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Topic: Rufus Thomas, Father of R&B, Dead at 84 Return to archive
12-15-01 10:57 PM
CS It is with tremendous sadness that I report the death this morning of the great Rufus Thomas. The father of soul music, a.k.a. rhythm and blues, who influenced so many stars, was 84. He lived in his hometown of Memphis.

With his daughter, Carla, Rufus had the first and really most important hits on the famed Stax record label—"Cause I Love You So" and "Nighttime is the Right Time." He also had a huge hit of his own in 1963, "Walking the Dog," which set the tone for a lot of modern soul and funk to come in the Sixties and Seventies. Everyone from Isaac Hayes to Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett, and Ike and Tina Turner were in way or another inspired or taught by Rufus Thomas. The Rolling Stones even recorded "Walking the Dog" on their first album, proving that Rufus's reputation was known around the world. In Memphis there's a street named for him, a city historical plaque tells his story, and a statue of his likeness is on Beale Street.

Rufus was also a keen wit and a comic, billing himself as the "World's Oldest Teenager" as he commanded the airwaves in Memphis on WDIA Radio. His radio show, which he had done most recently with Jay Michael Davis, became a cult program for anyone interested in blues and laughter. He is credited with playing Elvis Presley's records on black radio before anyone.

I had the good fortune to meet Rufus and get to know him and Carla two summers ago for a feature documentary called Only the Strong Survive. He was still doing the weekly radio show, had just released a new album on the High Stacks label out of Memphis, and was gigging whenever possible. That weekend he and Carla performed at a benefit for Luther Ingram, the singer of "If Loving You Is Wrong (I Don't Want to Be Right)." Rufus was greeted by every single performer over the 12 hour concert with respect as Soul Man Eminence Grise, the King of Soul. Whether it was the late Johnny Taylor or a flock of gospel singers, they all wanted to meet him and shake his hand. He met each one with style and grace, accepting the honors they bestowed.

To us—and to all the people of Memphis—Rufus was one of a kind and the last real senior statesmen of soul. I don't think he had any regrets but he did tell me the one thing he hadn't done in his spectacular life was play the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. It's possible he'll turn up there on film next year, which wouldn't be so bad. But the documentary—directed by Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebaker (, The War Room)—was not his first film. Rufus appeared in one movie by Jim Jarmusch (Mystery Train) and one by Robert Altman (Cookie's Fortune). He's one of the main players in the 1973 film about Stax Records called Wattstax and appeared in a highly underrated film called A Family Thing starring James Earl Jones in 1996.

Rufus leaves two children besides Carla—Marvell, his talented musician son, and Vaneese, an actress who lives in New York. His family was with him when he died.

12-15-01 11:19 PM
Cardinal Fang Rufus also appeared in this documentary I watched on PBS last night about Sun Records. It's really weird, I mean I just watched him on TV, LAST NIGHT. Now he's gone. Now who is going to show us how to walk the dog or who's gonna show us how to do the funky chicken?

Later, Cardinal Fang

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