This week’s open thread theme will highlight and honor the work of black radio jockeys.
Jack L. Cooper
Widely considered to be the first African-American radio announcer, Jack L. Cooper’s “All Negro” radio show aired in the 1930’s on Chicago’s WSBC. Cooper was succeeded in Black Chicago radio by very important air personalities like Al Benson — who brought the blues and jazz to Chicago on WGES — and his colleague Herb Kent, who made his mark after his move to WVON, where he was a strong voice for progress during the tumultuous Civil Rights movement.
Jack “The Rapper” Gibson
Gibson got his start on the very first Black owned radio station, Atlanta’s WERD, in 1949. Embodying the fast talking style for which he was named, Gibson also went on to create one of the first Black radio trades, “Jack The Rapper,” and the infamous Black music convention of the same name.
Rufus Thomas, Jr. (March 26, 1917 – December 15, 2001) was an American rhythm and blues, funk and soul singer and comedian from Memphis, Tennessee, who recorded on Sun Records in the 1950’s and on Stax Records in the 1960’s and 1970’s. He was the father of soul singer Carla Thomas and keyboard player Marvell Thomas. A third child, Vaneese, a former French teacher, has a recording studio in upstate New York and sings for television commercials.
Born a sharecropper’s son in the rural community of Cayce, Mississippi, Thomas moved to Memphis with his family when he was two years old. His mother was “a church woman.” Thomas made his artistic debut at the age of six playing a frog in a school theatrical production. Much later in life, he would impersonate all kinds of animals: screeching cats, funky chickens and penguins, and mournful dogs. By age 10, he was a tap dancer, performing in amateur productions at Memphis’ Booker T. Washington High School.
Thomas attended one semester at Tennessee A&I University, but due to economic constraints left to pursue a career as a professional entertainer, joining up in 1936 with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, an all-black revue that toured the South. He then worked for 22 years at a textile plant and did not leave that job until about 1963, around the time of his “Dog” hits. He started at WDIA in 1951 (despite biographies placing his start a year earlier). At WDIA, he hosted an afternoon show called Hoot and Holler. WDIA, featuring an African-American format, was known as “the mother station of the Negroes” and became an important source of blues and R&B music for a generation, its audience consisting of white as well as black listeners. Thomas’s mentor was Nat D. Williams, a pioneer black deejay at WDIA as well as Thomas’s high school history teacher, columnist for black newspapers, and host of an amateur show at Memphis’s Palace Theater. For years Thomas himself took hosting duties for the amateur show and, in that capacity, is credited with the discovery of B. B. King.
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 a long-standing 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. His celebrity was such that in 1953 he recorded an “answer record” to Big Mama Thornton’s hit, “Hound Dog” called “Bear Cat” released on Sun Records. 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 Elvis Presley.
The prime of Rufus’ recording career came in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, when he was on the roster of Memphis label, Stax, having one of the first hit sides at the historic soul and blues label, “Walking the Dog”, in 1963. Rufus is thus the first, and still the only, father to debut in the Hot 100’s top 10 after his daughter debuted there. Rufus’ daughter Carla also reached number 10, with “Gee Whiz (Look At His Eyes)” on 27 March 1961. At Stax, Rufus was often backed by Booker T. and the MG’s or the Bar-Kays.
The early 1970’s brought him three major hits, including “(Do The) Push and Pull” in 1970, his only number one R&B hit. Earlier that year, “Do the Funky Chicken” had reached number 5 R&B and number 28 Pop. A third dance-oriented release in 1971, “The Breakdown” climbed to number 2 R&B and number 31 Pop. He had several more less successful hits until Stax closed its doors in the mid-’70’s.
Late in his career, for years, Rufus performed at the Porretta Soul Festival in Porretta Terme, Italy. The outdoor amphitheater in which he performed has been renamed “Rufus Thomas Park.” Highlights of his career included calming an unruly crowd at the Wattstax Festival in 1972 and performing with James Brown’s band.
He played an important part in the Stax reunion of 1988, and had a small role in the 1989 Jim Jarmusch film, Mystery Train. Thomas released an album of straight-ahead blues, That Woman is Poison!, with Alligator Records in 1990. In 1996, Rufus and William Bell headlined at the Olympics in Atlanta. In 1997, Rufus released an album, Rufus Live!, on Ecko Records.
Thomas was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2001. He was interviewed by the public radio program American Routes. His last appearance was in the D.A. Pennebaker-directed documentary Only the Strong Survive (2003), in which he co-starred with his daughter Carla.