Rufus and Carla Thomas are from Memphis, a father and a daughter who met with success individually as top forty recording artists in the Sixties. They helped to get Stax Records established as a player in the music business.
Rufus Thomas, Jr. was born in Cayce, Mississippi in 1917. By the time he was in his teens Rufus had moved to Memphis, less than thirty miles away, where he attended high school. While in high school he formed a comedy act with one of his teachers, acting as the second banana, and together they would perform at a local theatre. Rufus married in 1940 and the following year took a job in a local textile plant, where he would continue to work for another 22 years. It helped to pay the bills, but he was an entertainer at heart and still performed as a comedian and singer. He also worked as a master of ceremonies at the near-by Palace Theatre on Beale Street in Memphis.
Rufus also worked as a disc jockey at WDIA radio in Memphis. Through this he became acquainted with future blues legend B.B. King, and with future Stax Records co-founder Jim Stewart. Rufus' first brush with national success came when he recorded an answer song to Big Mama Thornton's Hound Dog titled Bear Cat. In 1953 it reached the national R&B chart at number 3. Bear Cat was also the first national record for the local Sun Records label which had been started the year before by Sam Phillips; Sun would go in a different direction when local Memphis teenager Elvis Presley showed up a short time later.
Rufus and his wife Lorene raised their three children Carla, Marvell, and Vaneese, all of them musically gifted. Carla was born in 1942 and sang for years in Memphis with the Teen Town Singers, a group that also included Isaac Hayes. In 1960, shortly before her graduation from Hamilton High School in Memphis, she recorded a song with her father on Stewart's fledgling Satellite label in Memphis. The uptempo duet was called Cause I Love You. It is an interesting recording not only for the dynamic duo who sang on it, but also for some of the supporting musicians, including Carla's brother Marvell on keyboards, Steve Cropper on guitar, Robert Talley on piano, and Booker T. on baritone sax. This recording of Cause I Love You would set the course for soul music coming out of Memphis for quite some time, as it was heard by an executive of Atlantic Records in New York who liked it and proceeded to set up a distribution deal with Satellite. Rufus and Carla had succeeded in getting Satellite and the soul sounds of Memphis noticed.
Carla, who came to be known as the "Queen of Memphis Soul," has a terrific voice. She recorded what would prove to be her biggest hit as a solo artist, Gee Whiz (Look At His Eyes), on Atlantic in 1961. It was a huge hit nationally, going top five R&B and top ten pop that year. She continued recording with Atlantic, and later with Stax (Satellite eventually became Stax) and put 15 records in the top 100 before the decade came to an end. Perhaps the best known of her subsequent hits is B-A-B-Y, on Stax in 1966.
Meanwhile Carla's father Rufus had come up with a top ten hit of his own as a solo artist on Stax in 1963 with Walking The Dog. He would meet with success again later with three more top forty pop hits in the early 70's, Do The Funky Chicken, (Do The) Push And Pull Part I, and The Breakdown (Part I), all for Stax. The second of these was his only number one R&B hit. Nearly all of Rufus' hits during this time were dance songs, and he was often backed by Booker T. and the MG's, or the Bar-Kays. And he remained a popular disc jockey on Memphis' WDIA radio.
Carla recorded some notable duets with Otis Redding, who by 1967 had become the most bankable star recording for Stax. The two biggest hits recorded by the duet known as Otis & Carla were Tramp and Knock On Wood, both in 1967. Unfortunately Otis lost his life in a plane crash in Madison, Wisconsin before the year came to an end.
Stax had its run, along with other recording stars who hit their stride there including Sam & Dave and Eddie Floyd. Distribution problems and other factors led to its closing in 1975. Rather than look for other labels, both Rufus and Carla continued to perform in local clubs in their beloved Memphis.
Carla's brother Marvell went on to become a noted keyboard player. Vaneese Thomas taught French for some time; Vaneese moved to New York state and operated a recording studio, as well as singing on various commercials.
Rufus Thomas has the distinction of being the only recording artist to reach the top ten (with Walking The Dog in 1963) after his daughter reached the top ten (with Gee Whiz (Look At His Eyes) in 1961). Rufus stayed in Memphis doing various things before succumbing to heart failure there in 2001; he is buried in Memphis along side his wife Lorene. Carla stayed in Memphis pursuing various endeavors and occasionally returning to singing. She is most often associated by pop music fans with her duets with Otis Redding, as well as the 1961 hit that she had written in her home at age fifteen, Gee Whiz (Look At His Eyes).
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