Rufus Thomas

Alligator Records AL 4769

Rufus Thomas is the patriarch of Memphis soul music. Although he’s best known to mainstream audiences as the purveyor of such novelty dance numbers as “Walkin’ the Dog” and “The Funky Chicken,” a special respect is due him for his role in keeping the blues and deep-soul traditions of Memphis alive.

Thomas’s musical history is intertwined with the development of the Memphis R & B scene. In the early 50s, his growling, declamatory “Bear Cat” (a variation on Big Mama Thornton’s theme in “Hound Dog”) was the first hit for Sam Phillips’s soon-to-be-legendary Sun record company. In the 60s, Sun changed its name to Stax and forged the sound that became a prototype for soul music of the next decade; Thomas stayed on with such stars as Otis Redding, Booker T. and the MGs, and Sam and Dave. “The Funky Chicken” and “Walkin’ the Dog” date from this period.

Like many R & B artists, Thomas has found his greatest commercial success with novelty material and a flamboyant showmanship. In live performance, decked out in baby-blue hot pants and mugging outrageously, he reveals little of the deep-running love for the Memphis blues heritage that informs the best of his recorded material. Newcomers to his records are often surprised to hear thoughtful lyrics about black history and achievement in the middle of a dance tune (“Git On Up and Do It”) or a smoldering soul ballad sung with dusky sensual grace (“Baby It’s Real”). It’s this underlying seriousness that continues to make Thomas relevant despite changing tastes. Even at his most fun-loving, Thomas realizes that there’s a difference between getting the job done and taking care of business.

This LP was recorded last summer on the King Snake label, based in Florida. It’s one of several King Snake projects that have been released by Chicago’s Alligator Records, which is rapidly becoming not only a major purveyor of quality soul and roots-rock vinyl but the nation’s major independent blues label. It’s something of a comeback album for Thomas, who hasn’t appeared on record for some years. (He has performed live steadily and has long been a fixture in Memphis as DJ and emcee.)

From the first cut, the title track, Thomas seems determined to show that he’s lost none of his declamatory fire or sense of hard-partying fun. A sharp, jabbing organ intro leads into a brawny horn chorus, supported by a fatback rhythm section. After a brief, string-bending guitar statement (by either Bryan Bassett or Ernie Lancaster–no solo credits are given), Thomas breaks in with his oily growl: “That woman is poison, she’ll bite the head right off a snake!” The arrangement is a bit streamlined for the hard-popping funk of his delivery, but Thomas manages to bring a bit of back-alley grit to even the slickest, most uptown contexts. It’s easy to forget that he’s over 60 and has had serious heart problems in recent years; he grinds out his blues with a sweaty crunch that puts to shame men 30 years his junior, and his sense of humor is as wicked as ever.

One test of a blues or soul singer’s craft is his ability to transform standards–even cliches–into something vital. “Big Fine Hunk of Woman” updates the “Big Fat Mama” theme of Delta bluesman Tommy Johnson, but Thomas strips it of its country roots and transforms it into a hard-driving, soulful boogie shuffle. Thomas boots out the lyrics–“I like a big fat woman with meat shakin’ on the bone”–with the strutting exuberance of a bantam rooster who’s spent a few too many hours at the dirty-magazine rack; the song concludes with a call-and-response chant that’s obviously tailored for live performance.

Thomas is one of R & B’s most entertaining performers, and this entire LP has an uninhibited feel usually associated with a live recording; it sounds like a tightly rehearsed house band cutting loose in some elegant chitlins-circuit nightclub. The combination of sophisticated musicianship and jam-session spontaneity is one of the most successful things about the album.

In “I Just Got to Know,” for instance, the band kicks up the energy level to help sustain what might otherwise have been a run-of-the-mill effort. Based on a well-worn riff loosely appropriated from Ray Charles’s “I’m Busted,” the song is rather standard “I’ve been mistreated” blues. But sax man Noble “Thin Man” Watts contributes his characteristic serpentine elaborations, and Thomas gives the lyrics his characteristic aggressiveness.

Thomas’s historical allusions can be as subtle as his musical persona is flamboyant. The title of “Somebody’s Got to Go” is a line from “Don’t Start Me to Talking,” by Rice Miller (Sonny Boy Williamson Number 2). Rufus kicks off the song with an instrument-by-instrument lesson on putting together a blues band obviously based on King Curtis’s “Memphis Soul Stew.” His good-natured boasting (“I Am the Voice!”) is supported by the punchy horn arrangement, and he continues his references to Miller with an altered line from “Eyesight to the Blind”: “You talk about your woman, I wish you could see mine / She’s five feet four and she sticks out way behind!” Despite the slick charts, this track summons up a sweaty after-hours club in someone’s basement, full of hot, gyrating bodies and free-flowing whiskey. The feel of late-night informality is furthered by Thomas’s trick of stopping himself in mid-verse and chuckling asides to the band, who respond by charging ahead in a full-throttle roar. This is a magnificent party tune, one of the record’s highlights.

In contrast, “Breaking My Back” is a big-time show tune, the band swinging hard but leaving Thomas room to spread his oil-slick funk over the top. The guitar intro is an R & B standard (pretty much the same one used by Chuck Berry on “Memphis, Tennessee,” to mention only the best-known example), the rhythm is a modified blues funk, and Thomas pushes it along with his gritty shout. He sings about overdue bills and hard work with a joyful affirmation that makes it difficult to take his problems too seriously. His fiercely growled narration at the end is the aural equivalent of his onstage persona: playfully menacing, eyes popping and arms spread wide in his patented vulturelike dance.

As if to stake out his turf, Thomas next resurrects Jimmy McCracklin’s late 50s dance hit “The Walk.” Many know this riff as the one Freddie King lifted in 1960 for “Hideaway”–a rip-off that’s still a source of bitterness in some quarters–and it has remained one of blues’ most enduring standards. Thomas, himself one of the kings of the novelty dance record, takes total command here. He updates McCracklin’s theme a bit, throwing in a reference to his own “Funky Chicken” as the band churns furiously behind him; Watts contributes a soaring sax solo that makes one wish he’d been given more room to stretch out. (His playing is much more satisfying than the well-crafted but rather cliched string bending of guitarists Bassett and Lancaster.)

Listening to this LP, I’m struck by how well Thomas has created something of value out of what amounts to the rudiments of the Memphis tradition. True, the orchestration is put together with both musical sophistication and an ear toward the contemporary preference for blues smoothness; but the heart of this LP is the deeply passionate commitment with which Thomas approaches no-nonsense blues and soul. His penchant for quotes and references never suggests a paucity of original ideas, as it so often does; it’s a joyful celebration of roots. And the slick arrangements seldom intrude. Only on “Blues in the Basement” does the swinging elegance of the band sound out of place with the lyrics (“Blues in the basement / Me and all these rats”). Even here, the soloists strut their stuff with enough aplomb to rescue the song from embarrassment.

Thomas has chosen on this album to walk a fine line between sophistication and blues grit. He fuses blues tradition with deep-soul variations on timeless themes, and the result is a masterful expression of exuberance, musicality, and joy.