Thursday, March 26, 2009

Rufus Thomas: Ain't I'm Clean?

Rufus Thomas was born on this date in 1917. Gemini Spacecraft would like to to honor the man who scored early hits for Sun and Stax Records, and always got the drop on the freshest dance steps, by declaring his birthday “World’s Oldest Teenager Day.” Just how one might go about observing “World’s Oldest Teenager Day,” who knows? Maybe when you're waiting at the bus stop remember to break it to the left, then break it to the right, or several times today ask your boss “Ain’t I’m clean?!?”

A worthy holiday, don't you think? Speaking only for myself, having been born the year that “Walking the Dog” was released, I’m definitely no longer fresh chicken (would that then make me “Funky Chicken”?). And yet, this fixation on greasy kid stuff persists despite the hair loss, wrinkles, root canals, etc.

A little background on Rufus Thomas: Originally a tap-dancer, he started out in the 30s playing the tent show circuit with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels. Then through his association with Professor Nat D. Williams, his history teacher at Memphis’ Booker T. Washington High School, and also the first black DJ in the South, Thomas landed a spot as emcee for the Palace Theatre weekly amateur show. Here, in the late 40’s, both B.B. King and Bobby Bland would launch their careers. At the Palace, Thomas extended his old tent show training by developing an act that included comedy, singing and dance numbers, essentially the same act he would continue to do throughout his career as performer and WDIA broadcaster.

About Sam Phillips & Sun Records, for whom he cut “Bearcat” in 1953, the label's first single to chart, Rufus Thomas had this to say: “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 have no way to exploit it and white dudes would pick it up and do something about it, they’d just beat him out of all of it, that’s all. Well that was him, that was Sam Phillips.”*

Rufus Thomas died in 2001, age 84. Who knows who receives royalties on his record sales at this point? I do know that Sundazed reissued the “Walking the Dog” LP, without which no record collection is complete. So I won’t post it here.

*Rufus Thomas quote from Peter Guralnick’s Lost Highway, Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians, Back Bay Books, 1999.

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