Rufus Thomas (March 26, 1917 December 15, 2001) was a rhythm and blues and soul singer from Memphis, Tennessee, who recorded on Sun Records in the 1950s and on Stax Records in the 1960s and 1970s. He was the father of soul singer Carla Thomas ("B-A-B-Y") and keyboard player Marvell Thomas. A third daughter, Vaneese, a former French teacher, for years had a recording studio in upstate New York where she sang for television commercials.
Born a sharecropper's son in the rural community of Cayce, Mississippi, 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 University, 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 and 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.
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