catering to the elderly
Salmond accused of laughing off national debt with ‘what are they going to do: invade?’ joke