It's no wonder the children of Memphis-bred showbiz luminary Rufus Thomas, Jr. wanted to pursue careers in music. Starting in the late 1940s, Thomas was a popular personality on AM 730 WDIA, significant for being the first radio station to exclusively target a black listenership. He started making records in the early '50s and scored a hit in 1953 with "Bear Cat," a raunchy answer to "Big Mama" Thornton's classic "Hound Dog." When Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton started the Satellite label in the late '50s, it wasn't too long before Rufus hit them up about laying down some sides. His son, Marvell Thomas, who was 19 in 1960, fit in rather quickly as a regular pianist for recording sessions; Daughter Vaneese Thomas, an infant at the time, had limited success as a singer many years later. The middle child was the most successful, arguably even more than her dad; Carla Thomas eventually became known in some circles as the "Memphis Queen of Soul," a nickname that was at least partly hype. But the phrase contained the ring of truth.

WDIA's A.C. Williams formed The Teen-Town Singers in the late '40s to showcase talented high schoolers in the area. Carla, a student at Hamilton High who had sung live on Rufus's radio show at around the age of eight, joined in 1959 and rose to the forefront, helping ease her transition to studio recording; of course it didn't hurt that her pop was an established singer with extensive experience and knowledge of the business. They taped a couple of duets at home on a reel-to-reel machine with backing from a few local musicians including son Marvell on piano and Booker T. Jones playing sax prior to making his name as a keyboard wizard. "Cause I Love You" was written on the spot by Rufus and ad-libbed to some degree by dad and daughter. In the summer of 1960, Stewart issued it on Satellite as a Carla and Rufus single. Atlantic's Jerry Wexler showed some interest after the song received considerable airplay in Memphis, though national distribution on Atco didn't pan out.

Carla also recorded a song she had written, "Gee Whiz" ('...there are things we could do, I could say I love you...but all I can say is...'), and Rufus approached Vee-Jay in Chicago with the master without realizing Stewart was more interested in the 18-year-old as a solo artist than he'd been letting on. When VJ didn't bite, Carla was signed to a contract with Satellite and her song was pressed and prioritized. Wexler saw potential in her and offered a distribution deal; Stewart, in a crunch for money, agreed to terms that would expose Carla's product far beyond the southern region. A different "Gee Whiz" song was climbing the charts by a Southern Cal trio, The Innocents, so Carla's tender ballad was retitled "Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes)." Due to to legal conflicts with a previously-established (and now forgotten) Satellite label, Jim rechristened his label Stax, while Carla's Atlantic single went top ten on pop and R&B charts in March 1961 during her first year of college at Tennessee A&I University.

The similar "A Love of My Own," an even softer pop ballad featuring background vocals by The Anita Kerr Singers (Anita, a Memphis native, was an in-demand session vocalist in Nashville for many years), made a disappointing showing on the charts; Carla's schooling interfered with her ability to meet the demand for touring that typically occurs after a major debut hit. A third Atlantic single, "(Mama, Mama) Wish Me Good Luck," failed to bring the good fortune hinted at in the title. "I'll Bring it Home to You," an answer to Sam Cooke's summer '62 hit "Bring it on Home to Me," fared better, returning her to the R&B top ten and coming close to the pop top 40 that fall.

Although she took pride in her songwriting, Carla began recording songs by other Memphis tunesmiths. "What a Fool I've Been," written by MG's guitarist Steve Cropper and hometown singer William Bell (who'd debuted in 1962 with a remarkable Stax single, "You Don't Miss Your Water"), preserved the ballad style of earlier efforts. "Gee Whiz, it's Christmas" was an homage to the title of her biggest hit but with a much different, midtempo vibe. Rufus made an overdue return to radio playlists in autumn '63 with "Walking the Dog" while father and daughter continued duetting as Rufus and Carla (reversing the original billing order); they received positive notice with a double-sided spring '64 romp, "That's Really Some Good" and a remake of the five-year-old Ray Charles gem "Night Time is the Right Time" (he played Ray and she logically took on the song's Margie Hendricks segment).

"I've Got No Time to Lose," a collaboration of Cropper and Deanie Parker (a singer on Stax's Volt label), has rightfully been a favorite with Carla's fans as well as critics since its 1964 release. Other songwriters worked their way into the Memphis Queen's mix; Al Bell (using the psedonym Alvertis Isbell) and new Stax signee Eddie Floyd (a previous member of The Falcons) composed 1965's "Stop! Look What You're Doing" (her first solo single on Stax per the terms of the original agreement with Atlantic) and the esteemed team of Isaac Hayes and David Porter penned the 1966 hit "Let Me Be Good to You" with Carl Wells, showcasing a sexier sound in keeping with Carla's more grown-up image on record covers. Yet she was serious about more than a singing career. At the time her second biggest hit impacted radio, she was attending Howard University in Washington, D.C. That chart-topping Cash Box R&B smash was "B-A-B-Y," a Hayes-Porter gem with the Stax-Volt players at the top of their game and vocals by Carla that should be studied by any soul-diva-in-the-making.

Carla Thomas

In '67, Stewart decided to team Carla with his hottest star, Otis Redding, a mismatch by Carla's reckoning as her style was soft and he had this intensely commanding approach to performing. But the pairing was genius and success came immediately with "Tramp," a bluesy, tongue-in-cheek Lowell Fulsom hit from just weeks earlier that probably hadn't been conceived as a duet but was actually tailor-made for a male/female call-and-response. The Otis and Carla album King and Queen was her biggest seller and produced two more hits, "Knock on Wood" (Floyd's career milestone had struck again several months after his original caught fire in late '66!) and "Lovey Dovey," a revival of the 1954 hit by The Clovers. That last song appeared on the charts in March 1968 while Redding's "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay" was America's number one single (the top seller in Stax-Volt history), three months after his death in a plane crash that also took the lives of four members of touring band and hitmakers The Bar-Kays.

When the distribution deal with Atlantic ended midway through 1968 (Gulf and Western took over), Carla ironically traveled to New York and recorded at Atlantic's studio for the first and only time. Late '68 single "Where Do I Go," written by James Rado, Gerome Ragni and Galt MacDermot for the hippie Broadway musical Hair, made Carla the first of several unaffiliated artists to hit the charts with a song from the show; it was also her first Stax 45 to appear with the newly-designed yellow "finger-snapping" label. "I Like What You're Doing (To Me)," a bit more rural in arrangement in keeping with late-'60s trends, took Carla back into the R&B top ten in April 1969. While Otis Redding's death had been devastating to the Stax family, the duet angle was revisited and expanded; Boy Meets Girl, a two-disc album of duets, matched Carla with Johnnie Taylor, William Bell, Eddie Floyd and Pervis Staples on separate tracks (Staples sisters Mavis and Cleotha rounded out the female side).

Carla began prefacing her recordings with spoken passages, an increasingly common occurrence in the early 1970s; "Guide Me Well" in 1970 and "You've Got a Cushion to Fall On" in '72 are the most obvious examples. A compelling vocalist, Miss Thomas possessed a strong knack for phrasing and adapted well to changing trends. If there's one element she lacked it was a vivid star quality; despite her good looks, she remained a low-key type of performer and never provided any reason for the tabloids to acknowledge her (not necessarily a bad thing). Onstage she covered the basics, staying mostly within a safe zone. Though the feeling moved her more and more as time passed, by the end of the '60s contemporaries like Aretha, Diana and Dionne had soared to far greater heights. Even lesser-known singers like Baby Washington and Irma Thomas (the latter unrelated diva having secured her own position as "Soul Queen of New Orleans") came across with livelier stage personas.

She retired from making records at some point in the early 1970s, choosing family life over maintaining an increasingly more demanding career in music. Stax and Atlantic were the only companies she recorded for, a music industry rarity for an artist of her caliber. But audiences beckoned, the temptation to tour was undeniable; Carla Thomas joined her infamous dad to delight fans frequently during the 1980s and '90s and co-starred with longtime labelmates like Eddie Floyd and Booker T. and the MG's during the same era in many Stax-Volt Revue shows.

- Michael Jack Kirby



Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes) Let Me Be Good to You B-A-B-Y