Born a sharecropper’s son in the rural community of Caycee, Mississippii, 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. Washingtonn High School.
Thomas attended one semester at Tennessee A&I Universityy, 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 called 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.