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Rufus' 1988 album for Alligator Records, That Woman Is Poison!
Rufus Thomas, Jr. (March 27, 1917 – December 15, 2001) was a rhythm and blues, funk and soul singer and comedian fromMemphismarker, Tennesseemarker, who recorded on Sun Records in the1950s and on Stax Records in the 1960s and 1970s. He was the father of soul singer Carla Thomas and keyboard player Marvell Thomas. A third child, Vaneese, a former French teacher, has a recording studio in upstate New York and sings for television commercials.

Early life and education

Born a sharecropper's son in the rural community of Cayce, Mississippimarker, Thomas moved to Memphis with his family at age 2. His mother was “a church woman.” Thomas made his artistic debut at the age of 6 playing a frog in a school theatrical production. Much later in life, he would impersonate all kinds of animals: screeching cats, funky chickens and penguins, and mournful dogs. By age 10, he was a tap dancer, performing in amateur productions at Memphis' Booker T. Washington High School.

Thomas attended one semester at Tennessee A&I Universitymarker, but due to economic conditions left to pursue a career as a professional entertainer, joining up in 1936 with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, an all-black revue that toured the South. He then worked for twenty-two years at a textile plant and didn't leave that job until about 1963, around the time of his “Dog” hits. He started at WDIA in 1951 (despite biographies placing his start a year earlier). At WDIA, he hosted an afternoon show called Hoot and Holler. WDIA, featuring an African-American format, was known as "the mother station of the Negroes" and became an important source of blues and R&B music for a generation, its audience consisting of white as well as black listeners. Thomas's mentor was Nat D. Williams, a pioneer black deejay at WDIA as well as Thomas's high school history teacher, columnist for black newspapers, and host of an amateur show at Memphis's Palace Theater. For years Thomas himself took hosting duties for the amateur show and, in that capacity, is credited with the discovery of B.B. King.

Professional singing career

He made his professional singing debut at the Elks Club on Beale Streetmarker in Memphis, filling in for another singer at the last minute. He made his first 78 rpm record in 1943 for the Star Talent label in Texas, "I'll Be a Good Boy", backed with "I'm So Worried."

He also became a long-standing on-air personality with WDIA, one of the first radio stations in the US to feature an all-black staff and programming geared toward blacks. His celebrity was such that in 1953 he recorded an "answer record" to Big Mama Thornton's hit, "Hound Dog" called "Bear Cat" released on Sun Records. Although the song was the label's first hit, a copyright-infringement suit ensued and nearly bankrupted Sam Phillips' record label. Later, Rufus was one of the African American artists released by Sam Phillips as he oriented his label more toward white audiences and signed the likes of Elvis Presley.

The prime of Rufus's recording career came in the 1960s and early 1970s, when he was on the roster of Memphis label, Stax, having one of the first hit sides at the historic soul and blues label, "Walking the Dog", (#5 R&B, #10 Pop) in 1963. At Stax, he recorded songs when he had something to record. He was often backed by Booker T. and the MG's or the Bar-Kays.

The early 70s brought him three major hits, including "Do the Push And Pull" in 1970, his only number one R&B hit (#25 Pop). Earlier that year, "Do The Funky Chicken" had reached #5 R&B and #28 Pop. A third dance-oriented release in 1971, "The Breakdown" climbed to #2 R&B and #31 Pop. He had several more less successful hits until Stax closed its doors in the mid-70s.

Late in his career, for years, Rufus performed at the Porretta Soul Festival in Porretta Termemarker, Italy. The outdoor amphitheater in which he performed has been re-named "Rufus Thomas Park." In 1996, Rufus and William Bell headlined at the Olympics in Atlanta. Highlights of his career included calming an unruly crowd at the Wattstax Festival in 1972 and performing with James Brown's band.

He played an important part in the Stax reunion of 1988, and had a small role in the 1989 Jim Jarmusch film Mystery Train. Rufus released an album of straight-ahead blues, That Woman is Poison!, with Alligator Records in 1990. In 1997, Rufus released an album, "Rufus Live!," with Ecko Records.

Thomas was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2001. He was interviewed by the public radio program American Routes in February, 2002. His last appearance was in the D.A. Pennebaker-directed documentary Only the Strong Survive (2003) in which he co-stars with daughter Carla.

In Film

Rufus Tomas is portrayed in Kill Bill Vol 2 as the wedding chapel piano player, he is played by Samuel L Jackson.


He died of heart failure in 2001, at the age of 84, at St. Francis Hospital in Memphis. A street is named in his honor, just off Beale Street in Memphis.



  • Greenberg, Steve. Do the Funky Somethin': The Best of Rufus Thomas (liner notes), Rhino Records, 1996.
  • Unterberger, Richie. Rufus Thomas Biography at Retrieved December 26, 2005.

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