- by Joe Nolan, Wednesday, September 5th, 2007
A local legend in Memphis, Rufus “Bearcat” Thomas was a DJ and the entertaining MC of the local talent shows and amateur nights held at the Palace and the Handy theaters. Some biographies actually credit Thomas with discovering B.B. King at just such an event. Thomas cut a number of novelty-blues sides for various labels including the occasional song for Sam Phillips at Sun. Thomas’ Bearcat moniker is a reference to his song “Bearcat” for which Thomas is credited with Sun’s very first hit record in 1953. The song was an answer to Big Momma Thornton’s hit “Hound Dog.” This was not the first or the last time that Rufus would invest his musical persona with strange, funny impersonations of wild animals and barnyard creatures.
Born a sharecropper’s son in Cayce, Miss., in 1917, Rufus and his family moved north to Memphis when he turned two years old. The young man made his entertainment debut at the age of six when he played a frog in a school play. By the time he turned 10, Thomas was an accomplished tap dancer, performing as an amateur at Booker T. Washington High School.
After a short-lived attempt at a college education, lack of funds found Thomas joining up with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, touring the South with the all-black revue. He eventually left the road in 1940 to tend the boilers at the same textile plant where he would work for the next 22 years. He began his on-air responsibilities in 1951 at WDIA, “The Mother Station of the Negroes.”
Stopping by the Capitol Theater that night, the self-proclaimed “World’s Oldest Teenager” was 43 years old, sharp-dressed as always, and animatedly talking a mile-a-minute to anyone who would listen about his latest idea for setting the entertainment world on its head.
Thomas and Stewart knew each other from a previous meeting, when the always enterprising “Bearcat” had pitched a single by the Vel Tones to the Satellite label before they had found their new home at the Theater. The record had failed to make a mark, but it was the first R&B side released on Satellite, portending what was to become the label’s lasting identity.
Thomas’ latest pitch involved recording a new song he had written as a duet with his beautiful 17-year-old daughter Carla, then a senior at Hamilton High School. Although still a kid, Carla already had 10 years of show business under her belt through her frequent performances with the Teen Town Singers.
Thomas’ song was entitled simply, “I Love You,” and the recording would mark the debuts of two of Stax’ most recognizable artists, as well as introducing Booker T. Jones into the back-up band at the studio. Jones played baritone sax on the tune, the organ duties handled by Thomas’ son Marvell.
After the song was recorded, everybody scrambled to get it on the air. Stewart assigned part of the songs publishing to John Richbourg, a Nashville DJ at WLAC with a proven ability to break R&B songs into the regional market. Thomas pulled every string available to him and managed to get the tune on the air in far-flung, exotic locales like San Francisco.
The song was an unqualified success. It sold over 20,000 copies, at which point “I Love You” captured the attention of Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records in New York. Atlantic and Satellite shared the same Memphis distributor: Music Sales. The distributor’s manager, Leon McLemore, made contact with Stewart and the resulting deal gave Atlantic what Satellite interpreted as a five-year option on any more duets cut by the Thomases. Stewart and Axton disagree on whether the big label paid $1000 or $2000 for this privilege, but one thing was clear, Satellite was going to be an R&B label.
“Once we had the success with Rufus and Carla, it was as though we cut off a whole part of our lives that had existed previously. We never looked back from there.”
- Jim Stewart, from Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music
Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music, Harper and Row, 1986
James Dickerson’s Goin’ Back to Memphis, Simon and Schuster Macmillan, 1996
Michael Haralambos’ Right on: From Blues to Soul in Black America, Drake Publishers, 1975
Respect Yourself: The Stax Story, documentary film, produced by Tremolo Productions, Concord Music Group and Thirteen/WNET New York, for PBS’ Great Performances, 2007
Joe Nolan is a poet, musician and freelance journalist in Nashville, TN. Nolan writes about visual art for the journal, Number, published by the University of Memphis. Find out more about his projects at www.joenolan.com.
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- by Amanda Dent, Wednesday, September 5th, 2007
Ardent producer and engineer John Hampton works his magic. Photo by Amanda Dent.
This is the second part in a series documenting the journey of an album. This edition showcases a mixing session at Ardent Studios with revered producer/engineer John Hampton.
What’s the most important attribute of a music engineer? My first guess was a finely tuned ear. According to Ardent Studios producer/engineer John Hampton, I’d be wrong.
“I’ve never had good hearing,” confesses Hampton, who won a 2006 GRAMMY award for mixing The White Stripes’ “Get Behind Me Satan.” He says a prerequisite to being an adept engineer is “knowing a bridge, verse, and chorus, and at the same time having good people skills.” Although, it’s safe to say song structure knowledge and a friendly personality aren’t the only characteristics that have brought Hampton the success and notoriety garnered in his 29-year career. He’s engineered and/or mixed albums for the Gin Blossoms, Robert Cray, Afghan Whigs, Soundgarden, and the Vaughn Brothers.
On a recent Saturday morning, he’s working with Nashville recording artist John Cody Carter, a preacher and collaborator with country music sages Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. It’s day seven of their sessions, mixing Carter’s 13-track traditional country album. Adam Hill is assisting on the project, which generally takes an entire day - oftentimes a 10-hour day - to mix one song.
It’s close to noon and the trio has been working since 10 a.m. in Studio B nestled in a corner of the Ardent Studios brick building on Madison Avenue. Currently, the focus is on lowering the intro, a bongo arrangement, of the song “Ride ’em Cowboy.” Carter, who looks the part of the cowboy he croons about with his white-blonde hair combed back in a pseudo-ducktail and a matching goatee, is sauntering laps around the U-shaped console, stroking his goatee and listening intently.
Although Hampton works on the bongo intro for roughly 45 minutes, two hours later Carter opts to omit the bongo intro entirely. It’s the nature of the beast that is mixing a record - constantly tweaking sounds, levels, instruments, vocals. They are using 24 tracks of the 56-channel mixing console “with a bunch of other channels for all the effects,” says Hill, including echo chambers and analog effects. The main mixing board is roughly 12-feet long with a single computer keyboard at its center. Sitting atop an adjacent computer desk is a 24-inch iMac flat screen monitor, keyboard, mouse, and stacks of speakers.
“I had to get glasses,” Hampton laments, nodding at the computer screen. “After five to ten hours a day looking at this stuff, it takes its toll.” He’s referring to the jumble of boxes, columns, colors, and lines that somewhat resemble an abstract painting on the screen.
Since his hearing isn’t the best, Hampton says he relies upon visual indicators including spectrum analyzers that bounce up and down atop of the mixing board in bursts of bright orange. He gets plenty of mileage out of the black, vinyl rollaway chair as he moves from computer to mixing board, always on the edge of his seat with his back never touching the chair. He responds to every one of Carter’s requests.
“Is the guitar a little hot?” asks Carter.
“I think it’s a good little loop, but if you’re worried about it we’ll take it down,” Hampton responds.
Hampton makes adjustments that seem extraordinarily miniscule to the untrained ear. At one point, he says he’ll take the guitar part down one-tenth of a one bel (yes, it’s spelled bel). A bel is equal to one-tenth of a decibel. Later he confesses that he must bring the dual guitars closer together in timing, a 56- to 65-milla-second difference.
The chorus is repeated. And repeated. And repeated again.
“Ride ’em cowboy/don’t let ’em throw you down/cause you’re the toughest cowboy in town.”
Hampton closes his eyes while listening to the end of the song, bobbing his head up and down to the beat while occasionally throwing out some air guitar. “I’m diggin’ it, man,” he proclaims. “Time to burn a truck CD.”
After each track is mixed, Hill moves over to the controls to burn it on a SA-CD (Super Audio CD) for Carter to listen to in his truck. It’s a process Carter describes as failsafe because he can hear subtle nuances in an environment he’s comfortable in. “It keeps you from having to come back after the mix has been printed,” he says.
It’s an arduous process at the very least; one that’s also contingent upon the recording engineers work or “shit in, shit out,” as Hill says. Carter recorded in Nashville, but said he chose to come to Memphis to mix his next album for myriad reasons.
“My last album was mixed here,” he says. “I like the way John does what he does. He has a reputation for giving a record a little more beef. He allows artists to do what they envision.
There are 300 engineers that can mix in Nashville. I prefer to get out of the quagmire of Music Row. You don’t have to ask somebody to think out of the box in Memphis, because they’re not in the box.”
For more on John Hampton, Adam Hill, and Ardent go to ardentstudios.com. John Cody Carter’s website is johncodycarter.com.
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