The program spotlighted music that Thomas played on or produced, interviews with Grammy nominee singer William Bell, guitarist Bobby Manuel and Tim Sampson who is the communications director for the Soulsville Foundation. Also included were some interviews from some of Thomas’ previous appearances on Greasy Tracks.
Although he was interested in going to medical school and ultimately becoming a doctor, Thomas, an adept pianist who was playing clubs at the age of 16, realized before he graduated high school that his future lay in music, not medicine.
By the age of 17, Thomas became the first piano player at Memphis-based Satellite Records. He played on the label’s first hit, “Cause I Love You,” a duet featuring his father and sister: Rufus and Carla Thomas. A then-16-year-old saxophonist/keyboardist by the name of Booker T. Jones was also on the session. In 1961, Satellite became Stax Records.
Thomas served as one of three keyboard players in the Mar-Keys, the label’s house band, along with Jones and Isaac Hayes. Other who were part of the rotating line-up included guitarist Steve Cropper; bassists Lewie Steinberg and Donald “Duck” Dunn; drummer Al Jackson, Jr.; and a horn section featuring Packy Axton, Wayne Jackson, Gilbert Caple, Floyd Newman and later, Andrew Love. It was this group of players who essentially crafted what would become “The Memphis Sound” and make Stax an internationally known label.
While Thomas was not part of the brief yet critically important recording career of Otis Redding at Stax due to a stint in the Army, he played on hundreds of sessions at the label with the likes of William Bell, The Staples Singers, The Soul Children, Albert King, Little Milton, Isaac Hayes, Sam & Dave and Johnnie Taylor, but also backed non-Stax artists such as Clarence Carter, Etta James, Wilson Pickett, Boz Scaggs and Denise LaSalle
He was also involved as a producer and in addition to contributing piano,
Thomas shared production credits on Hayes’ breakthrough solo album, Hot Buttered Soul which established Hayes as a recording superstar.
The Thomas family — including youngest sibling Vaneese who is also an accomplished singer — was known as the First Family of Music in Memphis. The Rufus-penned single “Cause I Love You” sold so well that Satellite Records co-founder Jim Stewart — who for the previous three years had been cutting country and pop music with at best meager sales – turned his focus to soul music. Carla followed by writing “Gee Whiz (Look At His Eyes)” which sold 500,000 copies and Rufus would hit the charts with “Walkin’ The Dog.” At this point, Satellite was in the rear view mirror and Stax was starting to garner attention as sales surged.
Financial woes hampered the label in the early 1970s and by the middle of the decade, bankruptcy forced it to shut its doors. Thomas continued to do session work, often in Muscle Shoals, Ala., but later was part of the touring band for The Temptations, a stint serving as musical director for Peabo Bryson and even working with actor Steven Seagal who Thomas touted as “a very serious blues player.”
In 2011, he was inducted into the Beale Street Walk of Fame in Memphis with a brass note..
“I was very flattered, because the general public doesn’t know about people like me,” the ever humble Thomas told The Commercial Appeal. “They know singers, but they don’t know the producers and songwriters and session guys. So it’s good to be recognized.”
On a previous appearance on WRTC, Thomas spoke about the frustration of his father not getting the proper recognition he deserved from the industry, especially induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Following Marvell’s death, the family asked that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to Rufus Thomas Scholarship Fund c/o Soulsville Foundation, 926 McLemore Ave., Memphis, TN 38106.