A robust 68 years old, Rufus Thomas still calls himself "the world's oldest teen-ager" and still showcases the novelty dances that have made him a legend of Memphis rhythm and blues.
But his 50-year career as a vaudeville performer, disc jockey and talent show host in Memphis made him much more than a dancer. Thomas, who performs Saturday at Friendship Station, has been at the center of some of the most significant events in the history of R&B, rock 'n' roll and soul music.
He even introduced Elvis to black folks.
After beginning his career as a comic in high school, Thomas joined the Rabbit Foot Minstrels in the mid-'30s. "During that time, I wasn't singing," Thomas recalls. "I was a tap dancer . . . We had a band, comics, singers, dancers and high-stepping chorus girls. It was a variety show. We played Tennessee and Arkansas, but mostly Mississippi. It was the days of segregation. We had a big tent show and on one side were the blacks and on the other the whites."
The pay wasn't great and vaudeville was dying, so in 1941 Thomas began working in a textile factory where he worked until the early '60s. At night, though, he entertained as a host of a local talent show.
"Me and my buddy, we were called Rufus and Bones," Thomas explains. "We handled the amateur show at the Palace Theatre on Beale Street until the show dissolved in the early '50s. I was the MC and Bones did the comedy. The prizes back then were $5, $3 and $2. Later on, every one who came on got a dollar. B.B. King played, Bobby Bland, Roscoe Gordon and Little Junior Parker. If they played Memphis, they were on my amateur show first."
In 1951 Thomas went to a recording studio in Memphis where Sam Phillips was just inaugurating a label called Sun. Phillips leased Thomas' first recordings to Chess Records. However, in 1953, he released Thomas' "Bear Cat," an answer song to Big Mama Thornton's "Hound Dog" on Sun. The song became a huge R&B hit, helping establish the Sun label and earning Phillips enough money to experiment with white artists.
"After he got Elvis," Thomas ruefully recalls, "Phillips discarded all the black talent and just went for whites. Elvis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis."
In addition to holding a full-time career in recording, Thomas was performing inside and outside of Memphis with his group, the Bearcats. In 1951 he began working as a disc jockey on WDIA, one of the biggest R&B stations in the South.
"I was the only DJ at WDIA that played Elvis when he first came out," Thomas says with pride. "Anyway, the program director stopped me from playing Elvis because he thought black folks didn't like the man. I only met Elvis once. His friend George Klein brought him backstage to an all-black show. I took Elvis by the hand and brought him out on stage, and the black people went crazy over him. The next day I started playing Elvis again on the radio."
Thomas' recording career picked up again in 1960 when he and his daughter Carla signed with a new Memphis label called Satellite. Their recording of 'Cause I Love You" became the label's first hit. A year later, Satellite changed its name to Stax, and Carla and Rufus became regular hit makers. With the Thomases as well as Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Booker T and the MGs and others, Stax set the standard for soul music in the '50s.
"It was like a family at Stax in the early years," Thomas recalls. "If you had an idea, you could just walk in the studio, put the idea down and come back and work on it later. That's how we did things, loose. Then Stax got to be big business and I had to get an appointment to see the man. It stopped being family."
If Carla Thomas was the queen of soul, her dad was the clown prince. From Stax's inception until its bankruptcy in 1974, Thomas became nationally known for his comic dance hits. From "The Dog" and "Walking the Dog" in the early '60s to "Do the Funky Chicken," "Push and Pull," "The Breakdown" and "Do the Funky Penguin," Thomas clowned, shouted and danced his way onto the nation's jukeboxes and radios.
"I didn't create those dances," Thomas explains. "They were already there and popular. I felt you needed a song to go with them. So I wrote them."