The Concord Music Group has been re-issuing classic albums from the extensive catalogue of the Stax label. Their latest three releases, due September 13, are Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get by The Dramatics, Woman To Woman by Shirley Brown, and the subject of this review, Do The Funky Chicken by Rufus Thomas.
Stax was a gritty soul label, originally located in Memphis, Tennessee. It was founded by Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton who used the first two letters of their last names to form the name. It featured funk and a hard core rhythm & blues sound. Some of the artists who graced the label were Booker T. & The M.G.’s, Sam & Dave, Johnnie Taylor, Albert King, The Staple Singers, Isaac Hayes, The Dramatics, Carla Thomas, and Rufus Thomas.
He was born in Cayce, Mississippi, March 27, 1917. He began his music career during 1936 and made his first recordings during 1943. His most famous early recording was “Bear Cat” for the Sun label in 1953. It was an answer song to Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog.” Until he began producing hits for Stax, he worked 22 years in a textile factory.
His career with Stax can be divided into two parts. His 1963-1964 singles received extensive radio airplay, and many appeared on the Billboard Magazine pop and rhythm & blues charts. His 1963 album, Walking The Dog, was one of the most successful of his career. Then for five years, the commercial success just about came to a halt. During 1969, he recorded the album, May I Have Your Ticket Please, which Stax did not even release.
He was in his early 50s when he began his comeback. “Do The Funky Chicken,” both the album and the single, remain the most memorable of his career. He was backed by members of The Bar-kays. The album now returns with 24-bit remastering, eight bonus tracks, and new liner notes which place the music in its historical context.
The title track was his setting to music a dance that had begun in Chicago. It became the highlight of his stage act until the end of his life. It basically is a dance that is set to rhythms, resulting in a style of rhythm & blues that would become popular during the 1970s.
Two cover songs were highlights of the original album. “Sixty Minute Man” was one of the first big R&B crossover hits, originally recorded by Billy Ward and His Dominoes during 1951. It was an important song in the formation of rock ‘n’ roll. Thomas gave it a playful rendition, which given its fairly explicit sexual lyrics, was made for him. As with much of his material from this time period, it was a fun-filled romp. “The Preacher and The Bear” was one of the biggest hit records of the early 20th century, selling two-million copies for Arthur Collins. Thomas took this old minstrel song and modernized it by adding rhythms, varying the tempo, and giving it a humorous feel.
Other highlights included a re-working of his own “Bear Cat,” the standard, “Let The Good Times Roll,” and a cover of an obscure Dallas Frazier song, “Soul Food.” His two-part arrangement of “Old McDonald Had A Farm” was unique and brilliant. The first part was a slow, smoldering gospel take, while part two was a up-tempo dance number.
The bonus tracks are centered around the A and B sides of four of his singles. “Funky Mississippi/So Hard To Get Along With,” (1968), “Funky Way/I Want To Hold You” (1969), “Itch and Scratch Part 1/Part 2” (1971), and “Boogie Ain’t Nuttin’ (But Gettin’ Down)/Part 2” (1974) would have made a excellent album themselves and provide a good look into the evolution of his sound and style.
Rufus Thomas passed away December 15, 2001, at the age of 84. He left behind a funky and fun-filled catalogue of well-crafted material. Do The Funky Chicken is a fine introduction to his music and a good look into one of the seminal funk recordings of the early 1970s.