Rufus Thomas : Celebrating the Centenary of a Sun & Stax Records pioneer!

A lot can happen in a 100 years.

Within 60 years of a few minutes of wavering powered flight a man can land on the Moon!

The War to end all Wars can be followed by the Jazz Age, The Great Depression and an even more deadly second World War.

Mankind can find cures for scourging diseases while developing ever more ingenious ways to destroy more and more lives with ever more deadly Bombs.

Radio, Records, and Television bring vibrant local cultures to global prominence.

From the 1920s onwards an immense treasury of music is captured on 78s or 45s or LPs.

Ragtime. Jazz. The Blues. Boogie-Woogie. Gospel. Country (and Western). Jump Blues. Rhythm and Blues. Hillbilly Boogie. Rockabilly. Rock ‘n’ Roll.

The Immortal Jukebox exists to celebrate this treasury and to salute the man and women who have made significant contributions to it.

So, today on the 100th anniversary of  his birth I am doffing my cap to the one and only Rufus Thomas by reblogging my post on him and his daughter Carla from three years ago.

Celebrate with me.

All families contains the history of multitudes through the cultures they are heir to and which they live within. At the same time each family can be an agent for cultural change and development through their actions and works. We stand on the shoulders of giants but we can see a destination ahead they could never reach.

This is particularly the case in families whose work lies within the popular arts. If you grow up with music and talk about music is all around.

If you watch shows from the side of the stage and know the drudgery as well as the glamour of, ‘show business’ you will either run a mile and seek, sensibly, to become a lawyer or farmer or you will think there is no other life worth living than that of writing, singing and performing songs and bathing in the approval of an audience.

The careers of Rufus and Carla Thomas, father and daughter, take us on a fascinating journey through twentieth century American popular culture.

We will encounter: travelling minstrel shows, the development of Afro-American radio and the birth and growth of two of the nations fountainhead records companies (Sun and Stax) which produced many of the greatest rock n roll, soul and rhythm and blues records ever made.

We will also meet music icons of the stature of Sam Phillips, Elvis Presley, B B King and Otis Redding and realise why the city of Memphis can justifiably lay claim to have been the capital city of American music.

Rufus Thomas was a magnetic figure with personality and character to burn. He had that most attractive and winning of human qualities – vitality.

There were no downcast faces when Rufus was around! He was a one man party who lit up every room he ever entered with his ebullience and appetite for creating and sharing enjoyment.

He was born in rural Mississippi in1917 moving to Memphis as a toddler. It was in that bustling metropolis that he grew up and learned to become an entertainer who combined the talents of a dancer/hoofer, comedian, singer, talent show host and radio disc jockey.

I think that’s what you call an all rounder!

Leaving Booker T Washington High School in 1936 with the depression suffocating the nation he took his talents on the road throughout the South with the legendary F S Walcott Rabbit Foot Minstrels (commemorated in a lovely rowdy song by The Band).

‘The Foots’ were a glorious travelling tent show troupe which operated between 1900 and the late 1950s bringing comedy sketches and salty song and dance routines to any town, large or small, where the tent could be pitched and an audience drummed up.

Arriving in town the brass band would parade with comedians like Rufus announcing the wonders of the show to come. The stage, boards on a folding frame, would be set up with gasoline lamps acting as footlights.

While the liquored up audience waited for Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey or Louis Jordan to come on Rufus would whip up the crowd with comic dancing and jive jokes tailored to the local audience and introduce the dancing girls who invariably managed to increase the show’s temperature by several degrees centigrade.

After the War Rufus was back in Memphis working for a textile company and married with three children; Carla, Marvell and Vaneese. He hooked up again with his high school mentor, Nat D Williams, who was a key figure in Memphis Afro-American culture as teacher, journalist, talent spotter and pioneering radio host.

Nat D recognised that Rufus’ energy, affability and show business smarts gave him all the necessary qualities to be a successful talent show host. So, Rufus began to regularly host the shows at the Palace Theatre on Beale Street once announcing the youthful Riley (B. B.) King as the winner in the late 40s. Rufus was still hoping to make it as a singer though singles on labels like Star, Chess and Meteor shifted few units.

The next stage in Rufus career was again given impetus in 1951 through the good offices of Nat D who brought him on to be a disc jockey for WDIA – a Memphis radio station which, uniquely at the time, used black DJs to broadcast to the considerable black audience in Memphis and anywhere else 50,000 watts of power could reach!

Radio was king in the first post war decade reaching into almost every home in the country and providing the soundtrack to millions of lives through immensely popular shows that gathered whole families round the set.

Rufus, with his easy charm was a radio natural and his, ‘Hoot and Holler’ show became essential listening not just for his own community but also for young white hipsters like Elvis Presley or Steve Cropper who just knew that they could play those rhythm and blues too if they were only given the chance.

As it happened in Memphis there was a man, one of the true heroes of American music, Sam Phillips who was able to make those dreams come true. Rufus, in the early 1950s was often at Sun studios at 706 Union Avenue working with Phillips as he recorded brilliant blues sides by artists like Howling Wolf.

It was Rufus who provided Sun with its first breakout single in 1953 with, ‘Bear Cat’ an answer record to Mama Thornton’s,’Hound Dog’ which reached No 3 in the R&B chart (this launched a series of legal actions but that’s another story).

Rufus let rip with the full force of his personality matching Big Mama all the way while adding a sly spin of his own to the story of mismatched lovers. The featured stinging guitar is by Joe Hill Louis.

Turn this one up as loud as you can!

Rufus, like all the other black artists at Sun then faded into the background as Sam Phillips realised that the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow could only be found by recording white artists, preferably young handsome guys, who could combine blues, rhythm and blues and country influences to create a new sound on the face of the earth – rock ‘n’ roll.

Enter Elvis Presley! Elvis was aware of Rufus through listening to WDIA and he always retained a fondness for ‘Tiger Man’ which Rufus had recorded at Sun.

Rufus continued to combine full time work at the textile plant with his entertainment career throughout the 1950s. Meanwhile, Carla who had been born in 1942 was soon displaying the family relish for singing and performing.

At the tender age of 10 she joined the WDIA sponsored Teen Town Singers and was combining her school duties with twice weekly rehearsals and a radio show every Saturday. Rufus could hear that his daughter had an attractive voice and unusual poise for such a young artist.

So, in 1959 Rufus decided to approach a new Memphis recording outfit, Satellite Records, headed up by siblings Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton and persuaded them that they needed to move beyond the country and pop markets R&B to thrive in their home town and the rest of the nation.

Rufus and Carla recorded the duet, ‘Cause I Love You’ at Satellite’s studio and operational headquarters which was located in a former cinema/theatre on McLemore Avenue. And, voila! Satellite had its first hit (helped by the distribution deal agreed with sharp eared Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records).

Soon after Jim and Estelle would use the first two letters of their surnames and create Stax Records.

The next time Carla’s name appeared on a record it was on the Atlantic label with a song she had written as a 16 year old, ‘Gee Whizz (Look At His Eyes). Gee Whizz is a heart and soul on the sleeve love ballad that could only have been written by a teenager in the delirious throes of adolescent love/infatuation.

Do you remember that oh so sweet feeling as you gazed at your love object? While no one could or should maintain that obsessive attachment to the dream of love its a poor soul that does not cherish a small remembrance of those heady days.

And, nothing can swoosh you back to those days with more efficiency than Carla’s utterly beguiling vocal here. Lean back, close your eyes and swoon!

The song became an immediate radio favourite and once Atlantic was behind it and Carla appeared on the nations premier pop TV show, ‘American Bandstand’ there was no stopping, ‘Gee’ from ascending to the top 10 of the national charts and a permanent place in the memories of a generation.

Carla then issued a string of singles on Atlantic and then Stax demonstrating that the attractively naive young girl was growing into a smart and sassy young woman who could convincingly embody a full range of adult emotions with engaging vocal style.

Listen to her here in 1963 with a song especially beloved by her European fans, ‘I’ll Never Stop Loving You’. You’d have to have a stony heart and leaden feet not to be up and practicing your finest twists and twirls to this one!

In that same year of 1963 Rufus showed that there was still life in the old trouper as he released a series of driving singles calling us with unflagging energy and wit to get up off our butts and out onto the dance floor.

The most potent and memorable of these, ‘ Walking The Dog’ has become something of a Soul/R&B standard (even receiving the accolade of a cover by The Rolling Stones). The video clip shows Rufus in full flow.

The mid 60s saw Carla and Stax records really hit their stride utilising teams of brilliant in house writers and the incomparable Booker T and The MGs as the house band. A perfect example of the power of such collaborations is a Carla classic from 1966: B -A – B – Y.

This pearl was authored by the great partnership of Isaac Hayes (a Teen Town alumni like Carla) and David Porter. There’s gospel testifying here as well as soul enticement in Carla’s seductive vocal backed by a steam heat rhythm section topped off with a straight into your skull chorus – a big hit guaranteed!

The canny bosses at Stax observing the success of Motown duet partnerships like Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell had the inspired idea of teaming Carla with the top man at Stax and in fact the top man in soul of his era – Otis Redding.

Dubbed the King and Queen of Soul they recorded some excellent sides together including the big international hit, ‘Tramp’. However, the track I’ve chosen to spotlight the duo is a wonderful reverie, ‘When Something Is Wrong With My Baby ..’.

Carla wisely never tries to match the inferno intensity of Otis, rather her caressing coolness offsets him perfectly making for a seriously sexy record. I like to listen to this one with a large Gin and Tonic at hand.

Rufus and Carla were stars of the triumphant Stax/Volt tour of Europe in 1967 which has become legendary for the intensity of the artists performances and the fervour of the audience responses.

Back in Memphis Rufus continued to produce some excellent sides including, ‘Memphis Train’ and, ‘Sophisticated Sissy’ before striking gold again with a novelty dance song, ”The Funky Chicken’ which proved he had learned a lesson or two about pleasing an audience back in the Rabbit Foot days!

When it comes to selling a song Rufus has few competitors. I have never managed to play this song only once so be prepared.

The end of the 60s closed out the glory days for both Rufus and Carla though both would record some valuable material later. But, given the history above it is clear that singly and together they were a significant element of the magnificence of Memphis music in that golden era.

In an age of fluff and flummery it’s good to be reminded that some things and some people lived lives and made music that will always endure because it was grounded in everyday experience turned through talent and heightened expression into true art.

Now, Baby that is real!

,

William Bell: the passion and stoicism of a quiet man!

There is little in life as impressive and convincing as the voice of a quiet man telling the truth.

William Bell a sage songwriter and stoic soul balladeer told us heartfelt, hard won truths about the eternal trials of love in an incandescent series of records issued from Memphis in the 1960s on the mighty Stax label which still resonate.

These records, especially those contained on his magnificent, ‘Soul of a Bell’ album have become boon companions during the trials and triumphs of my own life.

Wherever I go William Bell goes with me.

During my second year at college I grew weary of the role of ninja intellectual and withdrew to the quiet of my room overlooking a Cambridge meadow. There, largely heedless of my official studies, I obsessively read St Augustine, Dante, Raymond Chandler, Seamus Heaney and Russell Hoban.

My engagement with these profound truth tellers was accompanied and reinforced by a soundtrack largely composed of Schubert, Aretha Franklin, Laura Nyro, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and William Bell.

And, it might surprise you to learn that if all the hours of listening were collated it was William that I turned to most often for wisdom and solace.

Wisdom and solace told in the voice of a quiet man telling the truth. In William Bell’s songs and singing there’s no hectoring, no over emoting, no grandstanding. Instead it’s as if someone looks you dead in the eye before saying .. this is how its been for me brother – maybe you know the feeling.

You don’t miss your water till your well runs dry. Tell it to me William! Tell it to me!

In contrast to the urgent, urban, industrial beat from Motown the beat from Stax was measured, agrarian, heavy with Southern heat and shimmer. This is music which seems to beckon you in to share a grown up tale of life as it is lived by folks just like you.

The introductory gospel piano says, ‘listen up!’ I’ve got something important to tell you. The stately tempo laid down by mournful horns, dead man walking drums and enveloping organ frames William Bell’s reflective, rueful vocal.

It’s the sound of a man finally understanding and coming to terms with the consequences of the arrogance of his mistaken choices. The bravura of the playboy falls away revealing the shamed penitent who must walk on alone without the one who really did love him. There’s no going back now. Walk on knowing that some lessons have to be learned the hard way – you don’t miss your water till your well runs dry. Till your well runs dry.

There is no trace of self pity in William Bell’s vocal. Rather, this is a man who is singing this song gently to himself or the silent moon above. ‘Listening to ‘You Don’t Miss Your Water’ you know it’s true and that it carries a folk wisdom that will always be true. Attend to your well.

A year later William Bell, with, ‘(I wouldn’t have it) Any Other Way’ once again elegantly captured one of the perpetual dilemmas of love – how do you cope with being rejected and discarded by the one who held your heart? I have to admit I’ve sung this more than a few times to the moon myself back in the day.

Haven’t we all, bruised and reeling from a break up adopted the pose of the couldn’t care less lover airily declaiming, desperate for the message to be reported back, now that I think of it (not that its been much on my mind) I really wouldn’t have it any other way. Any other way.

It’s obvious here that William and the team at Stax were aware of the exquisite charm of the records of the late 50s/early 60s Drifters as well as the tender, heartfelt outpourings of Arthur Alexander. The result is a glorious record that has soul staying power and pop gloss.

Next another of William’s songs that never fails to stir the heart, ‘Private Number’

Private Number is one of the great soul duet records of the 1960s ranking with Marvin and Tammy and Otis and Carla. The song tells the story of the lover who has been,’away’ seeking to rekindle the flames of love with the one whose memory has perhaps been all he has had to hold onto in their time apart. Where is, ‘away’?

William Bell was a Vietnam veteran so it may well be that, ‘away’ was his way of alluding to shattering experiences of war. Many, many soldiers struggling through the days and sleepless at night must have wondered who now had their baby’s precious private number. And, arriving home intact but forever scarred who wouldn’t be chastened to learn that the private number had been changed?

The sense of dread this sets up makes the relief of hearing, ‘Welcome Home, nothing’s wrong’ overwhelmingly powerful. To collapse, safe, into the arms of the one you love after an ordeal is one of the most emotionally nurturing and reassuring experiences of our lives. Life will go on and all will be well no matter how terrible the events of the past.

As the 1960s ended there was a deep sense of foreboding in the air. An uneasy sense that the days of sunlit hope were now overshadowed and that something terrible was coming – a bad moon on the rise.

William Bell, in his characteristically personal and understated way caught this feeling in his most mature inquiry into the challenge of keeping love alive as the grinding years grind on.

His song, ‘I Forgot To Be Your Lover’ is the soliloquy of a man, a wounded soldier on the battlefield of love, summoning up all his depleted energies in one last attempt to save his marriage.

We open with looming strings evoking glowering rain heavy clouds about to unleash a deluge.

Then tolling, Curtis Mayfield like, guitar appears before William’s at first meditative and later rueful and anguished vocal proceeds as he examines his conscience and identifies with painful honesty how he has failed to combine the roles of companion, lover and husband.

In moments of revelatory clarity he understands that love not endlessly renewed must wither and will die. Somehow, taking her for granted, he has lost his way and fallen into romantic lethargy. Simply he forgot to be a lover.

Now he knows the depth of his transgressions he can only beg for forgiveness and the chance to show that the love he forgot to offer still lives in his heart.

The sixties songs of William Bell amount to a kind of pilgrims progress taking us into the joy of winning love, the pain of losing of love and the desperate struggle to hold onto love in the face of our inevitable human weaknesses.

Through our stumbling missteps and mistakes most of have all foolishly taken for granted that the the well of love will somehow be endlessly replenished. We forget too easily that love needs nurture. That we must be a lover as well as the one who is loved.

The course of love necessarily involves doubt and struggle as well as growth and contentment. William Bell, with his insistent quiet voice telling the truth, is just the companion you need beside you on your journey

Notes:

I regard, ‘The Soul of a Bell’ as an essential record. Order it today.

In addition to the songs considered above look out for:

Share What You Got … ‘
‘Everybody Loves A Winner’, ‘
Everyday WIll Be Like A Holiday’
and his original of the now blues standard, written with Booker T, ‘Born Under A Bad Sign’.

After leaving Stax William had a major US hit with, ‘Tryin’ to Love Two’

All his albums reveal a singer who digs deep into a ballad to bring forth beauty.

William Bell is a very fine songwriter and his songs have been memorably covered by Otis Redding, Joe Tex, The Byrds, Albert King and Cream among many others.

If you search YouTube you can find William performing with masterful ease before President Obama and bringing in the new year on Jools Holland’s UK TV show.

Sassy Soul Sisters!

Four in the morning. The last train is long gone and the night bus isn’t going your way. The streets glisten with the remains of last nights rain and a sheen of the incoming dawn’s dew. There’s a cold moon lighting up a cold clear sky. It’s going to be a long walk home.

But you don’t care! However hard the pavement beneath your feet it might as well be a deep pile carpet. Because you have been dancing for hours and hours in the club to the sounds of Memphis, Detroit, Philadelphia and Miami. You are floating, floating – almost flying home.

As you pace out the miles you relive the sounds of the records that held you enthralled; that lifted your heart and spirits so that a dark dank tubercular winter evening in England became a glimpse of Eden.

Listening, as loud as you dare, to those records later you can almost recapture that feeling. But, for the full effect you need to dance and dance and dance until you are lost in the music, lost to yourself and lost to all the workaday world and it’s shabby cares.

Buried in your pocket there’s a girl’s name and number on a sodden scrap of paper with the ink fading to indecipherability. But, you have always been good with names and numbers : when you want to remember, you remember.

The Marvellettes, ‘Beechwood 4-5789′, Toots And The Maytals, ’54-56 Was My Number’, The Wicked Mr Wilson Pickett, ’99 And A Half Won’t Do’. Victoria, that’s it – 0198 978 9999 – you’ll call her tomorrow.

Mr Pickett was right. A Ninety-Nine and a half life won’t do. And, when you’re listening to and dancing to those great soul records which glow with passion your life dial hits the 100! So you keep returning to experience an intensity of feeling nothing else you have yet known can provide.

Somehow these songwriters, singers, musicians and arrangers have found a way to gloriously dramatise the dreams and stumbling realities of romantic lives in a way that’s completely convincing and captivating.

You will carry these songs of your youth in your heart through all the joys and sorrows of your adult life. Simply recalling them in your memory will warm the chilliest situation.

Three songs from those long ago nights sung by young women with thrilling verve, panache and a sassy,’Don’t mess with me Brother’ attitude never seem far from the forefront of your mind.

First up, from 1971, a million seller from a seventeen year old veteran of the music business, Betty Wright, laying down with a preachers passion some seriously good advice to her sisters on how to manage their love lives. Never make it easy for the, ‘Clean Up Woman’!

Betty had been singing on record since she was a toddler and clocking up countless performing hours with her family gospel group, ‘The Echoes of Joy’ in Miami. So, when she came to Clarence Reid and Willie Clarke’s tasty song while still a teenager she was able to lean into the lyric and drive the song along with a knowing poise that seems astonishing in one so young.

The interlocking groove provided by the bubbling bass, the sometimes stabbing and sometimes liquid rippling guitar played by the brilliant Willie Hale (otherwise known as Little Beaver) and the humidifying horns creates an addictive soundscape that cries out for immediate repetition.

I love the way the sashaying tempo carries you along while Betty addresses her audience with relaxed rhythmic authority. Don’t put your man on the shelf! Take care or that tough old Clean Up Woman really will clean up.

So, if you want to hold on to the love you’ve got take a tip girls (and boys!) you better get hip to the Clean Up Woman!

Some names just don’t cut it in the entertainment world – I think we can all agree that for a debonair movie icon the name Cary Grant was perfect for the hallowed above the title spot on the film posters. Archibald Leach, his original monicker, would never have suited his screen image.

Similarly, Mildred Pulliam doesn’t trip off the tongue promising excitement and allure. So the next record on deck, ‘Short Stopping’ was issued in 1973, courtesy of a brainstorming session at Stax Records, by the artist who would forever after be known as Veda Brown.

Veda, originally from Missouri, grew up singing gospel at her father’s church. Arriving at Stax she had made demos of two songs, (‘If Loving You is Wrong) I Don’t Want To Be Right’ and, I’ll Be Your Shelter (In Time Of Storm) that would go on to be huge successes for Luther Ingram before she hit paydirt with her third Stax single written by Bobby Manuel (who also engineered and played guitar) and Bettye Crutcher..

Short Stopping opens with a ‘listen to this’ right now blast from the horns before the rhythm section and the insistent guitar make sure we all get on our good foot for some serious dance floor action. Veda tells her straying man straight from the shoulder that things can’t go on as they are.

She refuses to turn a demure blind eye to his failings – she won’t put up with his short stopping. She needs and demands to be his sole concern. Veda’s vocal has a charm and gliding power worthy of the patented Stax steamy and driving musicianship that surrounds her.

Finally, an absolute belter from 1971 from Jean Knight the properly admonitiary, ‘Mr Big Stuff’. Though the record was issues on Stax and has become one of that label’s biggest ever sellers it was not recorded at Stax. Instead, it came to Stax via the Malaco studios in Jackson Mississippi.

It was actually recorded on the same day as another funky floor filler, ‘Groove Me’ by King Floyd. Jean and King Floyd had both travelled in a school bus from New Orleans in search of a hit.

Both records feature superlative arrangements by one of the unsung masters of Soul and Rhythm and Blues Music, Wardell Quezergue. Wardell, an alumni of the great Dave Bartholomew band, as well as playing the supporting organ parts marshals Jerry Puckett (guitar), Vernie Robbins (Bass), James Stroud (Drums) and Brass Players Hugh Garraway and Perry Lomax to produce a swelling soul tsunami of a record.

Jean Knight imperiously, no doubt with a knowing wink to her girlfriends, puts the so-called Mr Big Stuff firmly in his place (the doghouse!).

Mr Big Stuff features a lovely two bar off beat bass line that grips you from the get go and propels you onwards throughout the song. It’s easy to hear why this song became such a massive seller and why it is regularly used in adverts and movies. You feel Jean deserved a round of applause and righteous Amens from her colleagues in the studio when she completed her vocal.

Those Amens should be taken up again by us as conspiratorial listeners as she turns the tables on her errant lover. Jean certainly showed on this record that she had the,’Right Stuff’ that marks out a true artist.

What all these records share is a relaxed drive and rhythmic impetus. The producers and arrangers have had the confidence to let the musicians and singers keep some power in reserve. As a listener and a dancer you are energised by their tempos – you finish the song elated but not exhausted – ready to dance again.

Betty Wright, Veda Brown and Jean Knight speak out as confident, assertive young women demanding the right to be heard and heeded stating their case with ready wit. Time to cue them up again!

Notes:

Betty Wright – Her best single album is, ‘Danger High Voltage’ and there are several fine compilations available. Look out for fine tracks like, ‘Baby Sitter’, ‘Where Is The Love’, ‘Tonight Is The Night’ and especially the wonderful, ‘Shoorah! Shoorah!’ which will have you singing lustily along first time out and smiling crazily as you dance wherever you are. Betty is a show business trouper who has continued to record and perform up to the present day.

Veda Brown – Veda’s essential career highlights are nicely captured on, ‘The Stax Solo Recordings’ on the UK Kent label where she is twinned with the excellent Judy Clay. I would point you in the direction of the tracks, ‘True Love Don’t Grow On Trees’ and, ‘That’s The Way Love Is’.

Jean Knight – Mr Big Stuff was a once in a lifetime record selling over 3 million copies to date and winning Jean a Grammy nomination. Further notable tracks at Stax to look out for are, Carry On’ and, ‘Do Me’. Post Stax highlights include, ‘You Got The Papers (But I Got The Man) and a fine version of, ‘Toot Toot’. Jean is a fine performer who has often triumphed at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

Little Beaver – A magnificent guitarist with his own subtle style. Everyone should own his signature track, ‘Party Down’ and his series of 70s albums are a compendium of top class musicianly grooves illuminating the blues, soul and funk traditions. They have accompanied me on many long late night drives and made the miles pass easily.

Wardell Quezergue – Was a renaissance man of the recording industry with real talent as a songwriter, musician, band leader, producer and arranger. He worked with virtually all of the major figures in the New Orleans Soul and Rhythm and Blues world. He is associated with stellar hit records such as Robert Parker’s, ‘Barefootin’ and Dorothy Moore’s, ‘Misty Blue’.

As sharp a judge as Motown supremo Berry Gordy recognised his facility and recruited him to work up stage arrangements for Stevie Wonder and other Hitsville stars. His collaboration with Dr John produces the lovely Grammy winning album, ‘Goin’ Back To New Orleans’ and he showed his mentoring abilities when promoting the career of Will Porter.

Great name, great musician.

Sun and Stax Records Pioneers: Rufus and Carla Thomas!

All families contains the history of multitudes through the cultures they are heir to and which they live within. At the same time each family can be an agent for cultural change and development through their actions and works. We stand on the shoulders of giants but we can see a destination ahead they could never reach.

This is particularly the case in families whose work lies within the popular arts. If you grow up with music and talk about music is all around; if you watch shows from the side of the stage and know the drudgery as well as the glamour of, ‘show business’ you will either run a mile and seek, sensibly, to become a lawyer or farmer or you will think there is no other life worth living than that of writing, singing and performing songs and bathing in the approval of an audience.

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The careers of Rufus and Carla Thomas, father and daughter, take us on a fascinating journey through twentieth century American popular culture. We will encounter: travelling minstrel shows, the development of Afro-American radio and the birth and growth of two of the nations fountainhead records companies (Sun and Stax) which produced many of the greatest rock n roll, soul and rhythm and blues records ever made.

We will also meet music icons of the stature of Sam Phillips, Elvis Presley, B B King and Otis Redding and realise why the city of Memphis can justifiably lay claim to have been the capital city of American music.

Rufus Thomas was a magnetic figure with personality and character to burn. He had that most attractive and winning of human qualities – vitality. There were no downcast faces when Rufus was around! He was a one man party who lit up every room he ever entered with his ebullience and appetite for creating and sharing enjoyment.

He was born in rural Mississippi in1917 moving to Memphis as a toddler. It was in that bustling metropolis that he grew up and learned to become an entertainer who combined the talents of a dancer/hoofer, comedian, singer, talent show host and radio disc jockey. I think that’s what you call an all rounder!

Leaving Booker T Washington High School in 1936 with the depression suffocating the nation he took his talents on the road throughout the South with the legendary F S Walcott Rabbit Foot Minstrels (commemorated in a lovely rowdy song by The Band). ‘The Foots’ were a glorious travelling tent show troupe which operated between 1900 and the late 1950s bringing comedy sketches and salty song and dance routines to any town, large or small, where the tent could be pitched and an audience drummed up.

Arriving in town the brass band would parade with comedians like Rufus announcing the wonders of the show to come. The stage, boards on a folding frame, would be set up with gasoline lamps acting as footlights. While the liquored up audience waited for Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey or Louis Jordan to come on Rufus would whip up the crowd with comic dancing and jive jokes tailored to the local audience and introduce the dancing girls who invariably managed to increase the show’s temperature by several degrees centigrade.

After the War Rufus was back in Memphis working for a textile company and married with three children; Carla, Marvell and Vaneese. He hooked up again with his high school mentor, Nat D Williams, who was a key figure in Memphis Afro-American culture as teacher, journalist, talent spotter and pioneering radio host. Nat D recognised that Rufus’ energy, affability and show business smarts gave him all the necessary qualities to be a successful talent show host. So, Rufus began to regularly host the shows at the Palace Theatre on Beale Street once announcing the youthful Riley (B. B.) King as the winner in the late 40s. Rufus was still hoping to make it as a singer though singles on labels like Star, Chess and Meteor shifted few units.

The next stage in Rufus career was again given impetus in 1951 through the good offices of Nat D who brought him on to be a disc jockey for WDIA – a Memphis radio station which, uniquely at the time, used black DJs to broadcast to the considerable black audience in Memphis and anywhere else 50,000 watts of power could reach!

Radio was king in the first post war decade reaching into almost every home in the country and providing the soundtrack to millions of lives through immensely popular shows that gathered whole families round the set.

Rufus, with his easy charm was a radio natural and his, ‘Hoot and Holler’ show became essential listening not just for his own community but also for young white hipsters like Elvis Presley or Steve Cropper who just knew that they could play those rhythm and blues too if they were only given the chance.

As it happened in Memphis there was a man, one of the true heroes of American music, Sam Phillips who was able to make those dreams come true. Rufus, in the early 1950s was often at Sun studios at 706 Union Avenue working with Phillips as he recorded brilliant blues sides by artists like Howling Wolf. It was Rufus who provided Sun with its first breakout single in 1953 with, ‘Bear Cat’ an answer record to Mama Thornton’s,’Hound Dog’ which reached No 3 in the R&B chart (this launched a series of legal actions but that’s another story).

Rufus let rip with the full force of his personality matching Big Mama all the way while adding a sly spin of his own to the story of mismatched lovers. The featured stinging guitar is by Joe Hill Louis.

Turn this one up as loud as you can!

Rufus, like all the other black artists at Sun then faded into the background as Sam Phillips realised that the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow could only be found by recording white artists, preferably young handsome guys, who could combine blues, rhythm and blues and country influences to create a new sound on the face of the earth – rock ‘n’ roll. Enter Elvis Presley! Elvis was aware of Rufus through listening to WDIA and he always retained a fondness for ‘Tiger Man’ which Rufus had recorded at Sun.

Rufus continued to combine full time work at the textile plant with his entertainment career throughout the 1950s. Meanwhile, Carla who had been born in 1942 was soon displaying the family relish for singing and performing. At the tender age of 10 she joined the WDIA sponsored Teen Town Singers and was combining her school duties with twice weekly rehearsals and a radio show every Saturday. Rufus could hear that his daughter had an attractive voice and unusual poise for such a young artist.

So, in 1959 Rufus decided to approach a new Memphis recording outfit, Satellite Records, headed up by siblings Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton and persuaded them that they needed to move beyond the country and pop markets R&B to thrive in their home town and the rest of the nation. Rufus and Carla recorded the duet, ‘Cause I Love You’ at Satellite’s studio and operational headquarters which was located in a former cinema/theatre on McLemore Avenue. And, voila! Satellite had its first hit (helped by the distribution deal agreed with sharp eared Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records). Soon after Jim and Estelle would use the first two letters of their surnames and create Stax Records.

The next time Carla’s name appeared on a record it was on the Atlantic label with a song she had written as a 16 year old, ‘Gee Whizz (Look At His Eyes). Gee Whizz is a heart and soul on the sleeve love ballad that could only have been written by a teenager in the delirious throes of adolescent love/infatuation. Do you remember that oh so sweet feeling as you gazed at your love object? While no one could or should maintain that obsessive attachment to the dream of love its a poor soul that does not cherish a small remembrance of those heady days. And, nothing can swoosh you back to those days with more efficiency than Carla’s utterly beguiling vocal here. Lean back, close your eyes and swoon!

The song became an immediate radio favourite and once Atlantic was behind it and Carla appeared on the nations premier pop TV show, ‘American Bandstand’ there was no stopping, ‘Gee’ from ascending to the top 10 of the national charts and a permanent place in the memories of a generation.

Carla then issued a string of singles on Atlantic and then Stax demonstrating that the attractively naive young girl was growing into a smart and sassy young woman who could convincingly embody a full range of adult emotions with engaging vocal style. Listen to her here in 1963 with a song especially beloved by her European fans, ‘I’ll Never Stop Loving You’. You’d have to have a stony heart and leaden feet not to be up and practicing your finest twists and twirls to this one!

In that same year of 1963 Rufus showed that there was still life in the old trouper as he released a series of driving singles calling us with unflagging energy and wit to get up off our butts and out onto the dance floor. The most potent and memorable of these, ‘ Walking The Dog’ has become something of a Soul/R&B standard (even receiving the accolade of a cover by The Rolling Stones). The video clip shows Rufus in full flow.

The mid 60s saw Carla and Stax records really hit their stride utilising teams of brilliant in house writers and the incomparable Booker T and The MGs as the house band. A perfect example of the power of such collaborations is a Carla classic from 1966: B -A – B – Y. This pearl was authored by the great partnership of Isaac Hayes (a Teen Town alumni like Carla) and David Porter. There’s gospel testifying here as well as soul enticement in Carla’s seductive vocal backed by a steam heat rhythm section topped off with a straight into your skull chorus – a big hit guaranteed!

The canny bosses at Stax observing the success of Motown duet partnerships like Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell had the inspired idea of teaming Carla with the top man at Stax and in fact the top man in soul of his era – Otis Redding. Dubbed the King and Queen of Soul they recorded some excellent sides together including the big international hit, ‘Tramp’. However, the track I’ve chosen to spotlight the duo is a wonderful reverie, ‘When Something Is Wrong With My Baby ..’. Carla wisely never tries to match the inferno intensity of Otis, rather her caressing coolness offsets him perfectly making for a seriously sexy record. I like to listen to this one with a large Gin and Tonic at hand.

Rufus and Carla were stars of the triumphant Stax/Volt tour of Europe in 1967 which has become legendary for the intensity of the artists performances and the fervour of the audience responses.

Back in Memphis Rufus continued to produce some excellent sides including, ‘Memphis Train’ and, ‘Sophisticated Sissy’ before striking gold again with a novelty dance song, ”The Funky Chicken’ which proved he had learned a lesson or two about pleasing an audience back in the Rabbit Foot days! When it comes to selling a song Rufus has few competitors. I have never managed to play this song only once so be prepared.

The end of the 60s closed out the glory days for both Rufus and Carla though both would record some valuable material later. But, given the history above it is clear that singly and together they were a significant element of the magnificence of Memphis music in that golden era. In an age of fluff and flummery it’s good to be reminded that some things and some people lived lives and made music that will always endure because it was grounded in everyday experience turned through talent and heightened expression into true art. Now, Baby that is real!

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Guitar Instrumentals a Go Go!

Every decent Jukebox ought to have several fine instrumentals on offer. The golden age of popular music, the 1920s to the 1970s, glittered with thrilling and moody instrumentals that blasted from car and transistor radios and the neon lit jukeboxes.

Most of tne great instrumental hits hold you from the first notes and then take you on a dizzy aural ride before depositing you breathless as the last note sounds.

I have always loved guitar instrumentals. There’s something elemental about those rousing riffs that locks deep into your memory and your musical heart. The guitar instrumental can evoke a panoply of moods and tones from slashing attack to daydream lullabies.

The effective power of an instrumental is not necessarily related to instrumental virtuosity – its more something to do with familiarity and surprise. Every time someone comes up with a winning riff you feel as if you’re recognising, recalling, something you’ve always known and yet you are charmed and surprised by its newly minted freshness. Simple really!

In a recent post I let you in on my fantasy off hosting a late night radio show and told you I already had the theme picked out. Well to kick of this instrumental fiesta here’s the one and only Link Wray with, ‘Turnpike USA’.

Can’t you just imagine setting cruise control, winding the windows down and driving into the setting or rising sun listening to this one?

Link Wray was a part Shawnee, power chording guitar hero if there ever was one! He was a master of distortion and of straight for the throat drive and attack. His records demonstrate the awesome power of electric energy being restrained then unleashed.

They will never go out of style and you can bet someone right now is strapping on a guitar thinking they can match Link. Very few of them will succeed but they’ll have a heap of fun trying!

Next up a guitar player so good and influential that a whole style, ‘Travis Pickin” is named in his honour. I refer to the mesmerising maestro of guitar picking from Muhlenberg County Kentucky, Merle Travis. Merle came out of and developed the multi-racial finger picking guitar styles of coal rich Western Kentucky.

His guitar playing miraculously melds elements of ragtime, jazz, hillbilly boogie, the blues and western swing. Which is to say that Merle listened with wide open ears to all the music pouring out of the local radio stations and figured out how to take the elements of style needed for the particular tune he was ready to play (or write). He could seamlessly switch from finger picking to flat picking like a musical conjurerer.

All this was done with charming relaxed authority. Sure, Merle wasn’t above a little showing off but generally his virtuoso skills were part of a musical whole not an end in themselves.

Perhaps this was because Merle was a brilliant songwriter as well as a supreme guitar stylist. After all, this is the man who wrote, ‘Sixteen Tons’ and ‘Dark As A Dungeon’ – songs that resound down the ages.

The showcase for Merle the picker here is this jaw dropping take on, ‘Cannonball Rag’

My next choice is from a musician, Johnny Jenkins, who is only well known to music scholars especially those devotees like myself of the home of deep southern soul the Stax/Volt label. This track appears on Volume 4 of the 9 CD, ‘Complete Singles’ set.

I consider possession of that collection of eternity shale to be the mark of a civilised person who would also have the 1911 Brittanica safely shelved along with the complete works of P G Woodhouse and Wild Bill Shakespeare.

Johnny was a left handed blues based player whose most important contribution to musical history, apart from the track in question here, is that he employed the young Otis Redding as his driver. And, one epochal day in 1962, allowed him to use up 40 minutes of remaining studio time to see what he could come up with.

Those blessed minutes yielded the stupendous ballad, ‘These Arms Of Mine’ and the rest as they say is, History!

The track I’ve selected here is called, ‘Spunky’ and lasts barely two minutes. But, what joy, what joy! I advise you to turn this up as loud as you can and clear your furniture away. For, if you’re anything like me you’ll find yourself whirling around like a dervish possessed while this one plays! I can’t tell you how much I love this record.

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Finally we may all need cooling down now so to sign off I’ll leave you with a tune that seems to contain the midnight breeze, the lapping of waves on the Atlantic shore and the blessed breath of your baby child.

Surely you’ve guessed I’m introducing the immortal, ‘Sleep Walk’ by the Farina Brothers from Brooklyn New York – known to you and me and the Billboard Charts as Santo and Johnny.

In 1959 this climbed all the way to the top of the chart and it’s still regularly played when anyone wants to look at the stars and dream of a better day tomorrow. The boys greatest popularity came later in Mexico and Italy where they appreciate lyrical playing.

Got to say that’s put me in the mood to play Link Wray again – why don’t you?