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Friday, December 21, 2001

'Heaven's Youngest Teenager'

Friends, fans pay respects to Rufus Thomas

The Commercial Appeal, December 21, 2001
By Bill Ellis

As jokes were shared about his imagined entrance into the afterlife, Memphis R&B titan Rufus Thomas put smiles on people's faces one last time.

"Look at me, man, ain't I clean," went one quip, borrowed from Thomas's arsenal of one-liners by fellow black radio pioneer Novella Smith-Arnold, who also noted, "The world's oldest teenager is now heaven's youngest."

Some 2,500 people turned out Thursday at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church to pay the beloved entertainer - who died Saturday at age 84 - a final bow. Among those in attendance at the funeral were Thomas's onetime Stax confreres Isaac Hayes, Steve Cropper, Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, as well as Little Milton, Bobby Rush, Calvin Newborn, Teenie Hodges, Cordell Jackson and many others from the Memphis music community.

How poetic that blues legend B. B. King - whose career was ushered in decades ago by Thomas at his famed talent nights on Beale Street - was among the honorary pallbearers to usher his mentor out.

The ceremony, which lasted more than two hours and was broadcast live on WDIA-AM 1070, featured musical performances from O'Landa Draper's Associates, Kirk Whalum, Rev. Dwight `Gatemouth' Moore and, in a moving reading of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, Isaac Hayes.

Numerous reflections paid tribute to a life and career that not only bore witness to but also helped shape the totality of Memphis music in the 20th Century.

"You had so many titles, so many titles," said Hayes.

Indeed, from his tap-dancing vaudeville origins to his hosting of historic talent revues to his seminal broadcasts as a WDIA disc jockey to his milestone hits for Sun and Stax Records, Thomas - who was born in 1917 - left a wide and varied path.

"He did it all; he saw it all," said Rob Bowman, author of Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story of Stax. "Rufus was born a couple of months before the first jazz record was ever recorded. He was born three years before the first blues record, seven years before the first country record and light years before rock, rhythm and blues, soul and funk were even thought of ... . He was part of it all."

Thomas also acted in several films, including a memorable cameo in Jim Jarmusch's cult classic Mystery Train, the Robert Altman film Cookie's Fortune and A Family Thing.

Others who celebrated facets of Thomas's life included Gov. Don Sundquist, city Mayor Willie Herenton, county Mayor Jim Rout and Recording Academy president Michael Greene, plus radio personalities Stan Bell and J. Michael Davis, who co-hosted a WDIA blues program for years with Thomas.

Said veteran disc jockey Robert `Honeyboy' Thomas on one lesson he gleaned from Rufus Thomas: "Your listeners may love your sweet voice, but they like the music much better."

And it's Thomas's music that will be remembered above all. Among his endearing hits: Bear Cat, Walking the Dog, Do the Funky Chicken, The Memphis Train, The Breakdown and (Do the) Push and Pull, a long line of entertaining, dance-driven classics that furthered R&B into the realms of soul and funk.

Paul Shaffer, musical director of the Late Show with David Letterman, sent a videotaped testimonial.

"His music will live forever," he said. "His melodies, his riffs, his grooves are really like Beethoven. They're simple, they're direct, they hit hard, and they'll never be forgotten."

Shaffer also talked of Thomas's musical role in the Civil Rights movement. "Rufus Thomas's music changed the world," he said.

He was "an ambassador of unity," Sundquist agreed. "He taught us not to see the world in black or white but in shades of blues."

At the pre-funeral visitation, Pat Kerr Tigrett addressed another achievement by Thomas: his flamboyant sense of fashion, in which colorful shorts and capes became the height of funkiness.

"He was the original icon of styling," she said. "Before Elvis, before any of them."

Accolades poured in, even from Italy and the town of Porretta Terme, where an annual Sweet Soul Music Festival is held - one that Thomas played more than a half-dozen times - and where Thomas is honored with his own namesake park.

"His impact and legacy for Porretta people was so deep that we have one Rufus Thomas Park, one Memphis Train Bar (the train station pub) and a Caffetteria Zio Rufus (a garden bar titled Uncle Rufus)," festival organizer Graziano Uliani said by E-mail. "Rufus was really unique, and his sound so strong that the Italian superstar Zucchero mentioned him in two hits, Funky Gallo and Per Colpa di Chi, and many Italian R&B bands now have in their repertoire not only Knock On Wood or Soul Man but Walking the Dog, Do the Funky Chicken or The Memphis Train."

A remembrance by Porretta friends and fans is planned today at Caffe Italia in front of Rufus Thomas Park.

After the funeral, a motorcade took Thomas on a final journey down Beale Street enroute to New Park Cemetery, where he was interred next to wife C. Lorene Thomas.

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Edition: Final; Section: News; Page: A1
Copyright (c) 2001 The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN

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