In the centre of Porretta Terme, a visitor-friendly village in Northern Italy, there is a comfortable amphitheatre which, every July, plays host to a festival acknowledging the importance of Memphis’ contributions to soul music. The amphitheatre is named Rufus Thomas Park in honour of one of Stax Records’ favourite sons, who for many years was the show’s honoured guest and featured performer.
For more than 60 years Rufus Thomas entertained the masses, originally as a dancer and later as a disc jockey, MC, comedian and most famously as a singer, in which capacity he made his first record in 1943, some 18 years before his Stax debut. In the interim, Mississippi-born, Memphis-raised Rufus recorded classic R&B for Sun and Meteor and established himself as one of the leading broadcasters at Memphis’ Radio Station WDIA, one of the first in the USA to aim its programming exclusively at a black audience (and also to feature an all-black line-up of presenters).
When Stax released its first Rufus Thomas single in 1961 – ‘Cause I Love You’, a charming duet with his elder daughter Carla – the label was still trading as Satellite Records. When he released his final Stax single – a 1975 update of his 1964 classic ‘Jump Back’ – the label was only days away from going out of business. He was there at the beginning, he was there at the end, and for nearly 15 years the self-proclaimed World’s Oldest Teenager had been a mainstay of the most famous source for soul music ever to emerge from Memphis.
Early in his Stax career Rufus launched a series of recordings relating to a dance craze called the Dog, eventually widening its scope to include all things canine. The series brought him his first big pop hit with ‘Walking The Dog’ and from then on his career at Stax concentrated on records about animals and dance crazes, his biggest successes coming with songs that combined both, such as ‘Do the Funky Chicken’ and ‘Do the Funky Penguin’.
Rufus enjoyed even bigger hits in the 70s than he had in the 60s, topping the R&B charts in 1971 for the first time with ‘Push And Pull’, followed a few months later with the #2 hit ‘The Breakdown’. He appeared on Soul Train and other music shows next to upcoming artists half his age, usually dressed in some memorable get-up that often involved lurid pink or faux leopardskin and, almost without fail, shorts. If you couldn’t remember which dance craze he was bigging up at any given time, you’d never forget what he looked like.
He was still making records and playing shows until just a couple of years before his death in 2001. His legacy lives on through his superb recordings, as well as those of his daughters Carla and Vaneese, and via the behind-the-scenes activity of his son Marvell, a Stax studio stalwart throughout the company’s lifespan.
Rufus’ biggest “yellow” Stax hits have long been represented in the Ace catalogue.
By Tony Rounce
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