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

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Tate Modern chief Chris Dercon, who will be leaving to run a Berlin theatre company
Arts and Entertainment
Tasos: 'I rarely refuse an offer to be photographed'
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Girls on the verge of a nervous breakdown: Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams star in 'The Falling'
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls


The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk
    Nepal earthquake: One man's desperate escape from Everest base camp after the disaster

    Escape from Everest base camp

    Nick Talbot was sitting in his tent when the tsunami of snow and rock hit. He was lucky to live, unlike his climbing partner just feet away...
    Adopting high fibre diet could dramatically cut risk of bowel cancer, says study

    What happened when 20 Americans swapped diets with 20 Africans?

    Innovative study in the US produces remarkable results
    Blake Lively and 'The Age of Adaline': Gossip Girl comes
of age

    Gossip girl comes of age

    Blake Lively is best known for playing an affluent teenager. Her role as a woman who is trapped forever at 29 is a greater challenge
    Goat cuisine: Kid meat is coming to Ocado

    Goat cuisine

    It's loved by chefs, ethical, low in fat and delicious. So, will kid meat give lamb a run for its money?
    14 best coat hooks

    Hang on: 14 best coat hooks

    Set the tone for the rest of your house with a stylish and functional coat rack in the hallway
    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?