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In his eighty-four years, Rufus Thomas worked with hundreds of colorfully named musicians and radio personalities—like "Hot Rod" and "Honey Boy," "Moolah" and "Gatemouth"—but other than calling himself "the world's finest teenager," Thomas never needed a funky handle to distinguish himself as a singer, songwriter, and disc jockey in Memphis, Tennessee. His career was entwined with virtually every great blues, R&B, and soul performer of the twentieth century, including Son House, Muddy Waters, Sam Cooke, B.B. King, and Al Greene; yet, Thomas believed that as a pure entertainer he had no equal. As he put it: "There is nobody alive, on the face of the earth, who can do Rufus like I do Rufus."
Thomas had a run of memorably goofy top-ten R&B hits in the 1960s, but listing them ("Walking the Dog," "Do the Push & Pull" . . .) or mentioning the dozens of bands who paid tribute with covers (The Rolling Stones, Aerosmith . . .) misses the point. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, after all, doesn't feature Rufus Thomas. Instead, his influence derives from the bawdy figure he cut and the freewheeling tone he set. Whether performing on Beale Street, recording for the legendary Sun and Stax labels, emceeing fund-raising revues, or misbehaving late at night in a radio studio, he communicated something essentially spiritual. He gave hot-blooded young male musicians from Mick Jagger to Busta Rhymes the grammar for thinking and talking and joking about their deepest, darkest, nastiest urges. With unabashedly raunchy good humor, he helped define the tradition of the fun-loving trickster, the likable lech.
Until shortly before his death in 2001, Thomas continued to work Saturday mornings from six to ten, co-hosting a radio show at WDIA-AM. After a guest appearance a few years earlier, he simply kept coming back, and nobody minded. After all, it was Thomas, as much as anyone, who once made WDIA the most important radio station in the country—the nation's first to switch to all-black programming. Everyone knows what a big deal it was when, in 1953, a nineteen-year-old truck driver named Elvis Presley paid a visit to Sam Phillip's Sun Studios to make a record for his mom. But WDIA quietly debuting its "Tan Town Jamboree" four years earlier may have had farther-reaching effects on American culture and the history of popular music.
At the time, African Americans in Memphis couldn't visit the city's fairgrounds or zoo. The city's lone African American police officer wasn't permitted to arrest, or touch, anyone white. But suddenly, with all these smart and funny African American voices enlivening the air, playing down-home "race music," and discussing the great and small concerns of the African American community of the Mississippi Delta, WDIA brought together the urban and rural, the poor and well-to-do, the schooled and unschooled, in one powerful demographic. Profit had been the original motive, of course, but once the white station managers switched to an all-black format, they didn't hedge their bets. They went out and hired the most audacious on-air personalities in a town brimming with audacious personalities. [End Page 113] And then they did something amazing: they let Rufus Thomas and his colleagues simply be themselves.