On Wednesday nights, Rufus was the emcee at the Palace Theater on Beale Street. This was amateur night, where he had graduated from being a dancer to becoming also a comic foil for the emcee, Nat Williams,
to now add to his roles that of the emcee himself. He kept the comedy, and was always sharply dressed, continuing the theme he had started in school, and developing catchphrases like ''Ain't I'm clean?" or "Oh I feel so unnecessary".
He described to Peter Guralnick the shape of the show and the scale of the
talent. "First they had the movies and then the amateur, which was the bottom hour, and then it was back to the movies. I reached back and got a friend of mine,
his name was Robert Counts, they called him Bones, and we were together for eleven consecutive years at the Palace Theater every Wednesday night. We were making
five dollars a night and you had the Al Jackson band and they were only making 25 dollars and they had a big band too. The show was only a nickel then, but the
place was packed''.
He told Beale Street historians Margaret McKee and Fred Chisenhall: ''At that time we had contestants come up to perform, and then after everybody performed they'd all
come back on stage and the audience would applaud for first prize. They used to have $5, $3, and $2 but they cut that out and later everybody who came up on stage
would get a dollar. B. B. King used to come with holes in his shoes, his guitar all patched up, just to get that dollar''. Guitarist Calvin Newborn has recalled being presented
with five dollars by Rufus on Palace amateur night for playing a piano duet with his brother, Phineas on ''Hey Bop A Re Bop''.
In 1950, Rufus left the Palace because he couldn't get the
money he felt he was entitled to for his emcee role and comedy dance routines. Four decades later it still pained him to explain to Peter Guralnick: "I wanted more,
but I couldn't get Bones to go ask for it with me. So the man got with Bones and asked him if he would work with someone else, and I got fired''.
Rufus was soon running a Saturday midnight amateur show at the Handy Theater. He was by now a well-known name in black Memphis, and he was fast becoming associated with
the good time Saturday nights for which Beale Street was famous. He said, "Beale Street was the black man's haven. They'd come into town and forget all their worries and woes''.
daughter, Carla Thomas, had clear memories of those days. She told 'Soul And Jazz Record' in 1974: "Growing up in Memphis in the early 1950s held much excitement for me because
of my musical environment. Even though I was a young girl at the time, no one could outdo me when I did the Hambone. Bo Diddley came to Memphis often and he laughed about
it. My father had everyone in the Foote Homes project doing that routine. My father has been a hard worker all his life. Many times he worked three and four jobs to support our family,
traveling with different musicians to parts of Arkansas and Mississippi or wherever they could get a job, along with working in a textile mill and later as a disc jockey. My brother
and myself would be anxiously waiting for him to come home to give us accounts of his travels. He told us how country folks loved the blues, drank the booze, and we learned a lot
about life from daddy''.
Carla had a clear picture of Rufus's work closer to home, too: "I was at the Palace Theater often because my mother always took my brother and me to see daddy who was
usually the emcee. Daddy danced so well that he eventually got barred from competition: that's how he got to be emcee. I laughed until I cried at the jokes he shared
with his team partner Bones, of Rufus and Bones. It seemed to me then that to be associated with Beale Street was to be associated with creativity, strength and
pride. That's why many blacks, especially on the weekends, would congregate up and down Beale Street to feel the pulse of life it had to offer''.
easy to overplay the extent to which Beale was buzzing. In August 1950, ''Ebony'' magazine ran a feature about 'The New Beale Street''', emphasizing the rise of black owned business
and the real or hoped for gentrification of the street. ''Beale is but a ghost of the boisterious, blustering thorefare of yesterday, ''Ebony'', reported. ''It's sweet men and easy riders are gone; its gambling dens and nite spots are shut down. A new Beale Street is arising as a symbol of the new, enterprising, forward looking Southern Negro of today, looking forward to the day when Negro business will dominate the street''. It reported, ''by midnite these days the street is virtually deserted in contrast to the old days when the nite spots operated all night''.
In December, on the same theme, 'Billboard' reported a speech at Booker T. Washington High School by W. C. Handy, 77-year-old bandleader and composer
of the ''Beale Street Blues'' and ''Memphis Blues''. Handy thought, "In the days when I was here, everything in the Negro community centers around three or four
blocks on Beale. There were theaters, drug stores and saloons. Everybody put on his best to be seen on Beale: it was a promenade. Now there are many Negro communities
in the city and Beale has lost its charms. (It has) the character of an avenue of commerce, filled pawnshops, cheap cafes and second-hand stores where the tourist
can find no lure''. Handy felt the same thing had happened in New York on Lenox Avenue and in Harlem, Handy, who had him created a successful business in the North, felt that
"a certain race pride has gone by the boards. To many Negroes are trying to live white, and it's not good''. There may have been a generations element in this because, to the Thomas
family, the,scene was still buzzing, and Rufus was as integral part of it.
For people like Rufus Thomas, and Nat Williams, the pride was still very much there, too, and I started to take
other forms as well, not least through the efforts of radio WDIA, the first station to cater to black America in the South.
WDIA opened in June 1947 as the sixth station
in town, and one of the least important. At first, it purveyed classical, popular and hillbilly music, alongside the news. Bert Ferguson, who co-owned
the station with John Pepper, knew that Nat Williams was a communicator, someone who could inform as well as entertain. With low ratings, WDIA figured that through Nat they could try to gain listeners among the black community, which made up nearly half the local population. Williams started in October 1948 with a show called 'Tan Town Jamboree' and he quickly got a very positive response. Within a few years, WDIA moved to an all-black format and was being promoted as the 'Mother Station Of The Negro'. Besides Williams, WDIA recruited other local personalities from the schools and theaters of Memphis, including Gatemouth Moore, Maurice Hulbert, Theo Wade, Willa Monroe, Martha Jean ''The Queen'' Steinberg, Robert Thomas, Ford Nelson, A. C. 'Moohah' Williams - and, in September 1950, Rufus Thomas.
Rufus started at WDIA announcing
two hour-long record shows, 'House Of Happiness' and 'Special Delivery'. At first, it seems that he tried to sound upmarket, smooth and articulate, like the announcers
he heard on WREC broadcasting from posh venues like the Peabody Hotel. In fact, his own rasp of a voice was much more suited to selling records and sponsored goods
to his home-town audience, and station manager David James Mattis counseled him about retaining the sort of hip rapport that he had with theater and night club crowds. "Once I
became just Rufus, man, I started getting sharp and everything. My delivery stepped up, and there I was, a personality", he told a radio colleague, Louis Cantor. So much so that Mattis later described Rufus as ''the best black entertainer I ever saw in my life''.
In 1951, Rufus inherited the 'Sepia Swing Club' from B. B. King when King went on the road on
the back of his burgeoning recording career. 'Sepia Swing Club' was on at 3pm. Rufus had already worked a 6.30 to 2.30 shift American Textile and he used to catch the streetcar to the radio station, often leaping into his chair at or just beyond the opening of the show, ready to take off "like a late freight" as he put it. After a while he would get a ride in his friend's car and then from 1954 he traveled in his own automobile. His opening patter remained the same though: "Come in the club, we're ready and right/ Got records and jive, no fuss no fight/ This is Rufus Thomas of Sepia Swing/ Gonna try to make you laugh and sing''.
In June 1954, WDIA increased its signal power significantly to 50,000 watts, covering not just
the Memphis area but the entire South. This was a big success with sponsors, and it cemented the station's place in the local black community. According to Rufus, ''I don't care what - if it was said on WDIA, that was it. They would argue you down. They'd say, I heard it on WDIA, and that was it''. By this time, Rufus had another Saturday morning show, 'Boogie For Breakfast', and he was on with the 'Hoot 'N' Holler' show every night from 9.30 to 11pm starting the party with "I'm young and loose and full of juice/ We're all feeling gay though we ain't got a dollar/ So let's all get together and hoot 'n' holler''. Dora Todd, a teacher at Washington High said: "Most folks in the 1950s may not have been able to tell you who the mayor or governor was, but they sure knew the names of Nat Williams and Rufus Thomas''. One of the additional reasons folks knew Rufus in the 1950s was that he had just broadened his entertainment portfolio and emerged as a major name in the world of rhythm and blues recordings.
By the end of the 1940s, Rufus Thomas had spent several years
singing in Memphis night spots with a number of good local bands; those of Bill Harvey, Al Jackson, Bill Fort and Tuff Green. He hadn't seen this as his main forte
but it was a developing part of his gamplan as an entertainer. He said, "My models were Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong, and a fellow named Gatemouth Moore, Dwight
Moore out of Memphis. They were all good entertainers, very very versatile''.
Gatemouth Moore had recently been a successful recording artist before returning to Memphis
to work over WDIA, and he was one of the reasons why Rufus started to think about making records himself. He recalled: "I was working in a club as a singer, and it was something
I wanted to do. It was a chance. I just wanted to be on record. I never thought of getting rich. I just wanted to be known, be a recording artist''. The opportunity
presented itself one day around Christmas, 1949, in the form of a visit from
Louise Erickson ran Louise's Record Shop at 3313 Oakland Avenue in south Dallas. Erickson was a regional record distributor who started issuing records on his Talent and Star Talent
label to showcase local artists. He issued many hillbilly recordings, made in his local area, before launching out with a short-lived blues series in 1950, comprising of recordings largely made on location.
Country artist Boots Bourquin said: "Jesse and Louise did a lot of advertising on the radio, and he wholesaled and retailed records. That was
a pretty big thing because all them stars had records in there and they would come by and meet him. It was a gathering place for musicians, all those guys that
was trying to get a start in country music. He was a real nice guy, a real big guy, six foot four and weighed 250''.
Rufus was singing at the Club Tropicana, also known as Johnny Curry's Club, on Thomas Street on the north side of Memphis when Jesse Erickson walked through the door tarrying a bulky recording machine and a microphone. According to Rufus, he just introduced himself and asked if he could set up and record the band for his label. Rufus had never heard of the Talent label, but he did want to be on records, so he agreed. It is likely that Erickson had made some prior arrangement to be there, but if so the details remain undiscovered. Rufus recalled a little of the session: "They'd put this big heavy needle down, and when you'd be singing you could see the needle cutting into that acetate, just digging those grooves right around there."
The label of Rufus's record stated at the top that it was
in the 'Folk Series,' but at the side indicated in smaller print that it was in fact part of the 'Blues And Rhythm Series'. The disc was listed in 'Billboard' among
the 'New Rhythm & Blues Releases' for the week of 25 February 1950, and ''I'm So Worried'' was also reviewed, although the opinion was mixed, and indeed a little
Harsh on the band: "Thomas shows first class style on a slow blues, but the combo work is amateurish behind him''.
If Rufus was disappointed at the lack of a second release on Star Talent, then his
sorrow should d have been short-lived. Within six months, he was back on record again. However, this time he was disguised on the record label as 'Mr. Swing' and
he may not even have known about his release on Nashville's Bullet label. If he did know at the time, he seemed to have forgotten about it through most of his career
and only acknowledged it nearly fifty years after the event. When we played him the disc in 1999 he appeared, saying, ''Hey that is me. I had forgotten all about
those songs, but you know, that really is me''. He seemed to have no recollection of the matter being raised with him three years earlier by Dave Clarke of ''Blues
And Rhythm'' magazine – but he undergone a bypass operation in-between times.
The release of ''Beer Bottle Boogie'' and ''Gonna Bring My Baby Back'' on Bullet 327 came about
in similar 'on location' circumstances to those surrounding the Star Talent episode. The songs were apparently recorded sometime around 9 to 11 June 1950 when the Lionel Hampton
orchestra was playing at the Handy Theater in Memphis, and when Rufus Thomas sang with a smaller band drawn from Hampton's musicians. The band was credited to Hampton's
saxophonist and songwriter, Bobby Plafer, and the deal was apparently set up between Overton Gong, then head of Bullet Records, Robert Henry, the manager of the Handy Theater,
and Bert Ferguson of WDIA who had"the previous year been instrumental in sending B. B. King's first recordings to Bullet.
''Beer Bottle Boogie has, a strong boogie piano opening from
Milt Buckner, whose trademark grunting can be clearly heard on these recordings. Rufus tells how he got higher than a kite, then all hipped-up, then burned at poker
- the recipe for getting the beer bottle boogie way down deep inside. Then the classy band really comes into its own with a fabulous sax solo while the other players
interject and swirl all around it. Rufus said: ''I do remember that ''Beer Bottle'' song, and that is a good band, a quality band on there. I, think so''. Incidentally, Marilyn
Scott recorded a ''Beer Bottle Boogie'' on Regent in September 1950; it appears to be a different song altogether, but Mr. Swing may have inspired the title. ''Gonna Bring
My Baby Back'' is a swinging mid-pace item driven by the piano towards a smooth tenor solo that builds up while the band riffs effectively. Rufus tells a familiar tale about his baby leaving
but he's gonna find her, and he tells it with some vocal style. 'Billboard' listed the disc among the New Rhythm & Blues Releases of July 22, 1950, where Mr. Swing lined up alongside
''Mr. Cadillac'' and his The R D Boogie, Louis Jordan's ''Blue Light Boogie'', Gatemouth Brown's ''Boogie Rambler'', and Ray Charles' ''The Ego Song'', among others.
One disc it should have sat
alongside was ''Phillips Sent Me'', Bullet 329 by Jerome Richardson, Lionel Hampton's young saxophone prodigy, fronting the same Bobby Plater band that had backed
Rufus. The disc possibly included vocals by Hampton's vocalist Betty Carter but this is uncertain because a copy of the record has not been located. What is clear is that the
tune was inspired by Memphis disc jockey, Dewey Phillips, whose catchphrase was to tell radio listeners to 'say that Phillips sent ya" when entering a store. A year later, in July 1951, 'Billboard' reported that "Dewey Phillips'' advice to his WHBQ listeners to tell merchants 'Phillips sent me' has become a by-word in Memphis and his show is being considered for coast to coast broadcast over the Mutual network. Newest twist is that he's to be immortalized in song, with Joe Liggins and his Honeydrippers planning to record a ditty entitled ''Phillips Sent Me''. It is possible that there had been some copyright, wrangling over the song and a threatened legal restraint that led to Bullet pulling the disc from sale in 1950. Either way, it is a fascinating, and frustrating, side issue to what was already a confused picture surrounding Rufus's second, cording venture.
By the time Rufus realized that
his Bullet disc existed but was not going to be a big seller and that Bullet Records was making no noises about recording Mr. Swing again - he also started to realize
that there was an emerging recording opportunity right on his doorstep. In fact, Memphis radio announcer and producer Sam Phillips had first opened the doors of his Memphis
Recording Service on Union Avenue pretty much at the same time Rufus was recording for Star Talent. By the early part of 1951, Phillips had already sold rhythm and blues and
blues recordings to out of town record companies like RPM and Chess and was gait hing something of a reputation on the back of recordings of B.B. King, Rosco Gordon and others.
''Rocket 88'' by Jackie Brenston was top of the Rhythm And Blues Charts when Rufus started to think about going along to Union Avenue. He told Peter Guralnick: ''Everyone was just
going up there, and I found out about it, so I went, too. You could come right off the street and go in there''.
When Rufus entered 706 Union Avenue, the first person he encountered was Marion Keisker, Sam first, and at that time only, assistant. She arranged for him to visit when Sam would be there, and Phillips was pleased to have a go at recording one of the rising stars of Beale Street and Memphis radio. Marion recorded Rufus's address in her files as 440 Vance, and later changed this to 1376 Kerr when the Thomas family moved. She set up setup a recording session for sometime in May or June 1951, and Sam Philips started to make a deal with Leonard Chess for the output of the session to be leased to Chess records in Chicago.
as is known, the first title Phillips recorded was ''Night Workin' Blues'', a song Rufus had been singing for some years, although it was credited to Marty Witzel. It opens with a swinging riff from the band and Herman Green and Richard Sanders both feature throughout on tenor and baritone sax. Pianist Billy Love swoops around the tune and keeps a solid rhythm section going. The music is more rhythm than blues but Rufus forcefully gets across his tale of woe about coming off the night shift to find he's getting no attention at home. ''I try to make her happy/But my life is misery'' and the solution seems to be to "let this all night working go''. We may never hoe biographical the song was, and the same goes for the next song Rufus recorded, ''Why Did You Deegee''. It's about a man who didn't believe his gal would leave him and it's about as close to recognized blue structure as Rufus gets. A slower pace is set here by drummer Houston Stokes and is emphasized by prominent use of cymbals, while Rufus really opens up his vocal chords and sells his story of heartbreak, punctured
by sax riffs, jazzy guitar figures from an unidentified guitarist, and more prominent interventions from Billy Love.
''Night Workin' Blues'' and ''Why Did You Deegee'' were issued as Chess 1466 in the
midsummer of 1951, and at the end of July it was noted in Sam Phillips' logbook that he paid Rufus an advance on sales of fifty dollars.
song had been made at the session and the master of ''Crazy About You Baby'' was sent to Chess at the same time as the masters for Chess 1466, Crazy was a pounding protorocker of
the ''Rocket 88'' style that had gained Sam Phillips a massive rhythm and blues hit not long before. It is Billy Love pounding piano this time, rather than Ike Turner, and Rufus reeling off the honking vocals rather than Jackie Brenston. Saxophonists Green and Sanders do as good if not better a job than the Turner/Brenston band, and all the pieces were in place for a hit. Unfortunately, Rufus was a few months too late with this one despite it being a considerably good record - and his song was about a girl rather than a car. Mistake.
of ''Night Workin' Blues'' must have been sufficient to encourage Phillips and Chess to plan a second release, and in October 1951 Rufus was back in Phillips' studio recording a song called ''No More Dogging Around''. It was the first of many he would record over the years with Dog in the title, though this time he was talking about being led a dance by his woman rather than promoting dance steps. The same band as before sets up a stomping rhythm and Herman Green takes a flowing sax solo. Rufus follows the catchy riff, his voice rising and falling as he sets out how he intends to get out from under. It is evident that Rufus knew exactly what he wanted his bands to do, and overall the sound on this disc is one that can,be heard for Sun, Meteor and Stax.
Marion Keisker logged that the master of ''No More Dogging Around'' was mailed to Chess on October 5, and that Chess "already have
''Crazy About You'' and the ''Xmas Song". The latter, whatever it was, has not been found, and it was ''Crazy About'' that was issued along with ''No More Dogging
Around'' on Chess 1492. The record gathered some steady but not spectacular sales through the spring of 1952.
By early 1952, several of Sam Phillips' recording artists were caught up in commercial
and legal arguments between the companies who took recordings from him - principally Chess in Chicago and Modern/RPM in Hollywood. Companies not unreasonably wanted
exclusivity on the bestselling singers. One of these was Rosco Gordon who had registered hits with RPM but who would also appear shortly on Chess and then, for
good measure, on the Duke label.
On 23 January 1952 Rosco Gordon made a session for Chess at Phillips' studio that included an engaging bar room song called ''Decorate The Counter''. However, by February
15 wrangling between the various companies had seen Gordon's contract signed over to Modern/RPM Records and two days later most of the recordings from the January
session were passed to Modern. ''Decorate The Counter''was not one of them because Chess had expressed an interest in the song. Sam Phillips apparently held it
back as the prototype for someone else to record. That someone was Rufus Thomas, and so we had tuned an extended version of the earliest of Rosco's versions of the song.
Gordon made another version of the song - one that has more often been issued and so is not included here - that contained a number of vocal asides and tricks and had a generally
anarchic aura. It was that version Rufus faithfully reproduced when he went into the studio on April 21, 1952. There is little wonder that the difference between the two men's
versions of this good time Saturday night song was not wide since Rufus used Willie Wilkes, Richard Sanders and John Murray Daley on the session – the,.same band as Rosco. Rufus calls ''What you say Richard'' as Richard Sanders is about to take his solo, as had Rosco. Only Rosco himself is missing, replaced by Billy Love on piano. Rufus's vocals are slightly more prominent and assured than Rosco's even though it is not his own song. ''Decorate The Counter';'was apparently written by or in the name of Robert Henry, who managed the Handy Theater and booked Rufus and Rosco there along with other local talent and all the big bands of the day. He was also the first manager of B. B. King, and one of the real enduring characters of Beale Street, right up to his death in 1978. He ran a pool hall and store there for years and liked to tell people that if they wanted to get served, they'd better decorate the counter, put their money down.
According to Marion Keisker's session logs, Rufus recorded four other songs at the ''Decorate'' session. One of these was the intriguing
''Beale Street Bound'', a recording that has not apparently survived. Of the three we do have, the song that was chosen for release along with ''Decorate The Counter''
was ''Juanita'', an impassioned ballad complete with mock crying and a style that found fevour in the early 1950s and was exemplified in hits like Tommy Brown's
''Weepin' And Cryin'' on Dot Records which was the number one rhythm and blues hit of December 1951. If anyone was going to be able to carry off this histrionic style, then
Rufus Thomas - the entertainer - was probably the man. No doubt his performance of ''Juanita'' went down a storm in live performance, but this is a very slow song and although Richard
Sanders contributes a moving baritone sax solo, the performance drag a little on record. It was left to Chuck Willis -with a different song -to take ''Juanita'' into the top ten and
rhythm and blues history four years later.
The day after the session, the Phillips studio airmailed dubs of ''Decorate The Counter'' and ''Juanita'' to Chess Records, and twelve days later
masters were "sent to Shaw (probably meaning Billy Shaw's New York based Shaw Artists Corporation). Marion Keisker logged that copies were sent to influential disc
jockeys on June 16, including Gene Nobles at WLAC in Nashville, and that payments at musicians union scale were made to the session musicians directly by Chess. The record
was released as Chess 1517 at the start of July.
Two final songs from the session remained unissued at the time. The first was ''Married Woman'', which is presented here in two
alternative takes. It is a thumping blues about Rufus sitting around trying to drink his blues away. His baby's leaving - ''she was a married woman" - and how loving
a married woman will do you no earthly good. The first version contains a storming sax solo by Willie Wilkes, and the second is similar except that Rufus adds some
slurred speech at the start to emphasize the depth of his plight. The last title to be recorded at the session was also a moral tale - of temperance, abstinence and fidelity - told
to a mid-paced rhythm and blues stomp. This time the solo is taken by Richard Sanders on baritone sax, and you can just imagine Rufus the entertainer delivering the lyrics of ''I'm Off That Stuff'' with a twinkle in his eye.
It would be eleven months before Rufus was back at Phillips' Memphis Recording Service studio, and this time the output would be
on a hometown record label. Billboard reported on March 14, 1953: "Sun Record Label launched In Memphis - a new indie rhythm earl blues label headed by Jim Bulleit
and Sam Phillips. The Sun label plans to give even opportunity to untried artists to prove their talents, whether they play a broomstick or the finest jazz sax in the world''.
Phillips had in fact toyed with his Sun label throughout 1952 and he had tried and failed with the country blues and nightclub saxophone instrumentals. Now he had a new partner
in – Jim Bulleit, an experienced record man from Nashville who knew how to sell records - and a new style to sell in the form of a novelty rhythm and blues song about a ''Bear
Cat''. Phillips figured that the song was just right for the extrovert gravel voiced Rufus Thomas.
As a disc jockey on WDIA, Rufus would have been one of the first to be aware of the
sales potential of a new record called ''Hound Dog'', issued by Peacock Records out of Texas and sung by Willie Mae 'Big Mama' Thornton. Big Mama was from Montgomery,
Alabama but had been based in Houston for several years when she joined the local Peacock label in 1951. In the late summer of 1952 she was on tour on the West
Coast with the Johnny Otis band when Otis arranged to record her along with several other singers and ship the masters back to Peacock. The session featured songs
by a new, young songwriting team, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller who had been asked to write something for the fearsomely built Big Mama, whom Leiber later told.
Stone' looked like the biggest, baddest, saltyist chick you would ever see. The writers came up with the classic line, "You ain't nothing but a hound dog'', for Thornton to snarl out as an admonishment to those would-be suitors who were more interested in home comforts than in her. She knows, ''you ain't no real cool cat''. With its loping rhythm, cutting blues guitar solos, unusual story line and occasional yelps and howls, ''Hound Dog'' soon registered as a juke box favourite when it was issued in early March 1953. By the end of the month, it was on the Rhythm And Blues Charts and it stayed at number one for seven weeks that spring.
It would have been in character for Rufus to have the idea parody the lyric on his
radio show and to invent his own fearsome big cat to rival Big Mama's dog, and indeed people have spoken about hearing him do that on the radio. But in fact it
was someone else who had the idea and who wrote the song. Rufus just told: ''No, I didn't write that song. Someone else wrote that''. He wouldn't say who it was
but the discussion was in the context of his relationship with Phillips. The composition was registered under Sam Phillips' name and Sam did talk in years about working
up songs with Rufus, though he never made much claim to have written ''Bear Cat'' outright. Maybe he did, or his wife Becky who helped him with songs in the 1950s
did, or perhaps they took the idea from someone else? Either way, Sam was keen that Sun should record the song immediately, and that to increase the fun it would be made
clear on the record label that this was the 'answer to ''Hound Dog'' and that the singer going head to head with the Big Mama was Rufus 'Hound Dog' Thomas Jnr.
''Bear Cat'' was recorded on
March 8, 1953. There were just three musicians, Joe Hill Louis playing a long, hot and cutting guitar solo, bassist Tuff Green slapping the bass to make the sound of two men, and drummer Houston
Stokes propelling the small band along. Together they made a powerful sound, but what really made the record was the overpowering vocal performance that, from opening spoken intro, was recorded so hot by Sam Phillips
that it almost leapt from the grooves. actor within Rufus the entertainer came to the fore as he sang, almost making the hound dog and bear cat come alive.
In complete contrast, Rufus also recorded a blues ballad, ''Walking In The Rain'', which underlined how
good a mood singer he could be. His song is carried along by more strikingly good guitar work from Joe Hill Louis, while drums and bass are relegated to the background along
with so, rhythm that Rufus kept on piano while singing. As good as ''Walking In The Rain'' was in its way, it was the other side that Sam Phillips wanted to get on the market. It is registered in his logbooks that he paid the three musicians
fifteen dollars each and sent the master discs to Shaw for manufacturing the very same day they were recorded.
It is clear that Sun 181 was a serious rush-release. Within two weeks, 'Billboard was able to report: "The so-called answer record craze is still going strong in the rhythm and blues field. This week a new
diskery came out with an answer to Peacock's smash waxing of ''Hound Dog'' with thrush Willie Mae Thornton. ''Hound Dog'' was released only about three weeks ago and has turned out to be one of the fastest breaking hits in
recent years. It has already popped into the best selling rhythm and blues charts. The answer to ''Hound Dog'' comes from Sun Records, Memphis. Tenn, diskery, a wild thing called ''Bear Cat'' sung by Rufus Thomas Jnr. It used
to be that the answers to hits usually waited until the hit had started on the downward trail. but today the answers are ready a few days after records start moving upwards. This has led some to remark that the diskeries soon
may be bringing out the answers before the originals are even released''.
It wasn't long before ''Bear Cat''
became a test case. In 'Billboard' of March 28, 1953 it was reported song publishers were seeking legal action: "In an effort to combat what has become a rampant practice by small labels - the rushing out of answers which
are similar in melody and/or theme to ditties which have become smash hits - many pubbers are now retaining attorneys. Common active, of course is to regard the answer as an original. Currently publishers
are putting up a the to protect their originals from unauthorized or infringing answers." Don Robey of Peacock Records was ever the pragmatist, though, and told Billboard he had notified the Harry Fox publishing agency "to issue Sun a
license on ''Bear Cat'' in order that Robey might collect a royalty''.
The following week, Billboard reported
that Stan Lewis of Stan's Record Shop in Shreveport, Louisiana was the focus of much attention by independent labels, whose bosses were queueing to pitch him their goodies. These included, ''Jim Bulleit of the new Sun label,
who arrived to chase Willie Mae Thornton’s ''Hound Dog'' with his punchy new answer ''Bearcat'' by Rufus Thomas''. Bulleit had been hard on the case, achieving some seriously good publicity for the new label and
for ''Bear Cat'' even before the disc hit the stores. ''Bear Cat'' was the Billboard Buy Of The Week on 11 April: ''The answer to ''Hound Dog'' broke loose this week with fury. Hit a number of territorial charts and also is
registering strongly in Chicago and around Nashville''. It reached the national rhythm and blues charts on April 18, 1953, stayed for eight weeks in the top ten and number three.
By May, according to Billboard, "Word has it that Rufus Thomas Jnr., who waxed the smash ''Bear Cat'' for Sun Records, is turning down many a one-fighter so he can remain mike side at
his WDIA deejay post''. Nevertheless, Rufus did form a touring band of sorts, called the Bearcats. He said, "I worked all over Memphis. We had four or five pieces in the band most times. We did a lot of work after I had ''Bear
Meantime Sam Phillips was still handling the fallout of his success. Don Robey's Lion Publishing
Company had sued Sun for infringing the copyright on ''Hound Dog'' and the U. S. Court had ruled that Sun had indeed perpetrated an infringement BMI denied Sun clearanc disc until Sun agreed to pay two cents per record on
all discs sold to Lion Music. Robey wrote to Phillips on 8 July, thanking him "kindly for your co-operation in this matter''. He had written Phillips earlier, in April, pointing out the need for Sun to pay him, and hoping,
''this will not causy any unfriendly relations, but please remember that I have to pay when I intrude upon the rights of others, and certainly must protect my own rights''. The nature of the independent record
business was such that by July, Lion itself was in court defending the contention of Syd Nathan Records in Cincinnati that he had an interest in the song ''Hound Dog'' and should have a fifty per cent share of its success.
By April 1954, a year further on, Billboard had decided that ''Answers (Are) Not The Answer: The year 1953 saw an important
precedent set in regard to answer tunes. Since the ''Hound Dog'' decision, few diskeries have attempted to answer smash hits by other companies by use same tune with different lyrics''. Follow up They might have stopped to
think about Rufus's own follow up disc, ''Tiger Man'', where he attempted to plagiarise his own hit, ''Bear Cat''. He had moved on feline world, or rather, his session guitarist, Joe Hill Louis, had, turning his attention
to the king jungle.
Louis had been the session guitarist on ''Bear Cat'' and its success naturally spurred him to think
up a new angle on the song. He probably saw his new song as a hit for himself, making two recordings of ''Tiger Man'' around May 1953, a demo with unknown piano and drums and a more finished version with Albert Williams playing
piano and Walter Horton on harmonica along with an unknown drummer. Louis carries the first version on guitar and sings in a restrained manner. He breaks out much more on the second version where his vocal is more to
the fore while the others carry the instrumental lead. Louis's second version is included here for comparison with the tour de force Rufus recorded just a few weeks later.
The Sun recording files show that Rufus Thomas went into the studio to cut ''Tiger Man'' on the last day of June. Houston Stokes remained on drums, but Rufus did not have Joe Hill Louis
along since Floyd Murphy is listed as guitarist, and indeed is audibly present. Whether Louis was unavailable or whether he had been cut out of being the featured artist on his own song we can only guess. Certainly, he found
that when Rufus's recording was released, half the composing credit went to Sam Phillips' wife under her maiden name of Burns. There were three other musicians new to Rufus's sessions but who were stalwarts of Phillips' blues recording
sessions: James Wheeler on tenor sax, Bill Johnson on piano and Kenneth Banks on bass. A slightly bigger band, but Sun was still operating on a budget and it was logged that the session men were paid just ten dollars each
on the day.
As on ''Bear Cat'', the band contributed well to the mayhem Rufus created on ''Tiger Man'', but
it was again the vocal that took most of a listeners attention. Compared to Joe Hill Louis's own very good blues vocals on his versions, Rufus now added the 'performance' factor to the song – from the Tarzan calls at
the start to the hoarsely shouted lyrics and the Tarzan outro - taking it to a sphere Louis could not match for bower and mischief. Floyd Murphy plays some fine fills and takes a flowing solo of the kind on Junior Parker's
contemporary Sun recordings. Marion Keisker noted that the master of ''Tiger Man'' was ''cut 4 on the second tape" and so Rufus may have made any number of attempts of the tune.
The only other song recorded at the session was ''Save That Money'', a slow blues with jazzy guitar from Murphy and a smooth saxophone figure throughout by James Wheeler. Rufus again
shows a good straight singer he could be, really opening out to shout the pain of the lyric that remembered the Depression era ''when times were hard". Perhaps this was not the message people wanted to twenty years later.
Certainly, the reviewer for Billboard was unimpressed, saying of the title: ''It's good advice, but not a noteworthy record". Actually, it was a rather good one but destined to be lost in the shadow of ''Bear Cat'' and ''Tiger
''Tiger Man'' with ''Save That Money'' was issued at the end of September 1953 as Sun 188, once
the sales of ''Bear Cat'' started to diminish and on the back of some publicity for Rufus in the trade press that August and September: "Rufus Thomas of Sun Records" was, on the 'Cool Train' show on WDIA every Saturday, and
"Nat Williams and Rufus Thomas join together for three hours each Saturday as conductor and engineer of this popular streamliner''.
Despite his continuing high profile locally, Rufus's ''Tiger Man'' was not the national rhythm and blues smash that Sun might have expected. Billboard called it a novelty blues whose "lyric does not make
n sense, but will get some attention because of its weird quality''. It sold well but it did not dent the charts. By the time it was released, Sun was handling a major hit with ''Just Walkin' In The Rain'' by the Prisonaires
vocal group, and it may be that Rufus's disc didn't quite get the extra promotion otherwise would have had. The tiger had a second lease on life years later when recorded by Presley, but by then Joe Hill Louis was no longer
around to collect his writer's royalties.
Surprisingly, perhaps, there were to be no more Rufus Thomas records on Sun.
Less surprisingly, maybe in the light of comments that Rufus made to interviewers in later years. He told Peter Guralnick, "Me and Sam Phillips ... we were tighter than the nuts on the Brooklyn Bridge –
then. Of course he was like all the folk at that time. You know how if blacks had something and didn't no way to exploit it and the white dudes would pick it up and do something about it, they'd just beat out of all of it,
that's all. Well, that was him, that as Sam Phillips. Oh man, I guess I lot of it too, like most black folk''. Talking to John Floyd in the 1990s, Rufus was even more to the point, saying: "Sam Phillips was an arrogant bastard.
He is today. Back then he had a big car, a Bentley, end he'd boast about the money he made that got him this car. I said, 'Yeah, but if it hadn't been for me, he wouldn't have had that car'. I made the first record for him
that got a hit''. The truth, as usual, was multifaceted, and Sam was more likely scuffling at that time than driving a Bentley. Certainly, correspondence between Sam and his brother Jud makes it very clear how close to bankruptcy
Sun Records was until Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash started to make hits in 1956.
Years later, during a European tour, Rufus
once told writer Roger St Pierre, rather dismissively: "Yeh, Sun was a blues label when it set out and we did ''Bear Cat'' which was a big smash ... I cut a number of things for Sun, though I can't ever remember signing a contract''.
In fact, in Sun's books Marion Keisker logged the fact that Rufus signed his contract with Sun on 13 March 1953. He was paid on five occasions between March 23, and June 27, in advance royalties on ''Bear Cat'', totaling 275
dollars. He received three advance checks on ''Tiger Man'' between August 1953 and February 1954, some 480 dollars, but after that the contract, and the record of payment, runs out.
Not long after ''Tiger Man'' came out, Rufus was as usual deeply involved in radio WDIA's showpiece event of the year. Billboard of November 7, announced
plans for the station's "Fifth Annual Goodwill Revue for Handicapped Negro Children (which) will present one of the strongest spiritual and rhythm and blues talent line-ups ever. A crowd of up to 60,000 (probably
a typo for 6000 is expected to fill the Ellis Auditorium on December 4, to see B.B. King, Lloyd Price, Muddy Waters, Eddie Boyd, Little Walter, Helen Thompson, the Soul Stirrers, and WDIA personalities Alex Bradford, the Caravans,
Rufus Thomas, Moohah the Spirit of Memphis Quartet, the Southern Wonders and Al Jackson's band. All the artists are giving their time in order to raise money for the charity. And their diskeries - Specialty, Chess,
United and Starmaker - are defraying their expenses''.
Interestingly, Sun was not mentioned. This may be an omission or
it may have reflected a dispute betty Rufus and Sun. Even, perhaps, that Rufus was planning to record for a new label being set up in Semi WDIA had become known as ''The Goodwill Station'' because of its charitable
and community based work but it was also known as the 'Starmaker' station because singers like B.B. King and Rufus himself started there, and a new Starmaker Records label was announced in November in Billboard as "the new label of David
James Mattis, who started Duke Records last year. Talent with the label includes Danny Day and Moohah, with records cut by those artists already being shipped out to the jocks and to stores. The label is affiliated
with radio station WDIA''. Mattis had set up Duke in July 1952 and had see immediate success with Memphis based singers including Johnny Ace, Rosco Gordon, and Bobby Bland, but Duke was soon taken over by Peacock Records in Texas.
As it turned out, Starmaker did last long enough either to still be there at the end of Rufus's Sun contract in March 1954.
One of the Starmaker discs featured Rufus's fellow WDIA disc jockey and announcer, A. C. Moohah' Williams, who had the ''Wheelin'' On Beale show. Williams was still a biology teacher at Manassas
High School when he started at WDIA in 1949, but he soon became the first full time black employee of the station working on promotion and organization of events as well as hosting shows. He set up the Teen Town Singers group
that changed personnel each year to include the best talent from all seven of the local black High Schools. We have included his recordings, because it features a band of musicians led by tenor saxophonist Bill Fort that often
worked with Rufus Thomas, and because it adds another chapter to the 'Answer' song saga in Memphis.
comical song ''All Shook Out'' seems to have been the 'Answer' to Faye Adams' number one rhythm and blues hit ''Shake A Hand'' on Herald. Adams' disc had entered the charts that August and stayed for five months. In their
response, Moohah and Mattis had clearly taken the blueprint from ''Bear Cat'', perhaps hoping that Starmaker could be launched into serious competition with Sun. The song may also have had secondary reference
to the glad-handing that went on during the annual WDIA Goodwill Revue.
''All Shook Out'' and its other side, ''Candy'',
were both driving rhythm and blues honkers in the tradition of Wynonie Harris, Roy Brown and other blues shouters. ''All Shook Out'' opens deceptively slowly but soon stomps along in support of Moohah's nonsense lyric about
the perils of hand shaking. There is a storming sax solo midway by Bill Fort and his tight band propels the whole performance with piano and drums to the fore. Actually the song was not Moohah's but was written by David
James Mattis, as was the flipside. On the record, ''Candy'' is about the girl who sweet-talks Moohah out of his mind. but David James said he originally wrote the song about his dog.
Moohah's recordings were issued on Starmaker 501 among the new rhythm and blues releases at the end of November, just in time for the Goodwill Revue.
There was also a Starmaker 502 which contained two blues ballads by Memphis band singer Dick Cole recording under the name Danny Day. ''You Scare Me'' and ''Wishing'', issued at the same time. There was also
one gospel release by Bessie Griffin, '' Too Close To Heaven'', Starmaker 101, but these three seem to be all that the label issued. David James told researcher George Moonoogian that the label failed because a WDIA secretary was
too zealous in chasing up debts and threatened all his distributor contacts with legal action. Mattis was not the only one to try to get into the rhythm and blues record business in Memphis in the middle 1950s. B.B.
King had the Blues Boy Kingdom label and there was another short-lived label called Tan Town Records that issued recordings by the popular Spirit of Memphis Quartet and others.
Rufus Thomas spent 1954 and most of the next two years entrenched in his radio work and personal appearances and he did not record again until the end of 1956. He retained some kind
of a national profile, being featured in the trade press occasionally. He was mentioned as part of the publicity for the 1954 and 1955 Goodwill Revues but he had no record to promote at a Revue until 1956 when he joined Meteor
Records, owned by Lester Bihari and situated in a black neighbourhood of Memphis.
Little is known about the short-lived
Meteor episode and only two titles have survived from the session or sessions Rufus made at their rudimentary studio on Chelsea Avenue. Nevertheless Meteor 5039, which coupled ''The Easy Livin' Plan'' and ''I'm Steady Holding
On'' is a mighty record. As far as people can remember the band was basically the musicians who played with Rufus regularly around Memphis, billed usually as the Bearcats. They included tenor saxophonists
Evelyn Young, who had been on the Star Talent disc, and Harvey Simmons, along with a rhythm section of Lewis Steinberg on bass and Jeff Greyer on drums. The band sets up a storming shuffle as Rufus delivers a clever lyric about how to
live life on the ''The Easy Livin' Plan''. The almost chanted list of the teachers, preachers, and the gambling men, the chauffeurs, stenographer girls, and Alabama bound sisters in the corner, all living
life to the full, is an unforgettable moment in rhythm and blues lyricism. In contrast the slower paced ''I'm Steady Holding On'' is at once both a boastful and plaintive blues. Rufus told Peter Guralnick. ''I wrote one of the first songs
that Bobby Bland ever sung: 'I got a new kind of loving that other men cant catch on/While they losing out I'm steady holding on'. It was a good tune. Bobby sang it on the Amateur Show and won first prize''.
Jim Stewart was a bank teller and part-time country fiddle player when he set up Satellite Records in Memphis in 1958 with his
sister, Estelle Axton. They started with country music and then had an rhythm and blues group record by the Vel Tones that Rufus played on WDIA in 1959. Then on day in the spring of 1960, Rufus turned up at Stewart's new studio
on McLemore Avenue pitching a song written by his daughter, Carla. ''Cause I Love You'' was recorded as a duet by Rufus and Carla and it became a small hit on Satellite 102 that summer. Carla's song ''Gee Whiz''
became a top ten rhythm and blues and popular hit the following year, by when the label had become Stax Records.
In January 1963 Stax released Rufus Thomas singing ''The Dog'', a dance tune he'd worked up after watching a girl dancing at
a show in Millington. Tennessee. The song made number 22 in the rhythm and blues charts and was followed the next year by ''Walking The Dog'', a number five rhythm and blues hit that also made the popular top ten in November
1963. It had taken ten years, but the entertaining man with the animal songs was back - and bigger than ever.
Rufus had other hits at Stax, but often said he didn't really fit into their operation. ''I wasn't happy with the material they kept coming up with. They are great guys
but they can't write or produce the song I need.
MGs are incredibly talented musicians but they have their style and they tended to imprint it loo heavily on my recordings''. Nevertheless, in 1970 he had another number five rhythm and blues hit with another improvised dance
tune, this time made up at a club in Covington, Tennessee, titled ''Do The Funky Chicken''. Then at the start of 1971 Rufus registered his first number one rhythm and blues hit with ''Do The Push And Pull''. It
was followed with the almost as successful number two hit ''The Breakdown''. He continued to register smaller hits well into the 1970s, twenty-five years after he had started his recording career, and to make well-received CD albums for
many years after that.
On the back of his1960s hits, Rufus started
to take his entertaining show out of Memphis, including to Europe. In December 1964 he was playing the Flamingo Club in London and the Kilburn State Ballroom , safe in the knowledge that he had a radio job to go back to. He credits
WDIAs program director, David James Mattis, for this: ''He let me go out on Saturdays and Friday nights and make air told me to go, and when I came back I would always have my job there waiting for me. I could go on tour,
and when I came back I knew everything was all right. Without David James just probably I would never have gotten where I got''.
Rufus played increasingly to white and mixed audiences and, despite his deep roots in Beale Street and his sceticism about the way black artists were disadvantaged. he
genuinely was happy to tell Peter Guralnick: ''College audiences are the greatest audiences in the world. I must have played every fraternity house there was in the South. When we played Ole Miss they'd send
the girls home at midnight, and then we'd tell nasty jokes and all that stuff. Oh man, we used to have some good times down there in Oxford''. He told Neil Slaven in 1996, ''When I'm onstage and I look out there at that audience,
I don't see colour. I see people packet in a place, there to see me. There is not a greater satisfaction in the world''. However, he added, ''There is no telling how far I could have gone, had I been a white boy. I've
always said that. I'm not bitter, I want you to know, but it does bother you''.