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Carla Thomas (born December 21, 1942, in Memphismarker, Tennesseemarker) is often referred to as the Queen of Memphis Soul.


Carla Thomas was born on December 21, 1942, in the Foote Homes Housing Project in Memphismarker, Tennesseemarker. Her parents, the late Rufus and Lorene Thomas, brought three musically gifted children into this world: Carla, Marvell and Vaneese. Despite growing up in the projects, the Thomas family lived in close proximity to the locally celebrated Palace Theater as Rufus was the theater’s emcee for their amateur shows. This access not only gave Thomas her first taste of the music world but it also provided a springboard for her transformation into the Queen of Memphis Sound.

Teen Town Singers

In Memphis, the African American centered WDIA radio station sponsored a rotating musical group of high school students called the Teen Town Singers; notable alumni include Anita Louis and Isaac Hayes. Although the requirements to join the Teen Town Singers stated that the person should be of high school age, Thomas became a member in 1952 at the age of 10. She was able to sneak into their ranks thanks to the fact that her father Rufus was an on-air personality for the radio station.This opportunity with the Teen Town Singers did not come without its drawbacks though. As a 10 year old student, Thomas was responsible for not only attending classes and completing her schoolwork, but she also had to attend rehearsals on Wednesdays and Fridays after school and then perform at the station on Saturday. However, despite this grueling schedule, Thomas thoroughly enjoyed the experience. According to her, “It was a lot of fun, it really was.” She remained with the Teen Town Singers up until the end of her senior year.


Although Thomas would release albums in the 1990s and in the 2000s, she is best known for the work she completed for both Atlantic Records and most notably, Stax Records in the 1960s. Her first record, Cause I Love You was a duet with her father that was released by Satellite Records, which eventually folded into Stax. Recorded when Thomas was still attending Hamilton High School in Memphis, the record drew enough local attention to catch the interest of Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records. He signed a deal with the owners of Satellite Records, Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, to distribute Cause I Love You and thus paved the way for Thomas’ most famous single, Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes).

Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes)

Although this iconic single would eventually chart within the Top 10 on the pop chart and within the Top 5 on the R&B chart, it had an inauspicious beginning. Initially recorded at the Thomas family home, Rufus shopped the song to Vee-Jay Records in Chicagomarker. Despite their interest, Vee-Jay never followed through or actively pursued securing the distribution rights. Because of his belief in the song's potential, Rufus returned to Memphis and in the summer of 1960, Thomas would cut the teen love song that she penned when she was only 15 years old. The song was released in October, 1960, to not much fanfare. However, by February 1961, the song was being distributed nationally through Atlantic Records just as Thomas was in the midst of her first year at Tennessee A&I University in Nashville. The overwhelming success of the single also propelled Thomas into the visual spotlight as she performed on American Bandstand. Despite its success, Thomas was still amazed at the song’s popularity. According to Thomas, “The record was young-sounding, romantic and it expressed what a lot of people wanted to say at that age, but still, I was surprised at how well it did”. Not only did this song provide a launching pad to Thomas' first album, but it also gave Stax Records national exposure and label recognition.

Post Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes)

Although Thomas would go on to record 6 albums for Stax between 1961 and 1971, including the 1967 Otis Redding collaboration, King and Queen, and produce a handful of charting singles, such as the highly popular 1966 release, B-A-B-Y, she never repeated the success she achieved with Gee Whiz. Yet, it wasn’t because of a lack of effort. Prior to the self-promoting days of the music video, many artists, including Thomas, would constantly sign on for package tours where a promoter would book 10-12 performers on the same bill. Thomas realized that despite the low pay and long days of traveling, the exposure would eventually help to promote her singles and albums. Plus, it provided her with a lot of memorable touring experiences. For example, Thomas has often said that one of her fondest memories was “being on the same bill at the Brooklyn Paramount with Jackie Wilson and Johnny Mathis.”

1970s - Present

After her last Stax recording in 1971, Love Means, Thomas slipped into relative obscurity when compared to her 1960s musical heyday. However, she was featured in a number of modern-day projects, notably including a 1994 compilation of her greatest hits, a 2002 live recording of a Memphis performance and the 2007 release Live at the Bohemian Cavern; a long lost live recording of Thomas in 1967. She would also occasionally tour during the 1980s and became heavily involved in the “Artists in the Schools” program that provided Memphis schoolchildren with access to successful artists. These workshops were organized to talk to teenagers about music, performing arts and drug abuse. In 1993, Thomas was awarded the prestigious Pioneer Award, along with such musical heavyweights as James Brown and Solomon Burke, from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation in honor of her career achievements. She was also featured in the 2003 documentary, Only the Strong Will Survive that was shown at the Cannes Film Festivalmarker and showcased important Stax recording artists.


Understandably, probably Carla’s biggest influence was her father, Rufus. Besides accompanying him during his emcee days at the Palace Theater, Rufus also encouraged and believed in his daughter’s ability. According to Carla, “My dad probably discovered I could sing before I did”. He was also instrumental and setting the stage for her Teen Town Singers gig and for actively pursuing and promoting her breakthrough single, Gee Whiz.

Musically, Carla was inspired by Jackie Wilson and legendary country singer, Brenda Lee.



  • 1961: Gee Whiz (Atlantic)
  • 1966: Carla (Stax) - US #130, R&B #7
  • 1966: Comfort Me (Stax) - US #134, R&B #11
  • 1967: King & Queen (with Otis Redding) (Stax) - US #36, R&B #5
  • 1967: The Queen Alone (Stax) - US #133, R&B #16
  • 1969: Memphis Queen (Stax) - US #151, R&B #26
  • 1969: The Best of Carla Thomas (Stax) - US #190
  • 1971: Love Means... (Stax) - R&B #42
  • 1994: Carla Thomas (Castle)
  • 1994: Gee Whiz: The Best of Carla Thomas (Rhino)
  • 2002: Live in Memphis (Memphis Int'l)
  • 2007: Bohemian Cavern (Stax)


Atlantic Record releases

  • 1961: "Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes)" - US Pop #10, US R&B #5
  • 1961: "A Love of My Own" - US Pop #56, US R&B #20
  • 1962: "I'll Bring It Home to You" - US Pop #41, US R&B #9
  • 1963: "What a Fool I've Been" - US Pop #93, US R&B #28
  • 1964: "I've Got No Time to Lose" - US Pop #67, US R&B #67
  • 1964: "A Woman's Love - US Pop #71, US R&B #71
  • 1965: "How Do You Quit (Someone You Love)" - US R&B #39

Stax Record releases

  • 1965: "Stop! Look What You're Doing" - US Pop #92, US R&B #30
  • 1966: "Let Me Be Good to You" - US Pop #62, US R&B #11
  • 1966: "B-A-B-Y" - US Pop #14, US R&B #3
  • 1967: "Something Good (Is Going to Happen to You)" - US Pop #74, US R&B #29
  • 1967: "When Tomorrow Comes" - US Pop #99
  • 1967: "Tramp" (with Otis Redding) - US Pop #26, US R&B #2
  • 1967: "I'll Always Have Faith in You" - US Pop #85, US R&B #11
  • 1967: "Knock on Wood" (with Otis Redding) - US Pop #30, US R&B #8
  • 1968: "Pick Up The Pieces" - US Pop #68, US R&B #16
  • 1968: "Lovey Dovey" (with Otis Redding) - US Pop #60, US R&B #21
  • 1968: "Where Do I Go" - US Pop #86, US R&B #38
  • 1969: "I've Fallen In Love" - US R&B #36
  • 1969: "I Like What You're Doing to Me" - US Pop #49, US R&B #9
  • 1970: "Guide Me Well" - US R&B #41

External links

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