[22 November 2011]
PopMatters Music Reviews Editor
Rufus Thomas is the most overlooked, under-appreciated artist to ever come from the Stax imprint. Period. Done. End of story. There isn’t a single other artist who recorded at 926 East McLemore Avenue in the 1960s and 1970s that was as dismissed, discounted and disrespected as the man who gave Stax its first real hit with “Cause I Love You” in the ‘60s.
Why? Well, it’s a combination of reasons, really. Thomas’s knack for absurdity combined with his insistence upon gravitating toward novelty songs are probably the two most prominent factors. It’s hard to take an artist who penned four singles with such titles as “The Dog”, “Walking The Dog”, “Can Your Monkey Do The Dog” and “Somebody Stole My Dog” as serious as you would take, say, an Otis Redding or a Sam and Dave, two legendary acts that helped build Stax up to the legendary status it ultimately achieved.
But that doesn’t mean Thomas’s talents should be ignored. As the years went on, the singer became somewhat of an elder statesman for the Memphis label. His daughter Carla became a star that shone so bright, some argue she eclipsed her father. His son Marvell played keyboards on some of the most classic soul/R&B tunes ever recorded. And his third child, Vaneese, reportedly spends her time these days recording vocal tracks for commercials.
Though even with all that in mind, his influence and impact on soul music as a whole has been criminally undermined by the heavy hitters that came to prominence during his heyday. Sure, working nonsensical dances into the hook of some earlier recordings might have worked against his quest for superstardom, but it also didn’t help that he had to compete with some of the greatest voices American music has ever provided. It wasn’t that Thomas didn’t have talent. It was just that he was surrounded with artists who ended up going down in the annals of music history as some of the best voices and/or performers to ever get on a stage.
Luckily for soul/funk/R&B music fans everywhere, though, Stax’s Remasters Series has decided to give Thomas and his crown achievement, Do The Funky Chicken, the reissue treatment, reminding us all that Rufus Thomas’s work deserves to be discussed when considering some of the best music Memphis ever produced. In addition to the 11 tracks the original release provided is a plethora of singles Thomas released between 1968 and 1974. “Funky Mississippi”, which was originally backed with “So Hard To Get Along With”, is one example of two lost gems that appear on this reissue. “Funky Way”, both parts of the underrated “Itch And Scratch” and “Boogie Ain’t Nuthin’”, and “I Want To Hold You” all pop out of the stereo system here with a 24-bit remastering job, giving life to songs some casual fans may have already considered dead for decades.
Then, of course, there’s the original set of tunes. These offerings combine to form a record author Rob Bowman says is “clearly Thomas’s finest album” in the extensive liner notes coupled with this re-release and Bowman should know. His Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story Of Stax Records is the authority on all things Stax Records.
“Do The Funky Chicken”, “Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown” and “Lookin’ For A Love” prove to age with grace as the tracks feature signature guest spots from such legendary acts as the Memphis Horns and Ollie And The Nightingales, among others. “Bear Cat”, Thomas’s somewhat lesser-known response to Big Mama Thornton’s legendary “Hound Dog”, is everything that made Thomas the illustrious figure he proved to be: silly, fun, soulful and funky.
The original album’s best two moments, though, come as a bit of a shock to those who may be unfamiliar with Rufus and his wacky ways. The crooner’s two-part rendition of “Old McDonald Had A Farm” is utterly classic. While the former 3:44 is a gospel-tinged, palpably soulful rendition of a long-standing children’s anthem that is smothered in feeling and heart, the second movement’s up-tempo funk is shockingly successful. The playful nature of the latter’s performance contrasts brilliantly with the first’s drawn-out vocal pattern. It’s just not something a lot of artists could pull off well.
But Thomas does. And in fact, he exceeds “well” and blasts the performance into the “great” stratosphere. It’s the quintessential example of why Rufus Thomas should matter way more than he already does when pondering the fabric of Stax Records: he was willing to take chances. Some people mistake that mindset for foolishness. Some people mistake that knack for fun as childish. Thomas, on the other hand, used that mindset as a platform to realize his fullest potential, no matter how wacky he may have seemed.
“I come from Beale Street in Memphis,” Thomas writes in the original album’s liner notes that appear in this re-release. “Set out to be a top notch entertainer. I ain’t lying—that’s what I am.” Indeed, that’s what he was (Thomas died in 2001). Do The Funky Chicken is the finest example of a unique combination of a desire to entertain and an amount of musical talent that made such a thing actually work. It’s exactly what Rufus Thomas stood for and it’s most definitely what he excelled at the most.
Yeah, he may have been under-appreciated. But this collection should be enough to make sure none of us make that unforgivable mistake of over-looking him ever again.