He made his professional singing debut at the Elks Club on Beale Street in Memphis, filling in for another singer at the last minute. He made his first 78 rpm record in 1943 for the Star Talent label in Texas, “I’ll Be a Good Boy”, backed with “I’m So Worried.”
He also became an on-air personality with WDIA, one of the first radio stations in the US to feature an all-black staff and programming geared toward blacks. He became one of the station’s most popular DJs.
His celebrity was such that in 1953 he recorded an “answer record” to Big Mama Thorntonn’s hit “Hound Dog” called “Bear Cat” and released on Sun Recordss. Although the song was the label’s first hit, a copyright-infringement suit ensued and nearly bankrupted Sam Phillips’ record label. Later, Rufus was one of the African American artists released by Sam Phillips as he oriented his label more toward white audiences and signed the likes of Elvis Presley in the place of the dismissed musicians.
Nevertheless, Rufus remembered spinning Elvis discs on WDIA. Management at the station forbade the deejays from playing Elvis during the years from 1953 to 1956. “They said blacks wouldn’t listen to Elvis. I tried to play him, I tried to tell them. No one can speak for a whole group.” At a major WDIA benefit in 1956 Rufus appeared, dressed as Chief Rocking Horse, and led Elvis onto stage in front of an all-black audience, arguing that introductions should be held until the end of the show, lest wild applause ensue. After Elvis did his pelvic gyration that evening, the inevitable frenzy of the kids in the audience did in fact drown out the emcees, proving Rufus right. “After that night,” recalled Rufus, “we were allowed to play Elvis.”
The prime of Rufus’s recording career came in the 1960s and early 1970s, when he was on the Stax roster, having one of the first hit sides at that historic label (“Walking the Dog”, 1963). At Stax, he recorded songs when he had something to record, as tunes came up, never collecting songs to be done in blocks. Songs were usually recorded in one or two takes, live. No one ever had a good idea which sides would make hits at Stax, the artists had no control over what got released, and little of what went on was plotted out or scripted in any way.
Rufus was often backed by Booker T. and the MG’s or the Bar-Kays, and his bands included many of the era’s finest musicians. Rufus once said
I’ll tell you a story,not many people know this one. It was the same club where I later wrote ‘Do the Funky Chicken,’ in Covington, Tennessee. I had two guitar players, I can’t remember the second one’s name at the time, but the first one was a young guy, playin’ just terrible, loud, out of tune, all over the place. After a while, I said, “Send him home, I can’t use a guitar player who plays like that.” That dude was Jimi Hendrix.
Late in his career, for years, Rufus performed at the Porretta Soul Festival in Porretta Termee, Italy. The outdoor amphitheater in which he performed has been re-named “Rufus Thomas Park.” In 1996 Rufus and William Bell headlined at the Olympics in Atlanta. In September 1997, he performed at the Framingham (Massachusetts) Blues Festival and included an updated version of “Walking the Dog”.
A baseball devotee, Rufus was a fan of the Atlanta Braves. He claimed never to be able to turn down ice cream–and favored vanilla drenched in maraschino cherry juice. His beverages of choice, rather than roadhouse specialties, were sweetened iced tea and fruit-flavored sodas. Until late in his life, he remained an avid listener of music, respecting artists as diverse as Prince, Preston Shannon, and Denise Lasalle. Highlights of his career included calming an unruly crowd at the early ‘seventies Wattstax Festival, and performing with James Brown’s band.