Memories of Rufus Thomas: A Journey Through Music and Family

Rufus Thomas
Photo Courtesy: Rufus Thomas

Image commercially licensed from Unsplash

By: Lennard James  

When I was a kid, after church we would head over to my grandmother’s house. Sundays were always special with my siblings and all my cousins. After dinner, the house would come alive with the infectious energy of music and dance. Gathered in the heart of Beltline, Memphis, Tennessee, my late cousin Rufus Thomas would lead the way, his vibrant spirit infusing every corner of the room.  

Rufus C. Thomas, Jr., born on March 26, 1917, was more than just a musician. He was a rhythm-and-blues icon, a funk sensation, a soulful voice, and a comic entertainer rolled into one. Growing up in Memphis, Rufus was deeply rooted in the city’s rich musical heritage. From tap dancing in vaudeville shows to mastering ceremonies, his journey through the entertainment world was as dynamic as his personality.  

My memories of Rufus are intertwined with the pulsating beats of his iconic tracks like “Walking the Dog,” “Do the Funky Chicken,” and “(Do the) Push and Pull.” These were the songs that echoed through our home, igniting spontaneous dance sessions that brought our family together in joyous harmony.  

But Rufus was more than just a recording artist. He was a fixture on the Memphis music scene, with his influence extending far beyond the confines of a recording studio. As a disc jockey on radio station WDIA, Rufus shared his passion for music with listeners, showcasing the sounds that defined the soul of the city.  

What made Rufus truly special was his ability to transcend generations. Despite his advancing years, he remained forever youthful, earning the title of “The World’s Oldest Teenager.” His performances were electrifying, his stage presence unmatched, and his charisma boundless.  

Beyond his musical prowess, Rufus was a family man. As the father of renowned singers Carla Thomas and Vaneese Thomas, as well as the late Marvell Thomas, his legacy extended beyond the realm of music. He instilled in us a sense of pride in our heritage, a love for our craft, and a commitment to excellence.  

The passing of Rufus Thomas on December 15, 2001, marked the end of an era. Yet, his legacy continues to resonate, his songs echoing through the streets of Memphis and beyond. According to the Mississippi Blues Commission, Rufus embodied the spirit of Memphis music like no other, leaving an indelible mark on the local scene.  

As I reminisce about those cherished Sunday afternoons, enveloped in the joy of dancing alongside Rufus and my beloved family, a profound sense of gratitude washes over me. Each memory we forged together, each beat of the music that united us, fills my heart with warmth and appreciation. In the vibrant pulse of Beltline, Rufus Thomas’s legacy endures, his spirit perpetually enshrined within the very essence of the city he so passionately embraced as his own. His presence lingers in the melodic cadence and soulful resonance that permeate the streets, a timeless tribute to his enduring influence on the hearts and souls of those who call this city home.

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