OCTOBER 14, 1939
Founded this date, B.M.I. (Broadcast Music Incorporated) one of two major music publishing
unions. The other music publishing union is A.S.C.A.P. (American Society of Composers,
Authors and Publishers), which was founded in 1914 by copyright attorney Nathan Burkan.
After Elvis Presley's death, it was discovered that he had been deprived of a great deal of
money because he had never registered with B.M.I. As a result, he never collected royalties
on the songs on which he was listed as co-composer. Ironically, it was the popularity of rock
and roll that built B.M.I. into such a successful union.
Richard Wright's "Native Son".
A breakdown in contract negotiations between radio broadcasters and the American Society
of Composers and Publishers results in a nine-month blackout of ASCAP-licensed songseventually
leading to the formation of Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI), a rival licensing
agency far more hospitable to blues and country music.
During the 1940s, radio station WMPS develops into the top country music programmer in
Memphis. The station moved heavily into a country format in 1939 but the tenure of Smilin'
Eddie Hill at the station between 1947 and 1950 will give new impetus to the station. Hill's
show quickly became the leading country becomes program in the region. Hill and his band
are supported by other top acts including the Louvin Brothers, the Carlisles, Dan Snyder and
the Loden Family. Disc jockey Bob Neal becomes the top country disc jockey in the Memphis
Just as a few Memphis-based artists were able to record in the 1930s by travelling to major
label studios, in the 1940s some of Memphis' top radio acts appear on record. Again, though,
they have to sign with labels from outside the immediate area to achieve this. The Delmore
Brothers are contracted to King Records of Cincinnati at the time when they are appearing
on Memphis radio in the late 1940s. Similarly, Freddie Burns, based in Memphis, appears on
Star Talent out of Dallas. Curley Williams, writer of "Half As Much" and other songs for Hank
Williams (no relation) uses Memphis as a radio and touring base but recorded for Columbia
out of Nashville. Eddie Hill is the leading light on Memphis country radio, but his records
appear in the 1940s on Apollo Records of New York and on Decca and then in the 1950s on
Mercury out of their Nashville office. Decca had a distribution office in Memphis (from 1938
to 1952). Other labels with offices in Memphis include Capitol (from 1946 to 1955) and King
(1952 to 1956). Mostly these offices are for distribution and promotional staff and have no
connection with the recording side of the business, but it could be that there is some
scouting of Memphis talent through these offices.
Bukka White are released from Mississippi's Parchman prison farm, and recorded a dozen
sides for Vocalion Records that, along with being some of the last recorded prewar Delta
blues, are true classics of the style.
The first Grand Ole Opry tent show (still featuring a black-face comedy team) tours the
JUNE 17, 1940
Future Sun recordings artist Alton Lott was born in a Hillsboro community outside Forest,
Back in Memphis by 1940, Rufus Thomas developed a different vaudeville comedy and dance
show with another partner, Robert Counts, who was known as Bones'. Rufus and Bones
played at the Cotton Club in West Memphis, the Brown Derby club, and particularly the Elks
Club at 401 Beale. Rufus was still dancing but he was increasingly developing as a comedian,
emcee and even a singer. He said, ''It was hard. I was working on stage before there were
microphones; you really had to have some kind of a voice''.
He told John Floyd that he took up singing on the back of song writing. ''I was working in a
comedy team at the Elks Club on Beale. There was a blues singer there by the name of
Georgia Dickerson. and I used to write blues for her every week, and she'd sing them. But
she left town and that left space in the show, so I thought I'm going to try to take up that
space. That's all there was to it. I sang a song by Lonnie Johnson called ''Jelly Roll Baker''.
Then I learned other songs and I did a few love songs like ''For Sentimental Reasons'' and I
even did ''Stardust''. But my voice then was beginning to turn and I couldn't sing anything
sweet with all that gravel in it''.
It was apparently at the Harlem Theater on Florida Street that Rufus first sang something
sweet to a girl named Cornelius Lorene Wilson, whom he married in November 1940. The
Reverend C. L. Franklin, father of Aretha Franklin, conducted the ceremony and it marked
the start of a more stable phase of life for Rufus, and the end of his vaudeville days. He took
a job at the American Finishing Company, a textiles firm, and he maintained a day job there
alongside all his entertainment roles until 1963. He operated the boiler plant among other
things, and on a slow day would use the rhythms the boiler pipes sometimes generated to
help develop ideas for songs.
The new Thomas family lived in the Foote Homes Housing Project in Memphis, where Rufus
soon had fatherly duties to add to his life. His son Marvell was born in 1942, his daughter
Carla in 1943 and youngest daughter Vaneese in 1959.
Nevertheless, Rufus continued to ply his trade as an entertainer, working not only at the
Harlem Theater but at the, Hyde Park Theater in north Memphis near Chelsea Avenue, the
Savo Theater on North Thomas, and the Handy Theater on Park Avenue.
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
However, 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''.
Rufus's 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
It's 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.