2020-03-17 13:13:50 UTC
Rock ‘n’ roll started so long ago – now seventy-two years and counting in 2020 – that sometimes it can be hard to fully grasp the continuity of it all.
The records that kicked all of this off back in mid-to-late 1947 certainly don’t sound much like the rockabilly of eight years later, or the soul and then funk of the 1960’s, nor early seventies prog-rock, late 70’s disco, 80’s speed metal, 90’s New Jack Swing and grunge, or hip-hop of the Twenty-First century, all dominant forms of rock ‘n’ roll at various times over the years.
But it’s that constant evolution that keeps the genre from ever turning into a museum piece with rigidly defined parameters and a narrow and rapidly aging audience who when they leave the earth will take with them humanity’s strongest allegiance with the phenomenon of rock music.
Still, it’s nice to know sometimes that there IS more than just a thin musical thread holding it all together with a broad term that houses it all in the same category. Every once in awhile it helps to see the old pros from rock’s musty back pages stepping on stage to keep the connection between eras more tangible.
Rarely though do those who do so also manage to keep up with the times stylistically, churning out legitimate rock hits long after most listeners who first heard them when they were starting out have given up on the latest trends and have shifted to pop or jazz-lite for their watered down musical fix.
Here we meet someone who first appeared on the rock scene when he was already creeping into the lower strata of middle age, yet who would keep the spirit of youth alive in his music longer than any of the others who were laying down records at the dawn of the 1950’s and – as unlikely as it seems – he’d be all the more popular for it a quarter century down the road.
Haven’t Got Time To Fight
The life story of Rufus Thomas could fill a book – SHOULD fill a book, but by now it’d have to be a biography because Thomas died in 2001 at the age of 84. Born in Mississippi in 1917 but moving to Memphis as a toddler, Rufus saw the rise and fall and rebirth of the Memphis music scene firsthand the entire way, most often as an active participant.
From tap dancing in the street as a kid for tips to performing in any staged production he could land, Thomas was a born entertainer. Having joined the locally famous Rabbit Foot Minstrels after finishing high school and putting in a semester at college, Thomas’s act was primarily comedy and dance but he was a willing participant in anything that seemed promising. But while that was the life he wanted to lead, and was hoping would lead someplace other than in circles, he had to keep that on the back burner after marrying and starting a family in 1940. For decades in fact his primary occupation was tending to boilers at a textile bleaching plant and it was only on the side that he pursued music, even when he was churning out huge national hits.
In the Forties Thomas became known as half of the comedy team Rufus and Bones, emceeing amateur night shows at the Palace Theater where B.B. King took home first prize one night. Soon after the two of them would both go on to become disc jockeys on WDIA, the first southern radio station programmed exclusively for African-Americans.
Rufus himself began singing sometime during the 1940’s but it was just another way to diversify his portfolio and keep his options open as much as anything. Yet as times changed and the record industry took on more importance than the live revues in the black community it was only natural that he shift his focus more and more towards cutting records.
Though hardly a virtuoso Thomas had a good voice, strong in tone and brimming with confidence. Even on ballads, which he only rarely tackled, he handled them with measured assurance. But his forte was uptempo material where he could ride the rhythms and flavor the songs with his ebullient personality, often tinted with some slyly wicked undertones.
Because the recording possibilities in Memphis were almost nonexistent in 1949 Thomas headed to Texas to cut this one single for the tiny Star Talent label out of Dallas. One of many companies founded by the owner of a record shop who dreamed of selling their own product rather than somebody else’s, its location was probably its biggest drawing card, as Southerners who may have shied away from trekking to the big northern cities for their shot at glory were far more comfortable heading across the plains of Texas to “sing into a can for money”.
I Was Feelin’ Fine
For somebody who in the early 1970’s when he scored a Number 1 hit, would be referred to as The World’s Oldest Teenager when he was in his fifties and whose stage act involved wearing hot pants and doing dance steps that put those half his age to shame, it’s probably appropriate that the already 32 year old Thomas’s first record is called I’ll Be A Good Boy.
As might be expected considering the circumstances, the song itself is rather rudimentary in its design as the theme is the standard trope of a guy faced with his girl having left him over some discretion. For some reason it seems as if none of these early rock singers could hang on to a woman except for Wynonie Harris who had them falling out of his luggage and climbing in his hotel room windows to be with him.
The musical structure also doesn’t take too many chances, the piano setting a rolling boogie (albeit with a little heavy handed riding of the cymbals as its main support) and a mid-song sax break to go along with a call and response vocal during the chorus and a stop time bridge with some drum kicks for emphasis. All of which is to reiterate what early music reviewer Ecclesiastes once complained of when he wrote “There is nothing new under the sun”.
But there’s another way to view this as the similarities to previous records starts to add up and that’s to realize that rock ‘n’ roll was now settling into its skin and had fully developed its basic prototype that others would naturally follow. That was a GOOD thing, for every style needs to adhere to some structural conformity to be easily identifiable, to give listeners the sense that it was all part of a larger movement and to ensure some level of response from those fans by giving them what has been proven to work over time.
It may not be advisable to keep trying to draw water from the same well each time out for eternity but these slightly derivative outings were a sign that after two years on the scene rock had in fact “arrived” and firmly established who and what it was and had others hoping to capitalize on its soaring popularity.
Had A Few Words Last Night
But while merely replicating the path earlier records traveled might be understandable it wouldn’t bode well for the artist’s long term prospects. In order to stand out you needed to do so in a way that gave some hint that there was more that met the eye at first glance and on I’ll Be A Good Boy Thomas shows his creativity by crafting this decidedly well-worn predicament with an unusual perspective and a fair amount of lyrical depth.
In most of these stories we’ve come across the guy is bemoaning his lost love, either incredulous that she left him despite him fully deserving it, or he’s pulling on our arm so he can cry on our shoulder. There’s often very little being offered beyond that setup but Thomas shakes things up by delving into the history between them in a linear way that paints a very detailed picture of the sequence of events that led to this predicament.
He starts off quite naturally with the start of the rift between them as he tells her he’s not in the mood to fight and announces that he’s going to bed. Maybe she viewed that as dismissive and maybe he’s downplaying his role in the initial fracas just a bit, we won’t lay all of the blame on her for whatever beef they were having, but he delivers this in a clear-eyed manner, like a newspaper reporting on the incident without editorializing along the way.
He even goes on to describe just HOW tired he actually was, falling asleep right away which leads to the after effect of his actions that makes this song work, how when he woke up in the morning his “baby was gone”.
Granted it might not be a novel twist to go down in the annals of great literature but in the context of a three minute rock song of 1950 it’s actually rather refreshing. Most of these lover’s spat songs have been opaque AND unimaginative, setting a scene in the barest of terms without following through on its possible outcomes.
Thomas however gives us both a believable set up and a legitimate payoff and in the process makes sense of the song’s title and chorus – I’ll Be A Good Boy – as he promises her he’ll change his behavior. He’s not begging so much as he’s simply reassuring her and you get the idea that maybe she did in fact overreact, taking a little more offense to his going to bed than such an act might’ve warranted.
The song rolls along with a very clear vision of what it’s trying to do, never at risk for having any single component stand out, but also never being tripped up by something that doesn’t fit in. Thomas gives a pretty good account of himself despite his own claim that all he really wanted out of this endeavor was to see his name on a record.
Good As Good Can Be
In the long run Thomas would see his name on LOTS of records, many of them hits and others that deserved to be.
We’ll assume the story behind I’ll Be A Good Boy was just that, a story, as Rufus and his wife raised four kids, three of whom – Carla, Marvell and Vaneese – became artists in their own right, all highly respected personally as well as professionally, so as a patriarch he must’ve done something right.
Musically he did a lot of things right too and as is made clear on this record he did so from the start. Though this is hardly anything to set the world on fire it’s also perfectly representative of so much of what made rock ‘n’ roll a landing spot for people like him over the years. There’s a loose and informal feel to the music at its best here, yet it’s also disciplined in its execution and features enough of a creative vision to overcome the inexperience of both the artist and label.
What Thomas’s arrival on the scene indicates is that artists from all types of backgrounds were now seeing in rock a way to better their lot in life and bringing with them a wide array of talents that all somehow all seemed to fit together, truly a reflection on the vibrant community from which rock itself sprang.
Most of those coming into the picture at this time would only be around to share in some of its ultimate glory for a brief while, but Rufus Thomas, one of the more unlikely entrants in the roll call to date, would end up getting enough glory through the years to make up for the rest who fell by the wayside.
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT: 5/10